If the mission of design today is understanding customers and their relationship to technology, Yun-Je Kang, 38, creative director of a Samsung cluster design team responsible for new AV products such as home theater systems, TVs, and DVD players, knows it better than most. Although he is the first to admit that inspiration comes from random sources—his team based one recent TV design initiative on the shape of a red wine glass—Kang is a firm believer in sweating the details of customer product satisfaction. If you want to know the reason for Samsung’s continuing success in design innovation, there’s no better place to start than Yun-Je Kang. —Craig Bromberg
What’s the most important design project you’ve worked on?
Without doubt, it’s the design I worked on last year for L7, Samsung’s new manufacturing plant for next generation TVs, including the world’s first DLP (digital light processor) with a vertical engine, which allowed us to create a much slimmer DLP. The design was so tightly integrated with the engineering and marketing development, we found afterwards that it contributed at least a thousand dollar premium in brand value, even over other Samsung products—and this was just an experimental design proposal. It was very innovative for that time. Now it’s up to the engineers and marketers to take it to the next level.
And what’s your most important design inspiration?
For me, everything can be a source of inspiration. That’s the great thing about being a designer today. No boundaries. Everything is close at hand. You can even get inspiration from something very trivial. Still, I have to admit to loving Scandinavian design and architecture.
Samsung is global, but its designers are deeply rooted in Korean principles of balance and beauty. Which comes first?
Both sides are equally important. East and West articulate each other, in both culture and business. I’m probably not unlike most designers, trying to reflect traditional Korean emotions and culture on product design, while at the same time trying to keep pace with globalization.
Does consumer electronics suffer from featureitis? How do you balance “feature creep” with beauty?
Actually, I don’t think users dislike multiple functions. The problem is that it’s so stressful for them to learn how to use a lot of functions right away. This is one of the things we have to focus on right now—how to make sure new features are really convenient and easy to handle from the user’s point of view. The issue is finding a beautiful balance between form, usability, and function.
If consumer desire is so important, why not let consumers design their own products? Aren’t we ready for mass customized TVs?
It’s one thing to say that consumers should be able to choose between products. But professional designers bring skills to the table we can’t expect consumers to have: namely, a sense of creativity and emotional insight about design, just to start. When it comes to TV design, the best way consumers can enter the design process is to design the space where they’re going to put their TV. Let the designers do the designing.
Which is more satisfying: To fulfill the design desires of the less privileged—say, a TV for African bushmen—or creating the latest gizmo for high-tech consumers?
It’s not about choice, it’s about markets—the market for the African bushman or the high-tech consumer—and the truth is that both are worthy of new products. We want to satisfy people’s desires regardless of where they’re from. Which just means more opportunity, for the customers and for us, the designers. Of course, there is the question of how we segment these markets, but in the end, design is not about segmentation, but supporting users by focusing on their needs.
Does hardware push software or is it the other way round? Which has changed television more—the web or digital broadband?
There’s no doubt that the evolution of digital broadcasting is changing hardware design. Large-scale LCD TVs were designed to effectively embody high resolution quality, and opened up new markets for slim TVs such as PDP and DLP TV. Now web content and networks are converging around the TV, so new changes to the paradigm will be achieved, and there will be many changes to the user interface as that happens. The most important thing is that users should feel that the new designs bring real value to them. Then we’ll see where the real direction of tomorrow’s hardware is leading us.