Support by Design is keeping Ukrainian designers employed

Of all the devastating ways Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has upturned lives there, one of the most widespread—even for those not under direct bombardment—is the economic uncertainty. Business as usual has largely ground to a halt in many industries, and it’s unclear when things might get back to some sense of normal. The World Bank predicts the country’s economy could shrink by nearly half this year. For Ukrainian workers, the war has become an indefinite pause.

A promising new initiative is helping keep some of those workers afloat. Called Support by Design, it is aimed at providing temporary or full-time work to designers either based in or forced to flee from Ukraine. So far dozens of Ukrainian designers have gotten jobs with US-based design firms, including some of the biggest in the industry.

“Life in Ukraine will never be the same, and of course we are angry and upset and want to rebuild our cities,” says Anna Kulvanovska, a Ukrainian landscape architect involved in Support by Design. “It’s affirming for us to be connected to the broader professional community, and it makes a for us individually.”

The initiative was launched by SWA, a 250-person landscape architecture, planning, and urban design firm with offices around the United States. Kinder Baumgardner is managing principal of SWA’s Houston office, and he has been leading the project over the past several weeks as the war has disrupted the Ukrainian design industry. “The overnight result is that there’s no developer, there’s no parks department, there’s no big infrastructure project that is happening anymore. That’s just over,” he says. “So if you’re an architect, if you’re a landscape architect or urban designer, you woke up the next day and you had nothing to do.”

Feeling mostly powerless to impact this broad geopolitical crisis, Baumgardner began thinking of what he could do to try to help. One thing he could do—as the head of a landscape architecture studio with dozens of projects underway around the world—was hire people. He started out simply sending random notes to Ukrainian landscape architects and designers whose email addresses he could find online asking if they wanted jobs.

“Maybe a week went by and all of a sudden I got an email from a woman. She was a refugee, she’d just left Ukraine, she was in Sweden, and she was like, ‘Yes, I need a job and I know a bunch of landscape architects who need jobs,’” Baumgardner says. He started collecting their information and entered it into a spreadsheet. A colleague began reaching out to university programs and professional organizations for designers, and little by little the spreadsheet grew to more than 100 designers. “People started sending us résumés and saying please help us.”

The effort is one of many being implemented around the world to provide economic opportunities and alternatives to Ukrainians. In Europe, countries from Germany to Portugal to Lithuania have fast-tracked employment processes to offer jobs directly to Ukrainians who’ve fled the invasion. But Support by Design is slightly different, in that most of the workers it is hiring are working remotely—from within Ukraine where they’ve been internally displaced, or in other countries where they’ve had to flee.

SWA’s Houston studio has engaged eight Ukrainian designers, including Kulvanovska. They’re working on design projects such as residential landscapes in Houston and new parks in Egypt, performing tasks easily done remotely, like creating construction documents and contributing to conceptual designs.

The designers are hired on as contractors. “The reason for doing that is it takes the complexity out of having an international employee,” Baumgardner says. Without the need for visas or work permits, contract workers can be set up to work super quick. Anybody in the United States can do it.”

Other firms are starting, too. Baumgardner sent the concept for Support by Design to colleagues at the Landscape Architecture Foundation and the American Society of Landscape Architects, and each organization has shared it with its memberships. “Suddenly I had lots of access to the movers and shakers in the landscape architecture world,” he says. They are beginning to get involved. Site Design Groupa 40-person landscape architecture and urban design firm in Chicago, has hired one Ukrainian designer to work full time and contracted an entire Ukraine-based firm of 24 people to work on projects on a monthly basis.

Baumgardner says he has also been in contact with other large urban design, architecture, and landscape architecture firms in the US, including Gensler, Sasaki, Olinand EDSA, and many are exploring ways to hire people from the database, which Baumgardner has made available to any firm that asks. “In a lot of respects the work they’re doing is as good or better than the work that we’re doing here,” Baumgardner says. “My team has learned stuff from Ukrainians where it’s like, wow, we never thought about approaching design this way.”

The database includes information about each designer and their experience, as well as their design portfolio. Some firms are hiring people based on their skill set, while others are hiring based on the designer’s needs. The men on the list are mostly available only for part-time work, as they’re also serving in the civil defense force that emerged amid the conflict. The women on the list are often displaced from their homes, living in different parts of the country or even in unfamiliar foreign lands.

“Not only are they out of touch with the community of people that they worked with day to day, they’re in a totally different place,” Baumgardner says. “Your day-to-day now is so disrupted that anything someone can offer you to give a tiny bit more certainty in your life, some agency in your life, it goes a long way.”

Not everyone has gotten on board so quickly, though. Baumgardner says there are some hurdles to convincing firms to take a chance on an unfamiliar process, but he and his colleagues have developed a step-by-step guide to taking on a Ukrainian designer. They’ve even made a sample contract that any firm can use. He says there’s plenty of room for firms across the design spectrum to get involved, even if it’s just hiring one or two short-term contractors.

“What I’ve found is if you can get a decision maker at a firm to email with someone or call them, they will say yes, we’re doing this,” he says. “Once you talk to someone and you understand their situation, it’s hard to say no.”

Baumgardner is hoping other industries consider doing their own version of this initiative, and that other design firms increase their involvement. Though it may seem somewhat trivial for a Ukrainian designer to be working on a Houston-based residential project, Baumgardner argues that keeping these designers employed may have bigger impacts in the long run.

“At some point Ukraine is going to need to rebuild itself,” he says, “and if these designers don’t have jobs and if they lose touch with this profession for however long this war lasts, they may not be in a position to help rebuild that country.”

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