Qistina Ahmad Ali

29th April 2021

arc sits down with young lighting designer Qistina Ahmad Ali to discover more about her passion for lighting and her experiences of being a female designer in the New Zealand design community.

Qistina Ahmad Ali is a New Zealand-based lighting designer full of passion and enthusiasm for her profession. The ignition for this passion was triggered in 2014 when she attended the Light Show exhibition at the Auckland Art Museum. “My life changed after that,” Ahmad Ali told arc. “The exhibition was well balanced on the different lighting techniques ranging from the play of lighting intensities, colours and lighting scenes, which conjure aspects of the natural world. I felt an excitement that was new but hard to contain. It was like electricity running through my veins and I knew I needed to know more about lighting. At the end of the exhibition, I continued my newfound journey by watching a screening of a film called Impossible Light. It was a documentary about the design team behind the iconic lighting installation at San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. The film was an adventure – full of creativity and innovation that wasn’t stifled from the design team. The process of how the installation came to fruition entranced me.

“I knew then and there I wanted to be involved in the process of lighting installations. I needed to learn about lighting as a subject on its own. How there are different lighting techniques that can change the experience and mood of a space and how lighting affects people.”

Since moving to New Zealand at the age of seven, Ahmad Ali has been brought up to believe that education is extremely important in order to become successful later in life. 

“My parents brought us up to believe that staying at school, getting good grades and getting a degree would lead to a well-paying job. [However], I did not receive advice on how to choose a career path that fits with who I am. I did not have any sort of direction on what I intended to do once I left university.” 

Ahmad Ali went on to study Electrical Engineering at the University of Auckland. She explains her degree choice further and how it led to her path in lighting design: “I did an engineering degree because I enjoyed practical science and it gave me the best possible opportunities to apply my problem-solving skills. I tried a variety of subjects in electrical engineering, but nothing sparked that fire in me until the lighting exhibition in the summer of 2014. That day was the start of my journey to pursue lighting design and to see where that led me. 

“I was afraid of my lack of understanding of what I should do to be a lighting designer. But my passion for lighting was much bigger than my fear of the unknown. In my last year of university, I applied for job positions in the hopes that someone would see the depth of my feelings about lighting. [Then], someone did recognise the depth of my passion and offered me a position at my current employer, BECA.” 

During her time working at BECA, an engineering consultancy with offices in the Asia-Pacific region, Ahmad Ali completed her IESANZ approved course in lighting design at Massey University in Auckland and graduated in 2019. 

“My projects started off with road lighting and industrial lighting designs, which were highly technical projects. It requires great communication skills and patience to convey technical lighting results and terminology into layman’s terms for clients who do not understand lighting. We started winning our own lighting design work in building services and urban design, which I thoroughly enjoy. I learnt to draw up lighting integration details to assist architects, communicate how the design team could achieve the lighting outcome they intend, while being mindful of what is available in the New Zealand lighting market. 

“Above all, I learnt how to create layers of lighting in a space and maintain balance. This last lesson has been something I have truly wanted to learn since I started my career, and I am happy to say I am a better lighting designer today than I was yesterday!”

When asked about her goals when she first started a career in lighting design, Ahmad Ali explained that it was fundamentally a desire to create beautiful lighting experiences. “My purpose as a lighting designer is to create truly beautiful lighting experiences for everyone to enjoy. In saying that, I am constantly thinking of new approaches to illuminate a space. This ensures that I am always striving for excellence in my design, as well as making sure that the design team is happy with my work. This is an ongoing learning process for me, because fundamentally I want to be a responsible and thoughtful lighting designer.”

Achieving this drive to become a responsible lighting designer, Ahmad Ali is continuously striving to learn the newest technology and knowledge within the industry. “I am a TechIES member of the IESANZ organisation, which gives me access to lighting training events and symposiums. I work hard to keep up to date with new lighting research and lighting technology in my own personal time,” she said. “I yearn to learn what I do not know and embrace every opportunity I can to improve myself to be an even better lighting designer.”

Despite being relatively new in the industry, Ahmad Ali has already made a huge impression on the New Zealand lighting community and is consistently receiving positive feedback from her projects. Some of her most notable projects that put her ‘on the map’ include her most recently completed DLA Piper, Minter Ellison Rudd Watts and PricewaterhouseCoopers, which are all fitout projects in the new Commercial Bay Tower in Auckland’s central business district. 

“Lighting design projects in the building services and urban design sector take roughly two to three years to see a project from a concept, to be fully realised in construction. The projects that I have recently finished are my proudest achievements thus far,” she commented. 

“I have received glowing feedback about how beautiful they are from clients and people who have visited these places. Each fitout had its own unique take on what an enriching work environment looks like, while still being true to the company’s identity. I am grateful that the people we have worked with continue to talk about the amazing work we do when looking for lighting designers for future work.”

It is evident her rapid success has been achieved through a dedication to her role, both professionally in terms of the technical aspects of the project, but also her attention to detail when it comes to understanding the ins and outs of a project and a client’s desires. “Every space that requires lighting has a story to tell. It is my responsibility to understand this story and do my utmost best to convey it with lighting,” she explained. “With each project, I take the time to understand the space from the architects’ concept report, which includes a pretext on the location, the client’s identity and drivers, proposed architectural finishes and desired lighting effect. I translate my understanding of these key components and bring up possible solutions to the design team. Being a good listener, understanding the project narrative and proactively suggesting possible solutions to each space is a lighting design philosophy I bring to the table. If I am not actively listening, I cannot do my best to make the client and architect’s story shine.

“Lighting can energise us or disrupt our mood. I feel it is important to understand the positive and negative effects lighting has on living things and use lighting well and responsibly. The considerations I take when planning lighting for any project are: What are we lighting and why? Have we minimised unwanted spill and ensured that the lighting is not obtrusive to neighbouring properties? Are the light levels we have designed to the lowest as practically possible for the application?

“I feel that when I take the time to think about these questions at the start and end of the project, I produce a much better and carefully considered lighting design solution.”

When comparing the New Zealand lighting community to the international market, Ahmad Ali observes it is a small, tight-knit group. 

“When compared to our neighbouring country Australia, New Zealand’s lighting design market is quite small. There are a handful of lighting design studios and engineering consultancies that offer lighting design services. These are mostly found in the metropolitan cities. 

“Lighting design is a well-established but niche profession in New Zealand. It is recognised as a separate profession from architecture and interior design. We work alongside architects and interior designers to achieve their vision of the lighting aesthetic, the mood of the space and ensuring that we are not compromising on lighting levels specified in relevant standards.

“There is only one approved lighting design course in New Zealand, which is not on the same calibre of education as you would find in the UK or other European countries. Lighting in these countries has been well established for much longer and the lighting community is a lot larger. There is a wider pool of lighting individuals to contribute resources into lighting research. This provides a better-quality education for people who want to become future lighting designers. 

“I feel that if we focus on improving the quality of education in a tertiary course to be on par with what is available overseas, and successfully market the pathway to become a lighting designer, we can significantly boost the profile of lighting designers in New Zealand.”

Further highlighting the small lighting community in New Zealand, Ahmad Ali notes that since the beginning of her career, she has had a very limited exposure to other female lighting designers. And, as with many things, the 2020 global pandemic hindered her opportunities to broaden her network and meet fellow female designers at international lighting events. As such, she has played an active role with the Women in Lighting virtual events to push herself into making new connections with like-minded designers. 

“I was adamant to meet new people as I (like many people in the world) was having difficulty dealing with the aftermath of the pandemic in both my work and personal life. Participating in the Women in Lighting Social Roulette last year was an eye-opener for what is going on outside of New Zealand and brought a huge awareness to the brilliant women in lighting. After each social roulette networking event, I felt like the weight of 2020 had been momentarily lifted and that I had an opportunity to heal when I talked about the challenges we have all had to overcome. 

“I am still in contact with these amazing women and being able to talk about how much we love lighting and how we work in our respective fields in different parts of the world made me feel included in a much bigger community. These women have been a positive and supportive force that has made me feel hopeful for what is to come in the upcoming year.”

Ahmad Ali continued, expressing her experiences of being a female in the lighting world in her home country: “I feel that being a lighting designer is not an easy profession – let alone a woman working in lighting. In my career I have heard people say to me that it is ‘easy to be a lighting designer’ and that ‘any electrical engineer can do my job.’ The short answer to any of those statements is that it is not true, and it breaks my heart hearing people say this. Everything I have done up to this point in my career has been a product of hard work and perseverance. 

“When I decided at university to become a lighting designer, I did not sit idly waiting for that opportunity to fall on my lap. I spent my time learning to use lighting software, reading books on lighting in architecture, finding images on the internet of beautiful buildings and outdoor spaces and evaluating where the lighting sources were hidden to achieve incredible results. My passion for lighting grew exponentially in my current position as I studied part time while working and attended lighting training seminars outside of work hours. I went to lighting supplier stores during my time-off to understand what new luminaires were in the market and where they stand price wise with their competitors. At work, I put my hand up to prepare and present to my colleagues about lighting and how we could improve our skills to deliver better lighting design solutions. I do all of this out of my sheer passion for lighting and being grateful that I can live a portion of my dream as a lighting designer.

“I have never had a lighting hero. I was intrigued and entranced by the process of what lighting designers can do and I wanted to be one. I have always been a big believer of marching to the beat of my own drum and that meant being true to myself as a creative and being the best version of myself as a lighting designer. I have had a lot of love and support from my husband, my family and my mentors who have helped me continue to blaze my own path regardless of how challenging it can be. With their love and support I can become a better lighting designer today than I can ever imagine when I first started down this path five years ago.”

International media often reports about the successes achieved by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern. We asked Ahmad Ali whether having such a successful female leader has had or will have a positive impact on female empowerment across the country and how important it is to have a female role model like that. “I feel that Jacinda’s role as a leader and the journey she took to get to where she is today will resonate with a lot of women who aspire to be leaders in their desired industry,” she commented. “When you see other women achieve and overcome adversity, it makes you believe that you have the courage and resilience to step into the unknown. If these women can achieve their dreams, it is tangible for you to achieve yours. 

“As a mentor for the University of Auckland Women in Engineering Network, I have met some incredible women who are about to embark on their next phase in their journey – their professional work life. I have felt worry and anxiety from them about how overwhelming it can be to attain a graduate role, given the continued effects of Covid-19 on the economy. I try to provide confidence and advice that they should not stop pursuing their dreams because of this difficult but temporary setback from Covid-19. If you keep putting in the hard work towards your career aspirations and are open to new opportunities, it is possible to achieve your dreams. I am living proof of that.”

Looking ahead, Ahmad Ali continues to fulfil current projects that were temporarily put on hold during the pandemic. She is also looking forward to sharing these lighting experiences she has created with her new network and the lighting community as well as working hard to put forward a project for the IESANZ lighting awards this year. “My future plan would be to become a Senior Lighting Designer and manage my own team of lighting designers. I want to be able to mentor the next generation of lighting designers with everything I have learnt thus far and to help fulfil their dreams and aspirations to be their best self.”