On this episode of the Design Mind frogcast, we’re joined by François Nguyen, Executive Design Director in frog’s New York studio. As an industrial designer, François has worked on products across industries that include consumer products, healthcare, financial services and many more. Here he shares why the creative process can often involve fully immersing yourself into a role—not unlike a method actor.
Design Mind frogcast
Episode 43: When Creativity Becomes Method Acting
Guests: François Nguyen, Executive Design Director, frog
[00:09] Elizabeth Wood: Welcome to the Design Mind frogcast. Each episode, we go behind the scenes to meet the people designing what’s next in the world of products, services and experiences, both here at frog and far, far outside the pond. I’m Elizabeth Wood.
[00:25] Elizabeth Wood: Today on our show, we’re talking about the creative process as a fusion of art, logic and performance. To do this, we’re joined by François Nguyen, Executive Design Director in frog New York. François is a long-time frog and a very accomplished industrial designer with an extensive history in his field, working on everything from medical products to next-generation hardware across industries and even designing the iconic Beats by Dre headphones. Here’s François now.
[00:55] François Nguyen: I think it’s unfortunate that industrial design, physical product design, doesn’t have the same kind of popularity as graphic design, for example. Apple’s done a lot to elevate industrial design. But I think even still today, when you say industrial design, people think “Oh, so you work on pipes and manufacturing,” things like that. I remember that epiphany moment was someone went into the typography class, and they had this foam core model of this PDA, you remember back in the day, there were palm pilots and things like that. He had a little model of that and I was like, “What is that thing?” He goes, “Oh, this is my little concept for a future PDA.” And I loved the sculpting. I loved, “What is that material?” And all of my sculptural tendencies were curious and intrigued. So he said, “This is industrial design.”
[01:45] François Nguyen: I just couldn’t believe how I made it through life like having blindfolds. But once it was open, I just thought yeah, someone had to go and sketch this and conceive of this physical object—things that we interact with that transform our lives. Just all the lights were going off, and I was just ecstatic.
[02:04] François Nguyen: Hi, I’m François. I am an executive design director here at frog. I’ve actually been at frog for quite some time in the New York studio—eight years coming up, eight years this January. But before that, I had a stint also in San Francisco. So you add up all the years combined, it’s 15 years at frog.
[02:24] Elizabeth Wood: François’s path to consulting first came from a passion for art. So far in his career, he’s been able to work on some pretty recognizable products. Perhaps most notably, his work on the Beats by Dre headphones has earned him recognition in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
[02:41] François Nguyen: Most of my life, I was always drawn to sketching and building little things. And so I finished with a degree in Sculpture and Fine Arts. And then I didn’t learn about industrial design until after I graduated. I went back to school, focused on that and it was a perfect intersection of technology and physical sculpture for me.
[03:01] François Nguyen: The first job I landed was at Pentagram in industrial design as an intern. And actually, it should be noted that my whole career thus far has been in the consultancy space. I find it very rewarding because you can move through so many different kinds of industries and projects. One month, you’re working on solar panels, and the next month, you’re working on some kind of a medical device. And so it’s just such an interesting way to me to navigate the world see different kinds of cultures and different kinds of interests and industries that people have,
[03:33] François Nguyen: My boss at the time used to be head of industrial design on at Apple, he actually hired Johnny Ive as an intern, and his name is Robert Brunner. So we got a lot of great opportunities. We’re shipping a lot of things, a lot of the computer companies like HP and Dell, etc. Because Apple was a rising star at that time, because they couldn’t get the designers from Apple the next best thing was a former Apple designer and so we shipped a lot of products with those various companies.
[04:01] François Nguyen: But I think a highlight moment and break for me was when we had an opportunity to design some audio products for this small company and they wanted a partnership with some artists and musicians from Interscope Records, and that turned out to be Dr. Dre. And so a year and a half of my life was doing pro bono the Beats headphones with Dr. Dre. My greatest aspiration back then was just to meet the legend himself and it turned out to be a year and a half that feels like a dream now of interacting with him frequently, taking it down to LA and having it approved by him and Jimmy Iovine, and there were so many great moments in there that we can unpack. I think that’s a whole separate podcast. After that, I was looking for different experiences and working with consultancy that offered me a little bit more diversity of things and autonomy.
[04:51] Elizabeth Wood: During our conversation, François shared why there’s many levers to be pulled when launching something new, from setting your sights on the right aspects of product performance to investing in exactly the right marketing strategy.
[05:05] François Nguyen: Something that I always think about was how Beats came along—and there were other audio brands that had been in this business for a very long time, almost a century. And how did Beats come along and in a few short years take everyone’s lunch?
[05:23] François Nguyen: Getting the design right was important, but [so was] thinking about how the design language could scale to subsequent products. The audio quality of the first headphones I designed, I will be the first to admit, was subpar. But it was good enough. It was good enough for mass consumption. I drove them around before the final design was even done, all the iterations, I was driving around these prototypes to all these various music video sets. The product placement in music videos with the celebrities was just remarkable. It’s unparalleled. I remember there was an interview with Larry King, where will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas wore the Beats headphones around his neck for the whole interview. And so when the final product was released, buying them was a no brainer. There was so much exposure through media to seeing all these different headphones and the logo, which was very distinct. So, just saying from a design perspective, that needed to be distinct, recognizable, the word iconic is often used, from a distance.
[06:26] François Nguyen: So, from a design perspective, that’s how we initially went about approaching it. Like, okay, when people get a glimpse of this, it needs to be something immediately distinguishable. Because for research I basically bought all the big brands and it just looked like a sea of indiscernible stuff. If you remove the logo, it was hard to tell who was who and which was which. And so when we worked on the industrial design along with the branding, because we’re building a brand from scratch, Beats, it made a lot of sense to work together. And so you look at the design language and the designs, you had these headphones with the pivoting earcup within a concentric circle, and then that was reinforced with the concentric circle that would be the Beats logo. So it all worked in harmony beautifully. And it was very impactful. And then later of course, the audio quality now is on parity if not surpassed all a lot of these other brands because they had the tremendous financial leverage.
[07:19] François Nguyen: I think that Beats is a great case study in terms of investing the right amount of eggs in the right basket. That was a great lesson for me in terms of how we invest resources, energy and time into, like, what matters, right? In terms of whatever you’re doing, whatever industry, whatever design, product or medium, where are we indexing our energy and focus? And I think a lot of designers, they have the disease called perfectionism and the one that just get everything just right, but that can be a big hindrance into the ultimate success.
[07:51] Elizabeth Wood: Today, innovation requires more than just a focus on craft or even business case alone. According to François, it takes a broader assessment of overall impact.
[08:03] François Nguyen: Definitely the world we’re living in now, sustainability is critical to a future. And I’m very sensitive, as a lot of designers are, in terms of what is the output? Particularly in physical design, what do we really need? And how can we design and build things in better sustainable ways? To point back to the Beats example, the first headphones was a gloss finish. Dr. Dre loved that so we couldn’t go back and give a matte finish. But to share the cost of the impact of a gloss finish to the environment, if you see gloss products, they all have a clear plastic on it so that when the person buys it, they’re the first to touch it and it’s not been touched before, and it’s pristine. But in the first production batch, there was like a 10% failure in paint finishes—10% of the external ban were discarded. They never saw the light of day because the finish was bad. When I heard that I felt a little sick, but also realize like how one little decision can make a huge impact in terms of the waste we put out in the world. And so if anything, just raising that awareness for designers to know that all of their little decisions, their design decisions matter a lot.
[09:24] François Nguyen: Something I think a lot about too is the unchecked assumed good in every single engagement. I mean, it always starts with okay, what are our pain points? And how can we remove those pain points? I don’t think that that’s a bad thing. It’s important to think about ways we can optimize and reduce redundancies and make things more efficient and ultimately, it lowers costs and makes things more convenient for everybody involved. There are other important lenses that we need to also consider. I mentioned one of them before in terms of sustainability, which isn’t always going to be the most cost effective or most convenient, but also thinking about delight and memorable experiences. And ultimately, long term customer loyalty—return on emotional investment is–something I like to say. Because the convenience will be appreciated for the moment but quickly forgotten.
[10:24] François Nguyen: I think about the things in my life that I remember that continue to stay with me and they weren’t the most expedient experiences. It’s usually something that engages us emotionally that may even take a little bit more time. There might be some challenge or some static and some conflict in it that was involved as well. I mean, is that not what we enjoy watching when we go to see film or reading a book? There’s always some kind of conflict that needs to be overcome.
[10:55] Elizabeth Wood: This notion of conflict is often a catalyst for change in the traditional narrative arc structure in fiction. Similarly, François shares why making something meaningful in the real world might require a bit of resistance to strengthen your capacity for change, which may require an unconventional approach.
[11:14] François Nguyen: We talk a lot about storytelling, and every product has a story as well, in terms of overcoming a challenge or passing through some kind of hurdle to some kind of resolution. But I think that we need to think about that struggle and the value of it as well. Examples that I like to point to a lot are just how we’re built as humans physiologically, psychologically. I mean, there’s countless data out there that shows people do better under a certain level of stress, a certain level of pressure. Space, right? Astronauts—they need to exercise 45 minutes a day, otherwise their muscles will atrophy. Because here on Earth, we have gravity constantly pulling on our arm muscles, on our organs, on our body that we’re constantly working to resist. We become stronger through that resistance. And through that resistance, and becoming stronger, we become more fulfilled. I don’t want to say happier, that’s a bigger…it’s a bigger word. But there’s greater fulfillment and at least competency that comes about with having some degree of resistance.
[12:18] François Nguyen: We need that degree of resistance. Because that’s also human centered design, right? Understanding that this is how humans, at least in our current state of evolution, need to stay psychologically and physiologically strong. Well, I don’t think I would ever say to a client, hey, you need to keep these pain points. You know, I would, I would probably redirect and say, Hey, let’s consider this scenic route, instead of this direct route here.
[12:45] François Nguyen: I think back to that part of consulting that is so exciting for me is I compare it a little bit to method acting. Not saying we’re Daniel Day Lewises walking around here, but you have to really immerse yourself into that world and see through different people’s perspectives—and not just the end user, but the purchaser, all the people that touch this product along the way that are affected, that shape their their decisions about why they want this or not. And that is also a very important thing to consider, in some cases. Who the purchaser is may be very different than the end user. And you can design a very delightful user experience, but if it’s a pain to service and maintain and all these other things, the criteria lens that is different than the end user, that could break the deal.
[13:37] Elizabeth Wood: We’re going to take a short break. When we return, François will share more about creative inspiration.
[13:46] Anne Junge: Hi, I’m Anne Junge, Head of Customer Transformation at frog, part of Capgemini Invent. For today’s drivers, the car is just the starting point. An ecosystem-driven approach makes it possible for automotive OEMs to provide integrated, personalized offers that add value and strengthen customer relationships. In our new frog report, we discuss building an ecosystem with the customer at the center. Check today’s show notes to download ‘Beyond the Vehicle: Taking the Lead on Automotive Customer Ecosystems.’ Find out how mobility brands can exceed consumer expectations and unlock new revenue potential.
[14:22] Elizabeth Wood: Now back to François Nguyen, Executive Design Director at frog, to share why moving forward doesn’t always require a linear path.
[14:30] François Nguyen: I feel like you have to just start moving and doing something. I think, particularly people like frogs that are very intellectual, they can kind of get caught in that headspace. And also everything we look at in the digital medium, as I mentioned, like on screens…it can be very paralyzing. But I think just physically moving around generates ideas that aren’t always moving through the cognitive process. For example, I used to paint when I was younger, and I kept thinking, “Well, I’m going to have these ideas and then I’ll start painting.” And as like, the past weekend actually, I just started moving paint around. Without any kind of thought in mind, it just started taking shape. And sometimes, you just move your hand around, you start walking around, the act of that alone starts revealing the vision. And there’s this quote by this Vietnamese Buddhist that I love, Thich Nhat Hanh, he says, “Joy can be the source of your smile, but sometimes the smile can be the source of your joy.” And I love that it’s multilevel interpretable, but it’s like that action alone—it doesn’t always move in the same linear direction, you know? They can shape and inform each other and motivate each other. When you can’t think of anything, what do I do, just do something? And then that’ll open up other things.
[15:52] François Nguyen: I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, actually. I’ve ridden motorcycles my whole life, but I love jumping from heights and doing things—things that, yeah, just give me an adrenaline rush. And actually, sometimes in that situation of extremity, can I return to feeling that gratitude or appreciation for things. I think back to being in the head versus being in the body, we can understand why one should be grateful for XYZ and all the things we have, but until you viscerally physically feel something—the sensation of something—can you really realize the full gratitude of that. because now you have that built-in barometer and reference point, you know? Like, okay, this is what it’s like to have this rush. This is what it’s like to go from zero to 60 in three seconds. This is what it’s like to plummet and feel like you’re gonna die maybe, and have all these things flash through your mind at the last minute. It’s a bit of that discomfort.
[16:56] François Nguyen: And I think all the experiences we have, the counter reference point, only increases our capacity to appreciate it. And I’m getting kind of corny with the quotes here, but to quote Khalil Gibran, I love the writings of Khalil Gibran, who wrote the Prophet, “The deeper sorrow carves into your heart, the more joy you can contain.” And I think that the richness of any experience really comes from the reference point of the opposite. A simple bowl of rice or whatever becomes that much more awesome when you know what it was like to be hungry and not have that. And similarly with all experiences, I think that the more we can figure out ways to incorporate that so that people get that richer appreciation through a reference point of some sort will help.
[17:48] Elizabeth Wood: During our conversation, François shared his advice to aspiring creatives—especially industrial designers—and, actually, one aspiring creative in particular.
[17:59] François Nguyen: And this advice is similar to my nephew who is actually studying industrial design and product design. I think anyone that is interested in this field should definitely study what’s out there and know the history of what’s come before. They’re truly many giants to stand on the shoulders of so that we can advance the craft moving forward. So do the homework and the history. Find the thing that gets you most excited, whatever that is, because it’s a large process, design. There’s research and there’s ideation exploration, and there’s, like, developing the concept and refining that and user testing. There’s many aspects, there’s manufacturing, production and development, depending on what medium you’re working in. But find the thing that is most exciting to you, and you know what’s exciting to you, because that will give you the momentum to continue being excited about this field that you’re in and learn more. And that’s more important than all the knowledge in the world, I think. It’s the excitement and desire to constantly stick with it. Stick with it, and ask yourself, How can I be better? How can this be better in comparing this to the other things out there? And part of that desire that you need to feed is making sure that you’re pulling the thread that is most interesting to you to keep that momentum going.
[19:21] François Nguyen: Particularly as a young student, don’t do something because you think that’s what I should be doing. Or that’s what people will like. What we look for when we hire interns and young talent, of course, we look for strong skill sets, but we want people that have point of views, that are comfortable in developing their point of view and expressing that in the world. There are many great technicians in the world. We want your unique perspective that is really not about being nice and placating people, but really about a conviction. And that’s what a point of view is, what is your conviction in terms of like, how do you see the world? How do you see the way things should be? And how is that passion driving you to the point where you’re willing to have the hard conversations and stand up and defend why what you’re doing has merit in the face of adversity from colleagues and from clients as well.
[20:22] Elizabeth Wood: For François, there’s a lot to love about bringing your own personal passion to the creative process. But sometimes it’s just as important to be willing to let go.
[20:33] François Nguyen: What I love is switching from one side of the brain to the other, from looking at things from a logical perspective—the data and rationality and seeing what the possibilities are—and then flipping that and being completely absurd and unreasonable. Back to that method acting analogy, it’s playing two roles: being a sensible human being that’s logical and grounded in rationality and then being completely ludicrous and not stopping with the what ifs. And so all along the way, of course, like later, when things get a little bit more baked, the potential for pushing the boundaries is limited. But I think, for me, it’s really understanding the client, the nature of the project, the parameters, that sandbox, and then okay, how far can we push those edges? That, to me, is most interesting.
[21:28] François Nguyen: And something I used to say, when I became a creative director with a team is, “Don’t hesitate to throw out the baby with the bathwater,” you know? And what I mean by that is, love your ideas, cherish them, you also need to be as quick to just discard them and not hang on and be too precious as well. Because ultimately, what we want to commit to, and be undeterred by is the best solution, which hopefully we craft with the client in deciding what that is. I remember earlier in my design and just creative career, I would do something and I was like, “Oh, that’s perfect just that way, Let’s not mess with it.” I think the rigors of just being able to go back and rework and just not treat it as, like, this is this priceless jewel that can’t be touched, I’ll find that, hey, actually, this is better. Or this is another direction we can go in and so forth. A big lesson, actually one of the biggest creative lessons for me, interestingly enough, wasn’t in design or art but was in music.
[22:35] Elizabeth Wood: Part of the collaborative creative process is about being outside of your comfort zone. For François, it’s his experience as a musician that has taught him perhaps one of the most valuable lessons in getting more by being willing to cut away at what you think should be held dear.
[22:51] François Nguyen: I’m quite serious as a classical guitar musician. I compose my own pieces. But I had already put out a couple of albums. I don’t know people liked it, but I wasn’t that excited. I got tired of my own sound. And I had a bunch of solo tracks that I was working on. I had about 23 tracks. And I had a friend who knew this guy who was a producer, and he had done stuff with some substantial artists like P-Funk. I asked him if he would be my producer on this project. And he was very straightforward. He said, “Okay, you know, I’ll take this on but—and you have the right to veto things—but we’re gonna decide on the vision, and we’re gonna keep returning to that. Every time I make a decision, we’ll revisit that.” I said, “Okay, great.”
[23:38] François Nguyen: And I remember through three months of working with him, it was just, every day, antagonizing. He would cut these tracks. He said, “Your drummer, you need to fire him.” And I was like, “Well, that drummer is my friend. And I’ve worked with him for many years.” Like, “Nope, he doesn’t have the right feel.” And he kept asking me to do these things where I was just like, I can’t do that, like, you’re cutting away. He says, “Okay, let’s return to the vision that we decided on, does that still hold true?” I said, “Yes, we still want to do that.” He was like, “Okay, well then get rid of that and get rid of this.” He whittled my 23 tracks down to about 11 tracks, which felt already painful enough, like I had severed several limbs.
[24:19] François Nguyen: I felt like I was giving up these, these things that were these precious jewels. And then after we recorded things he asked me to drop more tracks, like, even discard ones that we recorded with a drummer and bass player that I thought were great. And we whittled it down to seven tracks, from 11, down to seven, so 23, down 11 to seven tracks, and basically he just kept pushing me where it’s like, I can’t cut anymore, you know, you asked me to do too much. And he was just relentless in pushing me, I don’t think I’ve ever pushed a client that hard at frog or in my consultancy career, but I appreciate how hard he pushed me.
[24:57] François Nguyen: And then when I heard the final product, I thought, I don’t know if I liked this. I don’t even recognize this. This is not what I know to be the music that I create. Months later, I kept listening to it, and actually I was very reluctant to share it, I didn’t even have a release party for it or anything. And then I grew to love it more than any of my other music because it pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone into territory that was expanding me beyond anything that was familiar, into incredible discomfort. There’s this old maxim, the mind once expanded by a new idea can never return to its original dimension. So I felt similar, like now I’ve heard something, and that I’m capable of that’s beyond what I ever thought possible because I had this force come in and push me relentlessly.
[25:52] François Nguyen: That’s something that I enjoy, in my role working with teams, how we can push thoughts and put people into like, No, I think it’s good enough. Well, is it? Let’s really revisit that and explore that discomfort. And I think frogs, they all come here because we have that in common. We like to be pushed. We like that passion ignited to explore possibilities that weren’t on our horizon before. And hopefully take clients with us, but we can’t do that unless we practice what we advocate.
[26:33] Elizabeth Wood: That was a track from François’s album you just heard. Check it out on Spotify. You can find the link in our show notes. And that’s our show. The Design Mind frogcast was brought to you by frog, a leading global creative consultancy that is part of Capgemini Invent. Check today’s show notes for transcripts and more from our conversation.
[26:53] Elizabeth Wood: Thanks for joining us all year long for episodes on everything from generative AI to electric vehicle concepts to psilocybin therapies. It’s been such an honor bringing these stories to listeners all over the world straight from the people who are making their mark in their field. We’re going on a bit of a break over the holiday season, but we’ll be returning very soon with much more from our expert guests in January 2024.
[27:17] Elizabeth Wood: We really want to thank our guest this episode, François Nguyen, Executive Design Director in frog New York, for sharing his insights into the creative process and even his music with us.
[27:28] Elizabeth Wood: We also want to thank you, dear listener. If you like what you heard, tell your friends. Rate and review to help others find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify . And be sure to follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Find lots more to think about from our global frog team at frog.co/designmind. That’s frog.co. Follow frog on Twitter at @frogdesign and @frog_design on Instagram. And if you have any thoughts about the show, we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at frog.co/contact. Thanks for listening. Now go make your mark.
François is an executive director at frog New York. He is passionate about leading creative teams to design work that provokes reflection and mindful consumption. His diverse, award-winning portfolio has impacted companies such as Disney, Walmart, AT&T. His design of the original Beats by Dr. Dre headphones is featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In his spare time, François is a musician and classical guitarist with three albums to his credit. He also enjoys painting, motorcycling and other high-adrenaline activities.
Elizabeth tells design stories for frog. She first joined the New York studio in 2011, working on multidisciplinary teams to design award-winning products and services. Today, Elizabeth works out of the London studio on the global frog marketing team, leading editorial content.
She has written and edited hundreds of articles about design and technology, and has given talks on the role of content in a weird, digital world. Her work has been published in The Content Strategist, UNDO-Ordinary magazine and the book Alone Together: Tales of Sisterhood and Solitude in Latin America (Bogotá International Press).
Previously, Elizabeth was Communications Manager for UN OCHA’s Centre for Humanitarian Data in The Hague. She is a graduate of the Master’s Programme for Creative Writing at Birkbeck College, University of London.
We respect your privacy