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Don Tae Lee: Departure from the familiar leads one to creativity

Don Tae Lee, co-CEO of Tangerine. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)
Don Tae Lee, co-CEO of Tangerine. (Park Hae-mook/The Korea Herald)

Born in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, in the late 1960s, London-based design expert Don Tae Lee grew up without electricity.

“Whenever I tell my employees in England about my upbringing, they don’t believe me,” said the 45-year-old during the opening ceremony of the Herald Design Week held in Seoul on Monday.

“And I, who grew up without lights at home, am now working for a foreign company. I somehow moved to England, somehow got myself to speak English, and somehow got myself hired at Tangerine. I think one becomes a step closer to creativity when they break away from what’s familiar.”

After majoring in industrial design at Hongik University in Seoul, Lee moved to London, England, at age 30, where he received his M.A. in Design Products at the Royal College of Art. He then started working as a designer at Tangerine, a London-based strategic design consultancy.

Now one of the co-presidents of Tangerine, Lee is known redesigning British Airways’ business cabin and its seating configuration. Tangerine reportedly increased the airline’s annual profit by $738 million in 2000, as a result. The design won Lee the Interior Design Excellence Awards’ Grand Prix the following year.

“You need both insight and foresight,” said Lee.

“According to our survey, what customers wanted was the kind of seats where they could lie down completely in the cabin. But that would have taken up too much space on the plane, and it would have affected the company’s profit margin. So we came up with a space-efficient design in which half its passengers sit backward while each of them have a private space of their own.”

While many would worry about sitting backward on a plane, one cannot tell which direction the plane is flying once onboard, and that’s where his foresight played into the project, Lee said.

To the many Korean CEOs in attendance at the ceremony, the design expert also stressed the importance of good partnerships, as well as paying more attention to design and creativity. The stock values of design-led companies rose three times as fast as the overall FTSE 100 Index between 1993 and 2007, according to Lee.

“Companies should not only use their business partners as a means to making profit,” he said. Partners should respect each other and cooperate together. And if more Korean companies use design as means of creativity in their businesses, I think more of them will experience success.”

Lee is scheduled to give a lecture about design as part of Herald Design Week at Blue Square in Hannam-dong, Tuesday. 

By Claire Lee
Korea Herald Youtube