Seoul, like so many other great cities of East Asia, bustles and buzzes with life, a modern and dynamic metropolis. At night neon signs and giant digital displays battle for attention, advertise everything from the ubiquitous internet cafes (per capital South Korea is the most 'online' nation in the world) to the all night eateries, saunas and singing rooms. Like Japan and China, Korea and the Koreans are a nation of early adopters. Technology exists to be embraced. The latest digital products, software, systems and means of communication are all readily accepted by a culture which now not only adopts technological innovation but is a world player at its leading edge.
It is against this background that I exit the subway system at Seoul's hip, creative district of Jamwondong before ducking off a busy main highway south of Seoul's Han river. I've travelled on a bullet train from Ulsan's National Institute of Science and technology (UNIST), having recently made the move from the leafy suburbs of South London to start a new life at UNIST's School of Design and Human Engineering.
My final destination is Seoul's young, ambitious and rapidly expanding design consultancy SWBK. Founded in 2008, the firm offers an extensive range of design services from IT-based product design to brand consultancy, service design and their Matter & Matter range of fine furniture. SWBK's global design awards speak for themselves (Red Dot, IF, IDEA, GOOD Design...). They have an ambitious, skilled and highly motivated team, whose knowledge and expertise are sought by a growing list of national and international clients.
Their work also extends to the direction of design and cultural exhibitions. One such expo recently organized by SWBK, is the Sulwha Cultural Exhibition in Seoul. It showcases the work of some of Korea's most celebrated craftsmen, artists and designers; from master Bang Chun Woong's display of Korean Ethnic Earthenware (onggi) to Media Artist Yang Min Ha's virtual, interactive installation reinterpreting the process of making onggi through manipulation of digital content via physical, embodied interaction.
In a way SWBK's Sulwha Exhibition is an apt reflection of Korean society more generally. Traditions of the past live cheek by jowl with a modern tech-savvy culture, creating a hybrid mix of embedded traditions within an emergent, dynamic digital culture.
I pick my way towards the SWBK studios and am greeted at the door by co-founder, Sukwoo Lee. Having worked as an industrial designer for Samsung and then at Teague in the United States, Sukwoo returned to his native Korea in 2008 to co-found his consultancy with fellow designer Bongkyu Song.
I've come on a mission: to find out if, within this tech-driven culture, design firms have decided it's time to finally kiss goodbye to dated, low-tech analogue design tools like hand sketching and model making in favour of a fully digital industrial design process.
We sit down to talk and Sukwoo starts by pulling out one of his sketchbooks...
He then produces a tiny handcrafted scale model of his latest chair design and sets it to rest on a page of thumbnail or thinking sketches of the same design.
"I quite like this kind of sketch' Sukwoo explains as we leaf though his work, 'I feel like I'm freer with this kind of quickly made sketch on paper...just hand drawing. From these sketches we often move to these sketch models," he explains.
At this point Sukwoo scuttles off across the studio to return armed with a large plank of balsa wood. "When I touch this wood," he continues, "and I even smell this, it feels much freer than digital work." Sukwoo speaks of an emergent design language that is explored and considered through the use of sketches and scale models. Like the master craftsmen of his Sulwha Cultural Exhibition, there is something honest in the way he describes his expression of form through hand sketching and hand making. From the start, the impression is that these analog processes are integral to SWBK's working culture and design process; to their ability to explore and develop design intentions?
We move on.
"After this," Sukwoo explains, indicating a wall filled with sketches, illustrations and 3D digital models "we start to sketch a little more of the aspects of the form."
At this point Sukwoo describes how CAD tools (Illustrator and Rhino) are employed to test the potential of the concept. "The CAD model is quite rough" he explains, "but gives the team a better idea of proportion and curvature."
Sukwoo proceeds to talk of the importance of CAD as a tool for definition and confirmation; to help define a design direction. So for here on in CAD and RP all the way I presume?
"We just get 2D off of this," Sukwoo points to a 3D model generated in Rhino, "and we print everything on paper and then make a 1:1 scale prototype like this," he says, pointing to a row of white foam board prototypes of his latest chair design.
If turns out SWBK are in the habit of producing these low fidelity, handmade 1:1 scale models for all their designs.
Sukwoo is keen to explain the ways in which the models help the team further develop their design intent. The models, it appears, support a developing design direction as model after model is quickly produced to evaluate the composition of parts, aesthetics, scale and semantic appeal. "We have to do it this way," he explains, "this can't be done in 3D CAD."
I push him on this point. "Why not?" I counter. "You can move around a CAD model on screen. You can see it from all angles, all directions. Why do you spend your time making more of these paper models?"
Laughing, "I don't know," is Sukwoo's initial and somewhat surprising reaction. "Literally, I don't know."
Did I say something funny or is there a deeper, yet implicit and unconscious value to this handmade paper craft, this physical embodiment of design intentions? Realising I might be on to something, I probe further...
"When I see the paper model I can see everything one to one, with the right shadow. But sometimes, with the digital rendering, the shadowing and the lighting..." Sukwoo stumbles on in a valiant attempt to articulate, what I suspect, because of the nature of the tacit knowledge he wishes to express, to be almost in-articulatable. "I think with this kind of craftsmanship it's easy to build and think about shape. Also we can change the structure. For example, oh this is a little bit too low [adjusting the back rest on a sketch model]...when I see the real prototype I can make a decision. I don't know why."
Sukwoo's analysis of SWBKs design process is striking for its inability to get at the core of the affordances of the sketching, sketch models and prototypes they use. But then, perhaps that is also why these intuitive processes of hand sketching and handcrafting are so valuable to design thinking. It seems it is the physical manipulation of the less well defined, less committed (through sketching and modelling) that allows exploration to take place, possibilities and future directions to emerge. It is this ambiguity and uncertainty that provides the context within which design intent may be more freely articulated and explored. Where concepts and, as yet, ill-defined dreams may be expressed and considered.
It is only after the design direction has been further defined, after the dream has taken shape, Sukwoo explains, that the digital is employed once more.
Sukwoo describes how much his team enjoys the process of physical prototyping, of making with the hands. "The funny thing about our staff, when our staff make these kinds of prototypes they're very happy. I'm also really happy." What does this tell us about the kinds of thinking and acting engaged with when the designers at SWBK employ these analog tools?
Sukwoo grabs another mock-up. This time a concept design for a wall light—card and bent metal rod lashed together with sticky tape...
"This is also one of the things we use to evaluate," he explains. "We just think about the simple structure so we can test if this makes sense or not with this paper. Then we can add to it."
Reflecting upon these examples I'm starting to get a sense of the relationship between thinking and doing, or more specifically, the kinds of reflection in and on action employed in the exploration of design intentions when using these analog tools of expression. For SWBK it seems to be something about the relationship between the human touch, the hand and eye, the craft of sketching and making and the nature of the design embodiment as sketch or sketch model. The gaps between the lines on the page or the rough edges of these low-fidelity prototypes appear to support and foster more explorative design thinking and the development of conceptual intentions. It is the unrefined, personal and impressionistic qualities of the hand sketch and the hand made that leave room for interpretation, for reflection and further development.
This ability to interpret or reflect, through analog tools, according to Sukwoo, is not only confined to the designers at SWBK, but is a valuable tool in the communication of design intent to clients and other stakeholders. Sukwoo points to a pair of concept models made to communicate intention towards an interior layout for an exhibition.
"But these guys can be a good tool for communication with each other [designer and client]. So they have a look and they think and they have a play." Again, it seems that the ill-defined or uncommitted characteristics of these design representations appear to be working as a kind of catalyst for designer-client involvement and communication.
The meeting closes with Sukwoo introducing a technique used at SWBK to explore materials and inspire innovation.
First, pay a local market or hardware store a visit and pickup a bunch of materials—open core foam, plastic sheet, card, wooden dowel. Then, bring them back to the studio and use them as a means to explore relationships between materials and forms. Finally, the outcome, well...interesting, provocative blue-sky thinking through the handmade.
As I travel on my bullet train back to UNIST I stare out the window, reflecting on my visit as the rush and pace of urban Seoul gives way to the mountains peaks and valleys of a calmer rural Korean landscape. It seems analogue sketching and model making techniques are still integral to the work of the designers at SWBK. Is this a one-off, distinct to the working methods and practices of this Seoul based Korean firm?
I think not.
Of course CAD and RP technologies have brought with them great abilities and affordances, but the truth it seems is more about Sukwoo and his team's understanding of various tools of design embodiment, analog, digital and hybrid, and their place, affordances and limitation in supporting design thinking, development and communication.
Until digital tools are able to foster the kinds of freely explorative, emotional and unconstrained design thinking and reflection that seems an integral part of exploration, innovation and creativity, analog dreaming will remain a critical part of what it is to be a designer and to design.
Even within all this digital culture and the online, technology driven society of modern Korea, there is still a place for design by human touch, for the joy and personality of the hand drawn and the hand made. Like the hand crafted Korean earthenware exhibited at SWBK's Sulwha Exhibition, and the beautiful mountainous vista rushing past my window at 200 miles a hour, I leave Seoul with the hope that, in our rush to adopt the digital, there will still be a place for sketching, modelling and the craft of analog dreams.
About James Self
James Self is an Assistant Professor in the School of Design & Human Engineering at Ulsan National Institute of Science & Technology, South Korea. You can learn more about his work on his blog, DesignerlyTools or his website IndustrialDesignResearch.com.