If the question “what do you want for dinner?” sends you into a tailspin, consider visiting your local Korean BBQ shop.
No matter where in the world you’re located, you’re bound to find one closeby—look out for a modern loft-lounge/bar space with high vibes, ample low tables, Hangul character decor, and a deliciously suffocating smell of bulgogi wafting from the inside.
South Korea’s cultural exports aren’t limited to its delicious cuisine. In fact, the most popular design trends today respond to the contemporary hybridity in Korean pop culture.
All of this is part of Hallyu, a collective term that translates to Korean wave.
For the uninitiated, Hallyu’s international spread and rising interest have led to new aesthetic standards within and outside Korea, first in China and Japan, then in Southeast Asia and other countries where it continues to have a significant impact.
We’ve long been surfing the K-Wave on screen and on our smartphones, so much so that we’ve even adopted it in what we wear and what we listen to. Any creative export prefixed with a ‘K’ has probably already struck gold: K-pop, K-drama, K-beauty… the list goes on.
There’s so much more to learn about the K-wave and its meteoric rise.
The latest edition of Design Rewind will take you back to 1999, when Hallyu made its debut, and explore how it transformed the country’s image to a leading cultural powerhouse in cinema, drama, music, fandom, beauty and fashion in the era of social media and digital culture of the 21st century.
Origins of Hallyu
The term Hallyu is derived from two Chinese root words: ‘han’ meaning “Korean” and ‘ryu’ meaning “flow”, “wave”, or “trend.” First coined by Chinese journalists in 1999, Hallyu gained popularity in Asian countries outside of South Korea with the release of popular TV dramas and movies.
Hallyu is used to describe Korean pop culture’s international diffusion after the end of military rule in the late 1980s: a period of modernization and the liberation of the culture industry from state-controlled media.
The main products driving the Korean wave include television, pop music, film, fashion, animation, video games, technology, literature, cosmetics, food, mass entertainment, comic books, and cartoons.
The Rise of Korean Cool
A phenomenon like Hallyu doesn’t happen by accident. It flourished largely due to strategic allocation of resources by the Korean government to cultural industries and high-tech digital infrastructures.
As South Korea’s economy recovered from the Asian financial crisis in 1997, then president Kim Dae Jung turned to marketing popular culture to boost export income in a bid to turn the country’s situation around.
The country’s cultural takeover was triggered by the early days of Korean chaebols such as Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and other conglomerates who worked closely with the government to build modern South Korea.
In today’s Korea, the Ministry of Culture, Sports, and Tourism concentrates on nurturing and exporting popular culture. Through its Popular Culture Industry Division, it invests millions of dollars in developing South Korea’s cultural and creative sectors.
In 2012, for example, government funds constituted between 20 to 30% of all venture capital money disbursed in Korea, with one-third of it being spent on its entertainment industry.
Fast forward to 2021, Korea had 2.6% of the global market share in cultural content—the seventh-largest in the world—generating about $114 billion dollars in sales, $10.3 billion dollars in exports, and 680,000 jobs.
K-Culture In Design
From 1999 until the mid-2000s, K-dramas and K-cinema dominated Asia’s first generation Hallyu, but K-pop was the main driver of Hallyu 2.0’s online distribution through platforms such as YouTube.
In particular, Gangnam Style ignited the Korean wave in the English-speaking world. The 2012 track by Seoul-based rapper Psy became the first video on YouTube to reach one billion views.
Since then, South Korea’s has continued its consumer-focused content promotion over the past decade.
Fashion too has bolstered Korea’s cultural dominance. The fashion world is now flooded with young fans cheering outside fashion shows to see members of their favorite K-pop bands like Blackpink, BTS, and NewJeans, who also serve as brand ambassadors.
Despite the decadent image of today’s second generation K-wave, Hallyu is deeply rooted in South Korean traditions.
Traditional Korean aesthetic characteristics were categorized into four areas: pure formality, naturalistic simplicity, symbolic decoration, and playful spontaneity. Widely known for its simplicity, elegance and functionality, Korean style is founded on the principle that less is more.
Among Hallyu’s most iconic visuals is the contrast between urban and hypermodernism. Korea’s cultural past shapes its most contemporary products, such as chaekgeori in contemporary art, hanbok in branding, or hanok in visual merchandising and store design.
With undertones of tradition and rural simplicity, there are two settings familiar to Korean life: the public square and the private room. Social activities linked to public spaces are most represented through unique bangs, or Korean for rooms.
Smack dabbed in the multi-storey chaos of neon, chrome and color of South Korean streetscape, are small business establishments providing a limited number of rooms for a specific function, often related to entertainment: norae-bang (singing rooms similar to Japanese karaoke, but now quite), PC-bang (internet cafés), PS-bang (used for multiplayer computer games), and many more.
South Korea is a hub for innovation. A big reason Hallyu has become so popular in recent years is because it has pushed against Korea’s old rigid norms by using modern concepts in an enticing polished packaging.
Rise or fall, there’s no doubt Hallyu has the world’s attention, and the future looks bright from here.
Design Cards Bundle
Gamify your design workshops, facilitate smooth design conversations, explore visual trends, and add more play to your work with this set of 3 ideation cards:
- Style Cards Vol.1
- Style Cards Vol.2
- Word Cards