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Designing Behind Enemy Lines: A Ukrainian designer tells his story

by Ruslan Zhukovskyi

Ruslan Zhukovskyi is the owner of an exhibition design agency called expo.zhuk who is partnering with beMatrix, a manufacturer and designer of reusable aluminum frame systems for tradeshow booths. He’s from Odessa, a port city in Ukraine, where he spent about two months after Russia’s invasion. He’s since moved to Poland in search of stability and a fresh start. Below is his story:

I never even thought that I would be a guy with war stories. I’m an exhibition designer from Ukraine; I’ve been in the industry for seven years–pretty much all my adult age as I’m 24 years old now.

The Beginning

It still feels like it was just yesterday. To fully immerse you into this, it’s important to start from the day before. On February 23, I was in my hometown, the beautiful coastal city of Odessa. It was pretty much the usual day, lots of work, coffee and a small walk to the beach, except for the news about a possible invasion.

We’d been hearing about it for six months by that time, but you can’t live with all the stress if you take it seriously every time you hear about it. Practically, I was ready. I saved some money and prepared an emergency backpack with food and warm clothes. By that evening I heard two news reports that made me believe something was going to happen in the next few days. The Russian Embassy in Ukraine started burning the documents in its backyard. President Zelenskyy addressed the Russians in his speech with words something like, “You could prevent it, you could stop this.”

I decided that it was worth getting to safety, so I bought tickets to Poland for the morning of the next day. My girlfriend said, “I think we aren’t going anywhere tomorrow.” It was a sleepless night. I went to bed at 3am and and woke up at 5am. There was one explosion, then a second. I checked the news, and the first headline I saw said “Russia started a war.”

Odessa is so far from Russia, and we just didn’t expect that from day one rockets would be pointed at my city. That day is just a blur. We were running around, trying to find a safe place. It was a complete mess. We drove outside of the city to my grandparents, thinking we were asleep and having a nightmare that’s going to end in a second.


It’s our duty to protect our country, and you should work with your strengths. My battle is information and donating. I have a 2.7k connection on LinkedIn, so I started posting and sharing what’s going on; one of my posts even got more than 25,000 views. I got dozens, if not hundreds, of messages. People all around the world offered help, money, places to stay. Not only my clients, but the people from the industry who I never talked to before. It was hard to believe; the level of support was and still is incredible, and I’m very grateful. Every Ukrainian sees this support and we’re very grateful to the nations and people who were there to help us.


I took probably two days off when the war started. I was in a relatively safe place, with electricity, internet and my laptop, so I had to keep working. There were financial reasons–people around me lost their jobs and I had to help–and there were mental reasons. I had to get away from the news for a few hours, and work helps me do that. I had some projects that needed to be finalized for the construction, and I didn’t want to let my clients down by disappearing in the middle of the important part. So I just kept going.

I got more projects, more and more. In one month I made 63 projects. My eyes hurt from the number of hours I worked, but I just kept going. It was an opportunity to make more money for the family and to donate money to our army to save lives and fight the enemy. I was driven by that; anything else was not important.

At some point, I realized it would be smart to find an assistant, and I hired a few freelance designers to help me. It went great, and I have five people on my team right now. I didn’t really plan for the future; I just tried to make the most out of each day.

Your priorities completely change when a situation like this happens. You stop worrying about lots of things, and there is positivity in this. It helped me overcome my fears and move through the hiring process 10 times faster. The war still goes on. We worry about our loved ones every single day. It’s a tragedy, but I believe in a bright future for Ukraine. We have a lot to share with the world–our people, our knowledge, our goods, our services. United we are stronger, and united we could overcome any enemy.

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