An Education part III: global views with Sulki & Min

Published:  August 19, 2015


Sulki and Min Choi
Sulki & Min

‘Global Views’ is part 3 of a 4-part mini interview series on design education, from the August/September desktop. 



Do you think something different is expected of design graduates across the world, in Seoul or Sydney or New York or London? Do you think there are different levels of professional freedom that influence design education?

To some degree, yes. Like in other professions in Korea, more emphasis tends to be put on the personality of a design graduate, rather than talent. You’re expected to be able to work with other people, such as clients or colleagues. You’re expected to be patient, earnest, industrious, persistent and passionate. And then, you’re expected to be good at ‘tools’, meaning Photoshop, Illustrator, InDesign etc. Talent is often regarded as something good to have, but not essential.

That’s because maybe 60 percent of design work in Korea consists of dealing with other people, 30 percent of technical labour and about 10 percent of creative work. But it depends to some significant degree on what sector of design you’re entering. In a commercial sector, you really need to be a social worker. In a cultural sector, which is where we work mostly, you can have more creative freedom. The price is that you earn much, much less. But I don’t think it’s a situation unique to Korea. As far as I know, it’s more or less the same in the US or in Europe. Everywhere, there is this real schism between the relatively affluent yet creatively deprived areas and the fun yet poor ones.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray.

Illustration by Daniel H Gray.

What are the main conversations happening around design education in Seoul?

The biggest problem we’re facing is the shrinking population, which is hitting higher education really hard. You probably heard about how many colleges there are in Korea. About 70 percent of high school graduates go to college here, and there are about 340 colleges and universities that absorb them. Among the schools, about 40 percent are expected to close their doors in a decade. The government has already been working on restructuring programs, and the harsh austerity measures are destroying the morale of design education. They’re saying only the fittest will survive and, to their eyes, the most important criterion is the employment records of graduates.

Against this, some designers and teachers have been trying to find alternative ways to educate designers, which has led to the establishment of many off-school and non-degree programs, such as PaTI, the experimental typography workshop founded by Ahn Sang-soo. The outcome has yet to materialise, though, not to mention the long-term impacts on mainstream design education.

How has the globalisation of the education market changed the way graphic design education operates in Korea, and in the way education connects to industry?

Many Korean graphic designers, including us, studied abroad. There have always been foreign-trained design professionals and teachers in Korea, but their numbers have never been overwhelming. The globalisation of the education market has certainly increased the number, but perhaps not so dramatically. There are so many design graduates in Korea, the foreign-trained graduates will constitute just a drop in the ocean.

One interesting trend to note, however, is the prominence of graduates from certain foreign schools, especially in the cultural sector. The schools include Yale University, Rhode Island School of Design and California Institute of the Arts in the US, the Royal College of Art in London, and some Dutch schools such as the Werkplaats Typografie in Arnhem, Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. The number is very small, but their work has been very influential for the last five to 10 years. And most of them have been teaching here, producing students who are now working in the industry.

Where should the emphasis in a designer’s professional education rest, between developing collaborative, cross-disciplinary skills, and developing creative ability? 

If you’re seeking employment in big companies, perhaps the former would be more important. If you want to pursue a more specialised creative career in a niche marketplace, whatever it means, you should invest in the latter. If you want to be a good designer, we should say both are indispensible, neither of which is more important than the other.

How does your teaching work influence your design work? 

Not very much directly. Teaching is, first and foremost, our livelihood. We teach regularly to earn regularly, so we don’t have to take on the kind of projects that we don’t want to take on. It gives us a certain protection.

Sulki & Min is Sulki Choi and Min Choi, graphic designers living and working in Seoul, Korea. Sulki studied communication design at Chung-Ang University, Korea, and Min at Seoul National University, Korea. Both earned their MFA (master of fine arts) degrees in graphic design at Yale University, US. They both teach graphic design and typography: Sulki at Kaywon School of Art and Design, and Min at the University of Seoul.

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