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Samsung taps Lee Don-tae as its design wizard

Jan 15,2015
Lee Don-tae
Can Samsung Electronics finally nail the design thing?

In 1996, Samsung Electronics Chairman Lee Kun-hee said: “The decisive point in 21st-century business management will be design.”

Ever since, the tech giant has been trying to improve its design.

But as rival Apple won accolade after accolade for its designs - in addition to millions of devoted customers - Samsung had as many misses as hits in the design department.

Now, the Korean tech giant is promising once again to revolutionize its approach to design by hiring Lee Don-tae, the co-president of the global design consulting firm Tangerine.

Earlier this month, Samsung hired the 47-year-old Gangwon native as its global design team leader.

Lee, who is also a professor at the industrial design department of Hongik University, joined Tangerine in 1998 and became its president in just seven years.

What’s interesting is that Jonathan Ive, who is the senior vice president of design at Apple and who has led the designs of the iPhone, iPad and IOS7, has worked for London-based Tangerine. Samsung expects Lee to bring Tangerine’s design “DNA” to the company as Ive did at Apple.

Industry insiders are watching Samsung’s recruitment of Lee because he is not known as a mere designer but a “design entrepreneur.”

Lee, who has a master’s degree from the Royal College of Art in London, was a Tangerine's project team member for redesigning British Airways’ business-class cabins. By rearranging the seat configuration in an “S” shape, passengers found more space for each seat and allowed them to fold down into flat beds.

This design won the IDEA Grand Prix in 2001 and British Airways eventually commissioned his company to redesign its first-class cabins as well. The airline reportedly saw its annual operating profits increase by 800 billion won.

“Design isn’t a tool to achieve the designer’s self-realization,” Lee said in his book “Foresight Creator.” “The designer should always consider the risk of the company.”

Samsung hopes his contribution will be spread far beyond designing products. His work at Samsung’s Design Management Center will be under the control of Samsung Electronics President Yoon Boo-keun, who heads the company’s consumer electronics division.

“Lee will be in charge of leading innovation of overall and general design of Samsung products including smartphones,” an official from Samsung said.

Samsung has been recruiting many designers from outside. It previously hired Tim Gudgel, a former senior Apple Retail Store designer, and Chris Bangle, who is known as one of the world’s top three automobile designers.

Industry insiders say that as the market enters a mature stage, the functions and performances of products are becoming the same, while design can bring key differentiation or distinction. While Samsung fought with Apple over design patents on smartphones, the new stage of the war is expected to center on smartwatches.

Lee has been said his keyword in design is “foresight,” which refers to imagining and predicting the future based on data and experiences.

Lee’s collaboration with Samsung already produced results in the past. From 2006 to 2012, he worked as a design master to Samsung C&T and won acclaim for the design of apartment interiors.

The creativity boost is not only happening at Samsung Electronics. Cheil Worldwide, the Samsung affiliate that makes advertisements and does marketing consulting, said Monday that it hired Malcolm Poynton as chief creator officer to boost the company’s presence in the global market.

The New Zealand-born Poynton has more than 30 years of experience in the industry and his resume includes work at agencies like Saatchi & Saatchi, and Ogilvy. He was Europe’s chief creative officer for the digital marketing consulting agency SapientNitro.

He has also chaired and judged various international award shows including Cannes Lions, the Clio Awards, D&AD, the London International Awards, the International Andy Awards and the Webbys.

Meanwhile, Samsung Group is expected to spend 50 trillion won ($46 billion) for facilities and R&D investments this year, which is a similar amount as last year.

Korea’s largest conglomerate doesn’t disclose its investment figures as a group, but a source from Samsung Group said Wednesday that this year’s investment will maintain the previous year’s level.

Samsung reportedly spent around 50 trillion won in 2014. According to industry sources, Samsung’s investment has been growing gradually every year from 42 trillion won in 2011.

Its flagship Samsung Electronics will also likely invest an amount equivalent to what it spent last year. The tech giant reportedly invested 24 trillion won and is expected to spend about 25 trillion won in production facilities, according to sources. About 15 trillion won is expected to be spent on the semiconductor business.

BY KIM YOUNG-HOON, KIM HYUN-YE AND JOO KYUNG-DON [kjoo@joongang.co.kr]






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