Ukrainian designers hold Dysarium conference to "inspire and unite"

Dysarium conference 2023 graphic design

Air raids, electricity outages and zero commercial flights have been some of the obstacles facing the organisers of Dysarium, which will be the largest design event to be held in Ukraine since the Russian invasion when it takes place next week.

The Dysarium conference, subtitled “Design in Difficult Times”, will be held on Monday 22 October in Lviv. The city is located in the country’s west and described by programme coordinator Olya Marchak as “one of the safest places in Ukraine”.

There, daily life goes on almost as usual, except that the residents have learnt to retreat to shelters during air raids and designers have taken to using generators and Starlink satellite internet to keep working when the electricity goes out.

Marchak says that the conditions are safe for a conference to go ahead but that war has thrown up many challenges for the organisers, who are mainly from the youth-focused design and media space Pixlab.

“Our president is preparing us that the winter will not be so easy, because once more Russia may hit the electricity stations, turning off the electricity,” Marchak told Dezeen. “We understood that in such a situation, the conference could not happen, so we were very limited in time to make it happen in autumn.”

Organisers keen to shine light in dark times

With the autumn deadline in mind, the organisers have had just two months to prepare everything for Dysarium, which will be held both online and offline. Participants are coming from across Ukraine, with one speaker coming from abroad and other international guests appearing via video link.

While putting on an event during a war is challenging, the organisers don’t want to wait, believing that designers need to be energised by new ideas and given a chance to connect to each other now more than ever.

“Our goal is to gather people, inspire them and also find the ways that we can be helpful for our country,” said Marchak. “It’s hard for us to be inspired when we see bad news all day, and we’re checking the TV always.”

Photo of a gathering taking place in an event space at Pixlab in Lviv, with participants sitting in chairs raising their hands to ask questions
Dysarium is being organised by Pixlab, a design and media space in Lviv

“Our design community needs to be filled with ideas and motivation, because we are responsible for restoring our country and rebuilding it after we win,” she added.

Their thinking has resonated with designers across Ukraine, with over 2000 of them registering for the conference. Marchak described a sense of duty and patriotism that had kept the design industry going during the war.

“We’ve really tried to keep producing work because we perceive this as an opportunity to help our country,” she said. “The money we gain can help our economy and so help our armed forces.”

Varied programme to “inspire and unite”

Although the war is at the front of everyone’s minds, Dysarium’s coordinators have aimed for a wide-ranging programme to stimulate discussion on many topics, with free attendance for all participants.

Marchak says that there will be talks focusing on accessibility and urban interaction design, and panel discussions on design education and how to help the war effort.

Base Design creative director Thierry Brunfaut, the only international guest to be coming in from overseas, will speak on “How to design a design studio”, while other speakers include graphic designer Stefan Sagmeister, Smashing Magazine co-founder Vitaly Friedman and designer Ross Satana, whose inclusive clothing brand Pohuy has been making items for wounded soldiers.

Brunfaut will fly into Poland and then be driven into Ukraine, as there are no commercial flights into the country.

“With this conference, we want to inspire, unite and share our knowledge,” said Pixlab CEO and Dysarium main coordinator Yuriy Bakay. “We want to show how design can improve the lives of many people, making it more functional, comfortable and simply easier and more beautiful.”

The organisers see Dysarium as the first large design event to take place in Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February last year. Small events have been held, including some during Kiev Design Week in September, supplemented by events in Zurich.

Designers show support for armed forces

In perhaps the biggest departure from a peacetime design event, Dysarium will also raise money for the country’s armed forces, via a charity auction.

“We want to thank our armed forces that we are able to conduct this kind of event,” said Marchak. “If they weren’t saving us, we would not be able to be an independent country and express ourselves as Ukrainian.”

Bakay and Marchak describe the Ukrainian design industry as a young one, with lots of self-taught practitioners from different backgrounds bringing a unique energy to the landscape.

Graphic design for Dysarium conference 2023 showing a cartoon creature with its mouth open floating above clouds
The Dysarium organisers hope the conference will become an annual event

At the same time, wartime nationalism has been galvanising, with more people interested in buying Ukrainian-made products or creating with Ukrainian heritage as a reference point. There has been an explosion of Ukrainian-designed fonts, for instance, replacing previously commonly used Russian ones.

Dysarium hopes to be part of this resurgent design landscape and to grow the first-time event into a regular annual conference.

“Our vision is for Dysarium to be the largest design conference in Eastern Europe,” said Bakay. “It runs for a few days, not only one, and people from the whole world can travel to Lviv.”

Dysarium takes place at !FEST Republic in Lviv on Monday 22 October 2023, and can also be streamed online. See Dezeen Events Guide for an up-to-date list of architecture and design events taking place around the world.

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