Design Lessons from the Korean Alphabet

How Hangul applied the 10 Principles of Design 500 years ago

Minzi Kang
Aug 1, 2018 · 6 min read

Hangul, the Korean alphabet, is regarded as one of the best writing systems in the world. It was exceptionally designed and I will prove it with Dieter Rams’ 10 Principles of Design.

1. Good design is innovative

Dieter believed that good design pushes the boundaries and goes further than our current understanding of an object. Hangul has pushed the boundaries of written languages because it is such a systematic and scientific writing system.

The consonant shapes in Hangul are based on scientific principles and the shapes of vocal organs.

The basic consonant letter shapes (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㅇ) imitate the positions of the mouth, teeth, tongue and throat when pronouncing the sounds.

That is:

“ㄱ” is /k/ which represents the back of the tongue that is raised to block the throat;

“ㄴ” is /n/ which represents the the shape of the tongue touching the upper gums behind the top teeth;

“ㅁ” is /m/ which represent the shape of the mouth with the lips pressed together;

“ㅅ” is /s/ which represents the shape of the teeth; and

“ㅇ” is the shape of the opening at the back of the throat.

The basic consonant letter shapes (ㄱ, ㄴ, ㅁ, ㅅ, and ㅇ) imitate the positions of the mouth, teeth, tongue and throat when pronouncing the sounds

These basic letter shapes are only the start of what a innovative system this is.

2. Good design is thorough down to the last detail

Hangul was made with care and accuracy to the last detail to help the user understand the relationship of the written form and the sound it makes. Hangul is a scientifically systematic system because the symbols show connections between similar sounds. I’ll demonstrate with the ㄴ /n/ symbol, and its related symbols (ㄷ, ㅌ and ㄹ).

When you pronounce the consonant sounds n, d, t, and l, you can feel that the tip of your tongue is angled to make contact with the roof of your mouth. Try saying them between two a vowels: ana, ada, ata, ala. These sounds are all pronounced in the same place in the mouth, so their letter shapes are all based on the same simple form, representing the position of the tongue.

To distinguish the letters, more strokes are added onto the base form. This connection between letter shapes and tongue gestures is unique among writing systems of the world. It results in an alphabet for which sounds that sound similar are represented by letters that look similar.

This thorough attention to detail is what why so many linguistic scholars are amazed by Hangul.

3. Good design is as little design as possible

According to Dieter Rams, less is better because it concentrates on the essential aspects.

The design of the vowels could not be simpler. With only a dot and two lines, Hangul allows you to form a range of different vowel sounds.

All vowels reflect the idea in Eastern philosophy that heaven, Earth and human are one.

Varying combinations of these three shapes are used to express all Hangul vowels. For example, the vowel “ㅏ” is a combination of ㅣ and ·.

4. Good design makes a product useful

Hangul is easy to learn, but it is also useful in other ways.

In English, a word is spelled out by laying them out in a linear fashion. But with Hangul, the consonants and vowels can be stacked together. This is more efficient because it takes up less space, and this combination rule increases the reading speed.

5. Good design makes a product understandable

When you are reading in English, have you ever had difficulty knowing how to pronounce a word? I’ve done it so many times, and I still have this problem when I come across a new word. In English, the pronunciation of a word and it’s spelling are not phonetically correlated.

With Hangul, you don’t have this problem. Hangul shows you exactly how a word should be pronounced in Korean. It is a writing system based entirely on pronunciations.

One of the king’s advisors said, that a wise person could master it in the space of a morning, and even a stupid person could learn it after a week’s study. It is very intuitive and this might explain why South Korea (and apparently North Korea too) have a high literacy rate of almost 100%.

6. Good design is environmentally friendly

Dieter Rams was an industrial designer, and wrote this point to refer to the physical products that were manufactured. Although Hangul isn’t something physical that we can hold in our hands, it was designed whilst thinking about the environment it was in.

Korean language had a long history, but it never had its own dedicated writing system. Till 15th century, Koreans used the Chinese writing system, and most people were illiterate. Chinese characters are very difficult to learn and it takes time — only the wealthy could afford to spend the hours and money for high tuition fees.

The Korean language is also very different from Chinese in both grammar and sounds so the writing system did not reflect the language. King Sejong famously said that using Chinese characters for Korean was “like trying to fit a square handle into a round hole”. He decided to invent an alphabet that reflected the Korean language that was easy to learn, even by the uneducated general public.

7. Good design is honest

Good design is honest about its purpose. King Sejong had seen many cases where the uneducated suffered from legal incidences because they could not read the law. Hangul was originally named Hunminjungeum which means “Correct Sounds to Enlighten the People”.

King Sejong released Hangul alongside a manuscript to he explain his reasons.

“The language of our nation is different from that of China and is not compatible with Chinese characters. As a result, there are many uneducated people that cannot express their thoughts in writing. I am greatly distressed by this, and have created 28 letters. It is my desire that all the people may easily learn them and use them daily.”

8. Good design is aesthetic

The geometrical shapes of Hangul is simple and aesthetic. Many artists are taking it as a source of design inspiration.

9. Good design is unobtrusive

Hangul leaves room to be used in other ways. King Sejong couldn’t have foreseen it the advancement of technology and our use of computers and mobile phones. With only 14 consonants and 10 vowels, it can be incorporated to keyboards very easily.

Additionally, because of its scientific design, Hangul lends itself to easy mechanisation. There are coding languages in Hangul like Aheui, Changjo, Ssiat

Left: Hangul on a desktop/laptop keyboard; Right: Hangul keyboard on the phone.

10. Good design is long lasting

Good design withstands the withering effects of time. Since its publication in 1446, four characters have become obsolete, so that just 24 are now used — two less than the English alphabet. Hangul will continue to be used across the Korean peninsula, and with the rising popularity of Korean culture, its use will continue to grow.

To conclude

The greatest lesson about Hangul is that it was made for the people. Perhaps this is the reason why Hangul’s design is timeless. King Sejong thought about and catered to the user throughout Hangul’s creation.

Minzi Kang

Written by

UX Designer with a background in Neuroscience and Psychology

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