Korea, the Republic of Korea to be exact, is a peculiar place at the best of times. Destination of choice for plastic surgery, to ogle pin-up female golfers taking a swing at being supermodels, and a basket-case Northern hermit state replete with mad dictator. Korea’s notable recent achievements have been chaebol heir apparents with nut-rage, and a tribute birdy-song to a popular fashion district of Seoul being the first to pass one billion views on youtube.
In all seriousness, Korea today has struggled to position itself (again) as a global economic player in Asia Pacific with Japan and Taiwan’s relentless appeal, and the manufacturing centre of the world to its west and north. All Governments view the Olympics as a golden egg for economic and cultural benefit: the world’s media hones in on the host country’s character and achievements, and expectations of home-grown athletes produce waves of national pride. In May 2013, the official identity of the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics was revealed. Now, with the opening ceremony only two years away, can Korea pull the event off successfully, and what will the lasting legacy of their Olympic identity be?
Square and star
Inspired by Hangul, the alphabet of the phonetic Korean language, the PyeongChang Olympic identity is an abstract motif of the host city. ‘ㅍ’ (‘P’) is the first consonant of the first syllable ‘Pyeong’, and the ‘ㅊ’(‘Ch’) is the first consonant of the second syllable ‘Chang’, depicted as a star. PyeongChang’s organizing committee expresses this as: “symboliz[ing] the open square where the celebration of athletes and winter sports will take place….” with “the natural environment of snow and ice, and the stellar achievements of the athletes — the stars of the Games.” The colours represent the five Olympic rings, and as a happy coincidence represent the five traditional colours of Korea.
The design is attributed to Ha Jong-joo, who, according to the committee is said to have done “corporate identity designs” for “major global corporations”. To me, it immediately strikes as the work of an intern. Perhaps it is. Extensive research did not reveal who Ha Jong-joo is or evidence of the major global corporations mentioned. If this is the best Korea can offer in graphic design it will enter the pantheon of appalling Olympic logos — with London as head boy.
Dating from the 15th century, Hangul (한글) is the Korean alphabet. Han (한) translates as “great” in archaic Korean, while geul (글) is the native Korean word for “script”. Hangul was adopted in official documents for the first time in 1894. During Japan’s imperial rule (1910 – 1945) Japanese became the official language, however, Hangul was taught in the Korean-established schools and Korean was written in a mixed Hanja (the Korean name for Chinese characters — Hanzi [漢字] in Chinese) and Hangul script, where most adjectives were written in Hanja while grammatical forms were written in Hangul.
For designers composing Korean in InDesign, Hangul is part of the Part of Chinese, Japanese, Korean (CJK) character set which ships with the associated operating system language. English language designers can only access the CJK character sets using the third party World Tools plugin which is used for Harbour Times Chinese typesetting.
The Traditional Korean Colour Spectrum is called ‘Obangsaek’ (오방색) which translate as the five directional colours and five elements of traditional Korean culture.
Design by committee
As the poorer sibling of the International Olympic Committee the Winter Olympics have given designers a legacy of appalling logos over the years, with the exception of Sapporo in 1972 and Sochi in 2012. Olympic logo design is a thankless task. Endless presentations to government stakeholders and corporate sponsors dilute the guts of any creative expression and so there is some sympathy with the design team. However, there is too much arrogance in this design. The designer/Koreans assume the world will understand the essence of their logo’s rather clumsy cultural references. It is too boring. Too Korean.
PyeongChang’s Candidate City logo was much stronger: friendly and informed. Why was this design change approved? The vast majority of candidate cities change the identity once they have won the games, and invariably the designs become worse for it. It is fair to assume this is due to stakeholder involvement. Unfortunately, Design is rarely the winner of the Olympics.
Korea is desperately trying to avoid being viewed as the poorer version of Japan (culturally) and China (economically). It still has to abide to the South Korea Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) agreement and put up with the 27,000 US military personnel stationed there. GDP Growth Rate in South Korea reached an all time high of 6.80 percent in the first quarter of 1988 coinciding with the hugely successful Summer Olympics in Seoul which put Korea firmly on the global economic stage. In a country that has a national average snowfall of just 30cm per year it will be hard for PyeongChang to supersede Seoul’s success 30 years previously. With this Winter Olympic identity they are not going to make great inroads in selling ‘Brand Korea’.