Interview: Kawaii Product Design by Hyerim Shin

Today we introduce Hyerim Shin on the LJ Mag blog; a recent MA graduate of the Royal College of Art, who has been captivating the internet with her conceptually intriguing product designs.  Writer Akai Tsuioku caught up with Hyerim to find out a bit more about the ideas behind her work.

Before studying MA Product Design at the Royal College of Art, Hyerim worked as an industrial designer in South Korea, designing conceptual mobile phones and home appliances.  After moving to London, she noticed that cuteness is perceived differently in Asia and Europe.  In Europe, cuteness has a small impact, as it’s seen as ‘just for kids’, but in Asia the concept of kawaii (or ‘cuteness’) has a much bigger cultural influence.  It was this which acted as the catalyst for the designer’s ‘Be My Mother’ project, which aims to 'demonstrate the politics of cuteness, its power, and why it is interesting’ through a range of cute pastel coloured appliance designs.     

Hyerim came up with ‘cuteness rules’ that were strongly based on characteristics of young creatures (also known as 'baby schema'), and used these to develop a range of interactive products that 'bring happiness and comfort to users of all ages and cultures through the soft power of cute’.  These include dependant behaviour, chubby shapes without sharp edges, and pastel and bright colours.  

First in the range is Hyerim’s sneezing toaster notifies the owner that the toast is ready by making a sneezing sound.  In addition, the toaster physically ‘sneezes’ out the crumbs with accompanying sounds when the user pulls the handle.

Hyerim’s pooping robot vacuum cleaner which wiggles and drops its dust bag when full. The user can then collect the re-usable rubber dust bag and clean it.

The third product is a bin that plays hide and seek to notify the user when it needs to be emptied. This product was inspired by children’s behaviour, with Hyerim explaining that ‘when they cover their eyes, they think nobody can see them.’  When full, the bin moves slightly to the side and turns around, ‘hiding’ from the user. 

These products were designed to be 'emotionally durable’ - the design encourages the users to not only purchase the project but also take care of them, as cuteness appeals to our 'gut instinct of caring.’ 

Alongside ‘Be My Mother’ Hyerim has also worked on a ‘Cuteness Tool For Dachshunds’; a provocative piece that looks at the negative aspects of cuteness.  The project is a commentary on the negative aspects of 'genetic manipulation' and 'artificial cuteness' which are a part of the designer dog industry.  

The cuteness tool itself was inspired by human beauty tools that physically alter the body such as corsets, rings for long necks, and foot binding.  Self plastic surgery tools in South Korea also inspired the project; these tools look like they might work, but we cannot see if they are actually changing the shape of the face. The ‘Cuteness Tool For Dachshunds’ was designed in a similar way; the tool has a real mechanism and looks like it could actually stretch the dog, but it does not actually have a physical effect.  Reactions to the project have been varied, and Hyerim explains that when she initially explains the concept whilst some are aware of the ‘dark side of the genetical manipulation in the dog industry', others appear to be 'grim and surprised' and 'question the reasoning’.  Most people have recognised the need for open discussion about the subject however, and some even find it amusing, with Hyerim telling us that' they might find it funny that someone actually spends time to try to design such products.'

Hyerim is no stranger to using innovative concepts to raise questions about physical appearance through her projects, and uses these extreme concepts to show the 'dark and negative aspects, with witty and creative (or creepy) imagination', and 'shock effect to raise questions.’  Prior to her daschund project, ’Dr Apple Clinic’ was a critique of food being wasted on farms (over 40% is thrown away apparently, due to its shape or size) with a video showing plastic surgery being performed on an ‘ugly apple’ to make it a ‘perfect apple’. 

Another of Hyerim’s projects ‘Heart to Heart’ shows the 'juxtaposition of cuteness and fear (and disgusting)’, with a cute heart transforming into a grotesque one, as a physical representation of this juxtaposition.  This concept was born out of Hyerim’s research where she discovered that cuteness and fear originate with the objective of survival, and are experienced due to an imbalance of power (if something is smaller and weaker it is viewed as cute, but fear is felt when something is stronger and bigger.)

Hyerim tells us that she doesn’t have any plans to put her designs into productions as they are purely conceptual, and designed to convey statements about her ideas.  This is probably good news for daschunds everywhere, but possibly not so good news for those of us who quite fancy a sneezing toaster!

Thanks to Hyerim for a great interview!  We look forward to seeing more of her work in the future.

Words by Akai Tsuioku 

Images all © Hyerim Shin