The principles of Light have been applied in scientific research for decades. But light has yet another hitherto unknown but intriguing application in Architecture, in the design of built environments based on its natural properties.

Swapnali Bhadale, our next pathbreaker, Lighting Designer, works on Architectural Lighting for Residential, Hospitality, Retail and Outdoor environments, with expertise in predicting how light would work in three-dimensional spaces and “sculpting” with light in space.

Swapnali talks to Shyam Krishnamurthy from The Interview Portal about doing her Masters in Lighting Design & LED Technology at Politecnico di Milano, Milan (The Fashion Capital of the world) where she had the opportunity to be a part of global design expos which exposed her to the immense possibilities and opportunities in the Lighting industry worldwide.

For students, with technologically advanced and cost-effective sources of light being launched everyday, lighting design is all about how efficiently one can use light in creative, unique and interesting ways to extract the best experience.

Swapnali, tell us about Your background? 

Well, I grew up in Pune. My dad is a Government Contractor and mom is a Beautician and a Race-walking athlete. My childhood was mainly led by my curiosity. I could spend hours truly indulging in my activity at hand and observing nature. Growing up I felt closely connected to art whether it was through craft, dance or even sports (Yes, I believe that sports in an art!) During my high school years my brother was a student of Architecture. I would watch him stay up all night making Thermocol models, sketching and drafting plans with these exclusive instruments and I was intrigued. From then on, I would go through his notes, books and designs which finally led to my decision to pursue Architecture myself. 

What did you do for graduation/post graduation?

While listing my potential colleges for studying Architecture, BNCA (Dr. Bhanuben Nanavati College of Architecture for women) was my first choice because of the reputation they had and the good reviews that I had heard. BNCA was also listed as Asia’s best Architecture college in the year 2015. After scoring well in NATA (National Aptitude Test in Architecture) I secured a seat in BNCA for a five-year degree for a Bachelors in Architecture.

The greatest asset of being a student in BNCA was that through their UNAI cell (United Nations Academic Impact) students were exposed to numerous international opportunities and workshops. One of which was a Diploma in Modern and Contemporary Architecture and Urbanism from Escola Tecnica Superior D’arquitectura, Barcelona, Spain, which was supported by the UNAI cell in BNCA. Another was in my fourth year, I was selected for a student exchange program in the University of Canberra, Australia where I completed one semester of Architecture. I really liked the education system which allowed me to choose subjects from various related fields and create a customized course study for myself.

International exposures like these gave me a deep insight into the opportunities of studying specialized courses abroad. While navigating my options, Politecnico seemed like the right choice because of its course structure that had technical, design, experimental and practical approaches towards the subject. Milan itself is a great city to be in as a designer, there is art everywhere from food to fashion. Considering the fact that education in Italy is less than half the cost of English-speaking countries (Australia, UK, USA and Canada), my choice to study in Italy was no surprise. This led me to pursue a Masters in Lighting Design and LED technology from Politecnico di Milano, Italy.

What made you choose such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?

During my early years in Architecture I instantly recognized the value of natural lighting in a built environment. My architectural concepts always revolved around playing with natural light. In my second year I studied great cases where artificial lighting defined the architecture at night. 

An initial key influencer in my life would be Ar. Dhruv Chandwania, one of my professors who recognized and brought out my individual sense of design and encouraged me to break boundaries. In my second year I was awarded the most progressive student of the year. 

How did you plan the steps to get into the career you wanted? Or how did you make a transition to a new career? Tell us about your career path

During my Master’s in Milan, I had the opportunity to be a part of global design expos, especially in Milan, which hosts Salone di Mobile during Milan design week which exposed me and allowed me to network with the best stakeholders in the Lighting industry worldwide.

My first internship as a lighting designer was at iGuzzini, Dubai, where I was introduced to the practical aspects of the industry. Representing iGuzzini at the Light Middle East expo really helped me build meaningful contacts and emerge in my career.

Next, as Lighting Designer at OSRAM, Milano, a German lighting manufacturer, our team handled special projects which were mainly based in the Vatican. Throughout my tenure at OSRAM we worked on the lighting renovation of Saint Peter’s Basilica, Rome which is the largest church in the world. Working at OSRAM gave me immense confidence in handling large scale projects.

At Voltaire Design Studio, Milano, as Architectural Lighting Designer, I had the opportunity to work on various top brands like Balenciaga, Jaguar, Land Rover and many more. Voltaire had a great culture of hands on experimentation with light fixtures which helped me expand my design capabilities.

My next stint was at IvorySense, a Design consultancy based in Bangalore that provides end to end automation solutions including lighting design. I was working under Dr. Helena Gentile who was also my professor at Politecnico. At IvorySense, I worked on various residential and commercial projects and gained a good insight into the lighting industry in India.

How did you get your first break? 

The course was funded by a few top lighting manufacturers. At the end of the masters they sponsor a few students to train with them. I was sponsored by iGuzzini to train with them in Dubai, UAE. At iGuzzini (One of the leading technical lighting manufacturers from Italy) I was working at the head office for Middle East and English-speaking countries, France and Africa. 

What were some of the challenges you faced? How did you address them?

Light is a very technically difficult medium to work with. It’s ephemeral and changes throughout the day and with each season. Also, you can’t generally see light until it splashes across a surface.

As with most areas of design, when it’s done well, good lighting design is often nearly invisible—but when it’s done badly, it’s glaringly obvious.

To deal with these challenges, lighting designers need lighting solutions that can deliver on both practical and aesthetic fronts.

Avoiding glare:

Glare is the visual discomfort humans experience when a bright light source is within a direct line of sight. Designing to avoid glare is a big part of what lighting designers do.

Glare produces a lot of discomfort to users, and it’s a big issue with LEDs. LEDs are point source lights and they can be very glaring. Lighting designers want to have a ‘quiet ceiling,’ meaning the ceiling doesn’t have areas that bother our eyes. The ceiling should be a uniform space without sparkles and glare.

Lights that are consistent with each other:

Rarely does a project require only one kind of light. More often, designers use a combination of different lights—task lights, down lights and ambient lighting—for the optimally lit space. Lighting designers need lights that are consistent; products should be consistent with each other and within their own product family. A common problem with legacy light sources is they color shift over time—some in just a few hundred hours of use.

Superior controllability:

LED lighting is infinitely controllable. With the right system, you can do basic things like dim the lights, use timers and connect them to occupancy sensors as well as more advanced things like daylighting for maximum energy efficiency and color tuning for optimal cognitive functioning among workers.

LEDs work with drivers that control them, and the drivers have different protocols that control them. When you control LEDs and dim them, some products tend to flicker, or the dimming effect doesn’t work. Lighting designers want to make sure that the drivers and controls work together.

Where do you work now? Tell us about your work

I currently work as a freelance designer focused on Architectural Lighting in Residential, Hospitality, Retail and Outdoor environments. I have my expertise at predicting how light will work in three-dimensions and allows me to “sculpt” with light in space.

While aesthetics is an important factor, the main agenda is to make sure that the lighting is glare free and creates a sense of comfort by creating various scenarios according to task or mood (Now we can have customized lighting for each requirement at a click of a button). We help our clients to create a brand value, attract customers through visual merchandising and above all, reduce the energy consumption costs for each project whether it’s a home or an airport. 

What skills are needed for your job? How did you acquire the skills?

Tons of 3D modelling and rendering software (the more the merrier). To be specific, Lighting Designers use tools like DIALux, ReLux, AGI32 to visualize lighting effects and values. (for those interested, DIALux and ReLux are free softwares with support from multiple lighting manufactures and free tutorials)

Knowledge of Photo editing software like Photoshop or sketching for Conceptual expressions is a must.

One also needs to know their products/fixtures. 60% of Architectural lighting design is all about knowing your products. If you know your product inside out then the quality of a designer reflects in how efficiently we can use the product in unique and interesting ways.

And of course, some human skills. No matter how effective your design is, if you cannot translate the design through good communication, then you probably won’t get the project. There’s as much sales in design as anywhere else.

What is a typical day like?

A typical day would include some sketching of ideas at the initial stage. Moving on, the ideas are discussed internally. On freezing the design concept, we transfer the design onto CAD (tool used for 2D and 3D designing). A Bill of estimate is prepared according to the design and a presentation is done for the client explaining all aspects of the design. Once all the material is ready, a meeting is set up with the client and their Architect for discussion and based on their comments, the whole process is repeated again. I provide clients with all details required to bring the project to reality (Fixing details, load and lux calculations, specifications and other details). Revisions are done until all parties involved are content and satisfied and then the project moves on to the procurement and installation phase.

What is it you love about this job? 

My absolute favorite part of the job is the design process. Brainstorming with the Architects and Clients, understanding each perspective and coming up with a solution is a challenging yet rewarding task. Each new project is exciting and varied.

How does your work benefit society? 

This is a very important question. Lighting has an enormous impact on the society which is unknown to the majority. 

Light Pollution:

The last ten years have witnessed the evolution of LED lighting. Today we have LEDs lighting up every house and every street. Any light source pointed towards the sky (as seen in some lights pointing upwards to light trees or monuments/statues or in events) contributes towards light pollution. You’ll observe a pink hue at the borders of the sky at night, that is light Pollution. As a result, the quality of the atmosphere decreases. We see far fewer stars now than what we saw a few years ago. Many countries now have strict regulations with respect to lighting, in an effort to reduce light pollution. Lighting designers always work to minimize the same and hence it’s important to have lighting consultants to design lighting environments that are safe for home and cities.

“We need to preserve better skies for our future generations”

Preserving our Circadian rhythm:

Circadian rhythm is our internal clock, impacting our sleep/wake cycle. It influences melatonin secretion, cortisol activity and alertness. For example, blue light suppresses levels of melatonin, helping us stay awake and alert, while red light increases levels of melatonin, helping our bodies get ready for bed. Circadian rhythms can also affect the limbic system. This system regulates a person’s feelings of happiness, sadness, anger and other emotions. A disrupted rhythm can negatively affect these emotions and more.

Psychological effects of lighting:

Light creates more than just visual effects (image, shape, intensity, perception, contrast, etc.); it also has biological and psychological implications that can impact the health and wellbeing of humans.

When light biologically impacts us, it can improve or disrupt our sleep, cognition and overall well-being. It can improve mood and stabilize our circadian rhythms, helping us get a better and deeper night’s sleep. Psychologically, light can decrease depression and even increase cognitive performance such as reaction time.

Tell us an example of a specific memorable work you did that is very close to you!

This would be a luxury residential project that was done in Mangalore. The Architecture for this residence was very contemporary, with huge open spaces and full height windows. At the center of the residence was a large pool. The Architecture enabled effortless connection between the natural elements and built environment. After our initial analysis we started to create a concept around caustic reflection which is the natural projection of ripple like reflections created when daylight hits water. To create this effect artificially we started to experiment with crystals and projectors. When projectors held at the right angle above water are aimed at Crystals, with their multiple refractive surfaces, it creates the identical effect to that of caustic reflections. Then we created a device system to attain this effect, to interact with the overall architecture. The hours of experimenting with lights in the lab and trying to create something beautiful made me fall in love with light even further.

Your advice to students based on your experience?

My advice for students would be to always listen to yourself. Listen to your intuition and follow what gives you joy. Even in cases where there are no opportunities, they can be created with the right approach. Once you find what fuels you, you don’t stop learning. Always listen intently, everyone has something to learn from. 

Future Plans?

Lighting Design is a whole other universe in itself. So my plans as well are big. I plan to have a studio that works, develops and studies light itself and caters to Architectural lighting design, Stage/ Events lighting, Product design, Projection mapping and everything else that technology and light are yet to uncover. The dream is to have an unrestricted space to truly immerse and experiment with this gift that is Light.

“The presence of light may do more than merely allow for sight.  Scientifically, light impacts important brain functions.  Metaphorically, I believe, I feel light.”