15 Design and Korea 4: The Ruler

The Common Ruler

Korean culture is indebted to its rulers, even its alphabet (한글 hangeul) created by decree of King Sejong in 1443. But that kind of ruler is not my topic today.

I needed a ruler. The un-kingly sort, for making straight lines on paper. So I went to a Korean stationary store.

If you’ve not been to a Korean stationary store, and you like books, and paper, and writing, and ink, well. You’re missing out. They’re amazing. They’re temples to the love of writing and painting and drawing. For the combination of choice and quality and price, I have seen nothing like them in Londre or Ženeva, Amsterdam or Laibach.

But that day, I only bought a ruler. Thirty centimetres of plastic, perfect for making lines. I paid about two euros for it.

Except, this cheap ruler was very, very good. Somebody had spent time and thought on a two-bit ruler and created a product that was better than any other ruler I had bought before in Europe.

First, what does your average European ruler look like? It’s a flat, rectangular slab of Kunststoff, with centimetres and milimetres marked on one side. You can make a straight line with it, and mark off distances. It does that fine.

This mystery Korean designer had, however, thought about rulers and how folks use them.

They had discovered that people don’t just make lines and mark off distances. Especially in school, we constantly make tables. Just think of conjugation. To make tables we need right angles, and for that the classic plastic ruler is terrible. We also use rulers to tear and cut paper in straight lines. Problem is, craft knives shave plastic like a hard cheese (shout out to the Dutch: “kunstkaasschaaf”) and leave us with scallop-edged rulers.

This Korean acrylic ruler addresses both additional use cases. It is transparent and printed with a grid, which makes turning a simple line into a two-dimensional table simple and intuitive. The back edge of the ruler is clad in a simple stainless steel sheath, protecting the plastic from damage when cutting.

It is so banal. So simple. The moment I used it, I understood what it did, how it did it, and why it was absolutely superior.

It is design perfection.

It also drives home something I find enchanting about Korean design: how serious it is about the design of everyday things. Something Eunion* or Usican** companies could learn more about.

*European Union
*United States of America

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