Coffee snobs, look away now: apparently Starbucks is actually the best place to sketch a design idea, at least if Korean graphic designer Goo-Ryong Kang is to be believed. Whatever he’s doing there, tucked up with his frappuccino, it’s working—his work, and that of his studio, Chung Choon, is deliciously experimental and bold, playing fast and loose with Western and Korean characters.
The 34-year-old designer and art director was born in South Korea and founded Chung Choon in 2013 with creative director Jungran Kim. The pair met at Kookmin University in 2002, and decided to name their studio the Korean word for youth for fairly straightforward reasons: “We want to make youthful design,” they say.
But aren’t the youth all about screens, tablets, Wacoms, and fancy gadgetry? Not so. In starting any project, Kang spends a large chunk of time sketching out ideas using no more than pen and paper, beginning with a keyword before experimenting with drawing out different ideas. It’s an unusual approach in a sense: this “keyword” may or may not have anything to do with the project in hand. “Without deciding a goal or purpose, I study and research the general meaning of the keyword and message, using a dictionary,” he explains. “After that, I experiment with new methods to express letters, and draw unusual shapes on A4 paper. Then I use a computer to complete the work after eliminating ambiguous shapes and fixing the message clearly.”
Shapes are a crucial part of his work, sometimes taking geometrical configurations and at other times appearing to have spluttered onto the page in glorious disarray. King explains, “It’s interesting for me to change common letters into unusual images with typography. I think if you change a shape, or add lines and dots onto letters, it changes the message and meaning.”
He adds, “Typographers and graphic designers are very similar to writers and poets, so it’s very important to define a message and convey it visually. By evolving typography you can change letters from their original meaning.” Case in point: Kang’s KOZA posters, which simply take various four-letter words and overlay them until unusual forms begin to emerge.
Kang’s merging of Western and Korean letterforms played out beautifully in his graphics for the Korean installation at the inaugural London Design Biennale in the summer of 2016. The show was loosely based around the theme of utopia, so the team used the site to show how those ideas differ in the East and West. “We discussed what utopia means today, and decided on an interactive piece, mapping interviews to ask visitors for their ideas around utopia,” says Kang. “As the team’s graphic designer, I made a new font to use for the interviews. It consists of two different characters from the east and west, using an ornament from eastern culture and the Roman alphabet from the west to symbolize a mixture of the two different cultures and their ideas.”
“This new font is unreadable because it is from utopia, which means no place. The font is named Peach Blossom, which in Eastern culture is associated with long life and sacred things from heaven.”
In Korean design, says Kang, it’s recently become very fashionable for young designers to use Roman letters, with many taking the original letterforms and redrawing them instead of using existing fonts. This sense of constant reimagining of existing ideas and modes of design seems to be something Kang is proud of, not to mention skilled at. “I usually think of myself as a foreigner when I use the Roman alphabet,” he says. “I feel like Western designers have more knowledge of designing using that alphabet, but as a Korean designer I like that fact.”
Kang’s latest project was the ticket design for Seoul’s ARKO Art Center, which manages to condense a whole identity system (soon to be rolled out across online applications and products such as notebooks and pens) into a single small ticket design—just like his posters mange to condense two vastly different cultures so succinctly.