Category Archives: seoul

Digital imaging entrepreneurs

Affordable digital photography equipments have given birth to numerous street entrepreneurs. It is surprising how many applications of photographs people can come up with, when I recall the use of photographs merely 20 years ago. While I still hear the occasional question of “why do you take the photo of that?” – a habit from the past where photographs were reserved for special occasion only – it seems clear that we are marching towards the creative world of photography in our everyday lives.

In India, digital imaging entrepreneurs are still taking advantage of the fact that they can set up the business cheaply and majority of the population still do not own cameras of their own. Heavily decorated photograph booths, with the essential prop of a motorcycle or printouts of bollywood stars are the basic requirement – to create the special occasion for the customers. Below images were taken at a local fair ground in Bareilly, Uttar Pradesh.

More advanced photo studios may offer digitally re-touched imaging options, thanks to the development of easy-to-use photo editing software. This reduces the physical space burden of setting up a photo studio, as the owner is able to photoshop in a “desirable” background to the photo. Below photos were taken & photoshopped by a photo studio owner near Erode, Tamil Nadu.

In South Korea where the rate of digital camera ownership is relatively much higher, local entrepreneurs have to bring something more than a camera and a printer can do. He was selling a mobile phone strap personalized with your photograph. He took the photo, edited immediately on a computer with custom-made photoshop template reflecting the customer’s opinion, printed it, and used the hair dryer to fit the printout onto a little trinket that the customer has chosen. The whole process took about 20min, which is still a long time – I am not sure how scalable his business will be.

One sure fact is that our own images semi-eternalized by the photographs are increasingly influencing our memory, attitude to real-time experiences, and relationship with others.

Obvious physical constraints

Many countries utilize RFID cards at high way tollgates, ranging from free passes with which cars can simply drive through the gates, to transportation or credit cards. Replacing cash transactions alone can speed up the process of passing through the tollgate.

This tollgate in Seoul, on the way to Incheon airport, had 3 card scanners each accommodating the different height of the driver seat. Designers must have gone through several options before deciding on this solution: A stronger scanner? Material and manufacturing cost of the machine? Off-the-shelf components available on the market? Ergonomics of the driver reach on different vehicle types? Maintenance cost? Variations in the usage contexts where the scanner should be installed and used?

Cash is an incredible medium that has lived through centuries in human lives to facilitate exchange of values. Any attempts to replace cash were accompanied by the heavy investment in the infrastructure over a long period of time, such as transaction terminals that suit various contextual and business requirements. Similar to any communication technology where the real value is in exchanges among people, it could move very slowly till the minimal size of ‘majority’ starts to get equipped with the tool and people get convinced that there is a clear benefit for conversion.

This slow change, in turn, could also result in intermediate technology solution in order to accommodate the existing human processes. For instance this signature pad has become a very common tool at the checkout using credit cards in South Korea. This replaces a printed receipt for getting the customer’s signature for the shop to keep. The credit card payer signs on the pad and gets the final receipt with the signature captured on the pad printed on it, typically in low resolution. This allows the shop to keep the transaction record electronically, which simplifies the process of bookkeeping. Is this working better than ‘Chip & Pin’, requiring a 4-digit personal code with IC chip embedded on the card as is widespread in UK? Advantages and disadvantages are different between the two methods, but I guess that’s beside the point. South Koreans opted for a technology solution that produces an equivalent outcome to an existing process: a printed receipt with personal signature, while being able to record the data digitally at the same time.

The signature pads I have tried invariably made me write my signature distorted or cut due to the inadequate feedback and lack of personal calibration (I was not exactly given a practice run either), or simply I started with the wrong size for the given space. So most of the times, I get a receipt with my signature printed too small, too big, unrecognizable, or incomplete. Does this matter? In theory yes, but in practice no. People have embraced the ineffectiveness, the defect of the technology tool because it still allows them to comply with the existing rule and process to a degree.

In India, I sometimes have to hand over my credit card to my driver (yes, I have to rely on a driver to live in Bangalore) for transactions. First time I got the receipt with no signature, I asked him “Don’t I need to sign this?” His answer was clear and simple as he started the engine: “Anyone can sign.” A similar attitude, but a different behavioral solution from the South Korean example.

Will either of these solutions prevail in the future? I would say yes, until the evidences of failure becomes apparent to the majority. We are, after all, humans who embrace mistakes and learn from them. But still – can we really design for adoption, abuse, appropriation and degeneration? Is it a matter of trying, an attitude? This is an increasingly relevant topic for my work these days. If you are involved in designing an infrastructural service that will have to transcend time, space and a large body of population, the cost of ‘we will iterate the design after we deploy it and get the feedback’ can be huge, if not leading to the failure altogether. It becomes critical that the patch tests of contextual validation trigger a wide variety of scenarios to consider, for policy creation, changing the existing process (gradually), training personnels, and establishing the word-of-mouth concept propagation message – including the potential ‘myth’.

Bonus: The new equipment invested is a chance to add on other features. The highway tollgate receipt comes with advertisement and coupons; POS system with the signature pad often comes with a screen facing customers that play ad videos.

The Unknown, The Untried : A tutorial on design research

In case you have not noticed, there is a conference on design research in Seoul from tomorrow, October 20th, 2009. The online registration is already closed, but if you happen to be in Seoul – the onsite registration is still possible.

I will be running a full-day tutorial on the exploratory design research, with a special focus on how to involve people in the process. I will approach it like a participatory workshop: I plan to use my past projects as a way to let participants think about designing the design research methods.

A full-day tutorial means 5-6 hours on Sunday, so it’s only for the really dedicated (and those who are free from the real-world chores on weekend).

But it will be good to see you there: this is a very rare chance for me to look back at and share the various projects over the last decade in depth with you. Your opinions and feedback will be of great inspiration to me.

Conference website:

service availability / discovery

By the entrance of a convenience store in Seoul, stickers indicating the service offerings available in the store are shown – all printed in a standardized size. The potential to make the service availability indication digital, making them searchable and discoverable remotely? Who would be the right organization / institution/corporation to take up the role to issue such a standardized service availability database?

Stickers are:
A brand of newspaper
A mobile phone charging service; Payment options called pre-p
Door-to-door delivery service; Bill payment
Cash receipt for taxation; Loyalty membership scheme

Listing that, I realize how much I miss these always nearby, always available convenience stores in Korea and Japan…

multiplex street business


I saw my grandfather only as a hand-painted portrait. Having a portrait painted was the only solution when people wanted to reconstruct a memorabilia of the family ancestor solely from recollection, or a fading photograph.


The street cobbler’s booth advertising the portrait painting service is also selling wooden birds: a sweet marriage of several high-skilled entrepreneurs. It is another example of sharing resources – probably through an informal homegrown transaction deal.


service efficiency – managing the wait

South Korean tourists are known to be impatient, represented by the well-known word ‘ppali-ppali’, meaning ‘fast, fast’. Waiting time does play a big role in making a service business a success or a failure. If you can’t make it shorter, you may as well look for other options to make it at least more enjoyable.


This Call / Bill / Water button set is available on all tables in this cafe in Seoul (Shinsa-dong). Compared to the more typical model of just pressing the button to call the waiter, this eliminates one additional visit to inquire about what the customer wants.


The opposite example is also found at this self-service cafe chain called pascucci. Once you place your order, you are given this little pager. You go and sit at the table of your choice, instead of waiting around the busy counter. When your drinks are ready to be picked up, it will light up.



I would rate these two systems high because of their simplicity for use and implementation, requiring minimal modification in the existing infrastructure and workflow knowledge, hence lowering the barrier to the initial adoption. A contrasting example would be McDonalds’ ‘Touch Order’ trial together with SK Telecom. RFID reader was provided to be plugged into the mobile phone to enable ordering through touching the menu, with the bill to be topped up in the phone bill. When the order is ready, a text message is sent to the phone to alert the customer to pick the food up. One reviewer righteously complained: “Ordering was fast indeed. But no one paid attention to my order behind the counter so I ended up getting the food much later.” Managing the human skills and habits will still be the prevalent issue in deploying a service backed by new technology.

flexible sign board


Pictured is a truck covered with LED boards displaying ads on four sides (though one of them was experiencing a technical problem). It is an effective medium especially in cities where traffic jams are expected throughout the day. I can also see that it would be valuable for services that require on-the-spot advertising in context when/where people need it rather than relying on people to take the responsibility of remembering the brand or the phone number.



The service being advertised in the truck is offering a driver for taking you home in your car when you are drunk: You avoid drunk driving, and at the same time your car is back in your garage for your use the next morning. This is, again, a socially relevant service in a culture where involuntary and social drinking is prevalent.
With so much discussion on the ecologically sustainable solutions – flexible display infrastructure catches my attention nowadays.


Pictures taken in Seoul, South Korea, November 2008.

displaced/fabricated nature

plants growing in tokyo metro station

plants growing in tokyo metro station

Living close to the nature is a privilege in many parts of the world. It is more so as cities become increasingly densely populated and expand. I grew up in a very human-constructed environment of South Korea’s former industrial hub, Busan, South Korea. Naturally, facing or getting too intimate with the real nature has always been a special, rare occasion to me. On the other hand I am very much familiar with the idea of miniaturized, sanitized, fake nature in the industrialized, completely made-up environment, simulating and sampling the idea of nature rather than providing the real experience of it [think a fake snow field in a department store window decoration rather than the deceivingly real artificial beach in Odaiba, Tokyo, Japan]. In doing so, we often mimic parts of the nature that takes minimal effort to maintain and is pleasing to our senses without unpleasant consequences.

a cafe in an underground passage in tokyo, japan

a cafe in an underground passage in tokyo, japan

In Seoul’s smaller city airport, Gimpo, there’s a airy lounge area that looks like a garden. Perhaps it is the obvious contradiction that makes it more charming, or acceptable, depending on where you are coming from. As a city child I didn’t even notice the ubiquity of mimicked nature until I came back to Korea after living in other countries. They are sometimes cute, but more often than not, can be repulsive, cheap, and horrifying. Like most animal cages in the zoo are simply sad to look at.

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea


gimpo airport lounge, seoul, south korea

lounge area in gimpo airport, seoul, south korea

As depicted by numerous well-known science fictions, we will soon see the day when it is no longer interior decorator’s musings to create the artificial parts of the nature, as they may be required for the purpose of making people familiarized with the concept.

As a side story – in a Japanese manga series called ‘Five Star Stories’, the humanoid girls ‘Fatima’ who are specifically created for controlling the war robots are described. Their skin can only accommodate clothes made of real cotton, which in itself is an extreme luxury at the time. I was reminded of the story when I was shopping in India looking for a traditional cotton lungi in a local neighborhood: I tried almost 10 shops, and none of them had a single lungi made of pure cotton as it was too expensive.

car + mobile phone number


putting owner’s mobile number printed on the front window seems to be on its way to become a norm for car owners in korea. and often its not a scribbled note anymore. the parking convention in korean cities does require leaving the contact information on the car, as people may have no alternative in resting your car without blocking other cars’ exit route, for instance.

how private is your mobile phone number? what combination of contexts and other personal information makes it unacceptable to give the number out?


future of urban mega cities?

A couple of weeks ago, I had luck in flying to Seoul’s Kimpo city airport under a great afternoon light. These photos are not of the central Seoul but the neighboring areas around the airport, but show the representative forms of housing in Korea: The giant apartment building blocks.

seoul view 3

Seoul is the 6th most densely populated city in the world with 16,700 people living per square kilometer, after Mumbai, Kolkata (India), Karachi (Pakistan), Lagos (Nigeria), and Shenzhen (China). Considering Tokyo is ranked at 50th and Helsinki 111th, it is the busiest city I ever lived in as well. The housing is probably the most distinctive problem in these densely populated cities with the limited space.

Many first time visitors will be probably very curious about these gigantic apartment blocks, as for some they may be reminiscent of several European communist housing projects. I am no expert in urban planning and history of Korean society, but I understand that these massive residential building blocks have been the main body of urban development and the driving force behind the adoption of broadband internet in Korea.

seoul view 4

seoul view 1
seoul view 2

Over the past decades most of residential neighborhoods in Seoul have been or are waiting to be put under the redevelopment scheme, which means demolishing the old houses in the area and building these apartment blocks instead.

seoul view 5

The size of each building varies greatly but it seems there is no limit to how high they can go, partly thanks to the fact that Korea is not considered as earthquake-prone country, unlike its neighboring country, Japan. My parents live on the 12th floor in a 25-story building, which was built 15 years ago. If your dream is to live in a house with a garden in nature, these apartments in the super artificially built environment may seem like a living in a chicken cage. But many Koreans I know who are born in the city do consider living in a modern apartment to be the best form of housing. There are several benefits. To name a few:

Shared cost of living and delegation
A group of apartment buildings usually form a community of their own, which could be equivalent of a villiage. Such a community usually hires a management team to delegate tasks that are of shared nature for the whole community, including security, garbage disposal, and maintenance of shared facilities like car parking and boilers for central heating. Shown in the picture is the monthly maintenance cost bill of an apartment. It details all the expenditure of the shared maintenance cost. This bill combines electricity, gas, water, central heating, insurance, sewage and garbage disposal cost and the likes shared by the community. Terrestrial and cable TV subscription fee are part of it as well, since most people sign up for these services.

utility bill

Magnetic power of the mass
Because of the large number of residents moving to the area, it can attract many service businesses and even governmental infrastructure such as public transportation network at the same time. This way, these communities can get equipped with all the practical conveniences at hand. This high density of residents also enables for some businesses to provide exceptionally personal services with low cost, especially making the home delivery and pick up service a norm.

Peace of mind being surrounded by people
Urbanites that grew up in these buildings can grow the tendency to feel insecure in areas with low density of people. I have no scientific reference to my point here, but it is all based on my personal experience (with my acquaintances) and observations (of the real estate investment boom in Korea). I have talked to several from the elderly generation of over 60yo who wish to stay in the city despite the lack of nature because they want to stay close to other people. I do observe Korean people enjoying all the bustles of living closely together with others – including all the conflicts, gossips, jokes, encouragements, and competitions alike. It’s not surprising to read a news article about a number of Koreans who had immigrated to New Zealand returned to Korea because they were too peaceful, and too bored.

Dissemination of new infrastructure
The density and the power of the mass together enable easy and fast dissemination of the new infrastructure. This gives Korean companies and government the extra acceleration to implement something new very fast once they are determined to do so. This is the secret behind the fast dissemination of broadband internet in Korea: You install one base station, and the whole building-full of houses get to use it. Aside from the benefits of physical density, the real power of this close-knit communities is probably the ability to share and teach each other the new and the useful. The trend rises and spreads (or die) at a formidable speed in korean society – be it adopting a new internet service or a new tupperware-like container.

I see the popularity of mega residential buildings as a unique by-product of Korea’s fast economic development, urban expansion, and pragmatism. Personally I have been always saddened by the disappearing natural landscapes, replaced and redefined by squads of residential buildings. The practical necessity at hand is too demanding for the community members to reflect upon what these developments will really mean in the future, but it certainly leaves me wondering: How will urban Koreans perceive nature in the future? How about happiness?

Below are photos of Favela Jacarezinho (Rio, Brazil) and Nima market in Accra (Ghana). How will the industrialization and economic development change their preferred forms of living in these communities? Will the urban changes of a big scale be possible without the government’s or big corporations’ push? How will their unique cultural characteristics be reflected to their urban landscape?


nima accra

I remember an interview with a Chinese labor worker: For him, the biggest charm of urban living was easy access to food all year around, despite the harsy living condition. For future urbanites – what would be the charm of leaving the urban living? Would there be necessities strong enough like hunger and employment to drive the phenomenon of mass moves, to reverse the expansion of urban developments?