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An introduction to North Korean graphic design (creativereview.co.uk)
178 points by kawera 5 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 54 comments

It's odd that they don't mention the English translations printed on the label.

That seems very unkorean to me. Everywhere in the world nationalists are complaining about the use of foreign language in advertisement. Why is the state allowing it in NK?

Most of the products you see in this book are specifically manufactured to be sold in shops where foreign tourists are taken. Tourists have virtually no access to the shops ordinary Koreans would go, and the opposite is also true: ordinary Koreans in most cases would simply not be allowed entry to the shop for foreigners, and they would have no Western currency to use in those stores anyways. So the English on all labels is easy to explain: people making that book mostly had access to a specially prepared versions of any product.

If you want to see the most fascinating look at how things work in North Korea, at least in Pyongyang for a foreign diplomat, I highly recommend watching videos made by Jaka Parker. He lives there with his family and, though it is through his specific lens, you get to see some of the more well known stores that you can spot on google maps, but from the inside. How the purchase process works, how stores are layed out and so on.




Here's one of my favorites, Jaka goes to buy a flashlight: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WeBtSnFeA18

I also found it strange and surprising, especially with how prominent the English is on the labels. If it is due to being sold in foreign markets, which most likely have competition, then the point of the labeling not being used to promote the product due to lack of competition seems to be somewhat contradictory. Although the point about the labeling supporting North Korea being the best Korea still stands. I wonder if designers or approvers consider and balance the domestic and foreign labeling goals.

I also wonder how many North Korean's know English and what they think about the English being on the labels.

Good question! Perhaps those products are made for foreign markets too.

Also possibly for the benefit of Chinese and Russian (bordering nations) visitors in particular who may have a better grasp of English than Korean, which is easier than putting trilingual labels on products. English is the new Lingua-Franca anyway, whether or not North Korea likes it.

North Korea is a good inverting mirror of our modern societies, and there is always something of inspiration in the diametrically opposite. I, for one, would welcome a brandless packaging of most products, where a pack of coffee would just be a dark brown folded paper with "coffee" written on it. Same with sugar, yogurt, butter, etc. We are brainwashed into believing that sugar X is different from sugar Y but it is the same thing with different packaging, often produced in the same lines in the same factories.

Muji is a successful Japanese brandless shop where I get my clothes. We have generics drugs that are less expensive. I think a brandless Walmart would be successful too, for those who refuse to be brainwashed.

> brandless packaging

I stayed in Yanggakdo International Hotel on Yanggak Island in the river Taedong in Pyongyang on a tour, and there were two restaurants, and they were called "Restaurant 1" and "Restaurant 2". I found that quite refreshing.

Where they any different or just overflow?

They looked pretty similar, and we had set meals, so don't know whether their a-la-carte menu was different...

"Muji is a successful Japanese brandless shop where I get my clothes. We have generics drugs that are less expensive. I think a brandless Walmart would be successful too, for those who refuse to be brainwashed."

This is one of the appeals of Marks & Spencer, who are one of the last survivors of the old British department stores. They sell clothes and food, all almost entirely their own-brand products, which are not cheap but are good quality. You can go into an M&S and buy essentials just by collecting the things on your list, without ever having to choose between brands.

Muji is a pretty fun case in irony. No brand markings but super obvious that things come from it due to its unique style.

Maye it is "unique" but then just because it is the simplest design possible. T-shirts are just T-shirts with nothing special, even no "tickets" (the shitty piece of cloth with all the useless warning signs that hurts the skin and serve no purpose).

In the US in the 70s-80s this used to be a thing:


There were actually a few no-brand brands from supermarket chains like this that I can recall.

I don't know if it's the case in other countries, but in France, most supermarket chains have their own "budget" brand which are generally quite explicit/generic in term of packaging.

Here is the label of the tin I ate yesterday for example:


no product name, just the composition of it.

Even the color are meant to associate to the composition (green -> little peas, pink/red -> bacon, white -> onions, orange -> carrots).

And a realistic photo of what to expect.

Does it change colors for each product? I would never consider that one as a budget brand by looking at it.

In Sweden (etc, I suppose) we have Euroshopper which is as minimal as it gets. It's instantly recognisable in each isle.

Example http://files2.coloribus.com/files/adsarchive/part_1664/16649...

Australia has Black & Gold brand, not specific to a certain store but always low priced and bland packaging that is identical for every product (yellow box, black text).


Still not as utilitarian as the Dharma Initiative food packaging in the TV show Lost, though:


Walmart tried this with the 'Price First' brand, I don't watch tv but I pointed it out to my wife and she said it reminds her of 'Lost'

> I don't know if it's the case in other countries, but in France, most supermarket chains have their own "budget" brand which are generally quite explicit/generic in term of packaging.

Very common in the United States as stores don't license the brand names and so have to come up with a non-trademarked name.

In Chile we have the acuenta brand, whose packages are almost as plain as you can get: https://i.imgur.com/DeH1KR4.png

The ironic thing about Muji is everything I come across there costs 50-100% more than branded products I see elsewhere. Single serving packets of curry for 800 yen? Basic shirts for 3000 yen? No thanks.

I live in Beijing and there, for the few I know (because I never shop elsewhere), clothes in Muji are good quality, simple functional design, and relatively cheap.

This is still a thing in U.S. grocery stores, it's just that they have "store brand" generic products. For instance in Costco they sell "Kirkland brand". These generics are usually a good deal in terms of quality for price.

Canada has this, with amazing stark-yellow packaging and big black Helvetica nouns:


Nick Bonner, the author of the book reviewed in the article, once ran (still runs?) Koryo Studio[1] in Beijing, which carries a bunch of North Korean art and "stuff". I once bought a slim volume of film theory there, by Kim Jong-il. It had been translated into English, but was still almost literally unintelligible.

[1]: http://koryostudio.com/

This reminds me quite a bit of soviet packaging: https://www.google.com/search?q=soviet+packaging&client=safa.... With it's use of state colors and very minimal and straight to the point designs.

The designs remind me on 1950-1960s US advertising styles.

NK seems like a living time capsule of that era.

I feel like more and more often I am clicking on pictures and cannot zoom in enough to be satisfied with the detail (here I cannot read the captions).

Is this something that is happening? Is it becoming standard to use lower resolutions for some reason?

It’s hard to find good reproductions of art sometimes because they want you to buy the book :-)

Thanks, that makes a lot of sense in this case. I'll have to pay more attention to the context next time it happens.

It seems all communist regimes were alike :)

Some packagins from communist Poland:


I found it rather annoying the article lead up to a modernizing of the packaging and how it has changed over time, with basically no examples of anything that shows change.

Beautiful designs

I agree. I find them better than many modern American designs.

Compare the North Korean peas to a modern American label

NK: https://s3-eu-central-1.amazonaws.com/centaur-wp/creativerev...

American: https://encrypted-tbn0.gstatic.com/images?q=tbn:ANd9GcSnVKbi...

I’m more suprised at the english descriptions in every product and at the fact the author seems not ever notice them.

Looks like the labels in the grocery store on The Handmaid's Tale.


By this standard it would be rare that we could talk about anything.

This morning there was a question on /r/AskHistorians:

"How did the writers of the Declaration of Independence write in such straight lines on line-less paper?"


Someone with my political inclinations might reply, "How can you even ask such a question? Sure, the signers of the Declaration had good intentions, but you know what road is paved with those: look where it got us! [Insert my list of the terrible things the United States Government has done not only to the rest of the world but to its own citizens.] And you're asking whether the lines were straight?"

But can't a question be interesting all on its own? How the heck did they get those lines so straight? And was every document in those days like that? (Read the thread to find out.)

At the height of the Cold War, I was into ham radio, and I had friends in the Soviet Union who I would have Morse code QSOs (chats) with. It being ham radio, we couldn't talk freely about everything, but at least we could compare notes on our radio gear, find out the weather, and ask how the family is doing. It wasn't perfect, but it was something. And I always signed off with:

  _ _   . .   . _ .

  (MIR) [Peace]
I won't dare compare my situation with someone living under the DPRK, but I'm fairly confident that the graphics designers who live there are not murderous dictators. Maybe we can grab whatever little chances we have to get to know each other as people?

I wasn't sure where you were going with your comment and when you added the Reddit question (which I had also seen),I braced myself for what might come next. I was genuinely pleased by your thought process and how you brought me from reactionary thinking to a more helpful and mature point of view. Thanks for taking the time to make your point. I need more of that kind of thing on my journey.

No it isn't (what you said) - This piece is purely an observation.

To understand something, you have to observe it. To really understand something you have to observe it in minute detail and ideally experience it.

Anyway, this is a small piece of research that provides us with a small detail about a culture that we, as outsiders, have little real contact with. Make no mistake that the vast majority of Norks are people that are just like you and me, except that most of them live way below a "bread line" that you or I would find intolerable.

Why not take the opportunity presented to discover a bit more about something that you know little about, instead of deriding 25 million people for being who they are or living where they do.

> To really understand something you have to observe it in minute detail and ideally experience it.

Call me squarehead but I refuse to "experience" life in North Korea, not even close to this.

Also, I think if I were ordinary North Korean experiencing all the atrocities of the regime I would be really bothered by this act of "observation"; it feels quite a bit like being an animal in the zoo cage being stared at by the bored public.


No mate, in my post I never mentioned choice, I did opine: "that most of them live way below a "bread line" that you or I would find intolerable."

Does that fit with your observations?

FYI: the bread line is the line (of people) that you have to wait in to buy bread.

It's disturbing that people are engaging you in discussion without mentioning that Galt's Gulch would be impossible without a free energy device and invisibility cloak. Pure science fiction.

Let's totally discuss that in depth for a while, then get back to your TV/talk-radio politics, and then finally we can talk about graphic design if there's time.

Who is John Galt?

> The lack of any mention that the DPRK is a murderous dictatorship that is starving its people to death is disturbing.

How many people are likely to be unaware of this fact?

It's not starving its people to death though. Many people are on the edge of poverty, sure, but you will find exactly the same thing in USA, South Africa, Phillipines etc. I have been to Pyongyang and driven though country areas in North Korea so I've seen how good and bad it is.

The human rights abuses are what is truly shocking but again some of the things that go on in China, USA, Phillipines, Israel/Palestine for example are also truly shocking.

"1994 to 1998"

Relevant Wikipedia article:


Poverty in the US is a big problem, but it's not remotely on the same scale. If you've visited NK as a tourist, you've only seen what they want tourists to see.

Obviously there are bad things about North Korea but the amount of Americans running around in circles and screaming about it as if there are no comparable human rights violations in capitalist countries will never cease to amaze me.

It's really weird for me to observe how Westerners fetishize NK. On one hand there's all this exaggerated hysteria of "NK is going to bomb us" (never going to happen), where people fall for obvious posturing (oh, and the dictator of Korea is constantly portrayed as silly, while at the same time condemned; pick one). Then there's the overt "concern" for its citizens by people who haven't even taken a second to research how the situation came to be or what to do to alleviate it. No shit a country under heavy sanctions [0] and with its manufacturing centers razed after a war [1] isn't going to do so good. I don't think democracy is the citizenry's main concern, nor is its situation only of the country's own making. If people cared, they'd donate to international food banks and contact their congressmen about the matter instead of gloating about how "free" they are in their homes and how grateful they are to not be under the C-word menace while their own country goes around suppressing democracies and murdering innocents in the name of "freedom". As an American, I've noticed that my people tend to revel in ignorance and will readily eat up any propaganda thrown their way without any critical thinking involved (and to the obligatory comment saying you can't generalize 50 states: well our President represents those states and he's emblematic of the problem).

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sanctions_against_North_Korea

[1]: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-us-war-crime-nor...

To compare the DPRK to first world nations such as the USA is beyond the pale. I can't even comprehend this.

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