The Next Wave: SEGD Talks to Chang Lee

Read Time: 7 minutes

Welcome to the first in a series of SEGD interviews with the next wave of young designers. Chang Lee is an architect and an experience designer. He received his MA in Exhibition and Experience Design from the Fashion Institute of Technology. Currently, Lee is working for Gallagher & Associates, an interdisciplinary design studio specializing in exhibition design. Contributor Franck M. Mercurio asked Lee about life in New York City, his new career with Gallagher, and his interests in co-creating experiences to help achieve brand authenticity.

FMM:

Hi Chang! Reading your bio, I learned you are originally from Korea, obtained your BA in architecture from Yonsei University in Seoul, and then worked in Japan for various architects and for the Hyundai Card Company as a space designer creating branded experiences. Why did you choose to go to New York after attending university and working at Hyundai?

LEE:
I had visited New York City four or five times as a tourist, and I fell in love with New York because the city is always being “refreshed.”; every month there is something new to see in architecture, arts and museums. One exhibition I experienced on one of those trips was “Hansel and Gretel” by Herzog & de Meuron and Ai Weiwei. It was located in the Park Armory, and it was not only visually intriguing but also very interesting in the approach! This was a temporary exhibition, so if I wasn’t lucky enough to visit New York, then maybe I would have never seen it. So, I thought, why not move to NYC, so that I can see selected works from around the world.

FMM:
And then how did you get connected to FIT?

FIT, that is a different story. When I left my job at Hyundai Card, I wanted to learn more about experiential design, and I was trying to find a program teaching the theory, but also some practical aspects of this discipline. I researched a lot, and then one of my former co-workers told me about FIT. I looked up their curriculum, and they offered many opportunities to talk to experts in the industry. One great example is SEGD. [FIT] offered connection with SEGD, and it was pretty compelling. This program seemed and is very open to the industry and this is why I chose FIT in the first place.

FMM:
It sounds like you had a plan from the beginning, and you followed through on that.


LEE:
[Laughs] Yeah, I spent one year to plan this path!

FMM:
I’m sure! And after enrolling at FIT, your master’s project [titled “Starblocks”] explored the idea that co-creation can lead to the authenticity of a brand. Can you talk more about this?

LEE:
When I say authenticity in my thesis and project, I am referring to “perceived authenticity” from the audience or the consumers—how people feel about the brand through its experience that people observe. According to research, among other factors, the audience can feel an authentic experience from the brands through connection and participation. I applied a co-creation technique as a deeper way of participation in the project.

So, yeah, if I try to talk to you about this, it will take at least 30 minutes of our interview! [laughs]

FMM:
Go ahead—tell me more!

LEE: Let’s see… I want to ask you the question first. Do you like Starbucks?

FMM:
Yes, I do!

LEE:
Me too! The point is, not everyone likes Starbucks. While doing this project I asked the same question to more than 100 people. More than half said they didn’t like Starbucks, just because they are not authentic. They didn’t say “authentic,” but they said, [Starbucks] is ticking-off the local community and taking the local businesses from the neighborhoods.

But, actually, Starbucks is always talking about supporting communities and being a gathering spot for local people, a place to get together and create some community. But what Starbucks is doing and what they are talking about is not really matching [in the consumer’s mind]. That’s where the project started.

At the beginning of my Starblocks project, I thought “Brands can do better.” They are doing a number of community-focused projects—like giving away unsold food to local people and hiring local people— but they can provide better experience by investing in an authentic approach.
This can happen also without exposing the brand name on the site, so that the local people don’t feel that they are being exploited.


FMM:
And so your graduate project, Starblocks, is an example of how to generate that kind of brand authenticity?

LEE:
Exactly. I’m suggesting a design framework and Starblocks is one example. It’s how the brands can approach [the community] in an authentic way and create an experience that conveys their statement and helps people see that the brand is authentic.

So many famous brands, like Starbucks, are visions apart from this kind of authenticity. This project shows an opportunity for any brand that wants to achieve perceived authenticity, to apply the framework to their project.

FMM:
Yes, it’s about making those connections. Tell me more about your other FIT project, "our nyc journeys,” and how you became involved with that?

LEE:
Actually, Tina Columbus [experiential graphic designer] and I were in the same class at FIT, when we visited the Thesis presentation of YunRay Chung [fashion designer] and were really inspired. Ray’s work was about how immigrants go through emotional change when they come to the US. The moment we started to talk to Ray, I suggested to Tina and Ray to create a project together about this.

[As a newly arrived immigrant] you might be assuming that you are alone in feeling like “I don’t belong here, somehow.” But when you start to see other peoples’ stories and their memories which are similar to yours, you feel like “Oh, it’s not just about me. Maybe it’s a common thing for newcomers here.” This project is revealing the deeper layers of New York City, behind the shining skyscrapers, and telling them that “You are not alone, and that you also belong here.”

FMM:
What I love about this project is that people [new arrivals] can enter the “our nyc journeys” website and document what they were feeling at a particular time, right onto a virtual map of Manhattan.

Yes, we are providing a point of connection through our website, and we are using an interactive map of New York City, where people who were once new in the city can pin their location-specific memories.

FMM:
And then how did you connect with SEGD while at FIT?

LEE:
The connection began from Christina Lyons, the chairperson of our Masters Program and the board member of SEGD. Also I was talking to Gretchen Coss [of Gallagher & Associates] who has been a long-time member of SEGD since she came to our school as a judge on our project presentation. I met her multiple times in the SEGD events and she became my mentor, if I might say. I was discussing with her the possible career paths that I could follow in order to combine my experience in architecture, branded spaces, exhibitions and audience studies.

My experience with SEGD in general has been very positive. Most people I met were open to discuss and share their experience with a “newcomer” in the industry. My internship was at ESI, which I “met” through SEGD’s “X-lab Events.”; not only ESI, but also Gallagher.

FMM:
And now that you’re employed at Gallagher, what projects are you working on there?

LEE:
I’m working on The Jean and Ric Edelman Fossil Park of Rowan University, NJ.

And [the museum is] really unique because it’s next to a quarry, a fossil-digging area. You can dig fossils [as a citizen scientist], and right after that, [inside the museum in the future,] you can see how science works and how we learn about the creatures including dinosaurs, through the science of analyzing fossils. So, the whole experience is one connected narrative.

FMM:
What’s your favorite part of the Edelman Fossil Park project?

LEE:
The last [gallery] is the most interesting part for me, which is named as the “Extinction and Hope” gallery. Right after presenting the creatures, we talk about the possible sixth extinction. The fifth was for dinosaurs, the sixth is [current]. And we also talk about the hope of possibly changing our future and the Earth’s.

But the reason I really, really like this gallery: it’s about creating connections between the current extinction story and the visitors. We let them know that we are on this tiny planet , within the perspective of the universe. We are on this small planet, and we are in this same boat all together—a kind of sinking boat. So, we are not just showing them the content, but trying to connect it to the visitors and have the narrative resonate with them.

It’s similar to what I have been doing with “our nyc journeys” and also with “Starblocks” in terms of connecting the person to the group he belongs to. It’s all about applying that knowledge and experience.

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