From a me-too producer of electronics and appliances a decade ago, South Korea's Samsung Electronics has become one of the world's leading brands. A big part of that transformation has come from a relentless focus on design. Today, the company gears all of its processes and procedures to make Samsung a finely tuned receptor of all the things that make its products must-haves in an increasingly competitive marketplace.
A key player in that drive is Chung Kook Hyun, a senior vice-president who heads the company's design center. Chung recently sat down with BusinessWeek's Asia Editor David Rocks and Seoul Bureau Chief Moon Ihlwan to discuss Samsung's design operation. Edited excerpts of the conversation follow:
Q: How are you changing your approach to design?
A: In the past we regarded designers as people merely carrying out the role of designing products. In the future, we believe designers will have to be integrators, combining everything from initial research to the use of products. We must invest more in researching user behavior and discovering what's happening in the market.
The first concrete step is expanding design labs overseas. Their focus will be shifted to uncovering consumer trends, what's hidden beneath the surface, instead of more visible things such as color or materials. Design comes from experience. One of the most important activities of a designer is to figure out how to take that experience and turn it into products that fit a specific market.
Q: How are these foreign labs different from your "usability lab" here in Seoul?
A: The usability lab focuses more on the behavior of users before products are made, while labs in various regions focus on the lifestyle of local people and on making sure products are adapted to local tastes. The Tokyo lab is more geared to finding out trends in materials and finishing technologies in Japan.
Q: Could you tell us recent measures Samsung has taken to improve its design capabilities?
A: Nearly 90% of our sales come from overseas markets. To support our products, we must become a more global organization. Our objective is to develop premium products, what we call mass-prestige products. To make premium products, designers will be allowed to focus on their own strengths. Designers with outstanding creativity will explore and formulate product concepts, those with a lot of experience will work closely with engineers to design them, and finally a group of designers will be engaged in assessing markets and user response to the products. And our research activities will be expanded so that we will have a better sense of trends in various markets.
Q: What are some examples of bad design at Samsung?
A: Low-end refrigerators produced in China were a bad example as we did not conduct user research for the products. Although China had become a production base, we did not make products to suit Chinese consumers' tastes and needs. I was not satisfied with the finishing, and assembly quality was badly managed.
The designers should take at least half the responsibility for this failure. The designers behaved as if they were bystanders. Designers should sign off on a product after checking its final quality. Had designers been involved more deeply, they could have avoided such a lapse of quality control. To make sure they do take such steps, we set up the Shanghai design office last March. We'll also dispatch our designers to the production sites to make sure they will be able to issue final approval for the quality of products.
Q: What kind of programs do you have in place to train your designers?
A: We need the infusion of new blood and ideas. So we send designers with seven or eight years of experience to work abroad in different industries, such as fashion, furniture, and cosmetics, for between six months and two years. Such programs encourage designers to shift their way of thinking. The programs not only benefit individual designers -- when they come back, they spread their ideas around company. There are between 10 and 20 designers going abroad for such programs each year.
Q: What competitors do you think have good design, and good design management?
A: Apple (AAPL), Sony (SNE), and Sony-Ericsson are excellent. The managers of those companies have maintained a special interest in design. Matsushita [Electric Industrial] (MC), which recently spun off its design unit, has successfully managed its National and Panasonic brands. Their management system served as a stimulus for us. Sony's assessment system -- both in design-assessment and product-assessment systems -- helped us in transforming our in-house design organization.
Q: Do you feel you still need to change the management of your design operation to continue improving?
A: I believe we have lots of room to improve. Just as a lizard cuts off its own tail to move on, we will have to break with the past to move forward.