Seoul Stakes a Claim on Design

Seoul's Chief Design Officer, Kyung-won Chung, talks about his "Designomics" strategy for the city and South Korea

As global educators attempt to define the best way to teach the world's future executives, designers, and innovators, the mayor of Seoul has sponsored an ambitious project to strengthen South Korea's national design industry.

Design Seoul Headquarters (DSH) was launched in 2007 to make design a central part of future businesses. The 100-person organization is overseen by Kyung-won Chung, the city's deputy Mayor and Chief Design Officer, who is also a professor in the industrial design department at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology. He says the improvement of design education is critical to his mission, as new graduates provide the foundation on which the city's future prosperity can be built.

Chung, 59, recently spoke to BusinessWeek's Venessa Wong about the challenges of building a national design education system. He also explained his "Designomics" strategy for Seoul and South Korea. An edited version of the conversation follows.

How does design education in South Korea stack up against other countries in Asia and the West?

The reality is that many institutions still conduct low-quality, technique-based training in design. These institutions lack unique programs, qualified and experienced faculty, well-equipped facilities, an open educational environment, and flexible budgets. This all contributes to poor design education that does not meet international standards. Students graduating from those institutions experience many difficulties with employment. Also, the number of design majors outnumbers the limited spaces for employment.

How can you change this?

To improve design education, universities need to develop and facilitate unique, specialized curricula. Moreover, they need to recruit educators from advanced design nations. The globalization of design education is a major issue. Those institutions that do not conform to this change will be forced out naturally.

To what extent has industry in Seoul embraced design and design thinking?

Top managers of leading corporations in various industries are striving to use design strategically. Corporations such as Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics, Hyundai Kia Automotive Group, and Amore Pacific are providing educational programs in design management for top executives. Several professors, including me, along with executives at design companies, are employed as lecturers to teach how to implement design thinking in business.

Kumho Asiana Group [an industrial conglomerate based in Seoul] opened a two-day design management outreach program in 2006 to educate vice-chairmen and top executives on new understandings about design, design management, corporate identity, and personal identity. The outreach program expanded to senior managers in 2007 and to managers in 2008 to improve the standard of customer service through design thinking.

What is the South Korean's government's approach to design?

"Designomics" is Seoul's new catchphrase. It means expanding the economic role of design to cope with the current depression.

And what does Designomics actually entail?

Mayor Oh announced a comprehensive budget plan of about $100 million for the next three years to improve the design capabilities of small to midsize enterprises. The budget will be spent on building various infrastructures to provide design services, from custom-made design information to the re-education of mid-career designers working in companies or design consulting firms. Seoul has also initiated various design projects to help the poor, the disabled, and the elderly in order to narrow down the social gap.

How will the city government get involved?

There will be a low-interest loan program for businesses that produce highly competitive design products with the latest technologies. Also, we are trying to establish a networking system for design consultancies and freelancers who introduce designs with great potential, linking them to corporations with proper production resources. We will implement an incubating system to provide talented young designers with temporary studios and seed money for necessary equipment and operation.

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