Bae Sang-min designs life of innovation, giving

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Bae Sang-min designs life of innovation, giving


Bae Sang-min says he keeps two key themes in mind when designing his products: aesthetic beauty and social value.

Designer Bae Sang-min, an industrial design professor at Kaist, has an impressive resume. He was part of a high-profile design team responsible for creating global company 3M’s logo and product packaging while working as a professor at Parsons The New School for Design in New York.

He also designed the official Web sites of such prominent fashion houses as Ralph Lauren and Chanel, as well as motion graphics for U.S. cable music channel MTV.

At the peak of his career, he took a dramatic turn, returning to his home country to design products not for big corporations, but students from underprivileged backgrounds. He set up his own lab at Kaist, dubbed “ID+IM” - an abbreviation for “I design, therefore I am” - with the aim of carrying out his plan to donate the proceeds from his products to help underprivileged families in Korea through World Vision, an evangelical relief and development agency that works to alleviate poverty.

Bae’s product designs have won more than 40 international awards, including Germany’s Red Dot Design Award in 2007.

The professor is set to embark on a new project that aims to build environmentally friendly houses in Africa after completing three months of field research in Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia earlier this year.

The Korea JoongAng Daily sat down with the 40-year-old professor in his lab at Kaist to discuss his vision for the future and why he made such a dramatic change in his career.


Q. Why did you return to Korea all of sudden?

A. I felt I was wasting my time, churning out “junk food.” Most of my work was geared toward hooking consumers to buy big companies’ products. I thought, “I didn’t study design to do what I am doing now.” I found that most designers - no matter which products they design - largely focus on satisfying people’s desires. Their design is to entertain and amuse consumers with lavish decorations.

I am not saying they are all wrong. What I want to emphasize is that there are also issues regarding poverty and social values. And designers can play a crucial role in making a difference on the problems facing us. But only few of them pay attention, which makes me sad. In order for me to change what I was doing, I needed to change settings. I was looking for a place where I could spend all of my time doing something valuable and stay away from an intense, money-oriented existence.

Why did you decide to become a professor at Kaist?

Kaist requires every professor to set up his own lab and the institute was known for fostering an ideal environment where faculty can mainly focus on their research. I thought I could effectively carry out a project, although I had no specific idea which kind of program that I wanted to create.

What kind of projects are you working on?

There are two projects going on. One is called “Nanum Project” - nanum means sharing. Along with student assistants, I design, produce and package products. The entire proceeds go to students from poor families. The project allowed us to grant a student in need about 20 million won ($17,726) per year, starting from 2006.

The thing is that I don’t want consumers to buy my products out of pity. I don’t put a big label that says all proceeds will be used for a good cause. Most companies involved in cause-related marketing charge more without any improvement in design or function. But only a fraction of the sales actually are donated to NGOs; I don’t think this is right.

“Nanum Project” aims to make innovative products at an affordable price that actually satisfy people’s needs in their daily lives. So, I want to make consumers open their wallets not because the goods will be used for a good cause, but because it has a cool design and is convenient to use.

Which part do you focus on when creating products?

I usually keep two key themes in mind: aesthetic beauty and social value. I think many designers are negligent about the social value part.

Take “Sound Spray” mosquito repellent. I paid attention to design, but at the same time consider the social impact it might have on the world, especially in third world countries. The spray doesn’t need to be recharged, thanks to motion charge energy technology. The spray was a finalist in the category for Social Impact Design at the 2012 IDEA Excellence Awards [sponsored by the Industrial Designers Society of America]. I think the juries at the awards appreciated the social value that the product has.


From top: “Sound Spray” uses ultrasonic waves to repel mosquitoes; “Roly-Poly Pot” claimed the top prize at Germany’s Red Dot Design Awards in 2007; and the “Cross Cube” MP3 player finished ahead Apple’s iPod at the 2008 IDEA awards.Provided by Bae Sang-min

Have you always been interested in product design?

No, I was an English literature major in Korea. I went abroad to study photography at Parsons, where I did not find it interesting. Then I took foundation courses that teach a wide variety of arts, ranging from sculpture to product and graphic design. When I took graphic design courses, I instantly felt that my talents were an excellent fit for product design. All the steps that finally produce a product were all familiar with me. Looking back, I remember a childhood where I burned down parts of my house while putting together parts to create a miniature automobile.

I think years of various experiences amounted to a kind of journey to discover my real potential. The photography class also later helped to draw up a unique layout that can be applied to all kinds of design.

How do you get an idea for a design?

I usually refer to my journal. I write down issues that I face daily and then take five minutes to think about a solution for the issues. Sometimes I mange to come up with some brilliant ideas, and other times it doesn’t work. But even if I fail at the moment, a great idea might come through when I turn to a page years later.

I attribute my diary to bringing “Roly-Poly Pot” into existence. Using water as a counterweight, the pot slowly tips when water levels are low. It can work with any plant’s watering needs.

About 15 years ago, my plant suddenly died and I took it to the gardener to ask what happened. He said it seemed like I failed to adjust the amount of water. I thought long and hard to come up with a solution to water plants properly, but to no avail at the time.

Some 15 years after, I casually flipped through the journal and found the page. Then the image of a roly-poly toy hit me. That is how I came to design the pot. I really cherish the diary, which is a great source of fresh ideas.

What are your future plans?

I am keen to build the best philanthropic design lab in the world, where designers can design and produce products that can have a positive influence on society in general. Keeping that in my mind, I will keep expanding and improving my lab so that it will be capable of attracting a number of students abroad and sharing the importance of social influence in design.

By Park Eun-jee []
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