Design Strategies that Make Urban Experiences Special

The 2021 SEOUL DESIGN INTERNATIONAL FORUM has obtained written consent from the speaker to publish the summarized and edited content

SPEAKER: Lee Hye-young (Director, Design Policy Division of the Seoul Metropolitan Government)

Welcome, everyone. I’m Lee Hye-young, director of Design Policy Division at the Seoul Metropolitan Government. This year’s event is held under the theme of ‘Re-connect: Design as a Value Creator.’ In line with this, I’ll focus on various values that design offers by sharing people’s experiences in my presentation. What are some experiences that you find special? 

We face many different situations in life and go through numerous emotions. We sometimes feel afraid, isolated, or bored. Some cities give us negative emotions mostly, while others make us feel calm, excited, or respected. Cities should provide positive experiences to residents as well as visitors. Then what role can design play to help cities achieve this goal? I’ll share some examples in Seoul to demonstrate the values that design can bring as a core urban strategy. 

Design is safety.

Why do I say design is safety? Cities should make people feel comfortable as if they’re in their own neighborhoods. This doesn’t necessarily mean such cities are boring. Design can offer a solution to protect people from big or small threats in cities. When creating a safe city, the most crucial factor is eliminating the fear of crime. The city of Seoul has been consistently incorporating crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) to establish an environment that encourages people to behave differently. We combined citizen patrol centers and redesigned a doorplate and mailbox to make people feel less afraid when passing through dark alleys at night. As a result, residents felt safer in the area. The crime rate also fell. Geographically, many neighborhoods in Seoul are located on hillsides as well as on flatlands. Cluttered areas that lack enough lighting are particularly prone to slipping or falling. So we installed lighting, safety handrails, and easy-to-read maps around extended stairs. We also put benches so that senior citizens can take a short break. People in the neighborhood can now walk safely back to their homes each day. 

Busy markets can be dangerous too when pile of stuff is lying around or stalls are in the way. And facilities that people need are difficult to spot. So we restyled a traditional market to offer a clean and convenient shopping place to citizens while enabling shop owners to respond safely in case of emergency. As seen in the first picture, dividers were installed between stalls and walkways. People can place heavy bags on top of the dividers. To minimize confusion, we also revamped signage indicating the location of various facilities and made sure emergency equipment were easy to find. The biggest threat to safety in cities today is infectious diseases, and the concern is especially great in public spaces. In public bathrooms, people can press a door switch with their feet instead of hands and feel less anxious. Such design reduces the chance of infection and also makes the facility more accessible to children or people with both hands occupied. Safety is one of the requirements to make a sustainable city. As illustrated so far, design can contribute to creating safe systems. 

Design is welfare.

Design to provide the better living environment and restore publicness is closely related to welfare. Aging society is one of many global issues we see today. Korea’s population is rapidly aging while social services are expanding. Services provided at welfare facilities are crucial, but what is more important is the support for self-reliance at home where people spend most of their time. In this regard, we redesigned beds and couches as they’re the most used furniture at home. Senior citizens tend to hold onto something while moving because of weakness in their arms and legs. We considered this during the process so that the final design enables senior citizens to move freely and actively inside the house. I believe that small but thoughtful designs can ensure people’s welfare. 

The recent pandemic does more than just threaten our safety. Many people would agree that our ties with families and friends have weakened since the pandemic. Particularly at nursing homes, elderly residents are not allowed to see their families as COVID-19 drags out. The picture shown here is a visiting room at a senior care facility. This year, we designed a contactless visiting room that is safe from possible infections. Our goal was to bring families together and give them a chance to share their daily life and rebuild the bonds. The next design is a braille map for people with visual impairment. It is said that the physical discomfort of the disabled becomes an obstacle only because our cities are designed that way. The city of Seoul created the braille map of Seoul Children’s Grand Park to ensure that visually impaired citizens also enjoy amusement parks. The design included a braille card with information about the park, animals, and plants so that children with visual impairment can choose what to do or see. Leveraging design to support self-reliance was a great way to promote the welfare of the disabled. 

Laborers working outside often deal with poor conditions. This project created rest zones for cleaning staff who walk across a large outdoor space. We named it Recharging Zone because the area allowed workers to take a break without worrying about other people. As demonstrated by several examples, design is closely linked to welfare since it cares for people and ensures everyone equally enjoys benefits. 

Design is culture.

Design not only provides visual satisfaction but also enhances the quality of service. Creating cultural content in cities as well as encouraging people to consume are part of the design process. We displayed a sculpture under the theme of ‘Secret Doors’ in 2019. At that time, the 100th National Championship was being held at Jamsil Sports Complex. We used the green space mostly left unvisited and set up an attraction area with visual entertainment. This is a great example of how design can turn unused spots into spaces for cultural experiences. Design can also bring fun and excitement to otherwise dull places. When we’re on tour, we spend as much time waiting around as in a destination. With this in mind, we incorporated fun design to city tour bus stops and ticket offices so that visitors to Seoul can enjoy new experiences while waiting. Stainless mirrors transformed an area for waiting into a visually exciting cultural space. We also applied design to Hangang River, the popular cultural spot in Seoul. The chair renting service helped families, friends, and couples visiting Hangang Park to spend quality time without having to bring heavy gear. At the same time, we created garbage facilities and used easily visible designs to guide directions in the park. Seoul continues to offer various design-based content within the city while supporting cultural consumption. This helps our citizens pause for a moment in urban life and enjoy Seoul as a cultural city.  

The last value design can bring is communication. 

Design functions as an effective tool to deliver designers’ messages to people. It can be used to pass on information or to encourage certain behaviors. Communication is a process for empathy. We often encounter uncomfortable situations in public transportation used by many people. To address the issue, we reinterpreted subway etiquette through fun stories and designed transportation card. The goal was to help people understand that our unconscious actions can cause discomfort and eventually form a consensus. Communication is also a process of convincing others. In Seoul, areas within 10 meters from subway exits are designated as non-smoking zones. But the idea can feel vague in real life unless people measure the exact 10-meter mark. So we designed a clear guideline called ‘Twenty Footsteps’ and carried out a campaign to help smokers grasp the concept and reduce the discomfort from second-hand smoking. As you can see, communication is not one-way and doesn’t stop when one party delivers a message. 

For better understanding, let’s take a look at directional signage at subway stations. It’s common to go the wrong way while using public transportation due to confusing or complicated directions. Such experience can be stressful. Therefore, it’s important to clearly show where to go and ensure that people understand. Assisting ‘communication’ and relieving stress are additional values offered by design. 

In my presentation, I have shared some of Seoul’s design projects to demonstrate how design can change our perceptions and experiences. We also looked at the values generated through design. Understanding people better and planning creative experiences are what design does the best. The Seoul Metropolitan Government’s administrative work covers many different areas from safety, health, transportation, education to communication. When design is incorporated into each of these areas, we can offer more citizen-friendly and thoughtful services. This is because design serves as a means rather than as a purpose. I hope that ‘design as a value creator’ can expand its role by bringing new experiences and values to citizen’s life. With that, I would like to end my presentation.  

Thank you. 

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