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Creating the right interior lighting scheme for a commercial space

I'm guessing that whenever you walk into a restaurant, a hotel, a shop, a studio (etc, etc) you don't usually think wow, they've really got the lighting in here perfect! More often than not you notice when interior elements like the artificial lighting are not right - there are areas cast into almost darkness in the space, or the general atmosphere is lacking and verging on feeling sterile.

Lighting is such an important element to consider and plan out in a commercial space, especially if you want to create an environment that draws people into your business' site, that your customers or clients enjoy and keeps them coming back.

So today's blog post is a helpful guide to understanding the different types of artificial lighting used in a commercial interior and getting that lighting scheme right for your bricks and mortar business.

The 4 types of lighting to use in your commercial interior

So there are four types of lighting in terms of how you want to illuminate your space and create the right environment or atmosphere. They are:

  • General/ambient lighting

  • Mood lighting

  • Accent lighting

  • Task lighting

These four types of lighting also have a characteristic of being functional or decorative in an interior, some can often be a mixture of both (such as mood lighting) depending on the lighting fitting and quality of light emitted. Lighting that is functional is quite literally that - they're essential in order to see the overall space and move around safely, as well as carrying out activities.

Lighting that is decorative doesn't necessarily have a practical purpose but it's so important to include in the lighting scheme. Decorative lighting creates personality and atmosphere, impacting how people feel and behave in your commercial space.

For a successful interior lighting scheme you should aim to include a mix of functional and decorative lighting. Depending on what your independent business is, you might focus on incorporating lighting into your site that's more functional than decorative and vice versa. If you're an office or studio you'll most likely prioritise functional lighting throughout your space, whereas if you're a restaurant or bar you should be putting lots of thought and effort into decorative lighting i.e. getting the atmosphere right in your independent business.

If you're sat there reading this blog post and your head is starting to spin with all the lighting terminology, have no fear. I've created a handy little venn diagram below to help clarify where general, mood, accent and task lighting fall into the characteristics of functional and decorative lighting (you're welcome).

Now let's take a better look at the 4 types of lighting and how they will help you create the best interior lighting scheme for your commercial interior...

01. General/ambient lighting

General or ambient lighting is the foundational layer of an interior lighting scheme. It provides an overall glow to a room or entire space, allowing you to see and move around without awkwardly bumping into furniture and people. General/ambient lighting is normally created overhead, so think light fittings like (recessed) spotlights, track lighting and your trusty ceiling pendant lights.

Some interior designers think of general lighting and ambient lighting as two separate types, but their functional characteristics and purpose are so similar I find it easier to think of them as one collective group. (If you really wanted to know the difference, lighting is usually considered ambient rather than general if the light fitting(s) or source are dimmable. That way you have more control over the light level and light softness or glow in a space).

02. Mood lighting

The next layer of lighting is mood lighting and is really worth including in your commercial interior and getting right. Its main purpose is to create atmosphere and personality in a space. Think light fittings like floor lamps, table lamps and wall lights to help set the right mood.

Mood lighting is great to use in a commercial interior because it can serve multiple lighting roles at once - it's a hard worker. Not only does it add atmosphere to an interior, it can also add to the overall light level in a space (this is why it can have both functional and decorative qualities) and is also great at reducing any unwanted shadows caused by overhead general/ambient lighting.

03. Accent lighting

Accent lighting is usually a light fitting or source used in an interior to highlight a feature, such as a piece of art, a wall texture, the perimeter of a room or an architectural element. In other words you're wanting to draw attention to something in your small business' interior that might otherwise be overlooked or go unnoticed. Think directional spotlights, directional wall lights and LED strip lighting (but please I beg you, conceal or recess the strip lighting, you want to see a nice glow of light not the actual source and tiny bulbs of the LED strip light!)

Accent lighting can also be used to create drama or a focal point in a space because it draws the eye, which I normally label as a 'feature light' on a floor plan or lighting layout plan. An example of accent lighting used in this way would be the ever popular neon sign wall light. I love this one fixed to the ceiling that I came across in a restaurant a while back.

04. Task lighting

I'm sure you can guess this one! Task lighting is required to carry out work or a specific task in a space, and should be bright enough so that it doesn't cause eye strain. In terms of commercial interiors I tend to think of task lighting being for the benefit of those in the business i.e. yourself and any staff members rather than directly benefiting the customer or client in your space.

So think desk/table lamp on a reception desk or office desk, spotlights or track lighting to a backbar area or kitchen area - basically any form of workspace in your small business' site. Ceiling pendant lights can also be used as task lighting if needed. Just make sure that whatever light fitting you use for task lighting doesn't cast any unwanted shadows onto the workspace or whilst carrying out the task, and that the emitted light is bright enough to minimise eye strain.

Interior lighting tips

  • Make sure you're choosing the right bulb brightness (wattage) and colour for the look and feel that you want to achieve through the lighting in your commercial interior. A retail shop will want a relatively bright store so that customers can see products properly, a restaurant will want to choose warmer colour light bulbs rather than cool white to create a welcoming and relaxing atmosphere for diners.

  • Having a dimming system is super useful in an interior lighting scheme so you can control the light level or brightness in a particular area, or throughout the day. And if you can (and it benefits your small business), have your light fittings installed on multiple circuits in your space. This way you can chose when you want lights on in a particular area, or if you only want one set of lights on a dimmer and the rest left as they are etc.

  • When sourcing and buying new light fittings, determine what type of lighting it is (general/mood/accent/task lighting) and always consider how the design and material of the light fitting will affect the light it emits. I've actually gone into a little bit more detail on this with a recent Instagram post.

Maybe you're feeling like you have to suddenly install loads of new lighting points or entirely re-think your current lighting layout, but don't worry! At the end of the day a light fitting can essentially be used as any of the four types of lighting described above, there's no right or wrong choice. Just know that some light fittings will be better suited or more successful at achieving the right lighting purpose and creating the best interior lighting scheme in your commercial interior than others.

If you take only one thing away from today's blog post, it would be to have at least two of the lighting types in your commercial space. A very basic or simplified lighting scheme is probably letting your business down, but this can be easily resolved and improved.


And if you're a small business that needs advice or guidance with your own interior lighting scheme I can help! I offer one-to-one online design consultations if you need help on a particular design issue and want to discuss things before making any interior changes or buying new light fittings. You can find out more about this service here or you can also drop me an email at

(Cover image: Vincent Tantardini via Unsplash)


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