As the war in Ukraine reaches 527 days, despite the continued threat, people in the country are endeavouring to rebuild their lives as much as possible. More than 9000 civilian lives have been lost and many homes, with a report from the World Bank in March this year estimating a cost of $411bn (£323.6bn) to rebuild the country. The livelihoods of many are still thwarted, and, designers are no exception, with continued interruptions and previous commercial work impossible.
Following the full-scale invasion on 24 February 2022, many designers threw themselves into action, using their design skills to fight Russian propaganda at home and around the world, raising international awareness with posters and online campaigns.
Some are continuing to work in this way, but as the months have passed, Ukrainian designers involved in everything from furniture to UX have returned to work, many having to shift their focus or ways of working to do so.
“Possible and necessary”
Kateryna Sokolova, co-founder and creative director of Ukrainian furniture design company Noom explains that even without needing to change “brand or product”, the war has greatly affected its work.
To continue manufacturing and delivering its goods, it was “forced to adapt approaches and strategies, to locate new logistics routes”, she says.
Sokolova explains that Noom’s metal workshop and a large contractor had been in Kharkiv pre-war and needed to relocate nearer to the EU border.
The company was able to resume work with its suppliers a month after the start of the full-scale invasion, but the great uncertainty around what would happen next forced the team to source alternatives.
“When no one knew what would happen the next day, we were probing the market, looking for European contractors to hedge if the situation worsened”, she says. “Now we have plans and possibilities for manufacturing in the EU”.
Delivery was also a problem in the Spring of 2022, with Noom’s usual logistics companies ceasing operations entirely at first, Sokolova adds.
There was a need “to convince customers that cooperation with Ukrainians is possible and necessary”, she says.
Compatriot support and international attention
Sokolova found support in domestic clients, receiving many new requests from Ukrainians: “Everyone wants to support national brands”, she says.
The international design fair circuit provided another lifeline. First, in 2022, Noom participated in the exhibition Puriosity at Milan Design Week, which “gave us the possibility of personally communicating with partners to show that we are alive, working and can take orders and ship products”, Sokolova says.
Soon afterwards, “we started receiving new orders, and we returned to the pre-war rhythm of work”, she adds.
This year, Noom has continued making its presence felt at international events, showing at Maison&Objet, Collectible, Salone del Mobile in Milan and most recently as part of the Ukrainian pavilion at the London Design Biennale, curated by design historian Larysa Tsybina.
New international collaborations include a collection launched last year, co-created with designers from France, and overall, Noom’s client base has grown, says Sokolova.
“We became even more of a team”
Swedish-Ukrainian tech company Sigma Software has also seen a growth in its client base in this period.
It employs a large number of designers spanning UI/UX, graphic design, 2D/3D illustration & animation, logo & branding, motion graphics, interior design and video production, and while the company has 40 offices in 19 countries around the world, “70% of our staff work in Ukraine”, says Denys Smyrnov, Sigma’s global communications manager.
According to Anastasiia Verblian, a project manager on the design team, 70% of the team had been located in Kharkiv close to the Russian border pre-war. With the help of the company, they were able to relocate quickly to Western Ukraine.
She says that many then decided to stay in the country, but others were able to move abroad too, and estimates that 90% of Sigma’s designers were able to work after the initial weeks of war.
With the company already working internationally, and the fact that Covid-19 had previously forced the company to adapt, team members “were trained well” for moving things online and communicating remotely, she says.
The emotional impact was significant, but in response, “we started to work harder”, Verblian says.
“That’s the main point. In such situations, you have to stop being sad, and decide to work harder, be more productive, to help [others]”.
“We became even more a team”, she says.
Verblian explains that there was some fear that clients would “be afraid to work [with us], because this is not a stable situation”.
However, in many cases this was not what happened. She says that Sigma is “grateful that our clients understood us and decided to buy our services”, adding that some began to recommend the company to others, and some clients began to donate to Ukrainian funds too.
Using design skills for good
Individually, many of Sigma’s designers started to volunteer for anti-war projects in their spare time, Verblian says. She mentions making illustrations made into NFTs, in order to earn designers money and transfer funds to the war effort.
Sigma also had its own project making use of its Swedish connections called Swedes for Ukraine, which utilised designers’ skills.
Verblian discusses how the team felt that design is vital in these circumstances, ensuring that websites for emergency initiatives are easily navigable and can be accessed by those “on the road” and using mobile devices.
She believes that being part of a large international company has been easier on Sigma’s designers, but for other designers she knows in Ukraine, the situation is more difficult.
Compounded by a poor economic climate worldwide, she says companies are less willing to hire in advance, just “hiring people for need”, she says. For those relying on agencies hiring them on a project basis, as the crisis continues, those jobs have simply dried up.
Designer Illya Pavlov, co-founder of design studio Grafprom explains that the start of the war was the most disruptive. For the first weeks, all work was “completely frozen” with the Ukraine-based part of the team “spending most of the time hiding in the cellars and bomb shelters or trying to get to safer regions of the country”.
He explains that the team is split between Graz and Ukraine and online working was already well-established in the studio, going back as far as 2012. Ten years ago, working remotely with an agency was a big deal, and not many Ukrainian designers did that,” he explains.
In the short-term, “shelling of critical infrastructure in Ukraine affected our communication with team members,” he says. “Sometimes they were not available for an online meeting, or were not able to use online tools, and this, of course, affected the deadlines and gave us stress”, he says.
A change in focus
Pavlov explains that the nature of Grafprom’s work has changed dramatically. In the first year of war, “we lost 90% of the commercial commissions, and we received about 90% volunteer work”, he says.
“Instead of developing visual identities of fancy restaurants in Kyiv or luxury hotels in Switzerland, we mostly worked on pro-Ukrainian projects”.
These included a tram with a Ukrainian design and featuring a QR code that linked to a fundraising platform United 24, which appeared in European cities including Vienna and the Hague, says Pavlov, and “we also designed a logo for a military volunteer brigade organised by one of our former clients”.
Grafprom has also worked on a series of poster projects both at home and across Europe.
He says that a campaign called Pride to be Ukrainian/ We are the freedom “started as supportive action for those who remained in Ukraine in the first summer of war”.
A year after the full-scale invasion began, Grafprom also launched it in Austria, “and started spreading the posters around Europe to support Ukrainian communities abroad”. They are now pasted across Europe – “in Kharkiv, Kyiv, Graz, Vienna, Berlin, Barcelona, Ljubliana, Ptuj, Brussels and more” – all with the help of volunteers, he says.
“We still have some printed posters left and are looking for volunteers to paste them up anywhere”, he adds.
“Some projects found us”
Pavlov explains that in this time, “some projects we initiated together with our former clients; some projects found us”.
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He explains that Grafprom has been “lucky”, that to substitute the loss of income from commercial clients in Ukraine, the studio has received commissions from across Western Europe. “And we really, really appreciate this support”, he says.
Despite this, however, the studio’s finances have undeniably been impacted in the long term.
A year after the war’s start, “our account showed red numbers with a minus next to it”, Pavlov says. “This has repeated several times”, he says, but working himself from Austria, the regular demands and costs of life continue. Each time it happens, he describes being thrown “into a stressful state, as I had to keep paying salaries, kindergarten, apartment etc.”.
Banner image: Poster campaign in Graz, Austria, courtesy of Grafprom