The Light Switch: How Hard Can It Be?

APR 9, 2020
I saw struggle. I saw patience. And then I saw defeat. How hard could it be to figure out how to turn the overhead light "on" in an airplane?


On my way back to Pakistan from a trip, I got the opportunity to observe my share of design quirks. The most comedic was on the flight when a passenger sitting next to me tried pressing the glass covering a light bulb thinking it will turn the light on. Instead the actual button to activate said light was placed a few inches away, without a clear icon, or text.

At least that's what I remember of it. Of course there might actually be a label there for that button. I firmly believe that even so, it did an absolute poor job since neither did the person notice it there, nor could I retain a memory of it.

The Gastalt's grouping law of proximity is simple to understand. It's defined as: A law that states elements that are close together tend to be perceived as a unified group.

Although this was a factor resulting in the sup-par experience. I believe the true problem stems from the lack of standardization for universal button operation terminals. Specifically ones that cover basics, like designing an overhead lamp.

If we divide the problem into two different groups and focus on the one definition applicable in the current scenario, then we can state that there is a different type of operation where the action has the affordance to be performed exactly where the feedback or output will be expected from. In this case, the shining of the light.

Why did the passenger press the light thinking it would turn it on? I blame the inherent affordances of the interior design itself.

I can blame a few features surrounding the light emitting compartment itself:
  1. The beveled housing had a curve that dipped deeper into the interior plane creating a clean crease. The crease affords separation of the general plane vs the housing of the light.
  2. The housing of the light had a slightly convex glass top. The slight bump compared to the otherwise flat surrounding plane affords detection by a sweeping hand. Why would we need for this housing to have this affordance if not to be able to press on it?
  3. The housing itself was circular and small enough to resemble the size of many buttons. (case in point: the traffic buttons)

So what should one do? Should one discover the first artifact we took inspiration for designing a button? What was it? Was it natural? Or what is man-made?

Can we shake off learnings we developed over millions of years through natural selection? Our ability to detect patterns and exceptions within patterns is an inherently instinctual ability. We are designed to detect exceptions within a space, visually, or through other senses. Like hearing your name in a busy restaurant. Or like feeling the skin of an apple from oranges.

Why design an interface for something that depends on an initiating factor. Shouldn’t the light automatically turn on if a camera can see that i’m holding a book to read? Maybe a network of cameras that detect how dilated our irises are and if we are scanning around with dilated irises it automatically illuminates a room or space to improve visibility.