Ondol: A Few Warm Stones is focused on Korean graphic design history, research, typography and contemporary discourse. It is extremely well-researched and designed by students from Kookmin University, University of Seoul, Samsung Art & Design Institute and Handong University. We spoke with founder Chris Ro about the project.
Can you introduce yourself to our readers?
My name is Chris Ro. I am a Korean American graphic designer originally from Seattle. I’m currently working on projects under the name ADearFriend and I also teach design at Hongik University.
How did the concept for Ondol come about?
When I was studying graphic design in the States, I had long been extremely curious about Korean graphic design. In brief instances in design school I had come to understand the first instance of movable type had been developed here. And then after that, I had come to hear of and see the work of Ahn Sang Soo. A vast amount of time had passed between these landmarks and yet no mention or recognition of what had happened in between. So Ondol became just that, the beginning of examining what had happened in between.
When I came to Korea, I was excited to put the pieces together. I slowly came to find though that finding resources and documentation on Korean graphic design history were scarce. Most of the publications devoted to Korean design history centered on product/industrial design. And there was almost nothing to be found in English.
I had also slowly began to discover that it was not only I, but people outside of Korea as well that were curious about Korean graphic design. So with all these motivations lined up, we began this project. It started initially with myself, Yunim Kim, our editor and a group of students from Kookmin University, SADI, Handong University and the University of Seoul. It was a random group of students who I had either worked with before or come to know through other students or friends. I had simply sent out a rather ambiguous message that anybody that wanted to participate in a Korean graphic design historical research project over the summer, please come to this room at this time on this day. As it then happened, we began immediately after that. But it was not easy. Resources were scarce. I was not also proficient enough in Korean to fully handle this project. So we had a lot of help. Professors Jae-Hyouk Sung, Jin Jung and Namoo Kim were all quite extremely helpful. And Yunim Kim was the pivotal rock that supported much of this project too. The researchers too were all amazing. For some it was some of their first excursions into design research and I think their efforts and results were beyond what was expected at the time. Overall, it was not easy but if I can look back now and with as objective eyes as I can, I am fairly proud of what we were able to accomplish in that amount of time and with that amount of resources. Sorry, I am getting long winded here. This is how the project began.
How would you summarize the evolution of Korean graphic design?
This is far too difficult of a question for me to answer correctly and respectfully. I do not yet know enough about the entirety of Korean graphic design to accurately answer this. I can say this though, even during the short time I have been here, I feel Korean continues to change in a lightning fast manner. And in many ways, I feel NOW, is a great time to be in graphic design in Korea. The designers I continue to meet and run across are all part of this great big push. Where this push is going, I’ve yet to full grasp. But the fact that it continues to go is extremely palpable. It is exciting.
This is a question that you explore in your magazine, but what is Korean design? How is it different from say, Japanese or Swiss design?
Similar to the question above, I really cannot answer this question respectfully and knowledgeably. Ondol I think is the beginning of this question. And I think “Ondol” is beginning to tell some of these stories. But how to define this? It is still too early for myself to fully answer this. I think I might be able to generalize about a few known quantities. But these would probably exist at a cultural level that inevitably trickles down to design. For example, speed. Everything here is done fast or faster. And this trickles down to how graphic design is often perceived here. And this in turn effects the graphic design process. So if I could generalize about one thing is that the rate of the industry here is like no other. Ephemeral gets more ephemeral. But again, this is just one small facet that I think is not reflective of all of Korean design.
The Korean alphabet is called Hangul, and it’s typographic elements are not well known outside of Korea. Does Hangul have the same level of experimentation and variety as Roman typefaces?
From my experience, I think I can safely say no. As I understand it, Korean type design is a monster. It takes several years to finish a typeface. There are just too many characters to be constructed. Too many instances to compensate for. And because of this, type design is just not the most desirable field. Granted, abroad, type design is not a ‘hot’ industry in and of itself. But, the level of experimentation is at a higher and more frequent level. Some Roman typefaces can literally be set up and established at a pretty quick rate. So the trial & error process is less cumbersome and you get a larger variety of type that sometimes does and does not work. That does not exist here. The lone folks who end up pursuing type design are very special people. They are rare.
As a graphic designer based in Seoul, how do you find inspiration? Or reversely, is it difficult to block out the superfluous design influences of the landscape?
Hmmm, I think there is definitely a lot of inspiration to be found in this continuous push. This go, go, go. It is non-stop and for better or worse, this energy either pushes you or pushes you out of the way. And I think it is safe to say, if you grab it and go along with it, it can take you to pretty interesting places. Outside of this energy, it has been a pretty fun process continuing to learn about Korea’s past, present and future and how these are shaping design. Learning things culturally that in turn have had an effect on design are pretty fascinating. I think Hangul typography has been pretty inspirational as well. It seems with everyday, I am seeing or learning something new that is quite beautiful and inspiring within the history and traditions of typography.
What is your advice for Korea’s young creative sector?
I think if I could say one thing, it would probably be along the lines of, do what you love. I know this is a pretty individually oriented, and perhaps from local perspective, a very ‘western’ mindset. But I really see that in this place and time, a little more selfishness is not necessarily a bad thing. I know this society is very group oriented and people really move together. And this is beautiful in more ways than one. But I sometimes think that as a designer, this kind of group movement creates resistance, hesitancy, and double-checking. We do not make anything new because we are constantly checking to make sure it is ‘okay’. But as creators if we are constantly seeking approval, well, I don’t see this as particularly productive. I think if one really wishes to pioneer anything, it is sometimes really difficult to do so as a group. So I always say consider the group but listen to yourself as much as possible as well. I believe this is a clash in ideals and mentality. But as this society continues this incredible push to wherever is next, this clash will also be best dealt with on an individual level. So find it. Love it. Do it.