Manufactured and designed in Korea

While the rest of the world's consumer tech industry flounders because of the downturn, Korea's is flourishing. E&T visits Seoul to find out why.

The Republic of Korea is a very young country with over 5,000 years of heritage. Although this may sound like a paradox, it is a nation that has been forced to rejuvenate itself due to the Korean War which only ended hostilities in 1953 with the forced partition of the country been the North and the South.

And since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in the south, the country's industrial achievement has been spectacular - particularly in the area of consumer electronics and its large consumer electronics companies such as LG and Samsung appear to be successfully challenging the dominance of Japanese companies like Sony and Panasonic.

These Korean companies, which started exporting consumer electronics goods en masse in the 1970s and 1980s, quickly gained a reputation for cheap reliable TVs and radios. However, now these companies - as well as dozens of smaller Korean consumer tech companies - are equally famous for delivering products that are as beautiful as they are reliable and functional.

How have these companies managed to transform their reputations in such a short space of time? We can trace the success of Apple to an innovative design engineering team led by British born designer, Jonathan Ive; but who are the superstar designers behind the superior TV and mobile phone designs at the Korean Chaebols?

The transformation of Korean design is not down to one or even a handful of individuals, but can be put down to a pro- design policy set by the Korean government since 1985 - which is when the Korea Institute of Design Promotion (KIDP) was established with the eventual aim of turning Korea into the region's leading centre of good design.

The good design mark

Phil-hyun KANG is the director in charge of planning and awarding the Good Design (GD) certification programme and promoting the design industry of Korea.

He explains that when the programme was started in 1985 Korea was playing catch up with the rest of the developed world. For example, in the UK the design industry started to be promoted in the 1950s.

"We have been promoting this award for 25 years. We are evaluating the design activities of consultancies, companies and institutes and we systematically and legitimately certify good design," he explains.

The GD mark is displayed on thousands of products in Seoul from buses, cars, buildings and many consumer goods. Kim explains that the mark is more akin to a certification scheme than an award scheme when compared to others such as Red Dot in the US or IF in Europe.

In fact, the KIDP provides the results of the evaluations in the form of a report to the companies to assist the design companies and firms to improve on their designs. Thus they are trying to develop an evaluation and judging system that is unique to Korea.

Kim explains that the GD mark is not focused on specific fields. It aims to provide value from a design perspective to Korean citizens. However, the scheme currently has eight categories and 22 sub categories.

To date, the focus of the mark has been on home-grown Korean firms, but now the KIDP have a lot of foreign firms applying for this certificate. For example Volvo are submitting their cars to receive the mark. Mostly it is foreign companies who have a base or a headquarter in Korea.

In fact, the mark has received a great deal of interest from newly-developed countries like China and the plan is to invite more foreign companies to apply for GD.

The long-term plan is to turn the GD mark into an international award scheme like Red Dot. The organisation has developed a close working relationship with IF in Germany and has been promoting the GD mark in design exhibitions across ten countries this year with the assistance of the Korea Overseas Trade Authority (KOTRA). For instance, KIDP had a strong presence at the 100 Percent Design show London in September.

The KIDP has recruited many judges from overseas to oversee this year's final selection to be held in December.

International city of design

However, the entire nation appears to be focused on design. Every October at Seoul's Olympic stadium, which hosted the 1988 Olympic Games, the design industry hosts the annual Design Olympiad. Thousands of designs are displayed and educational programmes are available to Korean citizens.

In 2010, Seoul will become the World Design Capital designated by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design.. This concentration on design is clearly having a positive effect on designs coming out of the country's leading consumer technology companies.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Samsung and LG were more focused on manufacturing than design. Design, however, was almost an afterthought and the companies tended to employ designers from consultancies in the UK, Italy and other countries to add some design value to their TVs and stereos.

However, the tide has since turned and now many of these consultancies, such as Inno and Tangerine, have established headquarters in Seoul to join a mushrooming home-grown design consulting industry.

According to a 1985 census, there were less than 10 design consultancies for the country.

Whereas in the past they would work more with overseas design firms, they are now focusing their relationship with Korean design firms.

The design industry has been very much influenced by the design policies oriented by the Korean government. All local and district government offices are required to have a department focused on design. Capital city Seoul is no exception.

Celebrating design

The Seoul Design Olympiad 2009, a major international celebration as part of Seoul's efforts to promote the design industry to the public, was held from 9-29 October this year.

The event included conferences on design, themed exhibitions in Seoul's Jamsil Olympic Stadium and on featured streets in the city's downtown area as well as design competitions.

It not only attracted a lot of big names in the industry, such as Toshiyuki Kita from Japan and Peter Cook from Britain, but also provided a big festival for a mainstream audience of young and old, including families.

The most important part of the event was an emphasis on everybody's design concepts of the city. The theme 'I Design' referred to and included the individual 'I', the 'Internet' and 'Innovation', presenting Seoul as a city that provides comfortable living and is a creative place in which every citizen is a designer.

After officially winning the title of World Design Capital in 2007, Seoul has put a lot of work into living up to the award in aspects of cultural enrichment, promoting quality of life and supporting major projects.

Who knows? In the future we may associate good design with Korea as we do with France, Italy or the UK.

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