Spring 2001

Zen and the art of design

Icograda Millennium Congress Oullim 2000

24-27 October 2000, Seoul

Oullim, the keyword of the Icograda Millennium Congress, is a Korean word meaning “great harmony”. Proposed as a new paradigm appropriate for design, the concept of oullim “promises to tune nature, human and machines and to harmonise east and west, north and south, as well as past and present and future.”

This first official Icograda Congress to be held in Asia attracted 1000 participants: 600 designers (300 Korean and 300 international) and 400 students from all over the world. The congress was convened in Seoul, South Korea, a country cognisant of the importance of design in a global culture and a living juxtaposition of tradition and technological innovation.

The congress was organised by Icograda (the UN of graphic design) and three member Korean design organisations: KIDP (Korean Institute of Industrial Design Promotion), VIDAK (Visual Information Design Association of Korea), KECD (Korean Society for Experimentations in Contemporary Design) and sponsored by the municipal government of Seoul and EPSON.

The spacious and light-filled facilities of the COEX (Convention and Exhibition Centre, Korea’s large convention facility) enhanced the three-and-a-half day gathering of the international graphic design community. Although the official language of the congress was English, simultaneous interpretation was provided in Korean, English, Japanese and Chinese.

The opening ceremony was a mix of welcoming speeches, Korean cultural music and dance performances, and a keynote speech given by Dr Kim Young-Oak, considered the most influential Korean philosopher of the present time. Dr Kim delivered a two-hour “lecture” on his theory of oullim based on Eastern philosophy. It was unfortunate that Dr Kim needed that amount of time to communicate his essential concept that “everything is in a state of oullim”, a simple idea made unnecessarily complex to my Western way of thinking.

So what is this all about? The congress organisers had proposed this new paradigm in the hope of creating a design language bridging all cultures, politics and economies, “. . . this new paradigm must have the philosophical foundation to transcend the problems of the past 2000 years. We need the wisdom to find oullim between humans and nature, East and West, human and technology, and tradition and progress. A world in which everything can exist in harmony.”

To accomplish this, 45 speakers representing 21 countries – a prestigious collection of established designers and up-and-comers – prepared presentations of their work, process and philosophy. Although there were many parallel sessions which made it impossible to attend all 45 offerings, in the presentations I did attend (and those described by my colleagues), some of the speakers directly addressed the theme of the conference while others used this opportunity as self-promotion – there were more than a fair share of “cart and pony shows” (a term used to describe an often pointless collection of portfolio work).

And there were a number of speakers that spoke from their hearts, encouraging us to find “personal voice within design” and to “put yourself into your work . . . the only way to do something unique is to pull from yourself.” Students, roughly 40 per cent of the audience, need to hear these types of messages to counteract their daily diet of techno-glitz.

On the last day of the congress, the Icograda Design Education Manifesto was unveiled. Initiated by Professor Ahn Sang-Soo of Hongik University and drafted by a 100-member committee, the aim of the manifesto is to re-evaluate and redefine the principles and goals of design education. It has been translated into ten languages and published in a booklet given out to congress attendees.

In closing, Professor Ahn, offered the following: “Future is not different from today . . . it is pure present. Even if we have the same today every time. We changed the today through our meeting, through oullim. And a different today as well as another tomorrow has started. A Korean proverb says words become seeds. If oullim becomes a seed for rethinking design I hope it will bud into a giant tree.”