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Creating ways to cultivate stronger relationships : Seoul Design Week highlights ideas that improve people’s lives

Sept 20,2017
Rhee Na-mi, the director of Seoul Design Week 2017, explains the role of design as a means to better the people’s lives. Seoul Design Week opens on Thursday to run through Sept. 27. [SEOUL DESIGN FOUNDATION]
To some, the word “design” brings about an image of pretty patterns on wallpaper, nicely-made furniture with delicate decorations, or colorful posters in the streets that catch pedestrians’ eyes. However, according to Rhee Na-mi, the director of Seoul Design Week 2017, design is more than just that. From Thursday through Sept. 27, the week-long event pushes the boundaries of design in Korea, this year under the theme “Design For Better Relationships.”

Taking place around the Dongdaemun Design Plaza in central Seoul, the annual gathering offers various opportunities for people to get a deeper understanding of design and what it can do to make the world a better place. From exhibitions, conferences, live presentations by young designers and an open house event for professional designers, visitors can jump right in to see for themselves the power of design at this particular moment in time.

“‘Design’ is a verb, and its meaning changes according to the word’s different objects,” said Rhee, the director of Seoul Design Week 2016 and 2017. “‘Design for Better Relationships’ is about design that betters the lives of people, focusing on how to solve the problems that occur in relationships between people. The idea of design doesn’t change. It’s only the ingredients that change.”

To get a deeper understanding of what design can do to improve how people connect, the Korea JoongAng Daily interviewed director Rhee last week, before Seoul Design Week kicked off. The following are edited excerpts.

Q. How did you come to choose this year’s theme?

We see the role of design as making people’s lives better. For a better life, we need to solve the problems that ail our lives. As of right now, design has created a lot of things that have improved people’s lives and things that are visible to us - making people’s lives much more convenient and richer. But, even though people have come to live better lives in a physical sense, they’re not as happy as they anticipated they would have been before the changes were made.

What determine the happiness of people aren’t the things they use, but the issues that arise from relationships with others. We use better things and live in better environments, but our relationships haven’t become better. And because design is about making the people’s lives better, there is a need to build better relationships. That’s how we came up with the idea of “Design for Better Relationships.”

But if a person is enjoying a work of design, wouldn’t that be a personal thing? How can it make their relationships better?

Yes, enjoying the fruits of design may be a personal experience, but what’s left after the experience is different according to the purpose of the creation. There’s more than one person in a relationship, but every relationship centers around ‘me’ as the initial subject. For example, in a family you have your parents, because you’re the child, and you have your teachers because you’re the student. But those relationships don’t always run comfortably and smoothly.

How does the problem-solving begin?

The goal is to solve these relationship-based problems in a way that’s more charming, efficient and simpler than it was before. So what we do is divide the relationships into four main categories: Relationships that need to be made, relationships that need to be recovered, relationships that need space and relationships that need to be cut off. We start by figuring out the problem, then go about reducing unnecessary conflicts among people.

Could you give us an example?

Recently, GM Korea started a campaign for its customer service workers, because there were so many people speaking rudely and swearing to the employees. When the phone rings, what the customers hear are not your ordinary ring tones, but either a child saying, “My most loving mother will be answering your call shortly,” or a middle-aged woman saying, “My diligent and bright daughter will be answering your call shortly.” This is an example of communication design, where they make a connection between the customer and the employee.

What would be an example of this kind of design within the exhibition?

For instance, a mother could love her child so much that she’s hampering the child from growing into an independent person. In the child’s perspective, the mother’s love is making them unhappy. What’s more important for the child is to let them grow independently so that they may turn into a responsible adult.

So what we did is create separate, independent spaces for the children and the mothers where they could spend time apart after school. We provided the children with construction materials the children could freely play and create things with. The mothers were skeptical that they could make and solve their own tasks. But after a while, not only did the children get to experience what it’s like to become an independent problem solver, but the mothers also got the time to take a look at themselves not just as a mother to the child, but as an individual.

Is it the first time this idea has been talked about?

This kind of idea has actually always been there. But it’s important to keep bringing it up, and bringing the discussions into public sphere so that people can realize, “that could also be the work of design.” And some designers still think that designing is about making pretty things, including design students. What we, at the Seoul Design Week, are trying to do is to provide a future direction for the field of design - it’s also the biggest goal for myself as a director.

Since the festival is a week long, people might not be able to see all of the events that take place. Is there one specific event that you recommend visitors come and see?

The thematic exhibition, which features actual projects and examples of design made for better relationships, is completed only through the visitors’ participation. When they first enter the exhibition hall, they will be given five balls of different colors, each symbolizing a different type of relationship; relationship between me and myself, between me and you, me and us, us and you and finally, us and them. After looking around the hall, visitors get to choose which problem they thought the most important by putting the balls into designated spots. When the week is over, we get a visual representation of the relationship problems that ail people the most.

It’s your second time directing this event. Do you feel more comfortable this time?

Actually, no. The exhibition and the themes have changed, and you never know what might come up in the process. At first, I only thought about pulling off the event. But this time, I felt more enthusiastic. I thought about how to pose design issues in society to people, and how I could go beyond just a simple festival and bring about an understanding of contemporary social issues. In fact, I wish I had just one more week to prepare.

BY YOON SO-YEON [yoon.soyeon@joongang.co.kr]

The Dongdaemun Design Plaza is located at Dongdaemun Culture and History Park station, lines No. 2, 3 and 5. Admission is free. For more information, visit www.seouldesignweek.or.kr.