In awareness of ‘World Environment Day this June 5th, we spoke with Charlene Sequeira, a New York based designer and strategist who focuses on the intersection of design, education and sustainability.
Can you give us a quick overview of your design background?
Soon after my undergraduate degree I worked in Bombay, India in retail design helping small-corner stores improve their visa merchandising, hygiene and subsequently their profit margins. I then moved back home to Dubai, UAE where I worked at a boutique publishing and design agency. I learnt so much in my four years there. I started as a graphic designer and left as an Art Director and Client Servicing Manager. You pretty much do everything when a company is that small and it was a great learning experience. However, my biggest lesson was that I couldn’t be truly fulfilled working for consumerism. I wanted to make things better, not shinier.
While in Dubai, I applied to the Masters in Communication Design program at Pratt Institute in NYC. I got into the Masters with a clear goal that I wanted to focus on sustainability and social impact.
Due to multiple reasons along with the determination to fund my degree myself, I took a 3 year leave of absence and moved to Oman to work as an Art Director at a large advertising agency in Muscat. I felt like a sell out at the time and the decision wasn’t easy, but really it was what I had to do if I wanted to finish my masters, sans-debt. While I was in Muscat, I did receive 7 awards for my work, so it wasn’t all bad. I was able to come back to finish my Masters at Pratt where I did my thesis on Compassionate Systems design. After that, I freelanced with some amazing companies in New York and then moved to New Hampshire to work as an assistant researcher at Thayer School of Engineering within Dartmouth College.
How has it been working as a designer in such varied fields in so many different places? What were the highlights?
I think, sometimes you choose opportunities and sometimes they choose you. Either way, having the opportunity to work in various design environments definitely gave me a global perspective. I think it made me more agile. We are in a hyper connected world that is innovating and changing rapidly. Being agile, adaptable and collaborative are really important strengths.
As an Art Director and Lead Designer I worked on some of the industries most prestigious brands – Unilever in India and Mercedes-Benz in Oman. I also worked with internationally recognized cultural organizations, such as the Royal Opera House Muscat and WantedDesign in NYC, which is part of NYCxDesign. I also won multiple awards for my digital work for the Ministry of Tourism in Oman while working at TBWA\Zeenah in Muscat.
So how did you end up focusing on sustainability? Did you always know you would?
In my early 20’s, I wanted to be in Advertising but soon realized that a majority of ‘values’ in advertising clashed with my deep rooted environmental values. Looking back at my personal and professional experiences, I realized that my focus on design, education and sustainability was inevitable. My mother and sister are both teachers, and my father is an avid gardener who instilled in me respect for nature from a very young age. We rescued a lot of animals growing up and I love solving problems by trying to fix things or make them better. I’m always questioning why and how things work, how we can make things better.
Asking the right questions is important in design. So here I am, trying to find ways to educate and flourish through design. I’ve also realized that If it hadn’t been for social impact design, I would have focused on UI/UX because it’s more about user-centered functionality and systems thinking, which are areas of design that I am drawn to.
What was your first project that focused on sustainability?
Other than my anti-oil posters in middle school, I think it began with the ‘Plastic Bag Mandala’ Project in 2011 with Gala Narezo and Chantal Fischzang. It was an interactive community art installation and awareness campaign with a pledge to ditch single-use plastic bags. A mandala was chosen as a symbolic reminder that we are all connected, that we all have a stake in each others’ future well-being. When set up in public spaces like the farmers market, schools and festivals, the public were asked to weave their old plastic bags into the 8×8 foot burlap canvas, which had the outline of a mandala on it. People did this while pledging to use the reusable bags instead of single-use plastic bags. The act of weaving their used plastic bag into the mandala required two people to complete and became an engaging physical expression of a binding promise. We believed in the project so much that it is an ongoing interactive installation at various markets, schools and events.
Along with the ‘Plastic Bag Mandala’ interactive installation, I designed an activity book titled, ‘The Plastic Bag: A ‘Scrap-It’ Book’ for primary school children about understanding the life cycle of single-use plastic bags. I also conducted workshops in various schools based on the activities of this book. It is unfortunate that, after seven years, NYC has still not banned single use plastic bags. When a few copies of this book were bought by a school in New Jersey – that really sealed it for me. And with every other sustainability or social impact project I get involved in, I know that this is what really makes me happy.
Have you been able to incorporate sustainability into other commercial projects you’ve worked on?
Yes and no. When top management isn’t focused on environmental issues, they don’t care about sustainability, or worse, they just pretend to. However, I don’t think this is a dead end. People who care make changes from wherever they are. As a designer, I’ve tried to use resources wisely which often actually coincides with reduced costs for the client. But, talking to peers and top management is important, being proactive about social impact in any project is important. And now sustainability and sustainable practices are increasing within every sector.
I’m glad that the industry is changing to incorporate sustainable practices. You can see the shift in the design industry and even in design program offerings at top universities.
Speaking of universities – Assistant researcher at an Ivy league school? How did that happen?
A friend and fellow green-designer came across a posting for the job and said it might suit me. It did have my three favorite things – design, education and sustainability. I wanted to experience something different. Add another skillset to my list. It helped that the professor I worked with, Jermey Faludi, is pretty great at what he does and has a good vibe. Working with good people is really important to me. Even though I was technically employed as an Assistant Researcher, I still used my design skills to craft an online user interface for Faludi’s ‘Tools for Design and Sustainability’ curriculum on venturewell.org. As the lead designer and project manager, I worked directly with Professor Faludi and venturewell.org. It’s important for engineers to have the resources made freely available to them online. I’m excited to lead the design of the text-book version for Faludi’s educational material soon.
What advice do you have for designers looking to pursue sustainability and/or social impact related design?
Find something you connect with thats bigger than yourself and make it better. Whether it’s the issue of single-use plastic bags choking our environment, racial inequality, food waste, gender identity or global warming. You can make a difference in your individual actions and as a designer. Designers are problem solvers – so go solve a problem.
And a specific World Environment Day message?
Here is my designer/sustainability nerd message: Sustainability is a process. As designers, we need to think long term and be ok with facing the unknown, embrace imperfection and learn from ‘failure’. Just keep pushing that needle in the right direction. Every effort counts, even if you can’t see it right now.