Yehwan Song wants to radically change how people think about the web
The South Korean coder and designer creates innovative ways of presenting content, using the computer as a tool to make charming and interactive work.
Let’s be honest, quite a lot of websites look the same these days don’t they? Heavily templated, minimalist, you probably know the deal. Much of this is based on a user-centric approach, focusing almost entirely on the easiest way for users to perform a task. This can be useful when transferring money to someone, but where is the fun in using it for almost everything else?
Yehwan Song strongly feels that the web should be more playful, and her mission is to make people know this, and hopefully, to see the light!
“People are trying to make websites more focused on being user friendly. Just making it easy to use, and as ‘good’ as possible,” she laments. “It’s kind of frustrating because they end up only using the same templates, meaning the user can only find where the button is and how to use it.” This oversimplification is something that Yehwan feels is selling people short, and turning the internet into a uniform place.
“If you think about good general graphic design, it’s more focused on the content, you know? Most posters and editorial designs are driven from the content, and utilise features that present that content in the best way,” she tells It’s Nice That. “I think that it’s kind of ignored in the web world, and technology especially, because people are more focused on technique and just making the user’s lives easy. I’m more focused on, ‘How can I make things more content-based?’”
Yehwan, who grew up in South Korea, has lived all over the world (eight cities and counting), which is something that has helped her to learn and develop her craft. “I'm back in Seoul, but I've lived in many different cities so far,” she says. “So it's hard to say I'm based somewhere really. Some places were for work, some of them for study. I was in New York last year – I just love that city!”
It was whilst in New York that she realised how templated websites can stifle creativity: “I studied poetic computation whilst there, and I learned how those technologies can be biased, as well as realising that ready-made web templates are very stereotypical, which causes people to lose their awareness of how to present content. Because of that, I’m focusing on using design and code to make strong connections between code, design and content.”
As her extensive travelling suggests, Yehwan feels that in her field she can be based anywhere if need be, and that the community of creatives within it communicates across borders so easily that geography is not a limiting factor. “There are so many people who have worked with me even though I was in New York, the same in Korea as well. Right now, even though I’m in Seoul, there are people talking to me from London and lots of other cities too. It’s really hard to say that one spot is better than the other for artists in my field.”
“I accidentally took a geometry and construction maths course, and I ended up being fascinated by the patterns and shapes made by these rules.”Yehwan Song
Her interest in coding was something that she believes stems from her childhood: “I think there have been some points that triggered me. When I was young I loved playing and making small games and animations using Flash. My father also loved technology and devices, he was a real early adopter who loved collecting new devices and experimenting with them.”
Building on this initial introduction to technology and computing, Yehwan’s Eureka moment was something that confirmed this was a path she wanted to go down. It happened purely by chance, and almost didn’t happen at all: “When I was in school, I accidentally took a geometry and construction maths course, and I ended up being fascinated by the patterns and shapes made by these rules,” she says. “I was fascinated by the unexpected results and the aesthetics of it. From that one-month-class that I took just because I had nothing else to do, I started to think that I could actually use the computer as a tool to create something charming and interactive. It was from that point I started to love artists like Yugo Nakamura and Angelo Plessas.”
Yehwan’s work is not solely about coding though. Yes, it plays a huge role in her projects but there are also clear design influences at play. These aesthetic considerations stem from majoring in graphic design at University, which gave her a strong and varied base to build from. “The class was mostly focused on editorial design and printed things, typography etc,” she says.
When given the chance during this time she began to veer towards working digitally, as it just seemed more natural to her way of thinking about things, and ultimately more suited to her interests. “I loved making layouts and visuals, but less so when working with printed material,” she tells us. “To be honest, there were computers and electronic devices around me rather than books when I grew up, so I started to connect typography and layouts with coding and screens, which I preferred. I started to make rule-focused, generative, but also typographically and editorially organised things. The result usually ended up as a website.”
Yehwan’s work, therefore, sees her combining her coding skills with this traditional grounding in design principles, even if it was not the field she wanted to pursue on its own. “Creating icons and branding, if you think about, it is creating a different environment that shows each brand,” she says. “Code is very different, it’s kind of like creating one environment, where everything follows that one coding rule.” Making the most of her position as someone with a strong knowledge of both, she tries to use this to her advantage: “I feel like if I connect the two it improves my research.”
She also makes use of the unique way that she learned code, which was by a steady immersion rather than any crash course. “I didn’t learn code from YouTube, or go somewhere to try and learn it,” she says. “I just naturally know it because I was in those environments and exposed to it when I was younger.”
Rather refreshingly, it is clear that Yehwan loves the media that she works in, and the metaphors that she uses to describe her relationship with it are examples of this. “Coding and website stuff is kind of like a friend or a creature – I don’t feel like it’s a code or a technology.” This perhaps explains Yehwan’s creative approach to coding, which is as far from formulaic as you can imagine. Her own website is a case in point, utilising Google Sheets to create a navigable Venn Diagram that plots her projects based on their involvement in certain categories.
“Data is more like a living creature, what it reveals and manifests itself as is very generative and unpredictable.”Yehwan Song
In the grand scheme of Yehwan’s work though, this site is comparatively simple, with some of her most notable projects displaying information in extremely left-field ways. One of her particular favourites is her site for Open Recent: “It's an exhibition that shows Korean Graphic Design, I decided to make a website for it that captures itself every three seconds,” she says, beaming when recalling it. “That was a project that I really loved.”
GalleryAnti User Friendly
GalleryAnti User Friendly
The self-referential site constantly archives itself, tracking your movements and piling them up so you can sift through them as you go. Obviously it doesn’t need to do any of this, but where would be the fun in that? Which is the point that Yehwan is trying to get across – just because it doesn’t need this function, it doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t do it.
Another piece of work that she is extremely proud of is her work for the Typojanchi Biennale in 2018, which centres around how designers control tools to create their work. “For me, one of my main design tools is a web browser, so I focused on ‘responsive design,’” she tells us. When designers create a website, they make it responsive so that it adapts and does not lose it’s layout when the browser window size is changed – Yehwan chose to challenge this notion.
“I created the same website 252 times, each with different ‘responsiveness.’ Some of them were not fully responsive, some were 100 per cent responsive and some were not responsive at all. I sliced each of the 252 websites into pieces and put each piece together, so in a certain ratio the website looks like a normal website, but if you change the ratio it looks scattered because each piece has different responsiveness rules,” she says.
With a background in coding, Yehwan is no stranger to complex data and algorithms, which is quite a unique position to be in in the creative industry. Much of her work uses data sets to create unpredictable and exciting ways of presenting solutions and carrying out commands.
How we manage and what we do with data is one of the most important issues facing society at the moment, and is often spoken of as something we must be wary of. It is therefore refreshing that Yehwan continues to approach it with an open mind, hoping to use it in a positive way. “It is fascinating because data these days is generative and unexpected,” she tells us. “There are giant databases that we can neither fully understand nor control, which means it always involves unexpectedness and surprise.”
It is this aspect of data that Yehwan finds inspiring, seeing such potential in the fact that it is never clear what visuals she can derive from her data sets. “Even though you set detailed and obvious criteria, the sorted data can be very generative and unexpected. It’s why I love playing with it, because even though I focus on the content, the results are always fluid and surprising. Data is more like a living creature, what it reveals and manifests itself as is very generative and unpredictable.”
Yehwan has unsurprisingly built up a strong client list of large brands, and this is something that she will continue to do throughout 2020. Aside from this though her primary goal is a more overarching (and difficult) one to achieve – to make people change how they think about the web. “I hope to create things using my own content, and this can then be an example for clients to reach out to me from,” she says. “I want to push my personal work so I can just show people what is possible, and what you can achieve and create through code.”
Obviously, this is no easy task, but it has to start somewhere, and as Yehwan continues to grow her network and make more interesting and groundbreaking work, then it is only a matter of time before it begins to have an impact. “I really want to make people see websites from a different perspective,” she says. “And I hope that other people will want to do the same thing too!”
“I really want to make people see websites from a different perspective.”Yehwan Song
Spotify Design is proud to sponsor It’s Nice That’s Ones to Watch 2020, championing a diverse and inclusive creative community. We’re a team of cross-disciplinary creatives who love to design experiences that make meaningful connections between listeners and artists. We’re committed to designing for tomorrow and to supporting future-facing creatives who are out to make an impact on the world.
About the Author
Charlie joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in December 2019. He has previously worked at Monocle 24, and The Times following an MA in International Journalism at City University. If you have any ideas for stories and work to be featured then get in touch.
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