K-Pop star Psy’s “Gangnam style” became the first music video to hit a billion views on YouTube way back in 2012. In retrospect, it was also the beginning of a global phenomenon.
Today, the fandom has only grown: In K-Pop, celebrities aren’t performers, they’re idols. K-pop fans are stans, using the power of their ardent fan community to flood Twitter, shape politics, and sell out shows. If you just take into account streaming, K-pop had almost 8 billion monthly streams on Spotify in 2022—nearly one stream per person on the planet. More popular than ever before, K-Pop fans themselves are spread across the globe: according to Statista, only 10% of fans are based in South Korea, where the genre originates.
At the center of the fandom are designers, who have had a huge hand in translating a band’s vision across the globe—and across languages. Their designs bring a band’s story to life, stop scrolls, and drive sales. According to the designers we spoke to, the most important part of designing for a global scale is to visually communicate in a way that is both universal and distinct to the mood and messaging of the artist’s music; in the case of K-Pop, through bold type, geometric motifs, and warm minimalist aesthetics.
Designed band merch and collateral are core parts of K-Pop culture. In K-Pop, physical CDs and albums have had a staying power not seen in other genres, largely due to the fact that the physical takeaway serves as not only a keepsake, but also a form of potential interaction between artists (or idols) and their fans, as the CD purchases are often part of getting access to artist meet and greets. But like any artist in today’s digital world, the biggest K-Pop bands, like BTS, BlackPink, EXO, TXT, and Red Velvet need to compete for eyeballs in ever more congested social feeds and grow their audience wherever they are.
Studio XXX's type-forward work for BTS. Images courtesy JiYoon Lee and Studio XXX.
No one knows this better than the designers and studios that have visualized the magic of their music, and are helping to push the wave forward in the process, like graphic designer and founder of Studio XXX Jiyoon Lee, who has worked with global stars like BTS, TXT, LOONA, and Kang Daniel to bring their projects' stories to life. (You might recognize Lee’s most famous work in TXT’s Blue Orangeade lyric video, Stray Kids’ Go, and Kang Daniel’s Color On Me.)
For Lee, the use of bold typography is essential, and she regularly uses it in her designs to create an eye-catching visual niche. This is apparent in the work she’s done for BTS albums and EPs. Consider her lettering for the band’s third album, Love Yourself: Tear, which is in a handwritten scrawl. For the album, she wanted to connect fans to a soft, warm feeling by conveying a personal message of hope and friendship. But she especially loves working with big, bold fonts and geometric patterns in the form of circles, squares, and equilateral triangles, which she considers to be her signature, and has since become a trademark of its own in K-Pop’s graphic design landscape.
According to A Ji Hye, graphic designer and co-founder of Seoul-based design studio Sparks Edition, which is responsible for a large number of graphic design projects for BTS, including this card co-branded for fandom platform Weverse projects, there are different ways these typographic techniques work. Some could be in the form of bold, kinetic, and bright shapes written in the Korean alphabet (known as Hangul) or the English alphabet. Most of these can be achieved by mixing these fonts in a vivid form. “Showing the diversity of typography, by using different alphabets, type designs, and [varying] their degree of readability, makes typography an interesting and crucial part of K-Pop,” A Ji Hye says.
CD packaging and collateral for BTS, by Seoul-based design studio Sparks Edition. Images courtesy Sparks Edition.
Jiyoon Lee feels like this is a welcome but trying process, as fans can rely on the visuals and aesthetic to convey the stories that they’re unable to understand in Korean. She and Nae Ra agree that the most important part of designing for a global scale is to convey the feelings and emotions that the Idol intends to share, despite language barriers. To them, these albums are visual commodities that carry commercial values.
For a while, neon colors dominated the industry, but now designers are finding themselves going for a kind of warm minimalism, by using more muted and soft looks that work hand in hand with geometric shapes and sans serif fonts. Lee and Ji Hye agree that a minimalist look can set a design apart in the K-Pop world, causing the creative to stand out more clearly, and create a cleaner look in the overall branding of these projects.
Organic designs, informed by nature, are also used by K-Pop idols to create a sense of authenticity. Ji Hye feels that it’s essential for the creative collateral to communicate a modern and environmentally sustainable outlook by using colors like terracotta, sand, sienna, and tan.
Another variation of this is the use of subdued and dark colors, which are apparent in designer and founder of StudioGraey Nae Ra’s work with Red Velvet’s Cookie Jar and posters for SHINee. To Nae Ra, it’s more about the color saturation, and using classic serif fonts that are elegant, readable, and evoke a sense of nostalgia in fans as a mechanism to stand out to your audience.
Studio Graey design work for K-Pop groups Kwon Yuri, Red Velvet, and Pristin. Images courtesy Studio Graey.
Now, even K-Pop design has a fandom of its own. It’s become a common practice for K-Pop groups to announce official, specific Pantone colors for use in fan art. A quick search for the keywords “K-Pop graphic design” on TikTok shows thousands of videos of engaged fans and designers recreating K-Pop design projects and fanart of their own. These videos have garnered over 7 billion views at the time of publication—and have created a community of online K-Pop design enthusiasts in the process. Although designing for a global audience was never something Lee foresaw, she’s come to appreciate audience involvement all the same; making an effort to listen to the community on social media and input their suggestions into her work.
As the demand for K-Pop grows, Lee says she feels increased pressure to deliver incredible work. “It’s a happy and rewarding feeling that can be overwhelming,” she says, because she also feels “pressured to put out amazing designs.” But she adds, “I find myself growing each day because of this.”