Dipali Shirsat

5th May 2022

arc talks to recent Silhouette Awards winner Dipali Shirsat about her fascinating research into multi-sensory design, and how lighting designers can create more inclusive environments for the visually impaired.

It goes without saying that light is inherently a visual medium and that by harnessing it, designers can create beautiful, inspiring, and moving scenes. But how does lighting fit into a wider, multi-sensory approach to design? What can lighting designers do in their work to create more inclusive spaces, particularly for the visually impaired? 

This is the core focus for Dubai-based, Indian lighting designer Dipali Shirsat. A recent graduate from KTH in Stockholm, Shirsat’s Master’s thesis was centred on how we experience the public realm, and how through their work, designers can redefine these spaces to make them altogether more inclusive.

“The idea of doing a thesis on multisensory design came after listening to the TED Talk – Design with the Blind in Mind, by architect Chris Downey,” Shirsat told arc. “The core idea of the thesis was emphasising how ‘disability’ is a term often misused, and that people are not disabled; the spaces are. The disabled spaces are limiting so many people to get the true experience of a city, and also limiting a majority of them indoors. The research therefore talked about how an ‘image of a city’ is defined by our experience of the spaces around it, and how we as designers can help to redefine it by designing spaces that are inclusive.”

The idea of redefining and redesigning spaces has been a constant for Shirsat ever since she first discovered the world of design. She explained: “I was in the process of choosing which professional career path to go down, between medical and design. My art teacher, Bhiva Punekar was a great artist, and he gifted me a book on the life and work of the architect Laurie Baker. Just as how a small child would be fascinated when discovering something new for the first time, I remember sitting intrigued and stunned at how architecture and light can create a beautiful world.

“After reading the book, I could not stop my imagination, and would think about recreating and designing spaces that would leave oneself spellbound. Unknowingly, light had created a huge impact on my mind as an architect, and it was along this architecture journey that I started developing more interest in light and becoming more aware of it.”

Shirsat went on to study Architecture at Mumbai University in India, and she explained that during her studies, she was heavily influenced by the organic architecture and deconstructivism style of breaking the picture-perfect ideology and designing experiences that are raw and true to the space. “I never designed spaces or put forward design proposals that depicted strong geometry or right-angles,” she said.

Following her graduation, Shirsat got a job as a lighting designer at Indian practice Lighting Dimensions Studio, with a curiosity to learn more about lighting. “In the process of learning and getting to know more about the profession, I came across James Turrell’s work and was completely mesmerised by it. It felt magical and surreal,” she said.

“I only had a very brief idea of lighting until then, but when I realised and became aware of how lighting can affect not just spaces, but also how deeply it can affect human psychology and how we feel in a particular space, I knew that I had to continue practicing as a lighting designer.

“Designing comes naturally to me, and I always knew that I would be a designer, whether it be architecture, lighting, or something else. I developed myself as a holistic designer over time as I believe the roots of designing are the same, it’s just the medium of expression that is different.

“The name Dipali means ‘light’ and is derived from ‘Diwali’, which is the festival of lights in India. So, when people ask me ‘why lighting?’, I say that it is part of my identity – I was destined to be a lighting designer!”

After this realisation, like many burgeoning lighting designers Shirsat enrolled in the Architectural Lighting Design Master’s programme at KTH in Stockholm, moving to the Swedish capital in 2018. “Moving to Sweden, I was surprised to see the lack of sufficient daylighting conditions, and how people cope with it,” she said. “Coming from a place with abundant daylight, I never realised the true importance of it until I moved to Sweden.

“The different cultural and geographical experiences coupled with the research-oriented studies at KTH made me rethink my design ideologies and was imperative in developing my own research, which is based on universal design thinking.”

It was here that Shirsat delved deeper into the notion of multisensory, inclusive design, and where she began work on her thesis on the subject. In her thesis, Shirsat explained that people with visual impairments were considered as “prototypical city dwellers”, and how by understanding their needs of navigation, designers can develop an approach that looks not just for their safety, but helps them engage in outdoor spaces and enhances their nighttime experiences.

“The change in designing and building such inclusive spaces starts with change in the perception and approach of designers, for which the research outlines a very important social experiment,” Shirsat said. “The ‘blind-fold experiment’, as we called it, was so designers could get first-hand experience and understanding of the limiting factors of a space, and how these can be further used to design inclusive spaces.”

The research put forward a holistic, four-point design module for designing outdoor spaces to make them more multi-sensory. The module was put forward by Shirsat as a starting point to designing multi-sensory experiences, and how non-visual triggers of a space can be enhanced with lighting to remove the visual bias of a design.

“The four-point module gives a step-by-step guide on improving the lighting conditions in the public realm,” Shirsat explained. “The first two points of the module are focused on understanding the user needs, limitations, and doing site analysis based on the ‘human dimensions of the public space’. The third part of the module focuses on carrying social experiments that help in understanding the visual and non-visual triggers of a particular space.

“The fourth point of the module is about applying lighting techniques based on the data generated from the first three points, and particularly on enhancing the non-visual triggers through appropriate lighting. The main element to consider while doing this is the relationship between the different aspects of lighting , such as value and luminance, to primarily enhance the tactile contrast in a space, but also to look at how different lighting techniques can be applied to strengthen the non-visual sensory triggers that activate the dynamism of the space and enhance social interaction.”

Since graduating from KTH in 2020, Shirsat has relocated to Dubai, where she works as a lighting designer at neolight global. However, she continues to expand on her thesis, and is looking to continue with her research into the subject of multisensory design.

“The thesis is just a starting point to what the actual research can develop into,” she said. “I have planned on taking the research forward and doing the social experiment in different parts of the world, gaining insights into how cultural and geographical diversity affect the design thinking.

“Especially after the pandemic, when people are deprived of touch, how are the visually impaired experiencing spaces, when one of their strongest attributes of sensing spaces is taken away? The research has totally changed my design perspective and outlook on many aspects of lighting, which I never considered in designing before. It’s now always a deliberate attempt to think of the four-point module while developing any concepts for projects.”

Shirsat is also hopeful that, with the continuation of her research and the expansion of the four-point module, more designers will begin to consider how their work will impact those with visual impairments. She continued: “I believe in general the design industry has overlooked or restricted the aspect of disability and inclusiveness to only talking about the safety of people, which is of course the priority. But what about their experiences of a city, which is much more than offering safety and allowing for social interaction?

“The very basis of appreciating any work of a lighting designer is first through your visual sense, so what happens when that base is challenged? I found this topic to be interesting; to re-evaluate and rethink the design ideologies that are not sensory-based. As per statistics, more than a quarter of the world’s population experiences some form of visual impairment, and that number is expected to triple by 2050, which is an alarming issue. If we act now and implement inclusiveness in design practice, the future will be much safer and equally more enjoyable place for all.”

Shirsat’s wish to create lighting that makes a difference to the wider public is something that has been with her since she first entered into the world of lighting design. She continued: “The only thing I knew was I have to stay true to my craft and be a responsible designer.

“Inspired by James Turrell, Olafur Eliasson and Daan Roosegaarde, I hoped to bring a small but impactful change in the design field. These are big names in the industry, but what they all have in common is they represent ideas and possibilities, something I wish to represent one day as well. I hope to bring about that change with my research on lighting and disabled spaces.

“I believe that if you are passionate and have got something to say and contribute to the industry, you will eventually get recognised. I thrive on creativity and collaborating with creative minds. Whether it be social engagement through Women in Lighting, the Lighting Police project, or my own research, I’ve been connected with so many creative minds that have helped me grow and stand out.”

On Women in Lighting, Shirsat has been heavily involved in the project, running the R.A.W blog alongside Martina Frattura. But while she has been a keen contributor to the project, she said that she has always felt supported by men and women alike in the industry.

“I have been very fortunate to have equal support from the men in this industry – be it my professors from KTH, Federico Favero and Rodrigo Muro; my previous work colleague Gary Thornton, who has been very supportive of my research; to now being mentored by David Gilbey. I feel the men in this industry have really supported me and I have learnt so much from them,” she said.

“Women in Lighting has been imperative in my journey also. The R.A.W blogs have been a successful collaboration with Martina, and it’s good to know that they have generated discussions in various lighting groups. I have connected with so many talented designers from across the industry through this project, and got more opportunities to collaborate with them properly, be it working with Katia [Kolovea] on The Lighting Police, or now collaborating with David Gilbey through the Silhouette Awards mentorship programme.”

The collaboration with Gilbey comes as part of the newly created Silhouette Awards, for which Shirsat was recognised earlier this year. The awards were created to recognise young talent in the lighting industry, and to pair them with experienced mentors who can help to guide them through the beginnings of their careers.

Two months on from her recognition at the awards, Shirsat updated us on how the mentorship is going: “The first award is always special, and the Silhouette Awards is much more than just getting recognition, it has given me a mentor for life. It’s a unique concept, and especially for the young designers it’s such a great opportunity to explore their journey under the guidance of esteemed and highly experienced designers from the industry.

“Partnering up with David was one of the best things that has happened. I have known David through professional networks and being connected with him through the Lighting Police project. With the kind of industry experience and expertise he has, there is so much to learn from him not only in terms of design, but also the kind of passion he has is rare.

“David is already helping me in gaining good understanding of the business side, helping me with my research, and making sure that I get help from the right people in the industry. This is just the beginning and moving forward, I hope to collaborate with him on many exciting opportunities, be it design or doing conferences together.”

With that in mind, Shirsat already has her eyes set on the future, and is hopeful of the new opportunities that both her research, and her new mentorship, will bring. She concluded: “I always go with the flow and allow myself to be open to any interesting opportunity that might come my way.

“For now, I am focusing on this exciting journey ahead with David and the Silhouette team, and making the most out of this collaboration. I am hopeful that this journey will take me to something more interesting ahead – that’s the plan!”

The R.A.W blog can be found on the Women in Lighting website.