Japan has long been considered the capital of Asian industrial design, or at least its most influential face to the world. But that's changing, as South Korean companies and designers are getting the world's attention.
The country's capital, Seoul, for example, has been named the 2010 World Design Capital by the International Council of Societies of Industrial Design only the second city recognized with the award, after Torino, Italy, this year.
Korean firms are picking up recognition in design circles. LG Electronics Inc. became the first non-Japanese firm in Asia to win the industrial design industry's coveted Radius Award in 2006, joining past winners that include Apple, Sony, Adidas and Mercedes-Benz.
In selecting Seoul as its second design ``capital,'' ICSID said it is recognizing the role that industrial design has played in the success of South Korean consumer goods and auto companies in world markets, including firms like LG, Samsung, Hyundai, Daewoo, Helio and Kia. LG and Samsung, for example, are two of the world's top five cell phone makers.
``Seoul's remarkable achievements in design-led development, particularly in the past decade, exemplify the spirit of the WDC designation,'' said ICSID President Peter Zec. The city will host design-related events and exhibitions in 2010, and is hosting a Seoul Design Olympiad in October.
While picking a world capital of design is arguably pretty subjective akin to picking just one top album or movie of the year ICSID said Seoul's government has shown a strong interest in fostering design.
Some in South Korea's industrial design community say Korean companies focused on design by necessity, because the nation of 49 million people has lacked a sizable domestic market and needed design to reach world markets.
``Without design, how can you export your product to the global market?'' said Young Kil Cho, chairman of the 300-member Korea Design Firms Association and president of Seoul-based industrial design firm DesignMall.
Part of the importance of design for South Korea stems from the challenge from China and other low-cost manufacturing spots, he said.
``We know we are no longer low-cost. That is history, China captured that,'' Cho said. ``We have to look for technology and creativity, for high-technology industries.''
Another leader in South Korea's industrial design community, Seoul Design Center director Soon-In Lee, said the country's design community is making big strides.
But he said that outside of a few big players like LG and Samsung, overall Korean industrial design is not at the level of the world's best in, for example, Germany and the United Kingdom.
``These days in Korea we have not achieved that,'' said Lee, a former ICSID board member and former designer for LG. ``We know how much of a gap there is. That is why we are very much invested to be at that world standard.''
Lee, who is closely involved in planning the 2010 event, said he wants it to be a place where materials suppliers like Bayer MaterialScience AG and DuPont Co. showcase their latest developments, and designers and others come together to trade ideas and help make Seoul into a city like Milan, Italy, where he said good design flourishes.
Seoul's political leaders have similar hopes: Mayor Oh Se-hoon, in accepting the 2010 designation, said he hopes it will let Seoul ``reinvent itself into a globally recognized city of design.''
South Korea's economy has reinvented itself before, becoming one of the world's major economies in a fairly short time.
In the early 1980s, for example, the country was relatively poor, with per capita income of about US$1,600, or 15 percent of the U.S. figure at the time. But fast forward through three decades of rapid industrial development, and the country now has the 13th-largest economy in the world, with a per capita income of about US$24,000, more than half that of the United States and on a par with Spain or Greece.
While some credit South Korea's system of interlocked mega-industrial firms, known as chaebol, as a major driver of that growth, the industrial design community argues that solid product design deserves some credit for the popularity of Korean information technology and consumer products.
Whatever the reasons for past growth, Lee argues that to keep growing, South Korea needs to foster creativity by helping its smaller industrial design companies develop new business models, particularly to sell and develop their own designs.
The government's attention to design has focused on public design, such as parks and cityscapes, but it also needs to pay attention to industrial design, Lee said.
Like manufacturers, South Korea's industrial designers are under pricing pressure from the rise of China's designers, he said.
``The small and medium-sized manufacturers [in Korea] moved to China because the labor cost is very low,'' said Lee. ``I really hope that good design companies stay in Seoul.''
But it's not all competition with China. Korean designers are doing more work for Chinese firms.
Cho said about 30 percent of his 21-person firm's business is with Chinese firms, up from about 5 percent five years ago, and he said he spends 25 percent of his time in China. His firm works for Chinese companies such as telecom equipment maker Huawei Technology Co. Ltd. and appliance maker Haier Group.
While Chinese product design is developing and could be quite strong in 10 years, South Korean firms still have advantages in design skills, Cho said, and he sees the economies of Korea, China and Japan developing together.
One advantage for Korean firms, he said, is the so-called ``Korean Wave,'' the influence of pop singers, drama and pop culture that emanates from his country and is very popular in China and Japan.
That popularity stems from what Cho calls the ``emotionalism'' of Korean culture, which he said has helped South Korean products win broader appeal in Asia.