A few weeks ago, my roommate introduced me to the world of Korean pop music, otherwise known as k-pop. The more I dug into the genre, the more I realized how applicable some of the factors that make k-pop successful are to design.

If you’ve read my other articles, you’ll know that I encourage designers to learn from the designs of other cultures. Through observation, you gain additional lenses for approaching hard design problems.

In this article, I introduce five characteristics of good design along with some k-pop.

Good design tells a story

Many k-pop videos revolve around a story. The themes within the stories range from things like unrequited love to coming of age, and everything in between.

These stories take viewers on a journey through a narrative — one that most people can relate to. Because of the universality of some of their stories, k-pop videos appeal to huge audiences. In fact, k-pop has such a global appeal that in 2012, Time Magazine dubbed it as South Korea’s Greatest Export.

Zion T and his song Eat. It’s about the importance of taking care of yourself even when you’re down.

Often times the stories are silly and cute stories. For example, take the music video titled Day One by K. Will. It tells the story of a boy determined to win over an unrequited love.

Even though the subject matter is light, a lot of thought is put into how viewers will feel at each step in the story.

Day 1 by K. Will

Just like how a film or short video might tell a story, good design also tells a story. A story in design is about the journey a user goes through when using a product.

If you look at successful products today, like Uber and Airbnb, the common thread among all of them is that they tell a story. Each company has a series of narratives that show the different use-cases a user has for their product.

A cozy condo, perfect for visiting Disneyland

As an example, one of Airbnb’s stories might involve a family of three. They’re flying in from abroad to visit Disneyland in California for their daughter’s birthday. They book a listing in Los Angeles, and arrive Friday afternoon to be welcomed by their host.

Story-driven design identifies use cases beforehand then designs product experiences around those scenarios.

It’s easy to get started with story-driven design. Start with a storyboard. Figure out what kind of experience you want to give your user.

Good design knows its audience

Back in the 2000s, k-pop music was an unlikely candidate for becoming a global sensation. So how did it succeed in such a global market?

The answer is that they knew their audience. South Korean entertainment companies like SM Entertainment know exactly who their audience is and where to find them.

Many k-pop companies embraced distribution channels like YouTube and social outlets like Twitter and Facebook early.

NoNoNo by Apink

Today, most k-pop music videos receive millions of views. In fact, the most viewed video on YouTube is Gangnam Style, which has been viewed over 2 billion times.

2.5 billion views and counting

In design, it’s also important to know your audience. Having a clear idea of who you are designing for helps you make informed product decisions.

During the design process, good designers go out and talk to their users. In particular, they gather statistical data on things like demographics and behavioral data on things like lifestyle. These research methods include methods like focus groups, questionnaires, and interviews.

Interview your users

With data, designers can better identify design constraints and what content users will best resonate with.

Good design builds trust

The other night, my roommate showed me some of his favorite k-pop videos on YouTube. As we were browsing, he suddenly got excited. It turns out, one of his favorite k-pop groups had just released a new music video.

Between the k-pop group and him, there was an implicit agreement. In return for his consistent viewership, the group would deliver high quality content he valued.

This agreement is a sort of mutual trust between parties. K-pop groups rely on it to sustain their popularity.

Similarly, good design builds trust between products and users. When a product has finish and polish, it builds trust. When a product offers value, it builds trust.

Fit and finish in k-pop. Most sets are designed from scratch.

Imagine if you couldn’t trust the products that you use today. Would you ever shop online again? Would you ever book a flight online again?

Trust reduces friction between users and products. It guarantees smooth transactions.

Both value as well as fit and finish are vital to building trust. Value comes in many forms, including monetary, emotional, and entertainment value. In products, people often times derive functional and sometimes monetary value.

Good design effectively uses color

K-pop videos are full of vibrant colors. These are great for visual inspiration. From the set design to even the hair of the idols, colors are carefully coordinated.

Here are a few examples of how color is as motifs and devices for visual communication.

Here is a scene from the music video titled Not Spring, Love, or Cherry Blossoms by IU.

The red umbrella is the first thing your eye sees

The red umbrella stands out against the neutral background. It immediately draws your attention to the singer. If there’s one thing that you remember after watching the video, it’s the red umbrella.

Color can be a powerful tool to direct people’s eyes.

Lion Heart by Girls Generation also uses color effectively.

The intent of the colors in the video was to create a dreamy feel. However, the video goes a step farther in post processing. Notice how the film was color graded to accentuate the desired aesthetic.

In design, color can create specific aesthetics. Different levels of saturation and vibrancy will give you different feels. Consider what look you want to go for before choosing a color palette.

Crush by Zion T. is an example of how lack of color can be just as powerful as an abundance of color.

Black and white designs create unique visual feels

Black and white in this video create a dramatic feel. With less color, your focus is on the actors and the objects within the scene.

Black and white can be powerful in design. Without excess color, there are fewer distractions. For example, in their latest redesign, Instagram chose a black and white design so users can focus on what’s important: the pictures.

Good design applies the principles of design

The principles of design of design are balance, emphasis, movement, variety and contrast, proportion, and unity. They are the devices designers use to organize information and create visual structures.

Understanding how to effectively use the principles of design will help you achieve functionality and aesthetic quality in your designs.

Here are a few examples of how the principles of design are applied in k-pop.

This frame from Mr Chu by Apink uses emphasis, contrast, and balance to create an eye catching scene.

The scene is symmetrically balanced, making it more aesthetically pleasing. Contrast between the pink and aqua draw your eye to the center of the frame.

Hello by Primary uses balance, contrast, and proportion to create a visually intriguing scene.

Despite being asymmetrical, the scene is well balanced. In addition, there is strong contrast between the background and the objects, making the objects pop.

Another good example is Overdose by EXO.

Using repetition of hexagons in the background and positioning the idols symmetrically, the video creates a sense of visual balance and unity.

K-pop can teach us a lot about design. As long as you look at things from a design perspective, there is something to be learned.

A big thanks to Ed, my roommate, who took the time to introduce me to k-pop and provide me with inspiration for this article.

Thanks for reading this. I hope you enjoyed these k-pop songs and will find opportunities to apply these five important design concepts.

If you have any stories about how you’ve learned something about design from an unexpected medium, leave a note below, or tweet at me.

You can also follow me on Twitter, where I post non-sensical ramblings about design, front end development, bots, and machine learning.

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