Over the past decade, South Korea has developed a strong manufacturing network and a second-to-none supply chain network. Understanding that this competitive advantage is unlikely to last forever, they have also successfully built design capabilities and strong brands.
Until now, though, Korean design has been riding on global design trends originating in the West, so, their next challenge is to move from fast-follower to trendsetter in design. To do this successfully, South Korea will need to tap into its unique culture and leverage its values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors in the creation of new design offerings as other countries have succeeded in doing. An example of successfully building and leveraging culture in promoting a distinct design direction would be Scandinavian Design, which, in its offerings, showcases the region's unique qualities, characterized by "love for people and the simple things in life."
Before living in Korea for a year, 'Korean Design' had no meaning for me whatsoever, but it now represents a sense of social sensibility and collectivism. Also, good work ethics and striving at improvement though the incremental refinement of proven ideas since failure is frowned upon and risk-taking is avoided. Observing Korean products since WWII (The Modern Design Museum, Hyundai Museum) it is clear how Western trends have driven Korean design and often, Western designers have been employed in their design (Pony car, Kia and Hyundai cars).
Korean art since WWII shows significant originality and innovativeness, such as the art of Kim Whan-Ki and Lee Jung-Seob's paintings, which re-interpret Western art, as well as developing unique Korean art. Traditional architecture, such as Hanok houses, royal palaces and gardens are also unique and their ideas have been successfully integrated into contemporary architecture, such as the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art (architect Mihn Hyun-jun), the National Museum of Korea (Junglim Architecture) and the Palace Museum (Lee Hyo-won). Korean fashion has also found a voice with beautiful and original products. (Visit Gangnam, Dongdaemun, Apgujeong and Itaewon)
Challenges for South Korea going forward continue to be the stratospheric structure, need for conformity, extreme competitiveness and a lack of a safety net for Korean society that is not conducive to individual initiative. This tends to prevent product innovation as well as new services, service-systems and experience innovation. As an example, sales assistants have to follow rigid procedures that prevent them from creating custom tailored services for customers. The mentality being that the customer has to fit the product, while in the US, the customer comes first and sales assistants have plenty of leeway to identify and satisfy customer needs.
The adaptation of Korean design to Western Design may be missing out on an opportunity to apply Confucianism's sense of order, nature, respect and continuity. The Korean government could further promote Korean design by purchasing Korean designed paintings, furniture, lamps, utensils and toys and building a domestic demand in combination with international exhibitions on Korean design.
Since, in Korea, everyone needs to be onboard for things to finally happen, one way to explore cultural and design change might be to crowdsource ideas from the Creative Community (Advertising, Architecture, Art, Craft, Design, Fashion, Film, Music, Performing Arts, Publishing, R&D, Software, Toys & Games, TV & Radio and Video Games) to uncover how these businesses have reinterpreted Korean culture and combined it with international trends. This requires a much deeper change, which will only be possible by mobilizing the entire Korean culture and its Creative Economy.