Digital Divide: Korean web design

Lindsay McComb / Posted 1.13.2011

Digital Divide:
Korean web design

I spent a year in South Korea teaching English, and a year in South Korea cursing Internet Explorer. It’s not the best browser around, sure. But in Korea, it’s essentialy the only browser. Period.

Seoul is known as one of the centers of design in the world, showcasing breath-taking architecture, enviable industrial design, and awe-inspiring art. Seoul is also one of the up-and-coming technological bases in the world, creating state-of-the-art electronics, manufacturing cheap, but well made cars, and incorporating technology into everyday life. Great design aesthetics plus great advances in technology should equal amazing website design. Right? Guess again.

Korean websites seem to be a hermit kingdom unto itself, walled gardens of secrets and hidden information, veiled in cute Flash animations and seizure-inducing layouts.


Flash is used for just about everything in Korean websites, much of the time to great success. Cute critters, and clever characterizations make for some absolutely brilliant designs. These brilliant designs are not held under the constraints of HTML, making each site truly unique, yes. However, these Korean sites tend to sacrifice web design standards for visual appeal, effectively alienating any user who is not Korean.


Korean websites are designed to make an “efficient” use of space (read: crowded). Though many of the sites are designed in geometric grids, which seems lovely and functional in theory, most of these grids feature dozens of tiny pictures, most making use of flash or animated GIFs.


I’m barely literate in Korean, so obviously my input here is a bit biased. Some of the most lovely websites I’ve ever seen are done by Korean designers – filled with inspiring art or formatted with aesthetic awesomeness and lots of clean, white space. The problem is, that no matter how good the website looks, it’s usually a huge pain to navigate around.

First off, one must navigate in Internet Explorer. Only Internet Explorer. Korean websites are only optimized to use IE. Google Chrome seems to work for a majority of Korean sites I visited. Firefox often failed. And Safari? I’m not sure Korean web designers have even heard of Safari.

Secondly, when using IE for a Korean website, every time a new link is clicked, a new tab is opened. To be fair, I suppose some people do enjoy having 44 tabs open at once.

Last, but not least, Korean websites have a lot of scrolling. A lot. Many of my middle school students enjoyed reading online web comics. To get to the latest episode, they would happily scroll down miles of pages. The same goes for online shopping. To find that cute product I clicked on three windows ago, I’d have to scroll down pages and pages. Thankfully many sites come equipped with a tool to “bookmark” interesting things you may see on your way down.


Koreans for the most part, do not use Google. Though there is a Korean version of Google (which works just fine), the majority of Koreans use Korean search engines, Naver or Daum. Interestingly enough, most Korean search portals do not crawl web pages automatically. Instead, the search databases are based on registration and payment from websites. Because of this, most Korean websites don’t seem to be too concerned with search engine optimization, much less Google at all.

Korean websites are an interesting mix of art and creativity, clutter and spasms. It’s interesting to see how culture influences design and style choices. One of the things I noticed while in Korea, is that if something works well, it doesn’t get changed. Koreans don’t seem so eager to reinvent the wheel. If it works for Korea, why change it? 

Lindsay McComb

Writer and Content Specialist

Lindsay is Q Digital Studio’s writer and content specialist. She develops heady technical jargon into clear, coherent (and optimized) content. She has a knack for finding just the right words - but only after she’s had a nice cup of coffee (or two). She happily dives into the depths of the Internet on a daily basis. Lindsay has worked as a writer and editor the world over.