With offices in Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, San Francisco, and most recently adding Hong Kong, the team at lighting and visual design firm Lightswitch has just reached its 20 year anniversary. We sat down with founding principals John Featherstone and Norm Schwab, as well as principals Howard Werner, Chris Medvitz, and Brad Malkus to talk a little history, current events, and giving back to the community.

LIVE DESIGN: Tell us a little about how and where Lightswitch started two decades ago.

JOHN FEATHERSTONE: Norm and I had been friends for 10 years while I was engaged in concert touring, and after my first daughter was born, Norm dared me to get off the road, so I took the dare! We met in August of 1993 and spent a day sitting on Fort Point Beach in San Francisco, dreaming up what we hoped would be a very different kind of lighting design company.

NORM SCHWAB: Our idea was that solo lighting designers aren’t efficient. We wanted a collective like Bauhaus, a company known for its own name, not the names of the individuals, somewhere creative people could feel safe, collaborate, and together do even more remarkable work than they could on their own. We also wanted to provide the “bones” of a real business—insurance, bookkeeping, shared marketing—all that stuff that isn’t your focus as a designer but is really crucial to doing the job.

LD: What’s been the secret to your success? Okay maybe not the secret, but what are some of the key ingredients to running a successful design firm?

HOWARD WERNER: Respecting your colleagues, then really becoming friends—there is a foundation of mutual respect and cooperation that we think defines what we do. That can only lead to friendships that make for an even better working environment and more creative freedom based on mutual admiration and trust. It’s also about seeking out and hiring remarkable people, whether designers or support staff, empowering them, then standing back and letting them amaze you with what they can do.

CHRIS MEDVITZ: Empowerment is really important to us. At the Lightswitch Architectural conference last year, we focused on “what do we really want to do when we get up in the morning?” and we all agree it’s more important to run a creative, exciting, and rewarding company than to manage a giant firm just for the sake of size. The close contact with the creative part of the business is very important to the five of us. Biggest doesn’t always win and isn’t always best.

LD: The company has expanded quite a bit, with offices all over the US and most recently with a new location in Hong Kong. How do you maintain a certain level of design quality across so many locations?

BRAD MALKUS: Each US office is under the direct control of a principal, and Hong Kong is staffed with people who understand both the Asian market and Lightswitch culture. This means we have people deeply involved with the day-to-day operation of each office who focus on, and have a deep understanding of, our shared beliefs, standards, and passion for excellence.

CM: And our culture is the key. That is what we try to impart to people we hire and reinforce to our team every day, both in words and actions—that it’s not just a set of rules, but a deep understanding of our core values and beliefs, and the work that is the result that define us.

LD: How do you designate who takes on which projects, and how has that evolved over the years?

HW: We are really proud of our deep relationships with our clients, some of whom, like Apple, Nintendo, or Sega, have been with us for 20 years. These relationships direct which principal or designer heads a project more so than geography. It’s not like we have any kind of big thing of lottery balls for distributing jobs or a central dispatch like a cab company. It’s much more deeply rooted in personal relationships than that. Then, once a principal or senior designer is assigned to a job, we select the staff to best support those ventures based on the client and the needs of the project.

JF: We also spend a lot of time looking at what our clients really need and how we can exceed their expectations with the highest possible level of creativity and service. One way this has evolved is the foundation of Lightswitch Architectural. As the name suggests, it focuses on the needs of clients in the architectural field. Lightswitch was founded with strong entertainment and live event roots, but as we grew over our first ten years, we increasingly branched out into architectural design: first theme parks and environments, then museums, then more traditional “white light” architectural projects like hotels and educational institutions. We became increasingly aware that these projects needed their own skill sets, their own dedicated teams, and even their own marketing strategy. So seven years ago, we founded Lightswitch Architectural, not to divide our company, but more to unify our resources behind that kind of project and provide a focused and defined level of customer service. Led by Avi Mor in Chicago, Charles Foster in New York, and Janelle Drouet in San Francisco, the growth in this field has been remarkable.

LD: What are some of the most important designs your firm has done to date?

NS: You might expect us to say massive projects like Fremont Street Experience or the 75th Anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, and while those jobs are, of course, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experiences, some of our most satisfying projects have actually been the smallest. Sometimes the smaller projects call for the most creative thinking and the most innovative solutions. They also can forge great client relationships. As John says, “Oak trees grow from acorns,” and some of our biggest clients were once the smallest. Ultimately, what makes this company exciting is the ability to work on a small tradeshow, a giant rock concert, an intimate theatrical production, and a high-budget international casino all at the same time. This variety of project size and type is one of the things we all enjoy most. Variety is not only the spice of life, but also a mighty powerful force for increasing creativity and cross-pollination of concepts and techniques.

CM: It’s really important to work on projects of varying size and scope. Large projects learn from the restraint of small ones, and small projects benefit from the experience gained on jobs with larger budgets, scope, and scale. It’s all about finding the particular creative gold in one project, taking it to a different job, and using it to forge truly unique solutions.

LD: Talk a little about the significant changes you’ve encountered in both design and technology over the last 20 years.

BM: Of course, lighting technology has changed in incredible ways. We now have resources at our fingertips we couldn’t even imagine five years ago, much less 20. But technology is a double-edged sword. While advances like more flexible consoles, LED fixtures, and pre-visualization have liberated us, we have also become slaves to technology and the pressures it places on us. As designers, the increased pace of business and the “more and faster” demands of our clients leave us fighting to protect the design process and the time it takes to develop truly insightful and considered solutions. You know the dreaded, “We just need some ideas, and is this afternoon enough time?” kind of call!

NS: Right, it’s like some clients have two timelines: “right now” and “not now.” And “not now” is actually the scarier, as “not now” could be in 20 minutes, 20 hours, or 20 days from now, right when you are in the middle of something else! At least you know where you stand with “immediately.” But all kidding aside, the explosion of communication technology is what has enabled us to grow and be so effective from now six diverse geographical locations as far flung as Orlando is from Hong Kong. The very technology that sometimes traps us also lets us collaborate in real time on projects with colleagues, clients, and vendors on the other side of the world, and we are excited to continue this international growth.

LD: What’s on the horizon for Lightswitch in the next year, or five, or even 20?

NS: Our long term future is all about propagating the culture we’ve developed and using this as a foundation to meet whatever the future brings as the world changes, and we grow and evolve. We are focused on international expansion as well as growth in the US but never growth at the expense of honoring where we came from, the quality of our work, or staying close to the creative part of what we love doing. But one thing is for sure: we couldn’t have gotten where we are without the loyal support and trust of our clients and the incredibly hard work of the entire Lightswitch team, past and present. We really do have the best employees in the world!

JF: I second that. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants. When Norm and I started this endeavor 20 years ago, we never imagined it would grow to a company with almost 50 staff, working from six offices around the world, so it’s hard to predict the future! But short term, we are all really proud of how we’re celebrating and honoring our 20th. We are all, of course, constantly fascinated by all aspects of light, so we’ve decided to help use light to change and even save lives. We’ve partnered with the charity SolarAid to distribute solar lanterns in Africa. Author Ian McEwan said it best: “Without light, there is no literacy.” SolarAid’s simple technology and brilliantly conceived networks are bringing rural African children out of the dark. These lanterns not only change lives but, because they replace deadly and carcinogenic kerosene lanterns, will save lives too. We’re going to be inviting our staff, clients, vendors, and friends to join us in a global fundraising effort starting in December, and really use light as a force for change.