Observer: The Life of the Seoul

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In the summer of 2008, I was invited to give a week of lectures to a design class in South Korea. Several students were scheduled to make brief presentations at the end of the week on subjects they had been researching, and we had a preliminary chat about the direction their talks were taking. Two of them, it emerged, were concerned about the rapid changes to Seoul’s visual landscape as a result of commercial pressures, some from outside. One showed me a picture of a Starbucks plonked down incongruously in a quaint, historic area. Respectful to a fault, the students were hesitant to criticize these developments, yet they were clearly uneasy and wanted to know what I thought about it.

If I had any doubt that this was a pressing issue for some Korean graphic designers, it was erased the same day when I was invited to meet a group of professors who had been occupied all week with a workshop of their own about design education. One instructor was especially eager to hear my opinion on the authorities’ plans to bring visual order to Seoul’s graphically unruly streets. On his laptop, he showed us photos of commercial buildings where every inch of external wall, apart from the windows, was plastered with commercial signs advertising the wares on sale within.

I can’t read hangul, the Korean alphabet, so I have no idea exactly what the signs said, but on a purely visual level, they looked fantastic. Considered as architecture, the buildings were bland, uninteresting boxes. The typographic signs turned them into vibrant emporia, animated by a hubbub of messages you would never see on a Main Street building in the U.S. The professor then showed some official proposals to bring these three-dimensional noticeboards under control. The signs could remain, but they would be squeezed to fit neatly into narrow tracks that would run along the walls between the windows above and below them. It was the worst of both worlds. The buildings would still be treated as a handy graphic megaphone for hailing potential customers. But the life had been sucked out of those graphics. They looked like exactly what they were—an officially sanctioned compromise. They were too neat and tidy. That’s what I said, and it seemed to be the professor’s opinion, too. If he had a solution, he didn’t offer one.

It was nice of them to ask for my input, but I was in a curious position. As a first-time visitor to South Korea, and with everything to learn, I was defending the visual manifestation of a commercial culture I often want to oppose back home in London. Moreover, as I made clear, I hadn’t actually seen any of these buildings. My class was taking place at a hotel in Paju Book City, a specially built zone for publishers and book manufacturers about 25 miles outside Seoul. I wouldn’t get to see the city until after my class was over.

Seoul didn’t disappoint. Its streets are loud, densely packed, pulsing with energy. And isn’t this what we love about cities: the random layering, the dizzying toomuchness, the sense of boundless possibility? In Seoul, signs shoot from every surface, their messages colliding and clashing around you. Look down even the smallest alley and you confront a multi-colored matrix of announcements, each one leading to the next. Central Seoul has a messiness that goes far beyond anything you would see in New York, London, or Paris. It’s as though the signs, posters, placards, shopfronts, stickers, and graffiti have torn loose from their tethers, drifted out of position, and begun to merge in new constellations. There is an abrasive confusion of textures as materials smash together in—to a Westerner’s eyes—unfamiliar ways. Things look improvised, haphazard, rather than preplanned and solid. Seoul’s streetscape may not conform to global standards of urban decorum, but it works on its own terms and is never dull.

The trouble is, for Seoul’s new generation of civic leaders, this just isn’t modern enough. The city’s mayor, Oh Se-hoon, who took office in July 2006, is that rare bird, a politician in love with design. He told

BusinessWeek that “design is everything,” and he is determined to reinvent Seoul as a globally recognized city of design. He appears to be succeeding—the city has been appointed World Design Capital for 2010 by the International Design Alliance. “Seoul will send out the message that design is the power to change the world for the better,” declares Oh Se-hoon. He established a new design division led by a vice-mayor, and in October, the city hosted the Seoul Design Olympiad 2008, aiming to attract 2 million visitors to a 21-day event that included competitions, exhibitions, live performances, and a conference attended by luminaries such as Daniel Libeskind.

As 2010 approaches, the pressure to bring Seoul’s street aesthetics into line with its World Design Capital status can only grow. According to BusinessWeek, the city has set aside $180 million to finance urban and design-related projects, some of which will go toward overhauling its streets, buildings, and parks. There is probably no stopping this beautification, though the misgivings of some design insiders were plain enough during my visit.

They have a point. Seoul’s chaotic streets feel like a true expression of its people: They sizzle with the urgency and industry of a nation that has become a leading economy. Design reformers have always aspired to file down the rough edges and “make it nice,” and Oh Se-hoon sounds like earlier generations of design promoters in the West. Too often now the consequence of self-conscious, market-led design is blandness and slickness, a public environment that simply wants people to play the role of the good consumer. My guess is that wherever they get the chance, Seoul’s shopkeepers and hairdressers, as well as the city’s bar, restaurant, and club owners, will carry on just as they’ve always done because it’s simply who they are.