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Graphic Designer Goo-Ryong Kang: Finding the Lost Meaning of Letters

By Adobe Korea

Read this article in Korean on Adobe Korea’s Creative Dialogue blog.

The South Korean designer Goo-Ryong Kang is fascinated by letterforms—primarily the letters of Hangeul, the Korean alphabet, though he often works with other alphabets—and in his designs, letters and images are combined in unique, expressive ways. We met up with Kang at Seoul’s National Hangeul Museum. On the third floor, a special exhibition introducing Kang’s works, titled Hangeul Design: Prototypes and Future of the Korean Alphabet, was underway.

FINDING HIDDEN NUANCES IN THE EVERYDAY

Graphic designer Goo-Ryong Kang keeps himself busy with a variety of projects—both personal and client work—in addition to teaching, but each new project begins with letters and images. “Why am I attracted to typography? For me, it’s about making familiar letters look unfamiliar,” he says.

Poster designed by Goo-Ryong Kang: Interaction of X (2015)
Poster designed by Goo-Ryong Kang:  Vogue 20 (2016)
Poster designed by Goo-Ryong Kang: Night View of Seoul (2015).

Three posters designed by Kang: Interaction of X (2015); Vogue 20 (2016); and Night View of Seoul (2015).

But Kang was not always interested in type.

“Originally, I wanted to paint,” he explains. “But I became interested in design when I was in school because of my teacher Jae-Hyeok Sung. This was when I learned that letters are not just a tool for writing, but can also be a tool of expression.”

Posters designed by Goo-Ryong Kang:

In Power & Water (2016), letterforms and images are combined to express words. Power (left) has a vertical structure, while Water (right) has a horizontal structure.

Kang later worked as a designer in different areas including illustration, GUI and UX design, and advertising. But he found that he was most interested in creating posters that combined letters and images to deliver powerful messages.

Three years ago, Kang quit his job and founded the design studio Chungchoon (the Korean word for youth), where he is currently its art director. He now produces all kinds of posters using different styles of letters.

RESTORING THE LOST VOICES OF LETTERS

In the Korean alphabet, called Hangeul in South Korea, many letters seem similar in appearance. In his designs, Kang endeavors to give them distinct personalities. As Kang says, “When letters take on a particular voice or texture, they can have their own character, as with images.” So for him, typography is a tool for restoring the lost voices of letters.

Poster by Goo-Ryong Kang: Hangeul Fonts Original Form and Pedigree

Hangeul Fonts Original Form and Pedigree (2015) was created for a seminar at Yoon Design Research Center. It expresses in three-dimensional effect the expanding sound of the Korean consonant ㅎ when it is pronounced.

Among his representative typography works is Hangeul Fonts Original Form and Pedigree. The work employs a three-dimensional effect to express the expanding sound of the Korean consonant ㅎ when it is pronounced.

(Hangeul letters are not written sequentially like the Latin alphabet; instead, consonants and vowels are grouped into blocks that represent syllables. Each syllable block contains between two and six letters. The blocks are then placed in order, either from left to right or from top to bottom. For example, the word Hangeul, 한글, is made up of two syllable blocks. The first block, 한, contains three letters, ㅎ, ㅏ, and ㄴ.)

This work was very special to Kang; it gave him the opportunity to transform the sound of a letter into an image so that it could actually be seen. Moreover, he was also recognized abroad for the work, as it was honored with an award by the Type Directors Club.

“I think Hangeul is made up of unique elements when viewed from a Western perspective,” says Kang. “And when an image representing sound is combined with the letter…I think they evaluated the work based on the effort that went into figuring out what form it would take.”

PEACH BLOSSOMS IN FULL BLOOM

In 2016, Kang participated in creating an installation that was part of the Korea exhibit at the London Design Biennale. He was part of a seven-member team whose project attempted to express a futuristic, ideal society; their theme was “Utopia by Design.”

“Rather than just present the typical look of an ideal utopia, we created an exhibit using digital media,” Kang explains. “We posed questions to visitors, wrote their ideas down, and then converted that text to images so that they could be recorded and viewed. We used the Western alphabet and traditional Eastern motifs to develop a sort of East-meets-West utopian font to record the visitors’ thoughts in all kinds of patterns.”

The resulting creation, called Peach Blossom, is a metaphorical expression of a utopian place with peach blossoms in full bloom, as depicted in the great classical Korean painting Mongyudowondo, by Ahn Gyeon.

Image from Goo-Ryong Kang's digital media project, titled Peach Blossom (2016).
Image from Goo-Ryong Kang's digital media project, titled Peach Blossom (2016).
Image from Goo-Ryong Kang's digital media project, titled Peach Blossom (2016).

This digital media project, titled Peach Blossom (2016), featured a utopian font using the Latin alphabet and traditional Eastern motifs.

“It was not an easy project and it took a full year to complete,” says Kang. “All seven of our team members were spread out in different countries, so communication wasn’t easy either, and we felt a big responsibility to represent Korea.”

START A PROJECT, FIND A KEYWORD

Kang begins each new project by finding a keyword.

“I put a lot of time into finding just the right word I need to determine the concept for a project,” he explains. “Once I find the keyword, I try to interpret its meaning from various different angles. I might look up the meaning in a dictionary, and in doing so I’ll sometimes discover a particular meaning that I’d forgotten. I also try to find out how the word is used by just talking to people.”

Goo-Ryong Kang’s poster titled Hong Buhm (2017).

One of Kang’s latest works is titled Hong Buhm (2017).

After that, he combines the keyword with an amplified image of its sound and then gives it shape by sketching it out on a sheet of A4 paper. Next, he uses Adobe Illustrator to either expand or shrink the image of the letter’s sound and express certain technical aspects that he couldn’t put on paper.

“Of course this process is not a matter of precision. All of these processes can occur in composite, or I might just leave out certain steps. Eventually, after a lot of repetition, I come up with a fixed form,” says Kang.

LEAVING YOURSELF SOME SPACE

As his reputation grows both at home and abroad, Kang worries about getting caught up in vanity.

“While working on a project, sometimes you can get mired in your own thoughts and make something that no one can understand,” he explains. “So at every step along the way, I try to be objective by asking myself whether my interpretation is overly contrived. I call this ‘leaving some space.’”

For Kang, “leaving some space” means verifying subjective things in an objective way—for example, by doing research or asking questions. He also takes time out for himself by going for walks. He believes that getting too involved in your work can narrow your way of thinking.

BEING CREATIVE IN THE DIGITAL AGE

Software like Illustrator, for Kang, is more than just a tool for work. It can be described as an “expansion of thought.” However, he did experience a sense of crisis after watching last year’s five-game Go showdown between DeepMind’s AlphaGo artificial ingelligence and famed Go champion Lee Se-Dol—AlphaGo won the match. For Kang, it was a prime example of technology’s advance into human territory.

After that event, he worried that, “in order to survive as a designer, maybe I need a new category for creativity.”

“Posters as a medium have been around for a long time, but in the future, symbolic images will be produced and consumed constantly in virtual reality and digital media. However, a torn poster lying in the street is still closer to the people than a piece of art on exhibit in a museum,” Kang says.

He hopes that people will continue to consume and be transformed by the posters of letters and images he so painstakingly creates.

To see more of Kang’s work, visit his portfolio site.