During the tragedy that is Russia’s war on and occupation of Ukraine, PRINT has tried to stay in contact with Ukrainian designers and artists in and out of the country, as well as Russian dissenters in various locales. Thanks to John Tymkiw, a creative director in New York, I contacted letterer and illustrator Olha Protasova from Kyiv, who has taken temporary refuge in Europe. She and so many other mothers must protect their young children. I’ve asked her to comment on her work before the invasion and now, as well as the roles of some of her colleagues.
If this was a normal time, would you be a type designer, typographer, illustrator, or what?
I don’t do type design, I make lettering with modeling clay. Both Cyrillic and Latin are interesting to me. Also I do illustrations in this technique.
Prior to full-scale war (because for us, war has been going on since 2014) I was doing lettering/illustration for books, magazines, brands and packaging for both Ukrainian and international clients. When full-scale war started I was forced to move, and to be honest, at first without tools—no laptop, no camera, plus with small kids to take care of.
So in the first months my activity was sharing works of other artists on Instagram, and sharing lists with contacts of Ukrainian artists with art directors, in editorial, for example. At first it was hard for me to understand how [I could discuss the] war with the help of modeling clay. Here’s my profile and how it looked a year ago:
What has changed in the design world since the war began?
Of course, the work of designers and illustrators changed: Our task is to tell about what is going on in Ukraine, support our military (for example, making layouts for patches; one of the greatest examples is from Oleksii Chekal, designer and calligrapher from Kharkiv).
I’ve shown a number of posters from the early months of the war. Are designers continuing to produce acerbic anti-Russian work?
Yes, many people are doing posters as reaction to events. I can name Artem Gusev, Max Palenko (acerbic describes Max, I think!), Anna Ivanenko, Zhenya Oliinyk. (And I can name many more.)
As for type designers, Yevhen Sadko did a great job with his [must-read] presentation—it’s hard to add something new, he named all the important people! I would like to specially mention Dmytro Rastvortsev and his recent work for the Armed Forces. He is a very productive type designer.
Also, a very important researcher and designer is Marchela Mozhina. She is collecting historical samples, and revived a font for Foundry Marymo originally designed by Nil Khasevych (more on Khasevych) called “Volja.”
Have typefaces assumed a patriotic symbolism?
Yes, definitely, but it happened not just now. There was a move towards research of our typography heritage in recent decades, and it became stronger after 2014. Also, all people I know have cut all their connections to Russian colleagues. Some did it in 2014, some in 2022.
There obviously is no normal anymore, but as a citizen and a designer what is your “new normal”?
Definitely it is to support our army as much as we can (everyone has friends or relatives in army); build our community, institutions, design education. We are not giving up, and not waiting for someone to do this for us. But pain and grief are with us every day. Some designers I knew have died in a battle. So many good people are killed by Russians.
How are you able to function day to day with the threat of bombardment of your home city?
Well, about bombardments, my parents are in Kyiv and the first thing I do in the morning is check the news—“did something fell from the sky” or not? As many mothers did, I went on a long evacuation trip, but mentally, in all my thoughts, I am home, in Kyiv.
Prior to the invasion, did you have foreign, and particularly, Russian, clients?
Foreign, yes, I think 20% was from the U.S. and Europe. Russian—no.
Is it necessary, in your opinion, to be a designer and typographer at this moment?
Yes! There is lots of work ahead. [Below, bottom] is [a list] of typefaces designed in 2022-23. It’s the biggest amount of fonts ever made in the same period, and Yevhen Sadko’s recent exhibition [of specimens, below, top]: