Yvonne Zhao

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Award Recipient

John C. Kerr Chancellor Emeritus Awards for Excellence in Design – Honourable Mention

About objects, with objects, through making.

An eight-month-long endeavour in active making through object-led spontaneity, research through tangible design, and introspection through personal displacement.

About objects,

This project started with the existence of things. The constraining research that informs this collection’s intentions and material forms is the anti-anthropocentric, anti-correlationist movement of object-oriented ontology, a philosophy about revisiting how objects exist, employing them to ground intangible concepts, and removing the idea of an existential centre. Texts from object-oriented thinkers anchored much of the research, along with resources from adjacent fields such as flat ontology and speculative realism. 

I began thing[s] with a 500-word manifesto about the aforementioned research topic at the beginning of the year, a design sprint that became a thread of thoughts handwritten hastily in marker within an hour. That one hour, at the time unknowingly, decided the direction for the ensuing hundreds of hours throughout the duration of this work. There was something about the self-imposed limitations, the physical engagement between myself and the material in an analog fashion, and the act of quick making in intentional ambiguity without prescribing rigid expectations on the outputs. I decided then that this would be my output — this collection of collections of collections of objects, through active making. 

A manifesto building off existing precedent in the field of object-oriented ontology, advocating for an alternate understanding of objects and ourselves, for all things to be seen as autonomous, nonhierarchical, and irreducible.

I think of this project as a point of fracture in my learned processes and methods at the emergence of a multidisciplinary design practice, through an entanglement with a myriad of found objects, each representing and distributing themselves visually, textually, and materially. All the making is coalesced under the initial research theme to form a unit that encapsulates my range of experimentation over the year. Yet, simultaneously, I see the explorations as individually irreducible, autonomous entities. Each one stands as its own thing, entangled in this ecosystem of things. 

with objects,

Each week of my final year, I documented ordinary objects around my vicinity. I collected them, photographed them, wrote about them, recorded them, watched them, listened to them, perceived them, left them be. Nearly all the components involved in the making activities are found, recycled, discarded, and/or scrap objects from around my home, apartment building, the Emily Carr campus, and local spaces I frequent in my city. These objects are all still wholly alive in their thingness.

What I made with was largely determined by what I happened to cross paths with at the moment, and I’d let the object lead the physical form of the product, culminating to several outputs each week that were not again reproducible in the same way. This, combined with the various levels of physicality involved in each one, contributed to a lifelike energy in each thing. Through this process, I situated myself directly in the space of design research through doing, by making with the objects of my study rather than merely making about them from a distance. 

through making.

Each week of my final year, I made things, in all different directions as well as over and over. In total, I’ve made over 80 individual objects with countless experimental pivots along the way, including outputs that are not depicted below but very much informed other activities and my understanding of the work as a whole. The aspect of volume became significant as it grew throughout this project, and I concurrently grew to appreciate a quality in the quantity. Using values and tenets from the theory to guide material expression, this project became a rigorous, self-directed venture in engaging strangely with familiar objects in my locality through a juxtaposition of conventional communication design formats and unconventional mundane materials.

A few predominant series organically emerged:


The series I explored at the greatest volume are these object books — a bridging of scattered found materials with a formulaic design format, as well as an attempt in documenting objects in various ways that go beyond their intended functions. The book, as a design object, functions both as a conduit for communication and as a material object in itself, which contained enough constraint in its structure that it gave limitations to work within, but allowed for room to interpret with materials which were simultaneously mundane and unusual.

Items are displayed in chronological order of creation. Towards the end of this collection, I moved to ephemeral making — intentionally impermanent pieces that were dismantled after they were documented. 

The content of each book is connected to the material it’s bound in, whether it involves integrating the physical object directly, manipulating its form, photographing it, compiling related materials, mark making with it, recording it, collecting various data from it, graphically distorting it, and so on.

The size and form of each output was dictated by the material’s nature and limitations. Most of the time, this led to disparate outputs each week; however, when possible, I worked with select materials over multiple iterations in which I exhausted similar found objects repeatedly, forming several series within the broader series of object books, within the even broader collection of objects.

Mark Making

Expanding further upon the snippet of mark making included in the object books, I explored various ways of physically engaging with found objects unconventionally or “incorrectly.” I considered how objects depict themselves with varying force, vivacity, and behaviours, while simultaneously holding the idea of the inaccessible real object that does not reveal itself in any capture or reproduction of it, just as no mark I make on this world constitutes myself, but they all still exist as manifestations of my engagements with my environment. 

The materials used include plant materials and household objects. Each piece prompted a different amount of time spent, with different methods of engagement. Some were reserved. Others would splatter and spill out and disobey. Each one is an object’s portrait of itself, over and over. The process was quite therapeutic, to be immersed in shapes and forms and repetition.

Photographic Prints

Anchored closely to the theory, I delved into the notion that the existing understanding of “world” — a concept which depends on a hierarchy and a horizon — is not compatible with an object-centric view of everything. What if space between things was to be seen as objects rather than emptiness, and hierarchy between what is traditionally categorised as foreground and background, as focal and periphery, was to be abstracted? This series is a translation of these ideas into visualisations that capture negative spaces around and between things as objects themselves, tracing the evidence of object existence through their surroundings.

A study of natural forms seen on various walks I took. It was vaguely unfamiliar to regard bodies that shift and breathe as objects, as whole beings as well as objects containing objects containing objects, such as the water above, or such as myself.

Explorations of white noise and black noise in visual form in order to document portraits of object in alternate ways. When layered together in a certain orientation, the full images are seen.

Intertwined objects in my locality and visual captures of their private dialogues. With everything except the objects obscured, I set out to strip commonplace objects of their context to spotlight their thingness, as well as their relations, juxtapositions, and energies with one another amidst the hyper-mundane.

In addition to the material exploration, thing[s] exists as a website that I iterated alongside the analog work, functioning as a mode of documentation, communication, and containment that becomes a counterpart to the physical outputs. 

The project website acts as a digital object that houses the web of making, and visually reflects the dichotomy between nonlinearity and compartmentalization that was involved in the process of this work. On it I document each making activity’s date of creation, materials used, intentions, and process in greater depth. To experience a more extensive encapsulation of this project as well as a portion of objects that are not shown above, visit the website here.

thing[s] can be seen as an entity of entities that float among all others, in dialogue with the mesh of objects it coexists with, at times accessible, at times elusive. It exists in a multitude of physical forms through object-centric making, scattered around my immediacy. It exists on a website as a digital container and communicator. It exists in the theory, in the research, in the writing, in the documentation, in the introspection, in the discourse, in the rigour, in the tangled webs of uncertainty and contradiction throughout the process. They may not exist equally, but they all equally exist.


I’d like to thank my instructors, Jon Hannan and Charlotte Falk, for providing me the space, guidance, and encouragement to explore the most fulfilling project I’ve done yet; my cohort, for the inspiring environment they’ve cultivated over the year and their feedback throughout the process; my parents, for their continuous support in the pursuit of my practice, and in particular my dad, for helping in the documentation of this project; all the objects I collaborated with, for momentarily letting me into their lives and materialising all of this into something tangible. 

I am fortunate to live and practise on the unceded traditional territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səlilwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations.

Yvonne Zhao

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Hey, I’m Yvonne — a communication designer who works across graphic design, motion design, information design, web design, and branding; an explorer of multidisciplinary spaces that weave visual, textual, and material experiences; an advocate for provocative design that displaces the known; a maker who values process, research through design, and tangible expression.

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