Q&A: Sungwon Jee, Director of Hyundai’s Creative Works in Seoul

Seoul-based Creative Works, the creative strategy and design division of the Hyundai Motor Company, is home to a multi-disciplinary team tasked with creatively pushing the Hyundai brand beyond more than the perception of simply cars.

Operating under the motto, “Be Genuine, Be Brave”, Creative Works often partners with other creatives worldwide – such as their recent collaboration with world-renowned architect Asif Khan on the highly-praised Vantablack Hyundai Pavillion unveiled at the Winter Olympics earlier this year.

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But more than high-profile projects, like the innovative Genesis showroom in Seoul, Creative Works also tackles the minutiae of corporate identity. In 2015, Hyundai commissioned the team to conduct a comprehensive 18-month brand relaunch to address global brand inconsistencies.

“To be distinct from our competitors, we drew inspiration from our Korean roots; natural materials such as linen and wood; our values of balance, harmony, warmth; and the four elements depicted in the Korean flag – water, earth, fire, and wind,” says the Creative Works website.

Branding in Asia recently spoke with the Sungwon Jee, Director of Creative Works about their creative philosophy, the pros and cons of collaboration, shifting the showroom from cars to consumers and more.

One of the creative drives behind Hyundai Creative Works is placing the focus not on the product but on the lifestyle. Tell us about that.

Hyundai Motor Company’s brand is complete not only through innovative technology but also their deep consideration and insight into the human experience. The brand vision is to have the public associate Hyundai Motor Company with a quality lifestyle, more so than just cars.

Red Dot award-winner, Hyundai Sans typeface. (Image: Creative Works)

Value is introduced when negative notions such as limitations, restrictions, and inconveniences are alleviated, and Hyundai Motor Company wishes to turn these negatives into positives through creativity.

Ultimately we want to engage with our consumers by elevating the quality of their lifestyle rather than using our cars as the sole communication medium.

How is this a departure from the previous creative philosophy in Korea?

Beyond Korea, many car producers and many creatives are keen on presenting their latest technology and products. There are three reasons behind this paradigm

  1. ROI focused companies looking for an efficient means of increasing sales
  2. To present their specs and product details across all media channels
  3. The brand’s strength or focal point may lie on technical and complex products

From our perspective, the first is still a valid perspective, however, we acknowledge that different media channels have different personalities. We are also slowly moving away from the second and the third, because our brand value focuses on changing lifestyles rather than on cars alone.

The Vantablack exterior of the Hyundai Pavilion was greatly hyped in the media and it was awesome. Myself, I was far more taken with the interior design. What was the creative process behind the project?

In terms of the interior, there were two main zones, The Water Zone that conceptualizes future society enabled by hydrogen, and The Hydrogen Zone that effectively translates different parts of the hydrogen fuel cell cycle so that the public can easily understand its technical process.

Ultimately we want to engage with our consumers by elevating the quality of their lifestyle rather than using our cars as the sole communication medium.

The storyline for the Water Zone aligns more with the Universe façade and Asif Khan’s team was in charge of the concept and planning. The Water Zone focuses on three main notions: What kind of future will hydrogen energy bring forth? Equality in mobility. And finally, water channels and droplets representing a fast-moving, complex society where an equal dissemination of mobility optimizes opportunity.

The Hydrogen Zone takes an innovative leap from traditional technology showcases as it uses light, color, sounds, and shapes to appeal to our most basic senses. In order to help visitors become familiar with such a complex and technical process, we decided to mix both abstract and direct explanation of this experience. 

How does knowing that it is only a temporary installation make you and your team feel?

Per the nature of pavilions, we knew that this building was going to be taken down when starting the project. This was one of the main reasons why we decided to experiment, take risks, and implement a lot of creativity.

We want to collaborate with the most talented specialists in each field. Our internal perspective, combined with their technical mastery, may create a beautiful masterpiece or often result in huge conflict.

As pavilions are often conceptual muses in the architectural industry, we also, as a brand decided to boldly use VantaBlack for the first time and turn a complex notion into reality.

I visited the Genesis showroom in Seoul recently. Can you tell us about the creative concept?

Genesis Gangnam is a guideline, a prototype for many global Genesis showrooms to come. This collaboration between Creative Works and OMA, shifts the showroom perspective from the dealership to the consumers. This showroom’s focus on ‘purchaseship’ aims to maintain the integrity of offline platforms in a digital society. 

To state the obvious, consumers now do most of their product research online. This is why we came up with the core concept of ‘Focus’.

These are based on the following:       

The Walls: The most interesting aspect of this building is the walls. The concrete walls that strictly divides the outside and the inside of the showroom induces curiosity. Unlike typical showrooms that do everything to highlight cars, this showroom shows the care minimum.

Vice versa, those who are inside are not distracted by what is going on outside. Rather, they can experience and focus on what is inside without getting distracted.

The Lighting: We chose ambient lighting that distributes light equally in order to create a perfect environment to look at the products. Because focused lighting only highlights the exterior, we wanted to make sure that visitors can see all parts of the car as if it were a bright day.

Genesis Showroom in Seoul

The Cubes: Another thing that makes this building unique are the four cube-shaped rooms. Any additional experiences beyond looking at cars can be done in these four rooms.

At the cube lounge, you can consult, rest, or configure the options digitally. In the factory-like cube, you can physically touch and see the leather seat and veneer options, and try your own configuration of wood, coating, and leather.

Another, more private, cube allows visitors to proceed with purchasing options. We used architectural ‘camouflage’ when designing these cubed rooms. We made a bold decision to singularize all room details including trays, tables, and walls by using copper, wood, and fabric. The objective was to have the visitors’ focus land on the cars rather than other details.

Is this something that will be rolled out on a larger basis in Korea and in other markets?

This guideline is a global prototype, so this style and brand design will be implemented in all showrooms inside and outside of Korea

Creative Works often collaborates with other designers. What are the creative benefits of this?

We want to collaborate with the most talented specialists in each field. Our internal perspective, combined with their technical mastery, may create a beautiful masterpiece or often result in huge conflict.

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However, we believe that it is this collective process, whether easy or difficult, that results in great end-products. This was the first time that OMA worked with an automotive brand, which is why we distanced ourselves from the traditional scope of dealerships. 

What is some work that your team has done over the years that you are most proud of?

The Creative Works team works on large projects like the Olympic pavilion and Genesis Gangnam, but we also have smaller projects such as poster design and even small gifts for employees. Based on project scope, cost, and buzz, the amount of resources and time put into each project may vary.

The evolution of Hyundai typography (Image: Creative Works)

However, each and every one of them are all important to us and I am attached to every single one of them for different reasons. Internal projects may be small in terms of scale, however, it is these small projects that make the biggest influence and change in brand character. Looking forward, Creative Works will continue to approach all projects with this philosophy in mind.