Younghee Lee on Think Rhino

2013 MA Design and Environment graduate Younghee Lee answered for the Design blog a few questions about her graduation project from Goldsmiths and her approach to design: 

How did you arrive at the idea of your graduation project Think Rhino?

Initially I was interested in animal rights, not in a traditional sense but more in terms of equality and the effects of modern society on both domesticated and wild animals. Whilst researching, I was shocked to discover the far reaching nature of the crisis and its multiple complexities. The Rhinoceros as a species is facing extinction, possibly within 20 years or less. Some cultures falsely believe Rhino horns to possess narcotic and/or psychoactive properties. This isn’t the case. Rhino horn is largely composed of keratin which is the same material as our hair and fingernails. Keratin has absolutely no active components – consuming Rhino horn is akin to biting your fingernails or eating hair.

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The Rhino problem is further reaching than the plight of the animal itself. The main consumer of Rhino horn is Vietnam where it is believed that the horn, amongst a host of other things, can treat cancer. Consumers are spending up to $100,000 per kilogram believing it may help treat loved ones which of course it does not. Criminal gangs are thriving from the profits. The horn trade is now a multifaceted high tech industry which feeds organised crime – this is having some very serious implications globally. Poaching also has a serious effect on the African and Asian communities who live in or near their habitats, long term conservation, tourism and sustainable incomes are being taken away from some of the poorest people on the planet. Last year in South Africa alone, over 1000 Rhinos were poached which is a 35% increase on 2012 and is wildly higher than the average of 12 per year from 2000 – 2007.

What was your design process?

It began with a thorough analysis of the problem from as many perspectives as possible. I created a map of the supply chain from provider to politician to consumer, collected as much information as possible and kept up to date with the issue. These steps were crucial for me to evaluate and expand ideas that had potential to communicate. My primary aim was to draw attention to the issue without using shocking or gory images. It is easy for people to turn away from and ignore brutal imagery as it is upsetting and repellent. We live in a media literate society where the public have a constant stream of input from a variety of different sources, holding their attention is vital.

I resolved to attempt to communicate directly to the end users in a clear, unprejudiced, aesthetically appealing yet informative manner. I physically made a series of 7 horns after much trial and error and a lot of manual labour – each physically reflecting one facet of the complex issue. They were then photographed using a make shift infinity wall and also with people to amplify the human / animal interaction and relate this seemingly exotic issue to everyday life. I have made the images freely distributable and printed them in both English and Vietnamese, also I continue to distribute them myself and intend to show them in further exhibitions later in the year.

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Since the time you developed your Think Rhino project, the Western Black Rhino has been declared officially extinct. How does that affect, in hindsight, your view on the topic? Would you conceive the project differently if you were to start again now?

My view remains the same. I want more people to know the facts. Especially end users and governments. I want a broader conversation about the issue and the complex implications it has for local communities, organised crime and future generations. Rhinos and their ancestors have been on Earth for up to 23 million years – that’s 21 million longer than Homo Erectus. We must do what we can to stop their decline. I don’t think I would approach the project differently if I were to start again now.

How was your experience exhibiting the project at the Touch Art Fair?

I felt the Touch Art Fair was an excellent idea, enabling blind and partially sighted people to experience art in a manner not usually available to them. Whilst it was an honour exhibiting with some of my classmates and the Chapman Brothers, sadly a few of my works were irreparably vandalised during the show. I have learned the hard way that you need to protect your work and have proper agreements in place when exhibiting. Meeting a curator and deciding to trust them is sadly not enough to guarantee they will look after your work.

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How can a designer reconcile a commitment for sustainability with the necessity to work for corporate and commercial clients in our consumerist society?

This is a very broad discussion and rests largely with each individual designer and their personal views..I believe that you should only work for clients and products who you have no objections to being associated with. It is sometimes possible to implement elements into a design that encourages the client to use more ethical, sustainable materials and practices. If you can influence a corporate or commercial client obliquely then that is sustainable design in action. In an ideal world all designers would boycott unethical corporations and products.

How would you describe your design aesthetic?

Simplicity, Longevity, Message. Simplicity: Everything moves fast these days. If something is overly complicated we often don’t want to look at it. Longevity: A good design lasts. Style over trend. Message: We consume a multitude of messages everyday through all sorts of mediums – social media, news, even goods. A piece of design has to contain its own identity and message that can communicate its own perspective effectively.

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How would you describe your time as a student at Goldsmiths Design? Do you think it has helped your career?

I enjoyed my time at Goldsmiths very much. It was different from what I had expected but I enjoyed the freedom granted to each student to pursue their interests. There is a philosophical approach which enlightened me as to what we really need to consider in our work. In a fundamental sense, everything is related and it is great to have such an overview when working. My time at Goldsmiths has definitely had a positive effect on my career. It enabled me to evolve my identity as a designer on many levels.

What kind of work are you doing at the moment?

I am currently working at the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. After graduating from Goldsmiths I wanted to do something worthwhile so I’m thrilled to be part of their team. My role is within the Department of External Relations, UNHCR where I’m developing a website to heighten awareness and engage a broad audience with the situations faced by the worlds ever increasing displaced people.

It is in part due to my Think Rhino project that I have been fortunate enough to gain this position.I am honoured to be working among some very talented people and am hoping I can contribute something positive towards helping those who need it most.

(Photos courtesy of Younghee Lee)