Sunday, 23 November 2014

Good Design, Bad Design

Today I visited the War Memorial of Korea, Seoul's military history museum. It's only a 20 minute walk from my house and I often go past it on my way to the supermarket, so I thought it would make a nice afternoon out on a lazy Sunday. If it wasn't so close by, I don't think I ever would have been interested enough to go there, and that would have been a shame, because it turned out to be a very worthwhile visit.

Outside the memorial building there is a huge collection of military vehicles and large weaponry on display, and so what you see first as you enter the site are various types of aeroplanes, mostly from the 1950s. Even if you're not an aviation enthusiast, seeing these things up close is wonderful, and it made me wish I could try flying one of them! But then something started to feel uncomfortable. I read some of the exhibit descriptions that indicated how these planes were actually used, and I noticed what distinguished them from non-military aircraft - that many of them were equipped to carry weapons.

After walking past the planes, I saw a long row of tanks. It was then that I started to really think about the meaning of these objects. When reading about war in a history textbook, or even seeing images on the news of war in faraway places, it seems very distant, but to see these machines of war immediately before my eyes, and even touch them, I was struck by how very real war suddenly became in my mind. Because here were complex pieces of equipment which had been actually designed and constructed by actual people, for the very purpose of waging war.

As a designer, I started to look at the war memorial as a design museum, showcasing impressive achievements of design and technology from the 20th century. But also as a designer, I started questioning how design is used - How can a human being use design to create something that is intened to kill, or to devastate? - Is there 'good design' and 'bad design'? On the one hand, is there design with ethical intentions, and on the other, design which could be defined as 'evil'? And if so, by what standards do you separate the two? In order to create many of the machines on display at the memorial, somebody had to have started with the thought 'We need something that is capable of killing', and then sat down and designed a machine to do just that. If a designer is driven by their intentions and motivations, then are those intentions what define them as a designer? Not the products of their work, but the intentions that led them to that end. And if that is the case, those very intentions are what decide whether you are a 'good' or 'bad' designer.

More than anything, looking at these machines made me feel sad. The whole place seemed to me to be very sombre, very mournful. But the funny thing was that most of the other tourists walking around were having a great time - laughing, posing on the tanks and taking pictures, standing behind the guns and making firing noises, pretending to shoot them. Were they happy because this was all history, and the war is over? Unfortunately the reality is that Korea is still technically at war, and there have been incidents of military action leading to the deaths of Korean servicemen as recently as 2010. All Korean men are still required by law to serve a minimum of 21 months in the military. And even if war isn't really something that affects daily life here, there are other places in the world where it does. Tanks, warplanes, guns - these are not redundant old artifacts in a museum, they are still being designed, still being made, and are still a main area of technological development. Some of the more modern exhibits in the museum are displayed alongside the logos of the companies who made them - Samsung, LIG, Foosung - on proud little plaques in the display cases. These companies are pouring massive amounts of money into the creation of weapons. The language used to talk about it - words like 'defense', 'protection', and worse - 'pride' and 'glory' - hide the fact that there are huge teams of people out there whose job is really just to think up new ways to kill other people.

When I finally made my way into the main building, I passed a little boy brandishing a plastic sword which he probably got from the gift shop. Why do children play with toy swords, guns, tanks, and plastic soldiers? Why do they love playing shooting games? To reduce something that is so heavy with the purpose of killing to a plastic child's toy is bizarre to me. Is war something we are supposed to enjoy? Is a soldier someone to aspire to? Do we want to perpetuate a culture of violence and conflict by letting our kids play at killing each other? Or is the instinct to fight and kill just an ingrained part of human nature that we can never separate from?

Whatever it is, the waging of war is something which is a large and undeniable part of human history, and it is something which is continuously evolving with the development of technology. And as long as there are people who continue to design things for military use, that's how it will continue.

Attached to the main building was a big memorial hall with a number of large stones engraved with the names of Korean and UN military personnel who were killed in service during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. A total of nearly 400,000 names are inscribed there. At the end of the hall were a few blank, unengraved stones. Space for more?

Sunday, 16 March 2014

Beyond coffee: Mustoy figurine painting

In Seoul, you're never short of things to do. While coffee shops, bars and karaoke rooms may be the most popular hang-out spots, there are also a huge number of 'theme cafes' that offer a range of unique experiences. Although these places call themselves cafes, it's not their refreshments that you'll be going there for. Some offer a chance to play dress-up, others allow you to hang out with dogs or cats, and others give you the opportunity to get artistic and spend time creating something.

Yesterday me and a friend discovered 'Mustoy' cafe, where you are given a blank ceramic figurine and a basket full of permanent markers, and you then sit and decorate the character however you want.

The whole cafe is surrounded by shelves of toys painted by celebrities, artists and regular customers
There's no need to book to visit Mustoy, you can just walk in and sit down, and you then choose which size and shape of figurine you want to customize. There are a few different options, and we both chose the basic smaller figure with a 'hair up' style.

Once you've been given your blank figurine, colored pens, a drink, and a card to draw your design on, you are free to sit and work on your character.

Unsurprisingly, there were quite a few couples in the cafe when we visited. I think part of the reason that so many of these kinds of themed cafes exist in Seoul is to do with Korea's couple culture. The way that people date here means that there's a big market for easily accessible places that offer interesting and unusual activities. Of course, it's also a great way to spend an afternoon just with a friend or two.

Our finished Mustoy characters
Not only was this a really enjoyable way to spend some free time in Seoul, but we also got to take our toys home at the end. The figurine is carefully wrapped and put in a box for you to take away. The best part is that all of this cost a total of just 15,000won per person!

We visited the Mustoy cafe in Hongdae, but there are also 8 other locations around the country. Check the Mustoy website for more information.

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Three Places in Osaka, Japan

1. America Mura (アメリカ村)

This is the Hongdae of Osaka. The Harajuku of Osaka. It's the area where all the cool kids hang out, so obviously it's the area where you need to be hanging out, too. The narrow streets lined with fashion boutiques, vintage clothes stores and graffiti art converge on a small central square (actually it's a circle) overlooked by a replica Statue of Liberty.

Spend a day wandering around, browsing the latest Japanese trends, and  then perhaps grab some takoyaki and a bubble tea and sit in the square for some great people-watching.

To get there, take the subway to Nanba (なんば) or Shinsaibashi (心斎橋). America Mura is easily found on maps, guide books and Google street view.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Korean Cities: Incheon 인천

Most visitors to Korea pass through Incheon on their way to/from the airport, but it's not exactly a tourist hotspot. Nevertheless this city has a special place in my heart! I lived there for a year when I first moved to Korea.

Located to the west of Seoul and well connected to the capital by bus and metro, Incheon (인천) is a city of just under 3 million people, but is made up of many smaller districts. There isn't one main 'downtown' or central area, but rather a variety of different areas that are somehow all grouped togther to form a city.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

On the Road in China

At the check-in desk of a hostel in Kangding, on the edge of Tibet, a Chinese girl approached me, and asked if I was on my way to Lhasa. "Would you like to come with us? We're going  to hitch-hike. We've got 2 girls and 3 guys in our group, and we think it's best to pair up each girl with a guy and hitch-hike in pairs. So we just need another girl to join us."

Hitch-hike to Lhasa? I would have joined them in a heartbeat! Unfortunately for me, foreigners are fobidden to enter Tibet proper without a special visa and an authorised tour guide, so I had to pass up on the offer. But the friendliness and trust extended to me by this total stranger is really characteristic of backpackers in China. This sincere and open trust, together with an undaunted sprit of adventure are what define these young people, as I've come to learn through sharing dorm rooms with backpackers across China.

A lot of young Chinese people these days are taking travel gap-years, backpacking around the massive country in search of experience, freedom, and a new lifestyle. And just like in other countries, cheap and friendly youth hostels are the meeting-points for these similar-minded travellers.

In Chongqing, I shared a hostel room with two young guys who didn't speak a word of English. Despite my limited Chinese, they invited  me to join them for dinner, and we went to a local restaurant together and shared a big cauldron of chicken soup. We swapped travel photos and stories, communicating with the aid of hand gestures and smartphone dictionaries, while I attempted to gnaw on chopstick-held chicken bones with as much dexterity as I could muster. Both of these guys were serious backpackers, one of them on a round-the-coutry trip for which he'd set aside a whole year. His phone was crammed with stunning pictures taken atop Everest-like mountains. Back at the hostel, we shared a few cans of beer with our other roommates, a mix of girls and guys, all Chinese except me. It was as though this group of total strangers were old friends.

Encounters like these have given me the impression that Chinese backpackers are the most awesome people you could wish to meet on your travels through China. While other English-speaking travellers can sometimes seem distant and self-protective, and those of other nationalities may be too daunted by the language barrier to approach a foreign stranger, I've never met a Chinese backpacker who wasn't completely open and friendly, without condition. Chinese backpackers are the best.

2013 in pictures

I haven't blogged about many of the places I visited over the past year, but I have been taking lots and lots of photographs. Here are some of my favourites:


A prayer cushion at a temple on Qingcheng Mountain

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Travel Sichuan: Dujiangyan 都江堰

Very close to Qingchen Shan is another scenic area, Dujiangyan. It's famous for being the site of an ancient irrigation system, but even if you're not interested in that it's still an awesome place to go for a day trip out of Chengdu. It has everything - water, forest, mountain, nature, history, a scary rope bridge, temples ... oh yeah, and China's 'first sightseeing escalator covered by an ancient corridor along the mountain'. Yep.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Phone Korean

I set the language on my phone to Korean, just to practise:

메시지              Messages
카카오톡          Kakao Talk
연락처              Contacts
계산기              Calculator
녹음기              Voice recorder

알림                   Notifications
통화 기록          Call History          

새 메시지           New Message
받는 사람           Recipient
눌러서 작성       Type Message
붙여넣기            Paste
입력 방법           Input Method

삭제                    Delete
확인                    Confirm
취소                    Cancel

보기                    View
회신                    Reply
전달                    Forward
전화 걸기           Call
연락처 열기       Open Contact
모두 선택           Select All
잘라내기            Cut
복사                    Copy

설정                     Settings
개인 설정            Personalize Settings
기본 벨소리        Default Ringtone
비행 모드            Flight Mode
언어 선택            Select Language

Friday, 5 April 2013

Chinese Translation: Ginger Shampoo

I love all things ginger, so I bought this delicious smelling shampoo from Watsons. (Made from ginger, not for gingers! Although I do have red dyed hair at the moment ...)

Here's the Chinese:

生姜 shēngjiāng - ginger (Korean: 生薑 생강)
精华 jīnghuá - essence

洗发水  xǐfàshuǐ -shampoo (洗 wash 发 hair 水 water)

小麦 xiǎomài - wheat
蛋白 dànbái - egg white

I always look out for the character '姜', because I love ginger things! This is a simplified character. As you can see in the Korean word for ginger, the traditional character '薑' looks quite different. In Korean, '생강' is always the word for ginger. But in Chinese, '姜' is not always preceded by '生'. Often it's just '姜'.