Creativity Is a Flower That Needs a Lot of WateringAre Korean designers less creative than American or European designers? I was faced with this question again recently when waiting for a hesitant client to make a decision about certain design recommendations. Ultimately, this man chose a rather familiar and not highly recommended concept and had us make modifications to render it even more pedestrian.
This is not an unusual situation for a designer in Korea and by now I should perhaps be desensitized but when one's credibility is questioned, it is difficult to remain calm.
The Korean cultural paradigm, derived from Confucianism, is hierarchical and the artisan haunting the lower rungs of the social ladder is not at liberty to submit anything other than what is expected. Working at the mercy of the whims and tastes of the client makes creativity a moot point.
The educational process in Korea does not train people to think critically and make independent judgments, I believe. Learning here is largely memorization with very little analysis, but the creative process requires re-evaluation of norms and new approaches. Analytical thinking and reflection are at the core of this activity. The Korean educational system focuses on rote learning rather than lateral thinking.
In spite of this, there is hope for creativity in our country. Korean designers can be just as creative as their American or European counterparts when given the opportunity to do so but there seem to be only four situations where this is possible: Creativity can thrive if one is young and innocent, a woman, away from the pressures of the Motherland or a maverick with a lot of money.
I believe being creative is one of the basic human instincts. This is why people in their early 20s can be so creative when given a chance. Their fresh approach can result in original and prolific output until their superiors have slapped them down a few times; sadly, it doesn't take much to quash their creative urges when they are constantly barraged with demands that they conform to norms.
The lives of Korean women seem to be defined by their powerlessness but I have found that Korean female designers can be quite independent in their thinking. It takes a great deal of courage to put something on the table that may diverge from the norm, and women, perhaps because they have so little to lose, can be quite brave this way. I think the predominant reason for female ascendancy in the creative field in Korea is that while everyone was busy keeping the male child in line, his sister was left to her own devices.
Creative Koreans are often recognized while working abroad. Paik Nam June and the Chung siblings are two of the more familiar names. Once the overseas acclaim has been noted in Korea, these artists can return as heroes and heroines and be free to create on their own terms. The endless possibilities that face the voluntary exile provide him or her heady inspiration for creativity not to be found in the stifled atmosphere of Korea.
No matter how much a society tries to make its members conform, rebels will always exist. In Korea, being the non-conformist in the creative area means ostracism to the point of starvation. Hence, the uncompromising creative type has to have an independent source of financing or personal wealth. Success in design requires practice and visibility. There are some designers and artists who have found success by persevering but they are the ones who were lucky enough to have found sympathetic patrons to lend them much needed fiscal and moral support.
So, where does all the most-seen creative work in Korea come from? From all of the above plus imported talent for the major projects. Major design efforts commissioned by chaebols and governmental institutions are typically awarded to large and expensive foreign firms. These design firms are usually given generous budgets and allowed to dictate the terms of their involvement. Unfortunately, domestic designers are rarely given such latitude.
At some point, Korea will have to learn to work better with native creative talent in all fields. Reliance and trust on local creativity has proven to be extremely profitable in certain fields. Optimizing local human resources is the essence of becoming a global player and winning among the big boys.
The writer(Joon Chung) is president of Sympact, a design firm in Seoul, and lectures at the Korean National University of Arts.