In 1970, South Korean fertilizer companies were having a hard time exporting, in part because their packaging looked so bad. So the government stepped in and created an organization to help the industry and others improve it.
It worked. Better, flashier packaging led to export success and increased sales.
Fast forward 36 years: The government-created organization has evolved beyond packaging into the Korea Institute of Design Promotion. It is now part of a detailed South Korean government strategy of helping its industries compete globally by trying to make them much better at product design.
Unlike in 1970, Korean firms are not at the bottom of the manufacturing food chain, and the country's export-led industrial development has vaulted it into the world's 10th-largest economy.
The country is home to some of the world's biggest makers of TVs, cell phones and memory chips, and its tech-savvy people have the highest rate of broadband Internet penetration in the world - nearly twice the rate of the United States, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
A peek inside KIDP headquarters in the Seoul suburb of Seongnam offers a glimpse of the future for manufacturers of those technical products as well as for suppliers to the information technology industry.
KIDP, for example, is working on boosting links between industrial design and interior design, because it sees consumer electronics and appliances needing to look like they fit in naturally with home furnishings, said Dae-hyun Lee, coordinator of international cooperation for KIDP.
LG Electronics Co., the world's largest maker of televisions, is showcasing futuristic designs there including a stylish table that's also a DVD player, and a full-length mirror that doubles as a stereo speaker.
``TVs and refrigerators and microwave ovens are becoming more and more like furniture,'' Lee said during a March 29 interview at KIDP. ``We tried to develop a more systematic design, so that household items fit into interior design.''
Large Korean companies such as LG and Samsung Electronics Co., both of Seoul, are spending a lot of money on color research, trying to develop eye-catching natural or metallic colors for their products, according to Lee.
Five years ago, most TVs were gray, white or silver, but now black, metallic or natural-looking finishes are the rage, he said. He suggested Korean companies pay attention to colors because Koreans are particularly quick to follow a trend and change to a better, or at least better-looking, product.
``Koreans are early adapters, especially young people,'' he said. ``They are not afraid to spend money.''
Related to that, the center has stepped up work on materials research in the past year, focusing on identifying trends and technological developments in plastics, metals and other materials that could help designers, he said.
The overall goal is giving Korean firms a leg up in international competition by improving their products, particularly the small and medium-size firms that don't have enough money to do much of their own research, he said.
KIDP and its 90 staffers are funded by the Korean government, a common practice in Asian industrial design circles.
Lee said most Asian design-promotion organizations are funded by the government, while those in North America tend to be privately funded, and Europe is split between government and private funding.
The center also organizes exhibitions to promote Korean design and to bring designers from other parts of the world to Korea.
KIDP organizes an exhibition, called Design Korea, every two years to showcase hundreds of good product designs from around the world and expose local industry to designers from other countries. As well, the institute organized a fair in Beijing in 2004 and will again in November, in Shanghai, to promote Korean design, he said.
Lee said Korean design in IT products is probably among the best in the world, although he said design in many other areas probably falls within the second tier.
It's prompting some hard looks at the country's educational system: The institute is studying whether there's too much emphasis on turning out a lot of design graduates from its universities without paying enough attention to how good they are, Lee said.
A major goal of the design promotion effort is to help elevate more Korean firms among the world's best-known brands.
Only one, Samsung, cracks the top ranks of companies with financial value in its brand name, as measured by consultancy Interbrand Corp., but Lee said the government wants three in the top 50 by 2012.
Right now, the nation of 48 million people lacks the strong global image of some larger competitors, even within Asia, he said.
China is known for Chairman Mao and ceramics, and Japan has a samurai culture recognized the world over, he said.
But not so much, he said, for South Korea.
``Korea is still known as the country that is divided into two sides, and for the Korean War,'' Lee said.
``Many people don't know Samsung is a Korean company.''