Designer + Chernobyl = ?

Hyun Seo
Hyun Seo
Apr 22, 2019 · 10 min read
A fridge magnet I bought in Chernobyl… Fun fact, there’s a phase that Ukraine is going through right now to retain Ukrainian spelling for words when using the Roman alphabet. Kiev = Kyiv, Chernobyl = Chornobyl.

I’ve learned a lot working for IBM, but I don’t think anything could’ve prepared me for my latest project. I wrote a book.

Honestly, I’m surprised it took me this long to visit Chernobyl. I’ve been fascinated with all things Eastern Europe for years now, inspired by S.T.A.L.K.E.R: Shadow of Chernobyl, one of my favorite video games. I fell in love with the history, the culture, and the geography of the region. Though I was born in South Korea, my heart is probably deep in a Ukrainian forest somewhere.

I wanted to share this experience with others and teach them about what I’d learned. I’m a designer by trade, but my typical day-to-day is heavily involved in process and making my customers and stakeholders happy. I rarely have complete and total creative control over a project — it was equal parts refreshing and daunting, depending on the day.

The experience & process…

Writing tak… (yes, that’s the title of my book) has been a hell of an experience, and I’m not just talking about my trip to the site of the largest nuclear disaster in human history. The trip itself was life-changing, though, between gaining clearance by the Ukrainian version of the FSB/KGB, befriending stray dogs, and walking through an abandoned school that looked eerily similar to my own high school. I’ll never forget the sound of my feet stepping on the piles of picture books on the floor, the same ones placed down by evacuating school children and never picked back up.

Naturally, I made it extra difficult for myself straight out of the gate by only deciding to write it after I’d returned home. Every photograph that I was to use had already been taken. I was going to have to get creative, I realized. While I’d taken good photos during the trip, I hadn’t been thinking like a photojournalist or author while I was there.

Already limited by my awkward workflow, the first step in the process was choosing the photos that were actually going to make it into the book. I had taken at least 400 on my iPhone alone. Sorting through and cataloguing them was a huge task in and of itself. Once I had an idea which photos to base the book around, I had to find a fix for the low quality ones that I didn’t want to let go. Remember, I couldn’t go back to Chernobyl and retake photos I wasn’t happy with. Well, I could have, but my manager and my checking account wouldn’t have been pleased.

Painting: Ho Joung Seo, Chernobyl City Sign Illustration: Colin Laflin, Others: Me

Thankfully, my mom is a talented painter who was happy to help recreate the scenes that didn’t come out correctly. Additionally, there were grand moments I had in mind that either didn’t happen during my trip or couldn’t have happened. For instance, it wouldn’t have been possible to see an old Soviet propaganda poster the same way the Ukrainian people saw it years before the disaster. I had to work with an illustrator to bring those special details to life. While these constraints were frustrating at times, they forced me to be more creative. Like roadblocks in any process, they aren’t really problems; they’re opportunities to approach the project in more unique ways. I’ll gladly apply this lesson to my work at IBM.

Once the initial, major decisions for the visual portion of the book were made, I had to, you know, write the thing. Working on the book’s intro, ending, historical context section, and captions was difficult in a different way. I partnered with a talented co-writer which meant we were trading drafts of copy back and forth for months. Factually speaking, I knew what the photos contained and, emotionally speaking, I knew how I’d felt when I’d taken them. However, there was a specific tone I wanted to strive for. Anthony Bourdain passed away just as I’d gotten this project up and running. His TV show was a huge influence on how I see the world, and I wanted to capture his uniquely irreverent, yet compassionate point of view. The story of the Chernobyl disaster is, well, a disaster. However, plenty of stories had already been told about the meltdown, the brave liquidators, the evacuations, et cetera. I wanted to explore the region and event from a different angle, focusing on the zone’s hidden pockets of beauty and the new life that had sprung up in the wake of the meltdown. This was going to be my take on the disaster: An optimistic one seasoned with the right amount of dark humor to make Anthony proud.

Finalizing the book…

After the book was written (much easier said than done), I collaborated with an additional designer to finalize the layout. This was a painstaking back and forth process that started with handing the roughly formatted manuscript off to the designer. Then, I received a copy back and had to request changes to the layout. The designer and I exchanged about 12 iterations(!) until we were both happy with the end product.

But once I had a complete book with finalized copy and layout, I still wasn’t done. After months of writing, formatting, organizing, and designing tak…, I still had to market it, print it, and ship it. These were procedural steps I’d never thought about when I’d decided to write a book. I took a lightweight approach to marketing, posted cut pictures on Instagram, sharing sample pages on other platforms, making a simple website, and trying my hand at Kickstarter (to raise funds for a print run). While the social media posts and websites performed well enough to justify the time investment, the Kickstarter fizzled out pretty quickly after it was announced. Kickstarters may seem simple on the surface, but they require a lot of work to be successful. In the end, I decided it made more sense to directly fund the print run myself.

Production was done in Guangzhou, China. Import handled by a logistics company from CN to US. Final Amazon warehouse delivery by UPS. Separate shipment to me sent via DHL.

Once I had the proof copies in hand, it became real. Holding a book I’d created, from nebulous idea to physical paper, was a surreal experience. I didn’t have much time to bask in the feeling, though, because I had to ship them all over the world. I found a few mistakes in the proofs, however. This is a great example of time when, if I’d been working on a project for IBM, I would’ve fixed some lines of code, pushed an update, and seen it fixed by the end of the day. Unfortunately, you can’t push an update to printed books on your table! I had to learn to reconcile my designer brain with my newfound publishing brain.

tak… held by a ChNPP administrator in the firefighter memorial.

Some went to the Chernobyl Library in Ukraine. Others went to friends and family spanned across seven countries. Most went to Amazon and BookPeople in Austin, TX.

Overall, the experience of making tak… was humbling. I learned a lot and also learned a lot about what I don’t know. I got to work with some very talented people to create something meaningful. I got to tell my story and hold it in book form and keep it on my coffee table forever. I was even more humbled when, like I said above, the Chernobyl Museum agreed to display the book I made.

Lessons learned…

  • Keep the book’s scope realistic and attainable. One defining part of my book’s process was how I decided to write it *after* I’d had most of the materials (photographs). My pipeline would’ve been very different had I decided to write a book and then had to gather the materials.
  • Ask friends for help or hire professionals, if you can. Writing a book seems like a solitary endeavor, but it’s actually very collaborative. Surrounding yourself with others will enrich your vision and teach you valuable management skills. This project helped me learn to manage time, money, and emotional investment.
  • When writing your first draft, get every idea on the page — no matter how dumb or bad some may seem. The rough draft is for exploring all of your options. The later drafts are for editing and perfecting them.
  • Do research! User research helped my writing improve and helped me identify the jokes that were too obscure. Competitive research helped me fine tune the book by taking out sections and information that other similar books had already covered.
  • Have a clear goal and intent with your book. Having these set in stone will help, especially if you’re working with editors, co-writers, designers, et cetera. Think about all the questions that are asked when starting a tech project: What is the value? What will it teach? Who is it for? What experience will it provide?

Some extra pointers if you are self-publishing…

  • If you have the skill and time, do everything yourself. It will be more difficult, but will save you thousands of dollars in the long run. Hunt for a logistics company on your own. Do your own research and commission a printer. Give Amazon a shot to fulfill your book orders for you.
  • Inspect your proof copies carefully. Check how the book is cut, how it’s glued, and how it’s colored. My digital proofs were vastly different than my final offset copies. Work with a printer that can easily make adjustments based on what you want.
  • If you’re planning to ship straight to Amazon’s warehouses, make sure you keep approximately 100 books for yourself. You never know if a museum or local bookstore(s) will want your work! In my case, both reached out to me after I’d shipped most of my copies to Amazon. It was a huge logistical headache that could’ve been easily avoided.
  • There will always be mistakes, and you will always notice them more than anyone else will. It happens to every writer, even the famous ones. See Neil Gaiman’s first law: “Picking up your first copy of a book you wrote, if there’s one typo, it will be on the page that your new book falls open to the first time you pick it up.” Don’t worry about them!
  • Don’t overlook marketing. Use Instagram, sponsored Amazon listings, press releases, and a good, old-fashioned website. Reaching out for marketing purposes lead me to connect with interesting people created new opportunities for the book. Of course, you can also nag your friends, coworkers, and family. (Family especially!)
  • Think strategically about your release date. When you’re self-publishing, you have much more flexibility than other authors. I got incredibly lucky by finishing the book before the disaster’s anniversary on April 26th. There’s also a big-budget HBO miniseries about the disaster premiering in May. Even if you have to wait a longer than you’d like, it might be worth it to time your book’s release with a bigger news story or pop culture event.
  • The truth about self-publishing is that it likely won’t make you much money, especially if you pay for printing and shipping out of pocket. That being said, price your book to make it accessible. You wrote the book to share with others, so try to make it so as many people as possible can read it. You’ll probably lose money, but in my experience money always comes around when you do good work.

Thank you…

I’m glad I went on this journey. The story of the Chernobyl disaster is very important to me, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to see the zone with my own eyes and contribute my own little part of that story to the world. It only solidified my beliefs that we need to be good stewards of the technology we create. We must be responsible with the awesome powers we contain, shape, and utilize to make the world a better place.

The plug…

Please check out tak… on Amazon or in person at BookPeople in Austin, Texas. And hey, if you’re ever in Ukraine, go see the book at the Chernobyl Library.

Amazon (Free shipping with Amazon Prime):

BookPeople (Available in-store and online) — Worldwide shipping:


About me…

I was born in South Korea, but my heart is probably deep in a Ukrainian forest somewhere. My love affair with the region started back in high school when I took Russian for my language requirement. After I played the video game S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl, I was fascinated by the nuclear disaster’s tragic history and had to learn as much as I could about it. I decided I was going to see the zone for myself one day.

My other interests include all things tech — I hold patents in artificial intelligence, robotics, cyber-security, and quantum computing. More importantly, I hacked through my first firewall in middle school so I could mess around on Myspace and YouTube. If any of my old teachers are reading this, I’m sorry. A little.

I currently live in Austin, TX and work at IBM Research. I’ve hosted popular workshops at SXSW and have been interviewed by publications such as The Daily Dot and USA Today.

The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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