Donghoon Chang (MFA 1991)
Donghoon Chang (MFA 1991)

How an SAIC alumnus is making mobile design more meaningful

By Jeremy Ohmes

"What is the role of design?"

This is the question that Donghoon Chang (MFA 1991) asks a rapt audience of SAIC students and aspiring designers. A few hands shoot into the air, and a student says, "To work for the user." Another replies, "To be simple." "Stability," someone calls out from the back of the room.

Chang nods to each of these answers with the smile of a sage who is proud of his protégés. "I sense that our awareness about design has changed a lot," he remarks. "In the past, design simply meant style...a pretty product." A picture of Philippe Starck's iconic, spider-like Juicy Salif citrus-squeezer flashes on the screen behind him. "This tool is elegant and unique, but it's not the best way to squeeze an orange," Chang explains.

Then he shows an image of a utilitarian, donut-shaped plastic container known as the Q Drum. The receptacle can be filled and pulled over long distances and bumpy terrains, helping people in developing countries solve the core problem of easily collecting and transporting water. Chang declares that this simple instrument exemplifies the role of designers: "To study the essence of a problem deeply and to think in the perspective of users." Design should be more than just beautiful and functional—it should be valuable.

Chang is Samsung's Executive Vice President, Head of the Design Team in the IT and Mobile Communications Division, and Head of the Design Strategy Team at the company's Corporate Design Center. In other words, the SAIC alumnus (and member of SAIC's Board of Governors) oversees the design and user experience of Samsung's mobile products—most notably the Galaxy S smartphones and Note series devices. He has also played a critical role in developing the company's design strategy, which has gradually shifted from a focus on style and convenience to a more value-centered, user-driven design. This is what Chang refers to as "responsible design" or "Design 3.0."

In interviews, the designer likes to toss out the catchphrase, "Make it Meaningful"—a slogan that serves as the basis for his Design 3.0 philosophy and the motto of Samsung's evolving design identity. In Forbes magazine, Chang describes Design 3.0 as "a strategy that is aimed at creating new and meaningful...experiential value and lifestyles for users." In order to make products more meaningful for people, he says, designers must move beyond the idea of consumers who simply purchase products and services toward "companions who work to co-create a more fulfilling world."

At the 2013 Seoul Digital Forum, Chang unveiled Samsung's latest smartphone, the Galaxy S4, under the theme "Life Companion." During his keynote address, he plugs the device as "not just a convenient machine, but a partner in your life." Then he discusses how his team incorporated Design 3.0 into the phone through features such as a built-in language translator, eye-tracking technology that pauses a video when you look away, and "Air View," which allows you to view text messages, answer calls, and browse the web without touching your screen.

The phone showcases how Design 3.0 works in concert with Samsung's engineering, product planning, and marketing functions to develop designs that are aligned with an individual's lifestyle. In order to accomplish this, according to Chang, Samsung motivates their designers to research user behavior, closely follow market trends, and actively seek out inspiration for unique aesthetics—responsibilities that were not so relevant to the company's fledgling design team a mere decade ago.   

Donghoon Chang speaking with SAIC students about Samsung’s design strategy
Donghoon Chang speaking with SAIC students about Samsung’s design strategy

For the past 13 years Samsung has taken a more holistic approach to design—establishing a Corporate Design Center in 2001 where designers report directly to the CEO; opening global design hubs in London, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Shanghai, Tokyo, and Delhi; sending promising designers to study at the world's top universities; pairing designers with psychologists, economists, and marketing experts to research cultural trends and buying habits; and inviting designers to compete for specific projects.

This re-evaluation of the role of design has transformed the South Korean company from a follower that manufactured copycat electronics (read: Apple's patent infringement lawsuit against Samsung) to a global leader that creates bold, innovative products like its ever-expanding universe of smartphones and "phablets."

Chang entered this new corporate design paradigm in 2005. His background included stints as a communications specialist for IBM Korea, an art director at a start-up tech company, and a professor of visual, information, and interactive design at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. He also held an MFA from SAIC with a focus in visual communication design.

At SAIC Chang took classes across various departments and collaborated with artists and other designers on school projects. To broaden his visual and conceptual knowledge, he studied film history, digital video, and photography, and took a museum course in modern and postmodern art history. He says, "SAIC taught me new viewpoints and methodologies that helped me to see design in a different perspective and as an interdisciplinary approach."

As the leader of Samsung's mobile design team, Chang has often tapped into his exploratory, collaborative experiences at SAIC to think about design in new ways and to seek inspiration in unfamiliar places. He and his team—a cadre of 1,200 designers with backgrounds as varied as sociology, engineering, economics, and psychology—watch trends in fashion, car design, and interior decorating. They brainstorm by traveling to cities and cultural centers all around the world. In an interview with Fast Company magazine, Chang cites visits to the Salvador Dalí Theatre and Museum in Spain, hot air balloon rides in Africa, and trips to Cambodia and Finland as influences for him and his team. The Blue Arctic–colored version of the Galaxy S4 was inspired by the Norwegian fjords. While at Singapore's Marina Bay Sands Hotel, one of his designers was captivated by a rooftop infinity pool that seemingly spilled into the city's skyline. He later incorporated the watery ripple effect into the smartphone's touchscreen.

Nature is one of the overarching motifs of Chang's design philosophy. The Galaxy S3's smooth curves are intended to invoke pebbles under water. He says, "The idea of ‘back to nature' is important to make the products feel very comfortable. To people who live in a complicated world and use complicated technology, the best value is to transfer some comfort."

In his many speaking engagements, he often likens the natural role of a product's interface to windows in a house. Borrowing from traditional Korean philosophy, he notes, "The house is yourself and the windows represent the mind, trying to naturally unify you and your surroundings. Through communications with the user and the surrounding environment, the interface should...approach the user naturally."

These ideas and design considerations have enabled Samsung to surpass the world's major mobile phone manufacturers and even go head to head with its main rival, Apple. According to International Business Times, in the third quarter of 2013 Samsung sold 80.4 million smartphones with a 32.1% international market share, compared to Apple's 30.3 million sales and 12.1% market share. (Apple still holds a 40.4% share of the American market while Samsung has 24.1% as of July 2013.) In other words, Samsung currently makes one out of every three smartphones sold worldwide—this in a world where one out of every ten people now owns a mobile phone.

With this success, Chang sees ample opportunities to make the user experience more meaningful and for design to become more socially responsible. He gives examples of how mobile technology is solving core problems much like the Q Drum: from three-button phones for the elderly and voice instruction phones for the disabled, to phones that enable people in developing countries to bank through microfinancing services and deliver vital health information to new and expectant mothers.

Chang envisions a future where mobile design helps build a better and more equitable world through layers of communication, collaboration, and sharing. Each layer is personalized for the individual user, and the design allows people to discover what is valuable to them on their own terms. Cupping his hands with the Galaxy S4 centered in his palms, he says, "When you give a bowl of water to a stranger passing by, it is a Korean tradition to put a couple of leaves on top, so the person does not drink too much water at once. This is the type of consideration that I want to put into our products for the future."