South Korean designer Eunji Kang is one of the many 2012 MA graduates I didn’t get to talk to when I visited the presentation ceremonies in December, but I got to make up for it by chatting to her now, on a very cold January day, about her work and her experience at Goldsmiths.
Eunji is not the kind of designer that wants to create just “pretty images”, or to make a product more marketable or saleable; instead, she is looking for projects were conceptual thinking is allowed in design practice. Coming from a background in Fine Art, she had always been interested in contemporary and conceptual art, but the start of her career found her in publishing, where she worked as a designer of book covers.
“My experience there was purely as a maker”, she tells me. There was not much freedom involved: she was given a book to read and a description of the target readers in terms of demographics and character, and from there she had to visualize their needs and cater to them in her design work, whose purpose was purely to sell the book. I ask her if she ever felt that the content of the book was misrepresented by the way it was marketed and she nods. Sometimes the books weren’t any good, but they still had to be made to look “pretty” in the marketing materials, she explains. During this time she started to become angry and thirsty for theory as a space for critical thinking. Even her boss at the publishing company advised her to pursue a more conceptual field. Eventually, Eunji’s quest for projects where conceptual thinking is allowed in design practice brought her to the MA in Design: Critical Practice at Goldsmiths.
So what was the course like? Eunji says it helped her think deeper about the contemporary design debate and conceptual thinking about design practice. Overall she found it to be a good experience, which she would recommend to people who enjoy asking questions, in particular the question Why? as in: Why do we do things? “And does the course provide any answers to these questions or does it bring forth even more questions?” I ask. “More headache”, she replies (and laughs).
Eunji’s graduation project for the MA course was called “Sarah Smith: the average woman” and it’s a study of stereotypes and social expectations. Her inspiration started from stereotypes she had to confront herself, as in South Korea there is a fairly rigid image of what a female designer should be like: an elegant, trendy twenty-something with a bright and shiny personality. There is less of that in the UK, she tells me, but still, expectations and pressures are everywhere: for example, at a certain age people expect of you to have a family. Eunji feels that modern design has helped, to a certain degree, perpetuate this system of social pressures and expectations, and what she wants is to help the critical dimension of design.
The Sarah Smith project started as a research (mainly numerical data) on the characteristics of “the average woman” in Britain according to various sources such as newspapers and national statistics. After these measurements were collected, Eunji compiled a profile and tried to transform herself into Sarah Smith using different props. “It was awful and painful”, she answers when I ask how that felt like.
This approach is something of a motif in her design work: gathering data, then interpreting it for empirical use and a more personal experience. Another of her projects based on this principle, “Weather Makes You”, involved recording daily clothing decisions in accordance to temperature variations, then using this research to understand the connection between the insulating abilities of clothes and temperature values. Taking the project further, clothes could be tagged according to the temperature for which they are adequate. It sounds like a great idea: when we hear the weather forecast expressed as a number of degrees, does it instantly give us any clues of what we should wear tomorrow? Probably not. Eunji’s idea helps make weather a more personal experience. Another large-scale research project she conducted involved collecting more than one hundred copies of the same poetry book, in different editions and with notes and other “souvenirs” from their many readers. (This was easy to do because poetry books are a valued gift in South Korea, she says.) She ended up with a sizeable collection of doodles, airplane boarding passes, letters from parents to their children and other traces of the way the book had been a part of the reader’s personal experience.
At the moment, Eunji works in the field of data visualisation and data storytelling. She shows me an example of her recent work, a strangely beautiful and complicated graphic resembling a planetary model, and he explains that it was the representation of a many-pages document that she was asked to visualize in one page. Eunji is comfortable with this kind of work because she is more comfortable in dealing with numbers and the abstract than she would be with product design, for example: she repeats one more time that it’s not for her to try and make things look “pretty”.
I ask her to summarize her approach to design in a nutshell. She hesitates a bit. “I’m a thinker”, she finally answers. “People always tell me that: that I’m very logical”.