Design's Austin Lee at the London Design Biennale

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The first iteration of the London Design Biennale opened to the public on September 7 at Somerset House in the UK. Featuring newly commissioned installations by design teams representing 37 countries and territories, the Biennale is a venue for continued conversations about designing for “ideas about sustainability, migration, pollution, energy, cities, and social equality”. This year, design teams were given the theme of “Utopia by Design”, inspired by the 500-year anniversary of Sir Thomas More’s political and philosophical satire entitled Utopia (published first in 1516). The directing committee asked designers to use their “critical, optimistic imaginations” to “[provoke] real change by suggesting inspiring or cautionary futures” in their installations.

Austin S. Lee, an assistant professor at the School of Design, participated in the Biennale as the lead coordinator and interaction designer for the Republic of Korea’s design team. Each country’s team was encouraged to interpret Utopia by Design in the context of their culture. In addition to pulling from More’s themes of idealism in laws, government, and culture, the South Korean team of communication, interaction, and exhibit designers found inspiration in the dreamland of Mong-You-Do-Won-Do (Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land), an artwork by Ahn Gyeon from Korea’s Joseon Dynasty. According to Lee, “the utopia illustrated in Ahn Gyeon’s painting and Thomas More’s writing both originate from dreams with boundless possibilities. The installation piece aspires to visualize a view of reimagined utopia that blurs boundaries between the digital and the physical to depict the world people dream of.”


Mong-You-Do-Won-Do (Dream Journey to the Peach Blossom Land), 1447

By comparing historic views of utopia to modern digital culture, the South Korean team drew a connection between the idealism expressed in historic works like More’s Utopia and curated digital representations of self, especially as shared on social media. Lee adds, “in a sense, the modern digital space is a great reference to what people dream of and aspire to. By collecting these artifacts and communicating how people idealize who they are, we hope to create an interpretation of utopia in our installation.” The team also hopes that the participatory, free-form nature of the installation encourages each participant to think about what utopia means to them and participate in a broader conversation without the hindrance of boundaries or static content.

For the installation piece, entitled Peach Blossom, the South Korean team collected people’s thoughts about what utopia is. These thoughts were then algorithmically mapped onto a “digital landscape” that mirrors a silhouette of Ahn Gyeon’s original painting. Visitors can use gestures to interact with the map and manipulate its elements to explore more of the content and imagery. The installation includes an interactive input system at the left of the landscape, through which viewers can contribute their own thoughts. A continuous stream of messages from mobile, web, and in-person interactions with the installation is displayed to the right of the landscape.


Interfaces for contributing to the installation.

Lee’s work with the South Korean team for the London Design Biennale highlights his interest in working with future-facing technologies in “blurring the boundaries between the digital and physical and approaching environments as a communication medium.” Here at the School of Design, Lee teaches environments and interaction design classes that aim to provide depth of knowledge and inspiration in each field while providing bridges between the disciplines undergraduate students can focus in (communications, products, and environments).

Date Published: 
Thursday, September 22, 2016
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