[VIEWPOINT]Visual pollution on the streets

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[VIEWPOINT]Visual pollution on the streets

The JoongAng Ilbo recently started a “beautiful signboards” campaign in Seoul’s Jongno district. The questions raised by the newspaper were timely, albeit belated, from a cultural point of view. But as the saying goes, “It is never too late to begin.”
The beauty of the city is a controversial issue, and the campaign further plays the role of a catalyst to help spur the improvement in the appearance of signboards in a realistic way. It not only provides a yardstick to measure Korean’s aesthetic identity, but also serves as a touchstone to determine the present state of our visual culture.
Even if the concept of “culture” is not expanded greatly, signboards can be positioned as the vanguards of making the environment beautiful. They can be called the basic unit of the visual environment that reflects the cultural atmosphere and aesthetic level of a particular region. It is generally held that the concept of “visual culture” refers to the body of processes and outcomes that results from visually accessible surroundings, those things we can often encounter with our eyes. In our everyday life, we often see signboards wittingly or unwittingly. So signboards are important basic units in the visual environment.
In this regard, I would like to make the following observations.
First of all, we should not overlook the fact that most signboards in Korea are, in a word, expressionless. In other words, they are pitifully lacking in uniqueness so that restaurants, stationery shops or antique stores have the same “face” ― the same character, style and color.
Second, the expressions on signboards are dark and uniform. The fundamental cause seems to derive from our emotional rigidity. These days, there is some sign of positive change as a variety of character styles and color tones are being developed and spread, but there seems to be a long way to go yet.
Third, I’d like to point out the abuse and misuse of the primary colors such as red, blue, and yellow. Signboards in Korea have been colored to the extent that they are derided as the “red republic” or the “sea of visual pollution.” Because of its conspicuousness, red has been used randomly and the streets of shopping areas appear ablaze with red signboards. As a result, people come to realize that they have committed the foolishness of being caught in a paradox of co-destruction and that no signboards are outstanding at all. The misuse of color has also been so serious that mushrooming signboards without any distinctive features have aggravated the visual pollution.
Finally, signboards are basic keywords to enhance the quality of our visual life and the starting point for the culture itself to infuse the city with expression. What should be kept in mind is that a mature culture of signboards, where mine is not conspicuous alone but mine and others’ are in harmony, should take root. When autonomous morality and an aesthetic of “harmonious but not uniform” are demanded, the disorderly and expressionless urban environment will be improved.
Before we become “immune” to the era of visual pollution, it is urgent to correct the polluted environment. The German writer Goethe linked the importance of human vision to the quality of life, saying, “I can tolerate unwelcome sounds but can hardly tolerate an ugly sight.”
Strong legal restrictions on the size and position of signboards may be important, but what is more fundamental is to raise the artistic and emotional level of the people and constantly study how to harmonize the tradition with local characteristics. Instead of legal regulations that are temporary and expedient popular remedies, the autonomy and aesthetic awareness of the people are required from a long-term perspective. Of course, public relations and support from local governments are also needed to put the street environment in order.
Signboards can be called the expression of the streets itself. “Expression” in Chinese characters means cleanness of the heart, hidden under clothes. Likewise, it is very important to give signboards on streets a human heart.

* The writer is the director of the Industrial Design Institute at Sookmyung Women’s University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff.

by Yoo Han-tae
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