Last week I was for the fourth time in South Korea, this time at the invitation of the Busan Design Center (located in Busan, Korea's second largest city, at the very south of the country, with the world's fifth largest port).
Since I was a speaker at a couple of international design conferences during their 2010 Design Week (see presentations here), the main topic of conversation was of course design, and what I saw and experienced in Busan and Seoul, which I also visited, left me more than impressed.
In the West we don't often have a clear idea of what Korean designers are doing -- aside from what we see in their consumer electronics (Samsung, LG) or cars (Hyundai, Kia, Daewoo), or read in the occasional story such as this Core77 one.
In fact, Korea's design reality is sophisticated and very dynamic, as many conversations, and a few visits to design-driven businesses, such as furniture company FurSys and home, health and beauty products manufacturer Aekyung, clearly demonstrated.
Koreans are highly educated (on average people in Seoul have a higher education than people in New York, London or Paris). There is a lot of debate about the future of the country and the role that sustainability and design could play in this, and there is strong local and national government commitment to it all.
Current South Korea president Lee Myung-Bak, who as the previous Seoul Mayor opened up the paved over Cheonggyecheon river in the very heart of the city and turned it into a popular touristic walkway, is now pushing strongly to make Korea a global environmental leader. Meanwhile, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon (known as the "design mayor") is hard at work to enact the "Miracle of Design" (after the Miracle of the Han River that describes Seoul's dramatic economic growth and the Miracle of IT). He also just launched a plan to make Seoul one of the world's top green-car cities by 2020.
Even the further future of the country is a topic of much debate and Core77 readers will surely savour the visionary "Green Humanism" essay by Ms. Min-hyung Lee, the director of the Future Science and Technology Strategy Center at Korea's Science and Technology Policy Institute.
One of the key strengths of the Korean system is the collaboration and synergy between policy makers, designers, universities and businesses. In Busan in particular, I was surprised to hear senior city government representatives -- the type of people that in other countries tend to make bland statements about urban development and creativity -- say clear things about user experience and design.
Also impressive is the systematic and strategic approach that Koreans have to design.
A good example is the 240 page book Designing Seoul -- published as part of the Seoul World Design Capital initiative -- that contains 22 design tenets on how to make Seoul a soft, slow and human-centered city again that is connected to its history and culture. The book uses a lot of visuals to explain the design vision and concrete guidelines that the City of Seoul is in the process of implementing.
In this context, it is becoming obvious -- even though that is based on an informal, subjective and not fully researched assessment -- that Korea has a lot of potential to become a major design power globally.
But to achieve this, Korea will need to address four challenges.
First, it has to better define what constitutes Korean design. The Seoul Design Assets exhibition, also organised as part of Seoul World Design Capital, was an important and groundbreaking exercise in understanding and sharing the Korean design vocabulary.
Although the exhibition -- which I didn't get to see -- was focused very much on "design masterpieces" (and so is the accompanying website), the gorgeous 300 page catalogue takes the discourse deeper and highlights historical and contemporary design approaches -- in print and fabrics, architecture and nature, food and cultural rituals, fashion and performance. The book is a true milestone reference, containing reflections and examples on the many essential design ingredients that make Seoul special. It will remain an important tool for Korean designers to construe their interpretation of Korean design.
According to Prof. Ken Nah, the very dynamic director general of Seoul World Design Capital, the Seoul Design Assets exhibition and the design year in general provoked a great deal of debate and discussion on the topic of Korean design identity, but a shared cultural consensus has not yet emerged. It is a work in progress.
The catalogue's central tenet, which I endorse, is that Seoul's core design value is human. Building on this human-centric view, I would want to add that a number of Korea's social and cultural practices -- Korea's food culture, its very generous sense of hospitality, and its service culture -- can also inspire the definition of a specific Korean strand of user experience design and service design.
Second, Korea has to find ways to stimulate more concrete exchange on contemporary design practices, particularly interaction design, interface design and service design.
Too often the competition between major corporations (e.g. between Samsung and LG) renders much design work secret and makes it difficult for young designers to learn about best practices within Korea. A lack of exchange could also hamper the political eagerness to reach out to the broader population so that they understand why design is so important for Korea's future development.
Public outreach was therefore a key activity of Seoul World Design Capital, and its Seoul Design Fair and Seoul Design Market have been a major success with the population.
How to apply this sharing approach also to a more professional audience? Could there be room for a major interaction design conference or event in Korea, taking place let's say at the prestigious Zaha Hadid-designed Dongdaemun Design Plaza (due to be opened in June 2012), and sponsored by the big technology corporations?
Third, Korea has to find ways to be more present in the international design debate and particularly -- as a technology nation -- in the user experience discourse, where their voice is often too absent.
To kick off the exchange, Seoul World Design Capital organised a World Design Cities Summit (presentation downloads) with Mayors and delegations from the cities of Amsterdam, Ankara, Bangkok, Beijing, Bueonos Aires, Cape Town, Eindhoven, Florianopolis, Graz, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Helsinki, Istanbul, Jundiai, Lisbon, Manazuru, Montreal, Nagoya, Nairobi, Rotterdam, Shenzhen, Taipei, Torino, Yangzhou and Yanji, all presenting and discussing their best practices on future city development. The upcoming WDC Design Policy Conference & Convocation Ceremony promises more inspiration.
Yet, even an international and well-funded event as Seoul World Design Capital, which organised a series of activities that on the whole make a lot of sense to me, has been underperforming in its international communications.
Why was the previously mentioned critical Core77 article never balanced with another more locally informed review? And why is there no website yet for the upcoming WDC Design Policy Conference, which takes place on December 8, at a time when design policy is such a hotly debated topic worldwide?
Unfortunately, even at the end of the 2010 design year, many outside Korea are still unclear about Korean design and it is obvious that a lot more work needs to be done.
The lack of English skills amongst Korean designers is one reason for this lack of international presence, but not the only one. Many Koreans have lived and studied or worked abroad, sometimes for many years. These international Koreans now often have difficulties re-integrating in a hierarchical Korean society, which has not evolved in the same way that they have. Why not consider these people as an extraordinary resource in this international outreach challenge?
Another reason could be lack fo self confidence. Korean popular culture seems to convey too often a stereotypical message that all things great and exciting come from abroad. The fact that nearly all shops in the tax-free area of Seoul's Incheon Airport are those of European brands is quite telling. The only Korean shop is in fact a government sponsored cultural one.
Seoul World Design Capital will surely have helped in addressing all this, but more will need to be done for Korean designers to more actively participate in intercultural dialogue with the international design community, thereby learning a lot about how designers elsewhere think and act.
Some steps are simple to implement though. Strong and beautifully designed publications like the "Seoul Design Assets" and "Designing Seoul" books and English-language conference presentations need to be made available to an international audience. Currently the books are not on Amazon nor are they online, and conference websites often do not contain audio or video (or are making them hard to find).
Korean design event organisers will start needing to make different types of publishing arrangements so that it is possible to upload pdf's and video files, and setting aside money in their event budgets for an international online communications strategy.
Finally, if Korea really aspires to become an internationally prominent design nation, it has to find ways to integrate foreign designers in this ambition. I am not talking here about the current practice of hiring star designers like Karim Rashid for brief product assignments, but about establishing stable, long-term relations with Korea-based foreign designers who contribute to establishing the new Korean design identity. In fact, foreign designers are already living in Seoul, and a major cultural precedent exists: world-renowned Italian design is often made by non-Italian designers.
So how can Korea create an inclusive design identity that also foreign designers can participate in?
The final challenge
None of these issues are irresolvable. On the contrary, I think that the likelihood of Korea addressing them all in a constructive way is very high. That's why Korea will probably become a major design nation. And sooner than we think.
But there is one final issue which is broader than the design world and Korea will also need to address eventually: the social, economic and political empowerment of women. As The Economist recently pointed out, "working women in South Korea earn 63% of what men do [...], they face social pressure to quit when they have children, making it hard to stay on the career fast track [, and] many large companies have no women at all in senior jobs." Despite the fact that foreign multinationals are recruiting large numbers of educated Korean women, and gaining competitive advantage doing just that, I am not convinced that this will be enough to transform the current situation. Cultural and social norms on what is considered the appropriate role of women run very deep still, and it will take time to change these. But that shouldn't stop us from advocating the case of 50% of Koreans.
One of the very pleasant aspects of Korea is that change is fast and welcomed. Koreans like to try things out. While the challenges may seem huge to some, to Koreans challenges are often opportunities. I therefore look very much forward to seeing what creative solutions resourceful Koreans will come up with in the coming years.