The Power of Light, According to an Industry Veteran

Pierre-Yves Panis, head of design at Signify, believes that the lighting his team is creating will transcend its use.

Pierre-Yves Panis has been the head of design at Signify—the company formerly known as Philips Lighting—since 2015, and has dedicated more than a quarter-century of his career to the industry. And yet, the 55-year-old still talks about lighting design with fervor. Surface spoke with Panis from Signify’s headquarters in Eindhoven, in the Netherlands, about his work, approach, LiFi, and why he’s wholly dedicated to creating what he calls “the right amount of light for your delight.”


What exactly do you do?

If you meet me for the first time and ask what I do, I’ll say I am a designer by training. But I’m also a designer by being. I’ve been lucky, but I think luck is something that you initiate—[something] that you tame or try to organize.

I had the luck of working for a nonprofit. I set up an NGO and worked in Zimbabwe with craftsmen, doing lighting and furniture design. I also worked in the U.S. for a while. I have gone through changes and moves that were partly lucky or serendipitous. I believe that in order to keep a fresh perspective, it’s necessary to [experience] different types of activities.

The Atrium at the center of the Signify headquarters serves as a meeting hub for multiple disciplines.

You’ve certainly got a diverse background. What drew you to Signify?

Before I joined Signify, I was very intrigued by the company. To me, it was an opportunity to join a business that has been around for more than 125 years and that genuinely believes in design. We live in a time where it’s not just about delivering the right light source—it’s about delivering the right experience. Our work is as much about interaction as it is product design, lighting design, and communication design. So the short answer is: I joined because I thought it was going to be exciting. And it is.

In May, Philips Lighting changed its name to Signify. What’s the reason and meaning behind the new moniker?

A few years ago, Royal Philips decided to separate the lighting part of its operations, called Philips Lighting, to focus on health-care technology. This separation came into effect in 2016. At the time of the separation, it was agreed that we would change our name after Royal Philips no longer had a controlling interest. We therefore see this as the next logical step in our transformation journey. However, it also is an opportunity to introduce a new corporate look and feel that is uniquely our own.

Now to the meaning: The choice of our new company name, Signify, originates from the way light becomes an intelligent language, which connects [with people] and conveys meaning. It is a clear expression of our strategic vision and purpose to unlock the extraordinary potential of light for brighter lives and a better world.

Pierre-Yves Panis (center) participating in an internal co-creation session on design strategy.

Got it. Signify also has a powerful reach, and works with clients across industries and continents. How did you come to understand the various environments your products are used in. Is there an overarching approach you take to staying on top of what’s happening in each sector?

Signify has a culture of co-creation. And by co-creation, I mean we interact with users [to better understand their needs]. For instance, we’re talking to [people in] the airplane industry to better grasp [what happens] when you cross time zones and how to get to your destination better-rested. We know so much more about what lighting does to your psyche, health, and sleep patterns. Being in connection with people who use our products is imperative not just within design, but in all functions within the company.

Are there any new sectors you’re diving into?

We’re looking at what we can do with LiFi, which is a technology that uses light to send wireless data that’s embedded in the light waves. There are quite a few players in LiFi, and we’ve been developing our own solutions in-house and looking at where we can add value using this technology. LiFi could be valuable for users where data security is important, as you have to be physically in the space to connect [with it]. Since LiFi does not use radio waves, like WiFi, it can be used on locations where radio waves might influence other devices or processes. Last but not least, as WiFi is getting more and more congested, LiFi could be used to offload existing WiFi technology, and work hand in hand with it. Imagine if every light point could an internet access point!

By showing the Aura light installation at international light festivals, Signify learned about how people interact with it.

You’re tackling something that sounds incredibly complex. Is there a specific way in which you approach a project?  

We’re a big company, so you can’t pretend everything is open-ended—but as designers, we are able to look outside the box. We’re able to do that because our CEO [Eric Rondolat] believes in looking at a problem and trying to find the best way to come up with a solution. We’ve got an open funnel where we gather a lot of insight that we will try to leverage. We’re very good at capturing those insights and not letting them go.

Many companies in the lighting industry have been getting into the practice of using raw materials and not overproducing, which you’ve been a big champion of. What is Signify doing to better its relationship with the environment?

Signify has a strong commitment to reaching its carbon-neutral goals over time. In terms of manufacturing, we’ve started doing more 3-D printing. Right now we’re manufacturing a lot of components, even for retail, at request. The right amount is being manufactured close to sale or to the point of consumption. Also, when possible we apply circular design approaches and design products that can be disassembled, and their components either properly recycled or reused. A lot of harm has been done through cheap manufacturing, which embeds LEDs into products you cannot recycle.

What excites you most about Signify’s future?

Light, and the way we experience it, is an amazing and exciting area to be involved in. It is the pursuit of creating the right light experience for every moment of the day. Think about your day—I’m sure you can point to many moments when the light experience was not the right one. We’re working hard, and with passion, to make sure we can change that.

Designed by Ramon van de Ven, this street lighting design in the Dutch town of Veghel uses light and sound algorithms to engage viewers.
Signify engages with experts to better understand the role lighting can play in future workplaces.
The Aura Light installation brings together the experience of light and sound, responding to the movements of those around them.

(Opening photo: The immersive cylindrical light display “Lightfall,” designed by Simon Rycroft and Paul Thursfield, was installed for nine months at Eindhoven’s popular Kazerne restaurant. Photos: Courtesy Signify)

Surface Studios is the brand marketing unit of Surface Media.

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