Meet Zoë Sadokierski

21 June 2024
We hear from designer, writer, and creative producer Zoë Sadokierski, and welcome her as a new affiliate of SEI.
Zoë is an Associate Professor, Visual Communication at the University of Technology Sydney, who uses a research-through-design methodology, bringing her design expertise into academic work.

By Zoë Sadokierski, Associate Professor, UTS School of Design & co-director, Visualisation Institute, and Catarina Agostino, Sydney Environment Institute

Catarina Agostino: What inspired you to explore the narrative function of graphic devices in literary fiction during your PhD?

Zoë Sadokierski: While working at Allen&Unwin as an inhouse designer, one of the editors brought over a small pile of novels which included a range of graphic elements — photographs, illustrations, diagrams and experimental typography. Novels are conventionally a purely written literary form; she asked if I could explain what these graphics were 'doing'. I couldn't, but knew it was worth investigating.

I developed a range of practice-based methods to critique these ‘hybrid novels’ and argued that the graphics were functioning as literary devices, communicating in ways that words alone cannot. In part, this is due to writers having access to desktop publishing software that allows them to compose narratives with elements other than written language, but it is also do to with a need to tell stories in an increasingly visually saturated world, in ways that reflect and communicate in the visual language of that world. 

Your book "Father, Son and Other Animals" explores climate change and species extinction through the lenses of parenting and creative practice. What motivated you to tackle these themes?

My 'disorienting dilemma' was the Black Summer bushfires. I was overseas in late 2019, watching the devastation unfold in news stories and on social media. I understood intellectually what was happening, but I couldn't process it emotionally. It seemed stranger than fiction. Then as I flew home into a landscape that didn't look, feel, or smell like home, the emotional reality hit me.

I started writing and drawing to process some of these emotions. My father encouraged me to draw, as a way to anchor myself when I felt untethered. I found myself encouraging my son to draw, to help him process his observations of the world but also to have a creative outlet we could share. The book is a meditation on these intergenerational relationships, but also me trying to find ways to tell my son — and myself — stories that might ground us in place, give us pause to bear witness to the rapid changes unfolding around us.

What role do you see visual communication playing in making complex issues intelligible to broad audiences?

We have the information to intellectually understand how our world is changing and what needs to be done to transition to a climate affected but liveable future. However, it’s complex, frightening and requires those of us in the most comfortable and privileged positions to make changes and sacrifices. This is a hard sell. Visual Communication — think advertising and campaigns — have sold us the vision of the world we inhabit. Equally, it can be used to help us imagine ourselves into alternate futures. 

How do you balance your roles as a book designer, author, and creative producer?

I don't sleep as much as I should! I’m not promoting that as a positive thing. Finding a work-life balance is incredibly important, especially in a time of environmental crisis. We're at the start of a long game, and we need to ensure we don't burn out before the really difficult work needs to be done. I’m working with urgency, across as many projects and platforms as I can, because we need some hustle if we’re going to see useful change.

One part of my work that’s not in the list above but I consider one of my most impactful activities is teaching. Being a university educator gives me access to several hundred students in lectures, and more focused session with tutorial groups, to share information and encourage activism. Teaching is a privilege, and an opportunity to instil values and attitudes in the generation who will be most affected by the coming changes.

Header image artwork provided by Zoë Sadokierski, from Persistent Table of Elements.

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