Asst. Prof. Dr. Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska

19th October 2020

WiL Ambassador for Poland, Asst. Prof. Dr. Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska IALD, IES, CIE, MSLL, RIBA, reflects on her lighting career, as a designer, researcher, educator and mentor.

Although Asst. Prof. Dr. Karolina Zielinska-Dabkowska is now recognised as one of the primary educators and trend setters in the lighting design world, her career in lighting design almost didn’t happen. 

“I never planned a career in lighting design, it just evolved on its own,” she said. “I always wanted to be an architect, and graduated with two degrees in Architecture. Until 2000, I was unaware that lighting design existed as a profession.”

Zielinska-Dabkowska first ‘discovered’ lighting design while studying architecture in Germany, where she noticed that in Hildesheim, at the HAWK University of Applied Sciences and Art, you could study architectural lighting design – the first such lighting programme in Europe.

Although she has some memories of playing with candlelight as a little girl growing up in Poland, it wasn’t until 2002, while participating in a lighting design workshop in Alingsås, Sweden with Jonathan Speirs and Mark Major, that Zielinska-Dabkowska realised lighting design was the career she wanted to pursue. “I was immediately hooked, as I always felt my architectural design was incomplete, that something important was missing. That special something turned out to be light.”

Zielinska-Dabkowska followed this interest in light and began working for L-Plan Lighting in Berlin in 2002. It was here where she began to understand the true potential of lighting design. “While working in Berlin on the illumination of the new Munich airport terminal, I realised for the first time, as a building architect for many years, that I could only work on one large project at a time. Whereas, a lighting designer is fortunate enough to work on many projects concurrently because these projects are at different stages of development and sometimes they are located in different places around the world,” she said. “It could be an urban lighting masterplan, the illumination of an exterior façade, the interior of the building, or elements of landscape architecture, there are many possibilities.”

Upon graduating in Architectural Engineering at HAWK in Hildesheim in 2004, she left for New York City to work for Fisher Marantz Stone. 

“My departure to New York to gain experience in one of the oldest lighting design practices in the world, and to work with a great international team on many world-famous projects, convinced me that this was the professional path to follow,” she explained. “Light gives the opportunity to change architecture, to visually modify its form, material, etc.”

She relocated again in 2005, moving back to Europe to start a new role as Senior Lighting Designer at Speirs + Major’s London office, where she worked on numerous projects centred around external illumination. “This is also where my knowledge about urban lighting masterplans (ULM) developed, and thanks to this valuable experience, enabled me to contribute a chapter titled “Urban Lighting Masterplan – origins, definitions, methodologies and collaborations”, for a RIBA book called Urban Lighting for People: Evidence-Based Lighting Design for the Built Environment,” she explained.

Then, after a chance encounter during a flight in 2007, Zielinska-Dabkowska was offered an interesting job opportunity at Light Bureau by its founder, Paul Traynor. “The company was redesigning the previous lighting proposal for the new Main NATO HQ in Brussels, and I was going to be fully responsible for this, and other exciting projects.”

Six years later, due to family reasons, she relocated to Switzerland in 2013, where she started working for Reflexion, and after obtaining her PhD degree in Technical Sciences with honours from the Faculty of Architecture at Gdansk University of Technology (GUT), Poland, she founded designs4people [d4p].

With a CV that has seen her work for three of the largest, most well-known lighting design practices in the world, Zielinska-Dabkowska believes she learned a great deal before setting up her own studio. “I decided to join these companies to know what makes them stand out and discover why they’re so unique and different,” she said. “I soon realised that the creative designers of these companies work under visionary individuals. Also, each company has a specific design approach and process in place, so combining these experiences was highly useful.”

Zielinska-Dabkowska elaborated on how these experiences led to a shift of ambition in her lighting design career: “At first, I was only interested in creating beautiful spaces with the help of lighting and the expression of my creativity, but it didn’t take long before I understood there was much more to realise,” she said.

“My vision for the future soon became focused on redefining what it meant to design healthy lighting for humans and built environments, via education, research and policy making. I believe we are just at the beginning of a long and winding road. In today’s world, I think individuality equates to a designer’s ego, which is not my aim, rather, as things become more complex in terms of knowledge inputs, the solution involves the creation of intradisciplinary teams and teamwork.”

With this in mind, Zielinska-Dabkowska explained in more detail the design philosophy for her consultancy, designs4people: “We no longer solely design illumination just to create memorable, highly aesthetic spaces during the night. Our approach is unique and it’s centred on the user and his/her habitable environment.

“This involves basing our designs on the newest research knowledge in the fields of astronomy, biology, medicine, ecology, etc, whilst also applying practical experience. “Essentially, I am a problem solver. My love for integrated lighting design involves a hands-on process, lighting mock-ups and tests onsite in order to find the best possible lighting answers. A professional lighting designer with my perspective and background, has a responsibility and moral obligation to use lighting with far more care, caution and restraint. More recently, there’s been an increasing number of municipalities seeking my advice on how to create healthy, environmentally conscious nighttime built environments that exist in harmony with architecture, urban planning and the natural landscape. There’s growing awareness now, of the value and importance of providing a safer environment for humans, flora and fauna by significantly improving the way artificial lighting is applied both in urban and rural areas, and particularly, in places recognised as ecologically significant, or where there are vulnerable species.”

Alongside the aforementioned NATO HQ in Brussels, Zielinska-Dabkowska believes she has been privileged to work on a number of high-profile, well known projects. Some examples cited by Zielinska-Dabkowska include the Burj Khalifa in Dubai and the Tribute in Light Memorial art installation in New York while at Fisher Marantz Stone, the lighting vision for King’s Cross Lighting masterplan, the external illumination of the Granary Building and Granary Square in London and the external lighting for the new astronomical observatory cone at the Royal Observatory Greenwich while at Speirs & Major, and the urban lighting masterplan for Porto Montenegro, which includes the illumination of an historic crane, for Light Bureau. “One thing worth mentioning, is that these projects always involved teamwork,” she added.

While she has worked for some of the major lighting design studios across her career, Zielinska-Dabkowska cited Lesley Wheel as her lighting hero, one of the founders, and the only female founder of the IALD. She also has a strong admiration for her friend Anne Bureau. “Anne has not only established herself as a female lighting designer over the last 25 years, but she’s also capable of handling large scale projects almost on her own, and on top of that, she has a family with two children, enjoys what she does and is an authentic person. I do not know how she does it all!”

Throughout her lighting design career, education has also played a key role for Zielinska-Dabkowska, both in her own studies, but also through her work as a mentor and teacher. This is something she feels came naturally to her when she was young. “I seem to have teaching in my blood,” she said. “Very early on, I mentored people in the lighting design offices I worked for. Often, we had students who would intern with the company and would stay during their Master’s thesis semester, and I would mentor and supervise their Master’s thesis.

“This developed gradually over the years while I was a guest lecturer for the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) in Barcelona, and also during my time as a senior lecturer at Hochschule Wismar University of Applied Sciences: Technology, Business and Design in Germany for three years, I oversaw Master’s and PhD students.”

More recently, in 2018, Zielinska-Dabkowska was offered a part-time Assistant Professor position at GUT, where she founded the research lighting laboratory, GUT LightLab, which conducts research on various aspects of light and lighting in the built environment.

Now, she is currently involved in the new Erasmus+Strategic Partnership project called Light4Health – Health Research-Based Innovative Open Educational Resources and Tools for Lighting Design Students and Professionals. “The team is developing a novel educational course to teach health research methods and findings to lighting designers at the graduate level,” she explained. “I am especially excited as Prof. Dr. George Brainard and his lab are involved in this work.”

Over the last 15 years, since her early days in the profession, Zielinska-Dabkowska has noticed a marked improvement in the level of education on offer for prospective lighting designers.

“Today, it’s much easier to deepen your knowledge about lighting design than when I began,” she said. “Quality education is now offered in countries such as the UK, US, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and Spain. Interestingly, each of the programmes have a slightly different focus point, which I think is necessary. I love the variety.”

“While I was working for Hochschule Wismar as a senior lecturer, I often had requests from my colleagues, who were principals of top international lighting design consultancies, wanting recommended students for internships. After finishing their obligatory internship, many of my students were given a great job position before they even graduated.”

She continued that this increased level of educational opportunity only helps to boost the profile of lighting design as a profession – something she feels could still be enhanced. “Good quality education is one of the important pillars of professional recognition. For example, architects and civil engineers are subject to legal restrictions and requirements. As such, they can only be carried out by holders of specific qualifications. Yet, with lighting design, such credentials remain unrecognised worldwide. I hope one day soon this will change for the better.”

However, while Zielinska-Dabkowska does believe there is more recognition of lighting design, thanks to the greater availability of higher education on the subject, she feels there is still some way to go for it to be considered an essential service. She explained: “When there is an economic crisis, the first professionals who are mistakenly, often seen as just ‘nice to have’ and ‘unnecessary’ on a project, and therefore, easy to get rid of, are lighting designers and landscape architects.

“Today, I do see a trend of some of the large engineering companies such as Arup, WSP, AFRY and Buro Happold, offering lighting design in their services. With the rise in complexity, budgets, and also the scale of the latest architectural projects, clients increasingly prefer to deal with one company, i.e. a multidisciplinary consultancy that can provide all the required services under one roof. This way of appointing the design team is perceived as creating a better flow of communication between the different disciplines, which can facilitate faster solutions to problems. Moreover, responsibility is focused on one entity. The disadvantage with this approach, is that it can at times, prevent the introduction of innovative solutions to the project in order to avert risk, so there may be a tendency to avoid employing smaller or less known new outlets.”

Although she has achieved a great deal throughout her lighting design career, Zielinska-Dabkowska revealed it was a struggle for her to be to where she is in now. In her early days as a young woman she “had to fight to get to my current position. I wish I had a mentor back then but I did not,” she said.

“Most often, I was the only female and the youngest person on the project team. Many times, I also had the impression I was denied the same entry level on a project as my colleagues simply because I was a woman, and that I had to first prove my skills and competence. This has changed now as I have more grey hair [she laughs], or perhaps there has been a slow shift in attitudes of investors or architects?!”

While the situation is improving for her personally, Zielinska-Dabkowska still has some frank concerns regarding inequality within the lighting design field, both in terms of pay, and opportunities for career progression. “I remember once in the past, discovering my work colleague was earning 10% more than I was, even though we shared the same position and I was dealing with international projects, which involved a lot of travel,” she said. “When I questioned my boss about this discrepancy the answer was “you don’t have kids.” That seemed grossly unfair.

“From discussions with many of my colleagues, who are male owners of lighting practices, there appears to be some hesitation in hiring a woman of reproductive age. What’s preferred, are graduates who still want to have a career, who can work hard and believe it’s too early to settle down and have a family. Sadly, for those who do decide to have children, after maternity leave, often their contracts are terminated. This is unjust in our society and should change in our field as well. A real-life example, is of a good friend who was senior lighting designer in a large company. When her maternity leave ended, she was asked to depart after ten years of employment with that business.”

“This situation has impacted me personally as well. Throughout my career, due to the demands of my profession and the many ever-present expectations, the timing was never right to settle down and have a family of my own. If you were to ask me if I regret anything about my career, my answer is a resounding yes. I would have loved to have had children, but it’s impossible to turn back the clock.”

While her story is heartbreaking, it’s both striking and refreshing to see Zielinska-Dabkowska talk so candidly about what can be an uncomfortable topic, but such inequality is one of the core reasons that Women in Lighting (WiL) was established. Zielinska-Dabkowska has been involved with the initiative, acting as the Women in Lighting Ambassador for Poland, both to raise the profile for women in lighting design, and also to establish the lighting design profession in Poland.

“It is very hard to work here – I am the only IALD professional member in the country so far. It’s also challenging being a woman lighting designer. Most of my competitors here provide lighting design services for free by selling lighting equipment to cover their costs,” she explained.

“We will be unable to establish an independent lighting design profession in Poland if such procedures remain in place. Often, projects are lost as my fee proposal is considered too expensive. The general attitude of architects also needs to change. They expect between 10-25% of the lighting equipment budget price to be paid to them by lighting suppliers who also provide so-called “lighting design”. It’s unfeasible to compete with this.”

Looking forward, Zielinska-Dabkowska would like to see an increased impetus on the importance of cross-disciplinary research – something she feels would both improve the stature and recognition of lighting design as a profession, while also leading to an improvement in the health and wellbeing of both humans and wildlife. “The only way to establish lighting design as a recognised profession is to ensure a transdisciplinary, design-led research approach is established, in order to generate strategies that support both the health and life quality of humans and wildlife,” she asserted.

“We need to become experts in our own right and be paid for this complex knowledge as well as the proper methods to apply it. For us as practitioners, it’s crucial to gain new knowledge and an appropriate integration of skills, methods, data, and perspectives from different scientific fields connected to health, wellbeing and biology.”

Since 2014, Zielinska-Dabkowska’s has been active on the Scientific and Organising Committees of the Light Symposium Wismar, Germany, which is a platform to connect research and practice. She’s also been involved in public policy making connected to lighting and light pollution and is on the Technical Committees of the CIE, IES and IDA, which all work on the development and establishment of lighting standards and/or guidelines.

This means that Zielinska-Dabkowska’s role as an educator within the lighting profession shows no sign of slowing down, and she concluded that her role as a mentor and teacher is one of her main sources of inspiration. “I love to mentor my Master’s and PhD students on light and lighting,” she said. “My students and colleagues who have developed their skills under my tutorage and are recognised in the lighting design field, provide endless inspiration and are my ultimate lighting design qualifications.”