Sustainable by Design

An ardent sustainability advocate, Emirati-American Designer Laila Al-Yusuf chats with Chiamaka Adinnu about her interior design firm SAY Studio and how she combines cutting-edge technology with sustainability
Sustainable by Design

Who is Laila Al-Yousuf? Tell us a bit about yourself.

I was raised in Dubai and educated in the US and I think this combination of cultures has given me a unique perspective on designing for clients in the Middle East. I worked for the global design practice Perkins + Will for several years on clients such as Google, Adidas, Ford, and IBM. In 2014, I won Young Designer of the Year at the CID awards and then Best Office of the Year in 2017 for Adidas. It had always been a dream to start my own design practice, which I did in June 2018 when I launched SAY Studio with my business partner Matthew Sexton. People who work with me often say that my favourite question is “why?” For me, it’s all about truly understanding and immersing myself in the brief and pushing the boundaries of expectations. So much of design is linked to personality, and I try to maintain an open relationship with clients in order to deliver a project that truly captures their essence.

How did you start up your career in design? What influenced your career choice?

I’ve been passionate about design since I was a child. Whenever my mother would take me to restaurants or hotels, even at 5 or 6 years old, I would spend the first five minutes rating the design, critically trying to understand the selections that were made and the impact that has on people using space. In high school, I took more of a science path, fascinated by cause and effect, and how the world impacts us and vice versa. I knew before going into the university that I wanted to one day open my own company, so I decided to study Business Administration. I believe the experience of each of these paths gave me a unique background that has heavily influenced who I am as a designer. My first work experience was on the business side for a large corporate in the US, but it wasn’t enough and I found myself constantly creating. I knew I had an artistic outlet that needed to be fulfilled each day for me to be happy so I went back to what I had been passionate about even from such a young age and I’ve never looked back.

You are half-Emirati and half-American. How has your multicultural heritage influenced your perspective in your career?

The multicultural aspect has influenced me in lots of ways and contributed to the different sides of my character. At times I can be a crazy creative, I love to tell stories through design, but at the same time I’m practical and a problem solver. My heritage has also given me the opportunity of traveling back and forth my whole life and being inspired by all the places I’ve traveled to. This broad view of the world has influenced me as an individual but also as a designer, falling in love with design aesthetics from around the world. I’m also proud of my Emirati heritage and the support that this country has given me, either through the Edaad scholarship that was given to me by HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, or through the ability to set up my own company here and contribute back to the economy. Dubai is a city that strives to be the best version of itself and compete on the world stage; I push myself to do the same.

Sustainable by DesignWhat major challenges have you faced during the course of your career? How have you managed to overcome or rise above them?

One of the major challenges I had was right at the start of my career when an HR director questioned my work ethic because I’m Emirati. I was shocked that he had such a distorted view of Emiratis, particularly as an HR director. I’ve had instances before where people have doubted my capabilities either because of my age, my gender, or my nationality and I’ve learned that this is actually an opportunity to prove people wrong and change their preconceptions. Rather than being discouraged or walking away, it has fueled me to do more.

What have been your valued milestones so far? Why do they mean so much to you?

Setting up the company; SAY Studio is definitely one of my most valued milestones. It had been an ambition of mine for so long, but I had been waiting for the right moment and with the right business partner. We have just celebrated our 2-years anniversary and it has been an incredible journey so far. Winning the PwC Middle East Headquarter project has been another incredible milestone for us, really giving us an opportunity to work with a fantastic client and champion sustainable design throughout the building.

Other notable achievements have been when I was selected as a valedictorian of my design school to give a speech in front of 12,000 people, winning the CID Young Designer of the Year in 2014, CID Best Office Design in 2017 and being selected for the Power 50 designers for a few years running.

For those wishing to start up a career in the same field ss yours, what would be your advice to them? Any words of encouragement?

I think it is an incredibly rewarding field – getting to see your visions come to life into built environments, as well as the responsibility of creating spaces that influence individuals for long periods of the day. My best advice would be to keep learning and pushing forward. Your talent will only take you so far; it is your work ethic and drive that will make you successful. Passion will fuel you to move forward and strive to achieve more. Never get complacent.

It is also important to recognize that failure is a part of the journey. It is how you will learn and improve. Those who fail and don’t pick themselves up are the ones who have actually failed. When we first set up the business, the most common question I got asked was whether I was afraid to have left a steady job of 7 years with one of the largest design firms in the world. I knew that if I didn’t try, that I would have a lifetime of regret and that would be my true failure.

What are your long-term goals with regard to your career? Where do you hope to be in the next 5-10 years?

Sustainable by DesignMy business partner and I are very ambitious people and would like to see our company continue to grow. We have worked hard to have a wonderful client list already in the last two years, and we would like to grow that list. We would also like to continue to expand into other sectors, as well as eventually expanding globally. In addition, as stated previously, we are advocates for sustainable designs and want to continue to encourage our clients to consider this with their spaces.

I would like to hopefully continue to be a representative of what Emirati women can achieve, and would love the opportunity to mentor Emirati women who would like to enter the field. I am also a great believer in using your passion to change the world and as such, I will continue to be involved with the Surge for Water charity that organizes an annual competition asking designers to design a piece of furniture sustainably in order to raise awareness around the global water crisis. Last year, we started the Surge Sustainability Awards which award designers in our region for doing this all year round on their projects, thereby having a larger impact on sustainable design in the region. I would like to see these awards grow into global ones, thereby again increasing the impact.

You are keen on sustainable approaches. Tell us a bit about your sustainability advocacy.

To be honest, while I am hugely passionate about it today, I wasn’t always an advocate for sustainable design. At the start of my career, I wasn’t as aware of the impact that we can have as individuals, or as designers. This is important to mention because I would like people to know it is never too late to change your behaviors. It is also important to recognize that it is best to do this in small steps. Too much change too fast will be hard to sustain for longer periods of time. Individuals can start by using reusable water bottles, or installing water filters into their houses for example.

As a designer, I was quite intrigued by LEED and first earned by LEED Green Associate before eventually earning by LEED Accredited Professional. The WELL building standard is also becoming more widely used in our industry today and my next step would be to study and take this exam, particularly since our company has engaged in several WELL projects so we all have a background in it already. We have a responsibility as designers to advocate for sustainable design as much as possible, as this really shouldn’t be a choice, but more of a way of designing naturally.

We heard you are actively involved in an initiative called Surge For Water. Can you tell us a bit about it and how it came about?

Seven years ago, I was sent an email asking whether I wanted to be on the host committee for Surge as they were launching their team in Dubai. I immediately became very interested in the cause. But prior to that, I was honestly not even aware of the global water crisis. It is absolutely horrific to think that there are people who to this day don’t have access to clean water or those who walk several miles a day to a water source that has the potential of killing them because have no choice. Hearing that really had an impact on me. I had been actively involved in a lot of charity work since I was a child, such as Habitat for Humanity, or Meals on Wheels, and I wanted to get more involved in giving back. Then one day in the shower, I had this idea of starting a design competition that would ask designers to design a piece of furniture in support of the Surge cause, in order to raise awareness around the situation. Seven years later, our gala event has grown to about 500 people, becoming the largest event that Surge hosts each year, with the entire design industry coming together in support of what we can achieve as a community. I do believe that design has the power to transform lives.

The news about the sustainable approach you took towards your wedding is everywhere. Can you tell us exactly what you did and what gave birth to this idea?

Sustainability is a hot topic in our industry, but it is important to realize this is more than a trend. As responsible designers, we have an obligation to consider the impact that we make as a result of our designs. People can often be quite intimidated by the word, but actually, even the smallest modifications to our lifestyle would have a great effect in the long term. It was within the first month of being engaged that I started to wonder what impact weddings have on the environment, and the statistics were so staggering that it just seemed like the natural choice for us to do whatever we could within our wedding preparations to make responsible choices. Then it was just a matter of research and creativity to bring it all together.

From start to finish, we tried to think of everything we could possibly do. Couples often send out printed save the dates, and printed invitations, but when was the last time you kept one of those from a wedding? Today, people want to refer to a website or receive something digitally so this was an easy first choice for us that also saved money. It is better to have the ceremony and reception in the same place to save on carbon emissions between one place and the next if you can. Our ceremony was in the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney and we chose to have our reception at the Deckhouse Woolwhich, but to limit the emissions, we arranged to transport all our guests across the harbor on two boats rather than each of them taking their cars across. All water was served in jugs rather than bottled water, there were no straws, and rather than serving a dessert then our cake, we opted to have the cake as the dessert

Sustainable by DesignProbably the most unconventional choice for us was choosing to have no flowers at our wedding. We didn’t like the idea of starting a life together with the death of something else. We used plants instead, which meant that everything could be replanted and we just shifted the potted plants from the ceremony to the reception. The bouquets were all succulents which were actually really unique and perfect against the Botanic Garden backdrop. We then shifted the bouquets to the reception and used them as the decor on our sweetheart table. After the fact, the bouquets and plants were donated to my husband’s grandmother’s retirement community and a few were planted in my in-laws garden. We love the idea that a token from our marriage will always be in the backyard of the house that he grew up in and we can watch them grow over the coming years.

We also opted to not give any favors or receive any gifts. I know this was a very unconventional choice as well, but we decided we didn’t need 15 toasters. We are very blessed to have all that we have, and we wanted to use our wedding as a way of spreading love, so we asked our guests to support charities instead. Raising money through the wedding, we were actually able to build 2 wells and a bathroom block in Uganda for the Surge for Water charity that I am heavily involved with.

Are there other parts to this amazing young lady that we do not know about? Any other interests, goals, and/or passions?

I’m about to embark on a new journey in life as a mother. I’m currently six months pregnant and look forward to setting an example for my child that you can be successful while balancing other aspects of your life. People have quite often asked me how I have had time for all the different parts of my life – it comes down to planning and passion.

Any last words or advice for your audience?

There is a quote that I’ve been inspired by for several years now:

“Risk more than others think is safe. Care more than others think is wise. Dream more than others think is practical. Expect more than others think is possible.”

This really represents my philosophy in so many ways – the point is to go after what you want in life, disregarding the doubts of others because if you believe you can achieve it, then you can and will.


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