Against the background of the country’s historical and social-cultural development, three key areas emerge in analyzing the communication design of South Korea: packaging design, multimedia and web design, and studio-based graphic design. “Communication design” should be understood in this article as including graphic design, advertisement design, typography design, and web design.
Since liberation from Japanese occupation in 1945, design in the newly formed Republic of Korea (established in 1948) started to be modernized under the impact of modern Western culture and education, foreign aid after the Korean War (1950–1953), and the beginning of modern design education. By the 1970s, legislation on industrial development, which was aimed at boosting exports through design, improving people’s daily life, and strengthening the country’s competitiveness, was allowing the design industry to flourish. Thanks to government measures, the growth of the economy in general as well as of the design industry accelerated, and into the late 1970s not only the export but the home market moved ahead through export-oriented industrialization and developments in distribution. During this period, communication design, which first began as industrial design, broadened its scope. Throughout the 1980s and the 1990s, the economy continuously expanded and pushed South Korea into becoming a highly industrialized society. This shift brought about many social changes such as mass society, the development of Western-style commercial culture, and the advent of mass consumption.
Designers were asked to become the agents of South Korea’s modern industry and politics under the motto of “design competitiveness.” They had to carry out the mission of devising the formative language for the differentiation of the products that would be sold in the global market. From the 1970s to 1990s, when the West was viewed as the standard of modernity and the model of industrialization, the country sought to accomplish national modernization and industrialization through a kind of act of distortion, disconnecting themselves from their past and following the West. Those who worked in the design field were not an exception. That is to say, they went along with the national measures for industrialization and used appropriation through mimicry as the core strategy for its progress. Their tactics can be seen as being adequate in the prevailing circumstances of the times and their cultural background. It is more so when we take into account that what is regarded as Western beauty is a difference that started from mimesis. Still, without a strategic purpose, only trying to absorb as many new things as rapidly as possible was not enough to form an essential attitude for either design or life. When we look at the results, the designs of the day were no more than the mimesis of the superficial or the visual components of foreign works. South Korea’s designers were yet to discover that design can be a window through which to view the culture and times of a specific locality.
Designers worked with the pattern of rapid, export-led economic growth since the 1970s, but they barely had any cultural experience in the sense of modern graphic design. Communication design for South Korean designers in those days was no more than an activity to develop the language of design by emulating the spirit and style of expression from designers in developed countries, and inserting contents into a framework, because they were often mobilized to support the growing, technology-oriented economy.
Under the slogan of “strengthening the nation’s competitiveness through design,” the Korean Design and Packaging Center was established in 1970 (in 2001, it was relaunched as the Korea Institute of Design Promotion to develop and globalize South Korea’s design products). Through the 1980s until the mid-1990s, the quantitative expansion of design enabled the concept to be accepted by many commercial and public areas in South Korea. Although packaging design was considered as a core design field, graphic designers took significant roles in making corporate logos, product packaging, and print advertising. It was the period when the role of designers was first highlighted in South Korean industrial society. Cho Young-jae (b. 1935), Kim Hyun (b. 1949), and Kwon Myung-kwang (b. 1942) conducted major communication designs for government institutions and corporations. The first contemporary corporate identity (CI) design in South Korea would be that of Donyang Beer, which was designed by Cho Yong-jae. He was the first-generation graphic designer who introduced DECOMAS (Design Coordination as a Management Strategy) to companies and applied it to the CI project of Hyundai Corporation.
At the beginning of the 1980s, the military government of the Fifth Republic was established by a coup d’état in South Korea. The government tried to mitigate doubts about its legitimacy and to bring political stability by such means as allowing people to travel abroad, by issuing sports newspapers, and by holding international events such as the Asian Games in 1986 and the Seoul Olympics in 1988. The government also led the “3S” policies—sports, screen, and sex—in industrializing popular culture and consumption. In 1985, Cho Yong-jae who managed CDR (set up in 1973), one of the representative design companies at the time, designed the official poster for the Seoul Olympics. He understood that, throughout the history of the Olympic Games, its posters used the latest expressive techniques in graphic design—including the lithography used in the poster for the 1960 Rome Summer Olympics, the dynamic image for the 1912 event in Stockholm, the multicolored photo engraving for the 1964 event in Tokyo, and the solarization photographic technique for the 1972 event in Munich. For the 1988 Seoul Olympics poster, Cho applied computer graphic (CG) techniques to printed material for the first time in South Korea. Kim Hyun designed Hodori, the official mascot of the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He also founded DesignPark, in 1984. In the 1980s, the government tried to establish a distinct identity for its slogan “Korea In the World,” but with only a short-term purpose in its presentation, and without sufficient concern and effort to build visual languages and strategies.
Nevertheless, significant change and technical advancement were made during the 1980s in South Korea. For example, color television was popularized, and the public started to favor a variety of colors and to be increasingly exposed to more “chic” and Westernized design products. The pivot of the mass media moved from black-and-white newspapers to color TV, indicating a transition from the age of form and meaning to that of color and style. The structure of the design industry was expanding into communication design. In the vanguard of popular culture, communication design changed the look of the urban landscape as strikingly contemporary, Western imagery appeared on public posters and billboards. In 1986, South Korean GDP per capita was 2,804.0 USD; by 1989 it had increased to 5,738.0 USD. Such rapid growth in the economy nourished the communication design industry as it took on the role of promoting corporate products and prompting mass consumption.
A number of favorable conditions enabled young South Korean designers to raise their artistic aspirations: the 1988 Olympics were held in Seoul; a civilian government was established in 1993; the economy continued to grow; and society was transitioning into democracy. The turnover of political power was achieved by the democratic movement starting from the Gwangju Democratization Movement in Gwangju on May 18, 1980; economic growth based on a policy of exports led into the era of globalization; while the government liberalized overseas visits. In the 1990s, South Korea was transformed into a consumption-centered society. This was the time when many students went abroad to the high places of design, such as New York, Paris, and London. After the young designers had returned to South Korea, full of their experiences of diverse cultures, they tried to move the focus of domestic design from the rhetoric of humanism and nationalism to the issues of everyday life and the concerns of a worldwide global culture. In the mid-1990s, as the World Trade Organization was launched (in 1995), the world economy faced the age of information, globalization, and opening markets, and the major South Korean companies were proactive in responding to these conditions. Lucky Goldstar changed their corporate name to LG, and other companies competed in renewing their corporate identities while reforming their organizations to meet global levels. LG entrusted Landor Associates (founded in 1941), a US design company, to develop its CI, and let DesignPark take charge of its applications. In the process of democratization of society, “resistance” and “modern life” were the themes, expressed in various forms of communication design around the domain of popular culture, such as magazines, music videos, movies, and advertising.
Kim Jin-pyeong (1949–1998), sometimes called the “master of modern lettering design,” who interpreted the Korean alphabet, Hangeul, from a designer’s perspective, created a large number of corporate logotypes, magazine titles, and campaign slogans with lettering of a high quality based on the original formative features of Hangeul. He brought about a historic change in the form of Hangeul letters. One of his outstanding works is the title design for Korean Readers Digest. Later, Ahn Sang-soo (b. 1952), who is a representative figure in modern typographical design in South Korea, had a significant influence in creating a shift in perspective, from Hangeul as the “characters to be read” to being the “characters to be displayed and appreciated.” He made his debut when computers were starting to be universalized among the population, especially for graphic design. In around March 1988, Ahn, together with his colleague Professor Geum Nu-ri (b. 1951) of Kookmin University, opened Electronic Cafe, the first cyber cafe in South Korea, in front of Hongik University in Seoul. It was the first place to encourage a computer culture and artistic experiments. In 1985, Ahn founded a graphic design and publishing company, Ahn Graphics.
The digitalization of the design work environment led to a rapid generation change among designers. In the early 1990s, computer-generated graphic design and typography using the Macintosh computer became popular. Using such techniques, many designers edited and published brochures, annual reports, and publications, including books and magazines. Design studio I & I, a graphic design studio, founded in 1991 by Seo Gi-heun (b. 1953–), and Hongdesign, a graphic design studio, founded in 1994 by Hong Sung-taek, were established, highlighting the 1990s as a golden age of graphic design in South Korea. In January 1994, MBC broadcasting station (established in 1961) announced the importance of design in product development through its special program “Why Design”; while in April of the same year, KBS, the state broadcasting station (since 1973), carried a program entitled “Compete Your Design,” describing design not only as a business model but as a form of culture. Accordingly, popular interest in design spread widely. Spearheading popular culture, it was advertising design by Baek Jong-yeol (b. 1970) that led the most radical innovations. Among his output was the print advertisement for a brand of jeans, NIX, in the mid-1990s. It used green onions, eggs, and condoms, objects not directly related to jeans or to clothes, as its central images. In particular, its fashion catalog was composed of handwritten letters and cartoonish expressions. As an advertisement for the brand, it spelled out that it did not sell simply its clothes but also its image and culture. The range of media started to expand in those years, as many designers extended their expression through work both in print and on screen.
In contrast, prominent visual elements being shown in magazines and advertising material, such as jangdok (traditional crockery vessels), pansori (traditional narrative song), samullori (traditional musical performances with four instruments), and hanok (traditional houses), served to remind South Koreans of their experiences and emotions as a community. Designers began to realize that it was important to form a social consensus among the audience and to try to adopt it subjectively and creatively, so as to generate “modern” and “everyday” values for their designs.
After December 1997, when the IMF financial crisis struck South Korea, the government opened its door fully to the international financial market. The “industrialization of cultural contents: a shift from hardware-focused production to software-focused production” was proposed as the new driving force. The government took charge of nurturing video and multimedia—games, music labels, animations, films, and publications—where people find enjoyment and pursue their values. The government’s design campaign no longer emphasized industrialization but culture. With Imagedrome, a web agency dating from 1995, as a forerunner, many web agencies were founded and participated in the business of web design and digital communication up until the early 2000s. What this trend illustrated was that the primary media for design had become digitalized. The early phase passed, and, in the early 2000s, a few large agencies such as Nutility (established in 2000), Emotion (founded in 1995), and D’strict (from 2004) shared most of the market and dominated the domestic framework of web design. It was the high point of web design. Web portal businesses like Daum, Nate, and Naver, which were modeled on web services in the United States such as Yahoo and Lycos, nested in the domestic market. Demand for web and communication designers grew enormously. The communication design field was reorganized under “dot-coms,” and expanded into a new area of design around digital media, such as user interface (UI), graphic user interface (GUI), and user experience (UX). In South Korea, the concepts of GUI and UX design started in both the academy and business fields. An example of collaboration between the two spheres was the joint academic–industry project in 1992 between the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) and LG Electronics, termed the “Microwave Usability Evaluation Project.” As the use of Internet and digital media such as PCs, CD-Roms, games, and so forth became more generally common, demand for UX and GUI design increased in the industry. In 1997, Samsung Electronics established the first UI team in South Korea.
Over the past half-century, South Korea, enjoying substantial wealth, consolidated the role of “design.” Cities, however, became filled with visual disorder on the streets: banners, public symbols, signage, display screens, and so on. This unsatisfactory situation could be traced to the ambiguous relationship between private and public areas. The problem had accumulated, lacking guidance from any manual or system. From the mid-2000s, critical views on public space guided a lively practical discussion on advancing the general level of design in open spaces and restoring the public value of those places. The visual products that constitute the urban landscape, from signage to street facilities, were grouped under “public design,” and experts in design and education started to discuss urban visual elements and the proper direction of their structures. Well-known major graphic/identity companies like CDR extended the area of their business into the public design field. In 2008, Seoul announced its urban policy of culture-nomics, “Design Seoul” that aimed at producing design products of higher value. The capital of South Korea thereby acknowledged the commercial value of the urban landscape, and started to pursue constant changes in that landscape.
From the late 1980s to the early 1990s, a department of industrial design and visual design was established in many South Korean colleges and universities, added to, in the late 1990s, by a department of computer technology such as multimedia design. In 1995, a survey conducted by Monthly Design, South Korea’s leading monthly design magazine, showed that 82 percent of students agreed that “design is a promising career.” However, the demand for design was not primarily calculated as the number of future designers. Around 1993, 19,000 design candidates were graduating annually from colleges and universities, shoring up a big social and economic burden for the country. Design education had been carried out without any long-term concerns about its quality, and the result was an excessive workforce. In the late 1990s, the recession brought further hardship to the design field. In these circumstances, designers volunteered to select their relevant fields of art and culture. With the establishment of design companies such as Ahn Graphics, Hongdesign, Sulki & Min (in 2005), and Workroom and Studio FNT (both in 2006), which came to lead the design industry, there came a second golden age of graphic design. In South Korea, the communication design field concentrated on printing and publication. Sulki & Min led a kind of auteurism in graphic design, which was full of serious artistic spirits and texts. They influenced the establishment of small design studios comprising fewer than five persons working in the spirit of auteuristic art and design.
The characteristics of contemporary communication design would be that it refuses to be generalized into a distinct and consistent trend. However, in South Korea, one tendency stood out in every design area: the retro style. This method of expression took as its distinctive feature an optimistic, if nostalgic, theme of abundance, and revived its scope through reinterpretation and recomposition. The retro style of lettering is a new interpretation based on the past fonts used in the propaganda style of the 1960s and the 1970s in both North and South Korea. Kim Ki-jo (b. 1984) became well known through his design of the album jacket for Kiha & The Faces, using a vernacular and simple lettering inspired by the style of the 1970s. He maximized the sense of a time gap by representing the letterforms that were employed in national propaganda posters for industrialization, modernization, and economic growth in past days. Likewise, Shin Dong-hyuk (b. 1984) chose the retro style as his design methodology. His representative work is the logotype and poster for Kiljong Arcade, a furniture design studio. As the retro style frequently appears on newspapers and TV programs, Hangeul typography, once neglected in the flow of globalization, has been enriched and diversified. Contemporary communication design in South Korea is continuing its visual experimentation through diverse and creative ways, while designers are expanding their areas of creative work.