The View from Seoul: Korean designers studying abroad have paved the way for a new generation

Our Seoul correspondent explores how and why more Korean creatives are staying put to study design, and what impact that’s having on Seoul’s design culture.

The View From... is a new column on It’s Nice That written by a team of international correspondents in major creative cities around the world. Every two weeks we’ll report on the design scene in these cities, exploring the topics that are making an impact on the local creative community there. This week, James Chae is reporting from Seoul.

For the past eight years, I have been working as an educator in South Korea. I am Korean American and received all my design education and training in the United States before coming to Korea to teach and participate in the local design community. One major motivating factor to work here was seeing Korean designers around me in the US, return home and contribute to the design scene. It made me want to seek out the shifting dynamics between Korean design seen from the West and what was happening domestically.

In the early 2000s more Korean designers went abroad to pursue their design education. Their international activities brought greater attention to Korean design. Designers from this generation include Sulki and Min, Na Kim and Everyday Practice among many others. This trend coincided with the domestic growth of small studios, creating more independence and creative dialogue. There is a saying in Korea “나가야 산다”, which roughly translates to “you must go out to live”. This usually applies to economic export, but numerous designers interviewed for this article mentioned their studies abroad were motivated by a desire to experience a different culture, to live a different perspective. Like one’s myriad ambitions for investing time and money into studying design overseas, the influence of Western design education on Korean designers is equally complex.

GallerySulki and Min: Posters for the Yale University School of Art Undergraduate Comprehensive Exhibition

In an interview with design researcher Florence Fu, Min Choi shares his thoughts on cultural exchange: “While I cannot prove how Korean graphic design has influenced the West — I don’t think that’s the point. The question is not about the ‘origin’ and where it ends up, it’s about what kind of transformation happens in between […] There is always a fundamental misunderstanding involved in any cultural exchange, but I think that misunderstanding is really beautiful, because that’s where creativity can happen.” I find this thought to be profound when comparing how Korean design has evolved over the past 20 years; from the proliferation of independent studios, designers studying abroad creating greater international exchange and recognition, and a growing design culture that many other countries now look to. If the previous generation of designers were venturing out, then now I see a vantage that is looking toward Korea. So, I ask myself how are the developments of Korean design education related to this shift, and what future possibilities lie ahead?


Powerplant is a newly remodeled multi-use arts space at Seoul National University. The top Korean university has seen growing enrollment from international students in its design program. (Image credit: Seoul National University)

As an educator, I’m intimately aware of the enrollment challenges that Korean universities face with the shrinking population and low birth rate. Concurrently, there has been increasing enrollment of international students, namely from China and Southeast Asia, in universities across the peninsula. As of 2022, around 200,000 international students are studying at schools in Korea. This is up from 80,000 students 10 years ago. There are many factors involved in this growth, namely the increased cultural capital of Korean culture.

In an opposite trend, less Korean students are studying abroad. The number of Korean students studying in the US reached a peak of 75,065 in 2008. The latest 2023 count has dropped down to 43,847. The total number of international students in the UK has been growing with 605,130 students enrolled in 2021, which is up from 450,835 in 2016. However, the Korean student population has remained steady at around 5,000 for many years. In respect to studying in the US, many potential students cite drug use and gun violence as major detractors.

Now, design students are a small fraction of the number of international students, but keep in mind that Korean universities graduate around 18,000 design students each year. The increase of foreign students potentially shows that Korea possesses a unique perspective on design education that stands out amongst global institutions. Many of the designers who went abroad in the aughts, have returned to Korea and have taken up influential teaching positions at many Korean university design programs. The fact that foreign students are seeking design education in Korea indicates the increased value of Korean design programs. As a sign of this evolution, I’d like to highlight three Korean designers that I believe show a unique Korean perspective on design, one that is free from the confines of cultural identity. Their independent voices represent an evolution of Korean design education from an insular, and almost protectionist viewpoint, to an engaged pedagogy that builds on both Western and Korean design traditions.

GalleryO Hezin: Images from BHLNTTTX, the fifth edition of the Post/No/Bills program at the Stedlijk Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Design. (Copyright © O Hezin)

Korean designer O Hezin recently held a show at the Stedlijk Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art and Design in the Netherlands. O completed her MFA studies at the University of Seoul and her BFA at Hongik University. Her work has continued to grow in conceptual depth and formal complexity, by which she explores the graphic textures and typographic layers of Korean visual culture.

GalleryBae Minkee: Motion posters for the Open Recent Graphic Design 2018 exhibition and the Digital Book of Hours for Visual Creators series. (Copyright © Bae Minkee)

Bae Minkee is a graduate of Seoul National University. His work engages in a playful dialogue with media and his deep, otaku-level passion for Japanese culture influences how he approaches both form and content. Bae pits internet memes next to critical media theory to create work that is both visually appealing and witty.

GalleryJaeho Shin: work for Gallery Jeoul (Copyright © Jaeho Shin)

Jaeho Shin has been prolific since his days as a student and over the past several years has created some unique typography. In his early work, I was most impressed by his range, which showed how internet references have influenced young Korean designers, something I’ve seen evolve in the classroom. As Shin has continued his independent practice, he has attracted global brands and sculpted a playful take on brutalist typography. This evolution is most notable in recent campaigns for Fila and projects for Gallery Jeoul – one of the latter (shown above) takes inspiration from brutalist typography and the ephemera of paper flyers that commonly litter the streets of Seoul.

It is intentional that the three designers have also previously been highlighted by It’s Nice That. Part of the calculus of this article was weighing international reception of Korean design against educational trends. What is exciting to see is the development and growth of Korean design education being reflected in the work of young designers. My speculation is that a young designer no longer has to “나가야 산다" to build their creative voice and gain outside recognition. Furthermore, my personal hope is to see Korean design be formed, not only by Koreans, but by international voices who are trained in Korean design programs. If Korean design can be both relevant and inclusive without being authoritative, I believe that would be progress for global design culture.

If you find yourself in Seoul, there are many places to discover the work of Korea’s design talent. Here are a few recommendations on bookstores, galleries, and neighbourhoods where the most vibrant developments can be found.

  • Neighborhood: 성수동 Seongsu-dong is a neighbourhood in east Seoul right above the Han River. It has been cringingly been described as the “Brooklyn” of Seoul, but the comparison is accurate given its industrial past and gentrified present. There’s always a rotation of new shops, galleries, and pop-ups. I recommend starting at KioskKiosk and wandering around.

  • Bookstore: The Book Society has been a cornerstone in Korean design and arts. Located in the 서촌 Seochon neighborhood, you will find an amazing collection of artist books, exhibition catalogues, and design literature from Korea and abroad.

  • Space: More local designers are branching into different entrepreneurial ventures. Recently, Triangle Studio opened a cafe and shop in the trendy 연남동 (Yeonam-dong) neighborhood called First by Three.

  • Gallery: Caption Seoul is a project by design studio Materials and curator Kim Hyein. Located in 용산 Yongsan, this new gallery space hosts a range of new creative talent ranging from fine arts, to crafts and furniture design. This is definitely a place to watch in the future.

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About the Author

James Chae

James Chae is a Korean-American designer and educator based in Korea passionate about K-pop, design and music culture. He publishes Pudding Label, co-hosts Graphic Support Group Podcast, and directs Pudding Projects. He is It’s Nice That’s Seoul correspondent.

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