This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year's Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave", a one-day event that will explore the future of the design industry and the role designers will play in it.
Even when he's not working, Francois Nguyen never really stops envisioning what the world might look like. More than a decade into his industrial design career, Nguyen knows a thing or two about staying resilient and nimble as the discipline changes.
Following his studies at Wesleyan and San Jose State University, Nguyen started out at Pentagram, where he worked with clients like Microsoft, Coca-Cola, and Dell. From there he went on to join Ammunition, where he was the lead designer for the original "Beats Studio" headphones for Dr. Dre. For the past seven years and counting, Nguyen has been at frog. He currently serves as creative director in the New York studio, shaping the company's vision for ID while "provoking, coaxing, antagonizing and often bribing his team to craft compelling narratives and create captivating user experiences that balance form and functionality with materials and metaphor."
During the 2019 Core77 Conference, Francois will give a talk titled "The Cost of Comfort," questioning design's focus on eliminating pain points and shedding new light on the value of stress. Ahead of his talk, we caught up with the designer to learn more about his background and experiences in the design world.
Core77: What are some of your favorite projects or companies that you've worked with during your time so far at frog?
Francois: Some of the most memorable projects were the TouchTunes Jukebox, Sustainable Laptop Packaging, a solid-state microwave, a motorcycle store, a beer enhancement system and audio products ranging from headphones to Bluetooth speakers. Clients I enjoyed working with include Amazon, CocaCola, Google, Disney, and others I can't name.
In the future, consumers will need headphones that support long augmented audio experiences, but frog designers believe the design of typical personal headphones "will be too isolating of a social experience." Unum headphones were designed to channel sound into your ear while allowing users to remain present in the real-world. People around you will immediately know that, even though you're tuned in, you can still interact with them—the sign of a "new social etiquette" around audio.
One of your recent projects, the Unum headphones, was designed without a client, in your spare time. Could you briefly describe the idea behind it? Was your process different from how you would approach a client project?
During our bench time at frog, we keep our thinking and design skills sharp by challenging ourselves with interesting provocations expressed through product concepts. The provocation for Unum was: How do we reverse the anti-social behavior resulting from the constant use of headphones?
We regard our bench time as sacred space to explore and develop our own ideas of what the world should look like. This has given rise to designs such as the LQD Palo which was purchased by Verizon, the Tetra Dishwasher which was blessed by Kanye and declared genius by Jon Legere and now, the Unum concept.
What is exciting you in design right now?
Prosthetic designs and bionic enhancements. Companies and platforms like Terracycle and Loop that are concerned about the environment and attempting to diminish the disposable culture we live in.
Mobility and personal transportation such as the eScooter, eBikes, and Onewheels. Engineering driven products that are breaking from traditional paradigms. Smart connected home products that raise awareness around consumption habits and sustainability.
To what extent do you consider the future when designing?
I am always thinking of the future when I design. Every designer should be thinking of the future as they design because when their designs finally reach users, it will be in the future. Particularly in the case of physical product design where the timeline from concept to production can be 12-18 months. In designing for fast-moving categories like consumer electronics, designs should consider its desirability and relevance that many months out.
Two years ago in your Reddit AMA you were asked about the essential skills a product designer would need in 6-7 years. Would you revise your answer, looking 6-7 years into the future from today?
The ID discipline is perpetually evolving with the development of new technologies, tools, interactive possibilities, trends, and global concerns but it will always remain rooted in the physical plane and human factors. I would revise my answers 7 years from today based on these new developments. How do we learn now, what tools do professionals have access to, what is the language of form and paradigm of use in the future? What do consumers expect from their products and how do we communicate now?
There was a time when there were more specialized roles such as a CAD expert or a design researcher but today, every industrial designer is expected to know the fundamentals of design research and be proficient in CAD. New roles may arise and others may disappear, it all depends. There is no replacing hard work and exposure, however. Design is a language and deep exposure and practice is the only path to excelling in it.
Without revealing too much, what can you tell us about your presentation during the upcoming Core77 conference?
The cost of comfort will be one of several related themes in my presentation. I'd like to also discuss how design paradigms constrain our thinking, moving from human-centered to earth-centered, how the delivery medium is still everything, and how people won't really remember a damn thing I've said a week from now.
Hear Francois Nguyen and other design industry leaders speak at this years Core77 Conference, "The Third Wave"! Tickets are available now.