Speed Read: IPL’s Bright Idea

The history behind their downtown light displays.
IPL Building heart
Indianapolis Power & Light Company’s very first glowing display appeared in December 1954 as simple red and green stripes to celebrate the holiday season. Yawn. Today, the arrangements are full-building odes to top-of-mind subjects (No. 87 when Reggie Wayne left the Colts, all blue upon the death of IMPD officer Perry Renn) and community events. Here’s how the popular presentations—on view for longer hours during the winter—went from tiresome to trending.

1. IPL maintenance workers used to spend an entire day changing the displays by hand, swapping out lenses in 267 windows. Today, thanks to a computer program installed in 2008, the switchover takes a couple of keystrokes and can be done in seconds.

2. Each window of the building holds an LED luminaire with 36 red, green, and blue high-efficiency bulbs that can produce more than 16 million different hues.

3. One thing IPL hasn’t quite mastered? White lights. “We’ve always wanted to put up a checkered flag for the month of May,” says IPL spokesperson Brandi Davis-Handy. “It just doesn’t look right.”

4. IPL takes requests by phone or Twitter.

5. Social media has helped shine a light on the popularity of displays, which show up on Twitter and Instagram. Before that, IPL was in the dark. “Outside of our employees, we didn’t get much feed-back,” says Davis-Handy.

6. The most controversial display might surprise you. In January 2014, the staff decided to honor ex-Colt Peyton Manning and his Super Bowl–bound Denver Broncos with an orange-and-blue 18 arrangement. The power company got calls from ESPN, local and national sports reporters, and a few jilted Colts fans. Even though the response was mostly positive, Davis-Handy says sometimes before a big Broncos game, she’ll get a handful of sarcastic requests for the Peyton display.

7. In the past few years, IPL has experimented with scrolling messages, such as running “I have a dream” across the building’s midsection on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The staff has tried doing a numbered countdown for events such as Circle of Lights, but synchronization is tough. “The system has so many capabilities,” says Davis-Handy. “It’s just a matter of us getting in there and really learning them.”

8. The design process is pretty simple. Davis-Handy and two others lay out the pattern in Microsoft Paint. New combinations, depending on their degree of complexity, can take up to two or three hours to produce, but IPL has dozens of designs archived.

9. The company’s library proves helpful during months like October—with Colts and Pacers games, the Heartland Film Festival, Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Halloween, and other events, it’s IPL’s busiest. December? It’s the lightest month. The Christmas tree stays up for 31 days. Some things don’t change.