How growing up multilingual influenced Orysia Zabeida’s decision to be a designer
A graduate of Yale’s MFA programme, Orysia tells us about the many fascinating themes that pervade her practice and weighs in on the importance of humour in design.
- Ruby Boddington
- 3 September 2021
- Reading Time
- 4 minute read
Orysia Zabeida grew up speaking multiple languages – Quebec French, Ukrainian and English – and she credits her multilingual youth as being the reason she found her way to design. “Each language has its distinct universe, and each influences how we perceive the world around us,” she remarks. “The medium of design was a way to create structure around my diverse interests and map out and merge the different parallel cultural universes I was navigating.” This fascination with language and different alphabets combined with her love of drawing (“I used to draw every day, everywhere, and everything”) so eventually, Orysia enrolled at UQAM in Montreal’s graphic design course, by way of exchange at the Haute école des arts du Rhin-Mulhouse in Strasbourg, France. Today, she’s based in New Haven, Connecticut, having recently completed an MFA at Yale.
Orysia describes herself as a multidisciplinary designer, drawn to whichever medium a project calls for. “I’m interested in public spaces, mundane objects, daily rituals and how they forge our sense of identity,” she explains, adding that she also explores “ways technology interacts with humans and nature.” For example, of late, she’s been fascinated by themes like spirituality on social media, the rise – and paradoxical concept – of mediation apps and how companies use happiness as a marketing ploy. She sees her role as a designer as questioning such paradigms, in particular, the digital tools we use to increase everyday wellbeing. “My practice aims to question society and challenge the role we chose to play in the systems we create and inhabit,” she elaborates.
What’s clear when talking to Orysia is that she has an innate inquisitiveness for nearly everything. Whatever the topic, she dives deep, finding out whatever she can and soaking up information like a sponge. In turn, her projects are rich and well-informed, full of absorbing insight into a myriad of topics. Tying together these disparate tangents is Orysia’s sense of humour which she describes as the umbrella all of her projects live under. “The accessibility of a joke is a crucial glue,” she says. “I think comedy has the power to reach, disarm and draw attention to otherwise ignored and silenced issues.” The playfulness that pervades her work is, therefore, “as important as its more intellectual objectives,” as it is this very farce that allows her to expose “problems”.
A project which displays both Orysia’s interest in research but also her wry sense of humour is titled Onion Optics, and was included in her Yale School of Art end of studies monograph. (This publication is an alphabetically organised compendium of around 50 “ideas, observations, references, prototypes, and thoughts collected in approximately 607 days,” and will be available at the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library soon.) Onion Optics first began when Orysia made a discovery: that her home country of Ukraine is, apparently, one of the saddest places on earth. In a ranking in The World Happiness Report, an annual publication of the United Nations Sustainable Development Solutions Network, that considers GDP per capita, social support, health and life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and perceptions of corruption, Ukraine came in at 138. That got Orysia thinking: “can happiness be calculated in such a way?”
Onion Optics manifested in response, an extensive ongoing collection of “interesting stories, news, and facts about one of the most iconic physical human expressions of sadness and despair: tears.” Included are headlines like “A Virgin Mary statue has been weeping”; geographic locations like a lake name Teardrop; facts and more. A particularly interesting morsel of information is that “the molecular composition of tears creates different patterns depending on why they were cried. So tears of sadness have a distinct visual design than tears of joy or tears from cutting an onion.” The project culminates in a publication and a video documenting 20 people crying from wearing onion optics; a thorough investigation into tears from scientific, cultural, conceptual and historical angles.
Up next for Orysia is a web app called Astro Avatar in collaboration with Rosa McElheny but largely her time has been consumed with “trying to rewrite the rules of my life and practice what I preach in terms of making life choices in alignment with my values.” As well as a slue of projects with clients and collaborators who share her vision of making positive change in the world, she’s due to begin teaching Design Problems, a “socially responsible design course” at Université du Québec à Montréal this autumn. “My class will be tackling the ethical, social, ecological, and poetic power of design in all its forms,” she tells us. Elsewhere, further travel is on the cards and the release of a film she’s been editing for over a year.
Orysia Zabeida: Idea Anthology, monograph cover and back-cover (Copyright © Orysia Zabeida, 2020)
About the Author
Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.