[Viewpoint] A new, cynical age of design politics

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[Viewpoint] A new, cynical age of design politics

Can you live off design?

The person who posed this interesting question was Neville Brody, a British graphic designer. Brody attended the first Seoul TypoJanchi: Typography Biennale, which was held at the Design Museum of Seoul Arts Center in Seocho District, Seoul, in October 2001. He started his remarks by posing that question as the key problem of the international design world today.

It was his view that design itself cannot provide food for the people or change the government, but it does has the power to correct false information, awaken the mind and give people the power to communicate better. His unique opinion was that design is a food that nurtures the minds of the people.

Graphic designers, especially typographers, stress that fonts have the great power to bind the people of the global village together as one. The more communications and the Internet develop to bring the world together, the more uses we will have for fonts, the key tool of the written word.

Professor of visual design at Hongik University Ahn Sang-soo was one of the founders and key figures behind the Typography Biennale. The biennale was the pilot project of a grand plan to make Hangul, the Korean alphabet, into a universal character set for the 21st century.

I took pride in and felt a sense of dignity from the name of the event - “TypoJanchi,” meaning TypoFestival.

Attendees at the event applauded the idea behind holding the festival in Seoul, the city of Hangul, one of the youngest and the most active alphabets in the world.

Around 100 designers who came from 24 countries chose the slogan, “The native language of each country is a national language, but ‘typo’ is the language of the world,” and responded with great applause to another motto, which was recited by book designer Chung Byung-kyu: “When fonts move, the heart squirms.”

Professor Ahn made a remark that still lingers on in my ears: “Nobody knows what will happen after the Seoul TypoJanchi.”

Perhaps he saw into the future. When I heard that the Korean alphabet had been selected as the official characters to transcribe the language of the Cia-Cia, a minority group in Indonesia, I was suddenly reminded of the font democratization movement eight years ago. Hangul, which was invented by King Sejong in 1443, has saved the soul of a culture that has no characters of its own almost after 566 years after its invention. Hangul was on the verge of extinction when Korea was under Japanese rule, but it survived. Around 60 years after that, Hangul has become the savior of another people.

The Huminjeongeum Society, which played a leading role in spreading Hangul, had a humble attitude, saying it owed a lot to the Korean wave that has spread Korean culture overseas.

The society also said this was only the beginning. Honorary professor of Seoul National University Lee Hyun-bok has called upon the government to secure financial resources on a national level rather than on an individual level, and has asked for systematic support programs to be provided. It would be an honor for the Korean people if the Cia-Cia, who now study textbooks written in the Hangul alphabet, were to consider Korea a brother country.

President Lee Myung-bak has been evaluated as a leader with a keen eye for design. People even started to call President Lee, who restored Cheonggye Stream and renovated the plaza in front of City Hall when he was mayor of Seoul, a “design president.” Design in this respect clearly has a political context as it is linked to accomplishments one can show off.

The fact that his successor and current Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is going “all in” with new construction is seen as a typical case of trying to elevate one’s political status by using design. Standing in front of Gwanghwamun Plaza, the words “design mayor” come to the lips automatically.

Just as public design can be uniquely expressive in Korea, it would be rare in other parts of the world to see the policy maker himself appear on the scene of construction, giving directions to workers there.

The number of people who use design in order to consolidate their political standing, instead of nurturing the minds of the people with good design, is growing. Those who try to follow in the footsteps of the president and mayor are even copying designs, using the word “benchmarking” to justify their actions. It is now “an age of design politics.”

It seems foolish to crowd Cheonggye Stream and Gwanghwamun Plaza when one realizes that the huge budget that went into design politics is tax money paid by the people who earned it with their sweat and blood. The plaza is only a plaza in appearance, because it is a closed space with no communication. The plaza, which was designed around the need for political control and restriction, casts a shadow over what could have been a social space, tainting Korean society.

I think of the statue of the great King Sejong that will be put up in Gwanghwamun Plaza in October. I bow my head as I admire Hangul, which was invented by King Sejong because he took pity on his poor people: What a great designer he was!

The writer is the cultural news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Chung Jae-suk

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