Dave Nguyen is the Creative Director at Indeed. Prior to his current role, he led creative work at SAP, Duarte, and Pinterest. He uses his unique background in brand, design and storytelling to help shape the strategy for a variety of industries ranging from companies reinventing the mode of transportation, forward thinking start-ups in technology, to non-profits shifting the paradigm of poverty.
A strong believer in giving back to the creative community, Dave also participates in speaking engagements, panel discussions and teaching opportunities to mentor the next generation of designers.
Eli Woolery: Dave Nguyen, welcome to Conversations on Design Better. Could you walk me through how you got to where you are today?
Dave Nguyen: Thank you. Excited to be a part of the conversation. Like most creatives, I started off doodling in a sketchpad or on skateboards as a kid, and never really stopped. It eventually led me to study graphic design and digital media, while minoring in photography.
Shortly after my time in university, I went to a few different companies to see where my career in design would take me. This eventually led me into a role as an in-house designer at SAP, as my first real gig. It was incredibly enlightening for me— to think about how design impacts such a large global organization—and how to sell creative work through multiple stakeholders, who didn’t necessarily understand what design is or why it mattered. This is something I learned really early on in my career.
That ability to tell your story and share the value of your work as a designer is something I’ve carried all across my career. Our role as designers is to build a better and more human-centered experience for our audience, and act as storytellers to build empathy for our work. Whether it’s designing a brand identity, developing the user journey through a product experience, or creating a memorable keynote for thousands. That ability to understand our audience, create a compelling connection to our work and demonstrate the impact of our design is essential for any creative.
This leads to my next journey, moving from in-house into agency life at Duarte, where we worked with the top Fortune 500 companies in the world! They specialize in visual storytelling, where, as a designer, I got access to some of the most influential leaders of our time from a variety of industries such as retail, technology start-ups, government, film and television. During my time there, I would have a seat at the table across from these amazing executives, and work together to bring their stories to life and give shape to form through design.
A really good example of this is the branding work I did with Hyperloop One. The Hyperloop concept was the brainchild idea from Elon Musk, who wanted to invent high-speed rail transportation that took you from San Francisco to Los Angeles in less than 30 minutes. I had the privilege to create the brand identity for this ambitious project, and collaborate with their executive leadership team to bring this to life at an event on May 10th, 2016.
At this public launch, they wanted to showcase the first demonstration for their Hyperloop One Test train and unveil their brand (and brand story) to the world in front of 250 reporters from CNN to Wired. It was the first time this type of innovation has ever been demonstrated, so a lot was at stake.
They not only had to convince the world at large, but also prove credibility to business investors and government officials that this technology was real as well as profitable. This wasn’t just about how the technology works, but designing a brand story and identity that would convince audiences that potential impact this hyperloop could have to enhance the world’s economy through transportation. Ambitious, I know, but no less so than when the idea of railroads and then space travel came about.
From there, the next step in my journey was at Pinterest under the Brand Creative Department. I led a team of incredibly talented designers, animators, producers and production artists defining the brand story for Pinterest, both internally and externally. After years as a creative consultant at agencies, my transition back to in-house at Pinterest was eye-opening. I personally saw how this company valued creative design thinking, and the efforts leadership went through to build that in their internal culture.
We focused not just on building the technology, but shepherding the brand story which was just as important, and would align to the company vision. Working directly with the co-founders of Pinterest, Ben Silbermann and Evan Sharp, I had the privilege of learning how powerful telling a brand story is from two incredible—yet very different—leaders. Both cared about the craft and quality of the design, making sure that the brand was felt at every touchpoint. And not just through marketing channels that amplify that identity, but designing that experience through your product.
Today, I’m the Creative Director of the Brand Systems team at Indeed. My scope of work is focusing on building the brand identity into the product and working with cross-functional teams from Marketing, to Research to UX, to design the best experience for our users. The team I’m leading here is quite new and we’re starting to build strong momentum with our creative partners.
EW: A lot of the design leaders we speak with talk about learning to speak in the language of business as one of the key steps to their career development. Could you talk a little bit about what’s helped you to speak design in the language of business?
DN: My agency work was definitely key in helping me understand how design can impact business goals. You can design the most beautiful logo, layout or product in the world, but it’s equally important to help business leaders understand the value your work can do to impact their goals. This allows you to create conversations with business leadership, and give them the opportunity to co-create the experience with you.
For example, Pinterest five years ago was perceived as a visual tool used for discovery, mostly by mid-western housewives, for cooking or wedding planning and so on. Our executive leadership at Pinterest wanted to show that it was a platform for anyone to be creative and build that into our brand both internally and externally. “How can pictures and images be a source of inspiration for the work that we do? How do we use our design to help showcase that? Inspiration is in everything we do for anyone who uses Pinterest. Whether you’re a mechanic, a plumber, a technician, a designer, you can use this tool to find and do the things that you love.”
So we worked with our executive leadership to showcase how the stories of a variety of users could be expressed and dug into their mindset of why Pinterest mattered so much to them. This ambitious project meant working across Brand, Product, Research and Comms, to develop these personalized stories which gave insight into a users’ unique journey.
Our executive leadership presented this work at a company all-hands shortly after to inspire our internal teams to build goals around this mindset for our users and putting them first. We provided a tool for discovery and inspiration for all types of users looking for a safe space to create.
EW: You spent time in both the in-house world and in the agency world. Maybe you could talk about the pros and cons of each.
DN: The best analogy I have, which I’m not convinced is honestly a good one yet, is similar to dating versus marriage. When you’re working for an agency, you’re essentially dating different clients and working on a variety of projects. There’s opportunity to learn a lot about yourself through these projects and the type of work you gravitate towards. It’s fun, but like dating, it can also be difficult and exhausting when you’re not aligned on the same goals with your client. You’ll get to work with a lot of brands and help drive top-line initiatives, but you’re really only scratching the surface.
The biggest difference with moving in-house, is that it’s a lot like marriage. Not only do you work on those top-line initiatives, but you actually drive them and collaborate across different disciplines to bring them to life internally. It takes so much work, and a lot of communication, but incredibly worth it when you build success with your team. There’s of course, some bumps along the way, but you get to really dig in deep and drive the creative work that inspires an entire organization. One of the things I love about what I’m doing now is bringing brand value and storytelling into our product design decisions, working with several different teams across the company to refining the best elements of our brand.
EW: Now that you’re a Creative Director in-house, how does that work intersect with the way that products are designed at Indeed?
DN: Great question. So I lead the Brand Systems team, and we’re actually underneath the UX/Product org. This interdisciplinary group of designers, writers, animators and producers are working to implement the brand identity into the next evolution of our product. This takes immense collaboration across our product design, systems engineering, marketing and others to align on the importance of brand identity and how we can increase (or decrease) our volume, our voice, and visual imprint within those types of product moments. Indeed has really invested into this type of initiative, and what we’re trying to do is help create a unified vision for the entire company through both the visual design as well as the content experience.
EW: Since you have to do this work in a cross disciplinary fashion, working with engineering teams and marketing teams, as a creative leader how do you bring these teams together when they care about different things?
DN: You have to find the common ground that both sides share and communicate how your design proposals can help solve their initiatives. For an engineer, in particular, they deeply care about velocity, shipping innovation and hitting targets that maximize user efficiency. We’ve learned in our experience working with these engineering teams that it’s about prioritizing how our designs can deliver the best quality work while also moving fast and build through iteration.
When it comes to marketing, they’re trying to find ways to cover as much surface area as possible and express the brand through hundreds of channels, from ads and television spots to events. And so how do we do that in a consistent way, that cares about is authentic to each of our users and strongly resonates with what they’re experiencing within the product? So that, no matter if you’re interacting with Indeed on your mobile phone, or seeing Indeed in advertisements, you still get that same brand experience that feels like you’re talking to Indeed.
EW: You have a unique approach that you’re taking to illustrations. Could you walk us through that?
DN: In the last two years, Indeed has implemented illustrations as part of its identity. But its ability to scale has been a little bit all over the place with so many different interpretations from a variety of artists. They’re all beautifully executed, but our dream is to create a definitive illustration approach that not only connects with our users but feels appropriate in the moments it engages with them.
This was important for our marketing as well as product teams. So we drove a two-day workshop where we thought about the entire experience of our audience: whether it was looking for a job or finding the right candidate. This holistic approach of the lifecycle experience was vital in understanding the specific touchpoints (marketing and product) when illustrations would appear. So that each moment it occurred, felt like a natural and an extension of our brand reaching out.
These aren’t just decorative illustrations; it’s about being able to understand where that user is in their journey and create relevant content that connects with them at each stage. So for example, if you got a job, you want to know which illustration will celebrate that moment and be able to bring joy to that experience. But let’s say you didn’t land the job, you’ll want a different type of illustration that’s encouraging you to keep on trying, and be supportive of your efforts. So those are some of the different techniques we’re exploring with this approach.
EW: As you work on implementing these illustrations across the product design, there’s obviously some amount of investment in resources that goes into that. How do you sell that value to your counterparts on other teams?
DN: We want to make sure that our counterparts understand that illustration is not just visual ornamentation to make something look pretty. It’s a strategic tool they have at their disposal, to take complex messaging and simplify that meaning into artwork that resonates. When most people think of illustrations, they consider them a nice-to-have that’s on trend with what most tech companies are doing. But when my Brand Systems team describe their goals for illustrations, we’re looking to invest in the emotional journey our users take and build brand equity into these opportunities within the product. For example, if we’re thinking about the sign-on experience—to create a profile on Indeed— illustrations can help guide you through that step by step experience.
When we share those benefits to other teams, we make sure that we’re clear about the ask and help them understand how this is relevant to their needs. Like I mentioned earlier, it’s that ability for you, as a designer, to not just create beautiful work but also understand your audience and create a solution that’s authentic to them. For example, if we design an illustration experience that is relevant and helps guide our users through the product experience, the product and engineering teams will get more engagement and interaction while our brand is expressed consistently across the board..
It’s a win-win.
EW: Are there any books or blogs or other resources that you’ve found helpful recently? And where have you been finding inspiration?
DN: For books, I recently finished Ray Dalio’s Principles, recommended by Ben Silberman, the CEO of Pinterest. It’s 600 pages, which is a lot, but there’s tons of useful nuggets about making your ambitions actionable and how he applied that through his life’s journey. Another great reference is Julie’s Zhuo’s book about management and design, that’s been really helpful. She’s also been interviewed on DesignBetter as well, and her thoughts on management and building teams is just lovely.
As for inspiration, as cliche as it sounds, it’s really about getting your face away from screens and looking at the world around you. I’m a big fan of photography and love being able to just be outside to shoot images just for myself. No clients or stakeholders involved, but focusing on purely the craft and my own enjoyment. Living in California, there’s definitely a luxury we have of being immersed in some beautiful landscapes and finding those opportunities to just have fun.