Working as a designer in Korea

For the last six years I lived in Seoul, where I studied, worked and spent a great deal of time trying to understand this complex culture.

A lot of what you’ve heard about it is true. Food is great, spicy and jammed with MSG. People are obsessed with beauty. Samsung does make cars. Some do still eat dog stew.

But here is the one I want you to pay attention to:

It is an honor-driven culture with a heavy emphasis on age difference, hierarchies and pride.

In this post I will permeate what you need to know, based on personal experience, should you wish to pursue a career as a Designer in Korea. Introducing you to the ins and outs of the work culture of Korea is rather a tedious task and one that I am not qualified to do best. For that, I leave you with the following links:


  1. Korea is not socially and culturally ready

For a country with the 4th largest economy in Asia — the 11th largest worldwide—Korea is not what you would define as foreign friendly. You will find that only one out of five locals you meet is somewhat fluent in English, which from the get go makes your stay full of little nuances or obliges you to learn the language. After one year of studying Korean and reaching a proficient level, I still found it hard to develop meaningful and genuine friendships with locals. Most expats in Korea befriend other expats or Kyopos (the prodigal diaspora). You are also likely to experience some form of racism or misconduct. Hence I suggest you pack a Korean for Dummies book and brace yourself for shock. It’s part of the experience, some would argue.

2. Design is still under-rated, under-appreciated and under-compensated

Remember the days when your mother told you to “choose a real career” or when other professionals thought of design as the least important thing in a company’s success? Well, that is still true in Korea. Yeah, I know.

Side note: Mom, I was right.

Although I have seen amelioration in this area, for the most part Korean companies do not and will probably never catch up to give designers the due regard, appreciation and compensation that companies in America or Europe do. You should definitely not choose Korea for the money, and prepare to be buried under layers and layers of hierarchy, micromanagement, and hippos (highest paid person’s opinion).

Should you choose to work at a Korean Chaebol (large family-owned conglomerates like Samsung and LG) your ambitions within that company are dependent to those of the employee who came in earlier than you and is waiting in line for his turn. This is because in a Chaebol and most Korean companies, promotions are subject to permanency, not merit. In terms of compensation, Chaebols tend to compensate fairly well for Korean salaries at $2500 — $2700 a month for an entry level position.

Should you choose to work for a startup, you will face similar circumstances; and while the competition is not as high as in other markets, chances of succeeding are lower. There is a saying that ‘Korea is owned by 6 companies’ and they get to choose who makes it and who doesn’t. Depending on the size of the startup, your position and experience you could expect to make anything in the $2000 and $3000 ballpark.

3. The startup scene is young but promising

Korea caught up quite late to the start up movement. This in part because for many years the cultural and popular idea of success was that one had to make it to a top ten university and land a contract at a Chaebol. This has been the reason of major controversy in Korea and one of the leading contributors to the high rate of suicides in the country — primarily by youngsters.

Second to that, there just weren’t many people who dared to take the chance and venture. The chances to succeed as an independent business owner, specially in the tech and design industry, were very low until recent times.

I recent years the startup industry in Korea has blossomed to the point of representing a challenge to the traditional work culture and several times has being noted as the potential lifeline to the decaying giant companies.

However, one of the issues I still see with Korean startups is that they are not creating global products and services. They are shy in their ambitions. The next challenge for emerging Koreans startups is to create products and services with global ambitions, something to draw the eyes of the world towards their economy. I see plenty of potential but not a lot of ambition.

These are some of the ones you want to keep an eye on:

Coupang, ZigBang, Yello Mobile, Socar, Knowre.

ZigBang and Socar prove my point. Make a good, global website, please.

4. Creativity is not fostered much

As a designer I like to brainstorm and always give ample time and opportunities to foster a creative and actionable approach to the problems I am faced with. You should never underestimate the impact of a focused creative session in the process of solving a problem. Creativity is at the heart of design, it is what motivates most of us to do what we do. The moment you bring deadlines and budget into the mix, a line has been crossed.

While Koreans absolutely love a meeting room, seldom any time is spent on brainstorming, but more on several types of updates, time sheets, and stake holder meetings. I dare not to belittle the importance of such meetings, but if you are like me, you will find yourself missing college and the opportunities to see a problem from dozens of angles and explore hundreds of solutions with people equally passionate.

5. Competition is lower than in other markets

Korea’s economy is half a century old. Because the industry is younger, talent is younger and far less experienced than in America or Europe. So if you are struggling to compete with the highly skilled individuals in those regions, perhaps Korea is a great place for you to muster some experience or begin your career. Without meaning to offend anyone, the truth is that foreign talent has a clear advantage over the local designers when it comes to technical skills.

Why? Remember when I said that most Korean professionals are not bilingual? Well, guess what language is every blog, software, plugin in.

You will of course be in the disadvantage when it comes to knowing the demographics as well as they do. Among others, Koreans are very good at making things viral. They know their people, they know what sticks. It’s a mix of sheer predictability and a compulsive need to belong. My eyes have witnessed a three block long line of people waiting for an average churro.

6. Low productivity

This is perhaps the point where I may be biased the most as productivity is something tricky to define and quantify, let alone relative to each company. However, if you are a fast paced designer like me, who is quick to deliver, who values fast and accurate feedback and likes to iterate, you may face some frustration. Chaebols have the worst productivity of any business, full of ambiguous, impractical and outdated methods, ran by outdated people.

Best practices is a foreign term.

For more on this point refer to the first link above.

7. Design, creative studios are not a thing

When I got to Korea six years ago I swiftly noticed that my options were quite limited. Creative, media studios and freelance work were farfetched ideas. I think I never met a single colleague who could boast success as a freelancer or heard stories of small studios landing big projects.

Everywhere else it is about talent. In Korea is about connections.

Another common subject with opening studios, or any business really, is that you are almost always compelled to partner up with a Korean. I am yet to meet the first foreigner who can boast a good experience with that exchange. A fellow expat I ran into in a plane to Paris the other day was telling me how his marriage ended because he and his Korean wife opened a business together.

Are there exceptions? Certainly. I just don’t know one.

8. Technology is thriving

It is no secret that Korea is one of the most technologically advanced countries on earth and that always represents the anticipation of new possibilities. Their technology paves the way for connectivity like no other, gives products and services endless ways to create experiences, sell, connect, and be more effective. Technology allowed Coupang to create the Rocket Delivery service, by far the fastest way to get anything delivered to your door. That is technology allowing a company to deliver its promise and present newer, better, more convenient solutions.

If you are a visionary and love all things tech, that is the place for you.

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In conclusion, for all the good and the bad, I loved my time in Korea. There are interesting things happening over there and I am excited to see the bright, young, daring minds of the emerging generations continue what others have so bravely begun.

One last piece of advice:

Bring tissues, everyone gets a brown nose

If you have any questions about Korea or working there, do not hesitate to ask.

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