“When I look for references, I would rather not look at other people’s graphic design work. Instead, I always try to find references in art or classic novels,” says graphic designer Marvin Kim. “I explore fields that are very far removed from graphic design, and art and history are endless sources of inspiration.”
Based in Seoul, Marvin found his way into graphic design through painting and drawing as a child under his father’s influence. “Because of this, choosing graphic design as my major and my job was very natural for me,” he explains. Currently doing an MFA at Kookmin University, Marvin’s work on the course has been looking at nonverbal communication in virtual spaces. Though, his real interest in the medium is driven by a notion famously put forward by Bruno Munari: Design as art.
Looking through Marvin’s portfolio, this inspiration becomes obvious. One project, for example, titled Type Plant, translates the form and growth of his own plants into an intriguing, illustrative typeface. Following the characteristics of the plants, each grows and morphs unpredictably, becoming less recognisable as the original letter form with each stage. Studying the behaviour of his plants and categorising them into three groups: aggressive, defensive and parasitic, he then extrapolated his findings to the English alphabet, intuitively organising each letter by their observable personalities. Finally, their growth systems were arranged using symbols, marked at the top of each letter, like identification cards.
“People usually think plants are static, but as a person who grows and observes plants, they are as dynamic as animals and humans. In the same way, I hoped that the growth of the typeface would feel equally dynamic,” explains Marvin.
His investigative approach has also seen him explore the sounds of language. For his project, Sound Character, Marvin looked at the sounds of Korea’s national alphabet, Hangul. Planning how to visualise the characteristics of Hangul that he discovered during his research, he decided to represent each subject as a living creature. “Depending on the human voice, the existence of different sounds, even the same letters, seemed to be like an ecosystem of sound character,” he says.
Dividing the structure of each character into a head and a body, the former represents a consonant and the latter a vowel. Each character, which Marvin made from clay, grows and morphs depending on the pronunciation of the letter. If the pronunciation is soft, it has a round shape, if strong, it has a sharp shape. By showing the stages of change, viewers are able to recognise the system that dictates it. Inspired by diversity in form, a constant theme throughout Marvin’s work, he says this project was a chance to find a new way of visually expressing sound.
His experimentation isn’t exclusive to his personal projects, however. He also tackles commissioned work with similar conceptual prowess. Tasked with designing a poster and brochure for the Visual Communication Design course’s MFA exhibition, Marvin was interested in investigating the etymology of the word “panorama”. A combining form, “pan” originates from ancient Greek and means “all.” An apt title for a visual exhibition that represents more than just a single student, Marvin’s research led him to another similar word: “Panopticon”. Coined by Jeremy Bentham in the late 18th century, the term refers to a prison structure and system that keeps watch over all of its inhabitants, who assuming that they are under constant supervision, learn to regulate their own behaviour.
A symbol of oppression and hardship that needs to be overcome, he likened this concept to the future of the students as designers. Morbid as it may seem, Marvin says he found similarities between the word and the maze that lay ahead of him and his peers. “It can often feel very negative, but it’s not an obstacle that we can’t pass. Instead we should treat it as a gateway.” With the exception of the centrally located structure generally referred to by an “panopticon”, his design features many metaphors linked to the term and conveys the feeling of needing to overcome this challenge.
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