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Tell me if you can relate to this. You buy a new light, hang it over your dining table, and the room now looks…..meh. Or that sofa that was a beautiful shade of gray at the store turns purple when you take it home. Or that paint color that you looooved in your bedroom looks gross in your kitchen. Or why you look amazing in your master bathroom but nasty in your kid's bathroom?
My friend, it’s not witchcraft or bad luck or your eyeballs that are failing you. It’s color temperature. It is the somewhat invisible cause of many of your design frustrations and you don’t even know it. It could even be the source of why you like spending time in some rooms but feel uncomfortable in others.
It’s the secret villain behind so many of your design problems. It’s a sneaky thing because when it’s done right you don’t notice it, but when it’s done wrong….
YOWZA. These are a couple of photos from a project before we got our hands on those light bulbs. The image on the left is right off the entryway. The color is super yellow and makes everything in the room look orangey. But just beyond that (you can see the doorway in the left of the photo) is a kitchen that looks practically Antarctic because it is so blue. It looks like the OR of a hospital. Walking through these two rooms made me do this:
Lighting can be confusing. There are lots of numbers happening on the box, so most people just grab the right bulb shape and move on. I’m going to teach you what all those numbers mean, and then I’m going to change your whole life by helping you understand color temperature, then I’ll share our favorite light bulbs and a really neat bonus feature that you’re going to love. Strap in, and get your Amazon cart ready because you’re about to want to order a bunch of new lightbulbs.
WHAT’S IN THE BOX
WATTS – technically, this is how much power the bulb uses. Most of the time you’ll see numbers like 40w, 60w, and 100w. These numbers are actually based on how they compare to the old pre-LED bulbs (called incandescent) because that’s what most of us grew up with. The smaller number below that says LED beside it is how much energy this bulb actually uses. Most of us can’t understand what the
The difference between a 6w and an 8.5 would be, but we get that a 40w would be less than half as bright as 100w, so that’s why there are 2 listed. Watts are related to how bright a bulb is. Most people go WAY OVERBOARD on brightness; only do this if you have your lights on dimmers. Otherwise, use these rules of thumb:
20w – 40w – great for bedrooms, chandeliers, and table lamps; anywhere you want a soft glow
40w – 60w – great for recessed lights
100w – use this for task lighting only or where you only have a single light source in a room
LUMENS – this is the technical measure for how bright a light bulb is. The higher the lumen output, the brighter the fixture. As designers, we will sometimes run calculations for how many lumens a room needs to be lit properly, but regular Joe’s don’t need to worry about this. Just look at the watts, and you’ll be good to go.
COLOR TEMPERATURE – this one is tricky because it’s never labeled as color temperature. It’s called “light appearance” or other wishy-washy terms, but this is the single most important piece of info on the box, and it’s buried on the back. Color temperature is the X factor in whether your space is going to look good or gross. It’s measured in Kelvin, which is abbreviated K. And here’s what it’s all about.
There are lots of other things on the box, like CRI (color rendering index) and lifespan and on and on, but that’s for another day. And honestly maybe not even another day because imma tell you what you really need to know. It’s all about Color Temperature.
This image says it all. The same white wall, the same hanging light fixture, but a full array of bulbs in varying color temperatures, or Kelvin. Pin this image, save this to your phone, tattoo it on your arm, because you’re going to want to come back to this again and again.
2000K – 2600K – this is what you see mostly in vintage-style Edison bulbs. They create a really orangey, amber light. Fine for the occasional decorative fixture, but it’s REALLY orange, guys. Use with caution.
2700K – this is warm white and is probably the most standard. This is used most often in homes in recessed lighting, decorative lighting, and table lamps. It gives a warm white glow and is closest to the old incandescent light bulbs most of us knew before LED became a thing. Great for most homes.
3000K – this is a soft white, and is great if you want a crisper white and don’t want things to feel yellowed. We use this often in our more contemporary projects.
3500K – this will often be labeled as “true white”, but do not be fooled. This color will look blue inside your house. Just say no.
4000K+ - I’m going to save you some time. DO NOT BUY THESE FOR INSIDE YOUR HOUSE. This is acceptable at best for garage lighting, but it is blue and gross and makes your skin look terrible. Do you know when you walk into a Target bathroom and look like death?! THIS IS WHY.
HOW TO GET COLOR TEMPERATURE RIGHT
Okay, so now you understand what color temperature is. The glass is shattered and now you’re thinking “oh my gosh how do I fix this?!” Don’t worry, dear one, let me show you. Visually.
As you know if you’ve been around here a while, we lived in a rental home for 9 months while our new home was being built. Now, our rental home is beautiful, so do not interpret this as shade-throwing, but it falls victim to a problem that we see all the time – color temperatures run amuck. If we had lived here for a year or more, I would absolutely have run through this house and changed out all of the lightbulbs. But that seemed like a bit of a waste of resources, so I lived with it. But it has been HARD. Every photo I’ve ever shared with you guys has had the overhead lights turned off, and for good reason.
Allow me to show you what not to do, and how to fix it.
RULE #1 - LIGHTS OF THE SAME TYPE
Our rental has this neat uplighting feature that would be amaaaaazing at night, but we never have used it even one time, and this is why. LOOK AT THOSE LAMPS. These are old fluorescent bulbs that have been replaced willy-nilly over time. There are blue ones and orange ones, and it makes me want to cry.
Lesson – all the lights of the same type in a room need to be the same color temperature. All of your can lights (aka recessed lights) must be the same color temperature. There are zero exceptions to this.
RULE #2 – OVERHEAD LIGHTS AND DECORATIVE LIGHTS
What about your recessed lights, and decorative lights, like sconces? Yep, as a rule, they should match too. See above – the recessed lights are in the neighborhood of 3000K, but the sconce lights are hanging around 2200K. The left side of the room is orange, and the right is a brighter white, and it hurts.
Another scenario – chandelier and overhead lights. There are times when having warmer lights on your chandelier is nice for creating a mood, but keep that color spread tight. It’s acceptable to use 2700K lights in your chandelier and 3000K lights in your recessed cans. But don’t spread it any further than that.
Lesson – in general, match your sconces and your chandeliers to overhead lights.
RULE #3 – OVERHEAD LIGHTS AND LAMPS
In our family room, the overhead lights are (we think) 2700K or warm white. That’s actually the same color temperature as the lamp in the back corner. BUT that lamp has a linen shade, so the bulb appears even more yellow. I know, it’s complicated. While there’s a bit of color difference here, it’s not huge. Unrelated rant – I so badly wish these can lights had been on dimmers! They are SO BRIGHT in the evenings that we can’t turn them on. Dimmers are your best friend, people.
In general, I like to keep my overhead lights and my table lamps at the same color temperature. There’s a caveat here. If you’re one of those people who basically never turns your overhead lights on and only uses lamps at night, then you don’t need to worry about this.
Here’s a funny one. On the day the house was listed, I had forgotten that some of our lamps are controlled by Alexa. The bedside lamp on the right is actually a color-changing smart bulb (more on this in a minute). It had somehow been set to cool white, but the other bedside lamp and the vanity lamp are warm white. WHOOPS.
So in here, the table lamps on the left and right as well as the ceiling light are all warm white (2700K) and the center bedside lamp is cool white (around 3500K). It’s bad, y’all.
Lesson – in general, match your overhead lights and lamps to the same temperature.
RULE # 4 – LIGHTS ROOM TO ROOM
Here we have warm sconces in the bathroom at about 2200K, and a very cold LED fan at about 3500K (it might even be 4000K). It is jarring. And yes, I know I have “special eyes” and I notice these things, but it makes many people physically uncomfortable to change color temperatures like this, even if they don’t know why.
Lesson – in general, match your sconces and your chandeliers to overhead lights.
Canva image – THE BIGGEST LIGHTING MISTAKE THAT EVERYONE MAKES
Those were 4 scenarios that all lead us to the overarching rule:
PICK ONE COLOR TEMPERATURE FOR YOUR HOUSE (EITHER 2700K OR 3000K) AND STICK WITH IT.
I acknowledge that I could have just said this in paragraph 1 and been done with it, but hopefully, these images burned this into your brain. And also,