My first visit to South Korea happened to coincide with the Seoul Design Festival in 2011. Not that I needed to seek out creativity in the city: even stepping into the airport, it was evident that this was a place that infused carefully crafted design with day-to-day living.
The country itself boasts a prolific graphic design scene, pioneered by the likes of Young Jae Cho and Ahn Sang-soo. The latter is especially noted for designing a succession of experimental letters based on older Korean typefaces that were the first to deviate from the rigidity of Hangul typography, a Korean alphabet created in the mid-15th century, and the square frame of Korean writing.
Today, both established and emerging graphic designers, typographers and illustrators stretch from Seoul to Gwangju, demonstrating sophisticated works and a distinct design language. Here, we pick just some of the talents that caught our eye.
Also read: The 10 most inspiring designers in China today
01. Ahn Graphics
Established in 1985 by Ahn Sang-soo, Ahn Graphics is a Seoul-based design and publishing house that consists of four main departments: design, digital, media, and publishing.
Based on the philosophy of "intelligence and creativity", the studio exemplifies a fresh, clean approach that favours striking visual imagery over an abundance of text.
Clients vary from prominent local institutions such as Cultural Heritage Administration of Korea, Buyeo National Museum and Soongsil University, to globally recognised corporate brands such as Honda, Asiana Airlines and Nike.
02. Shin Dokho
Seoul-based Shin Dokho exemplifies a minimal yet expressive style that utilises bold colours and experimental typography to evoke both texture and movement.
The young talent has exhibited widely throughout the country already, and contributed to over 10 publications.
03. Hong x Kim
Eunjoo Hong and Hyungjae Kim are graphic designers who work and live in Seoul. They both studied Graphic Design at Kookmin University; since 2005, the duo have partnered on projects that range from graphic design, urban research, art, publishing, and exhibition design. Their playful style is characterized by bright, contrasting colours set on more neutral backgrounds, and clean typography.
As independents, Eunjoo Hong freelances, whilst Hyungjae Kim designs books for Eum publishing and works as an art director for Saii, Moonji Cultural Institute. He has also taught at Kaywon School of Art & Design since 2009.
04. Sulki & Min
Sulki Choi and Min Choi reside in Seoul, and form the well-known partnership Sulki & Min. Sulki studied Communication Design at Chungang University; Min at Seoul National University.
Both earned their MFA degrees in Graphic Design at Yale University (where they met), and worked as design researchers at the Jan van Eyck Academie in Maastricht, The Netherlands from 2003 until 2005.
Since returning to Seoul, Sulki & Min have collaborated with institutions such as Arko Art Center, Festival Bo:m, Gyeonggi Museum of Modern Art, Hyunsil Culture Studies, and Insa Art Space.
They make publications that they "feel like publishing - mostly books about and/or by fellow Korean artists", and were appointed graphic designers for the BMW Guggenheim Lab last year. Sulki and Min teach graphic design and typography at Kaywon School of Art & Design and University of Seoul, respectively.
05. Young Na Kim
Seoul-based graphic designer, Young Na Kim, predominantly works with cultural and editorial clients to create vibrant, playful design and print. She enrolled on the Werkplaats Typografie programme in the Netherlands between 2006 and 2008 as a Hongik University graduate.
She has since initiated her own magazine project called umool umool, concocted the concept and design for internationally-recognised GRAPHIC magazine, and participated in numerous exhibitions worldwide, including Graphic Design Worlds at Milan Triennale Museum (2011), and Millennium Magazines at MoMA (2012).
06. Jung Jinyeoul
The relationship between urban spaces and social phenomena, and their role in the formation of individual and communal identities are themes that consistently appear throughout Jung Jinyeoul’s unique creative portfolio.
A graduate of Philosophy and Visual Communication Design from Kookmin University, the graphic designer worked for The-d Studio, and as Art Director for the Zero/One/Design/Center in Seoul before moving to the US to complete an MFA in Graphic Design at Yale University.
Upon his return to South Korea in 2009, he founded graphic design practice, TEXT. Jung Jinyeoul currently works as a full-time lecturer at Kookmin University.
Artist-designers Jin Dallae and Park Woohyuk form the visual communication and design studio, TypePage. Their concept-heavy work is abstract in nature, characterised by simple geometric forms reminiscent of Vasily Kandinsky.
The duo have completed projects for Korea’s National Museum for Contemporary Art, Korea Craft & Design Foundation, Korea Society of Design Science, and Shanghai Biennial of Asia Graphic Design, to name just a few. They actively partake in design events and exhibitions, and self-publish their independent newspaper, Archiv Peace.
08. Kim Hyung-jin of Workroom
Design studio and publishing house Workroom was co-founded in 2006 by Kim Hyung-jin, who majored in Art History at Seoul National University and, later, in Communication Design at Samsung Art & Design Institute (SADI). He took up employment at Ahn Graphics in 2005. The creative has developed a distinct style that delicately fuses photographic elements with typography and/or free-hand drawing.
He was also the mastermind behind the translation of Adrian Shaughnessy's 'How to be a Graphic Designer Without Losing Your Soul' and 'Penguin by Design: A Cover Story 1935-2005' from English to Korean.
09. Jaemin Lee of Studio Fnt
Jaemin Lee graduated in Visual Communication Design from Seoul National University in 2005. He is a recipient of many awards, including the 2013 Red Dot Design Award and the YCN Professional Awards 2013, Design & Communications category.
Lee is currently a board member of the Korean Society of Typography. The emerging talent founded Studio Fnt in 2006.
10. Strike Communications
Strike Communications is a well-established graphic design company situated in Seoul. Under the creative direction of Jingwoo Kim (김장우), who graduated from Dankook University's Department of Visual Communication Design, and worked with Ahn Graphics and Vinyl Design before joining Strike Communications in 2007, the studio focuses on four key areas: corporate communication, marketing communication, brand strategy, and visual identity.
Their approach - making use of spaces and unobtrusive colours to formulate balanced, engaging visuals without distracting from the content - has won them clients as diverse as UNICEF, Advanced Institutes of Convergence Technology (AICT), LG Electronics, and Sony. They were recipients of the Red Dot Design Award: Best of the Best in 2011.
I'd like to thank Don Ryun Chang and Chris Ro for their invaluable help and advice, which notably facilitated this feature. I would also like to thank the British Council and Ahn Mano for extra input.
Words: Zara Arshad
Zara Arshad edits the blog Design China, which covers the latest inspiring designs from China, covering everything from fashion and products to graphics and illustration.
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Have we missed your favourite Korean designer off our list? Let us know in the comments below!