Design in Translation - Interview with Olivier G. Duong

Design in Translation - Interview with Olivier G. Duong

Arts October 14, 2020 / By The Creativity Post
Design in Translation - Interview with Olivier G. Duong
SYNOPSIS

Olivier G. Duong is a graphic designer, creative director, and photographer based in New York City. The Creativity Post asked him about his process, combining different esthetics and visual ideas, and his creative philosophy of “less is more.”

Born in France and raised in Los Angeles, Olivier G. Duong has worked both as a freelancer and in agencies, designing in Los Angeles, Paris, NYC, and London for such major brands as L’Oréal Paris, Condé Nast Traveler, and Nickelodeon, to name just a few. He harnesses his personal and professional experiences around the globe, creating impactful brand identities and experiences. For more information, visit www.oliviergduong.com.

The Creativity Post: Tell us about your background and how it informs your aesthetics. You lived and worked in three cultural capitals – LA, Paris, and New York. How did this play out?

Olivier G. Duong: I was born in France to parents of Vietnamese, French, and Chinese descent. We left Europe when I was very young to come to the US, and we would go back frequently to visit my grandparents. My personality and worldview were shaped by growing up in Los Angeles, California, and traveling internationally. The American visual landscape combined with my eclectic cultural upbringing and formed my initial style of design.

I started working in design before college. Before I graduated, I was hired at Primedia, a major publishing company with big automotive clients. While I was there, I worked on projects for major brands, including European Car Magazine. When I went in for the job interview, I initially thought I was applying for an internship. I even told the interviewer that I was willing to work for free to learn the craft, but they told me they would hire me for a paid position. That was in 2002, when the digital space was just starting to form.

It was a great opportunity but at a certain point, I felt like I hit a plateau. Despite the diversity in the US, I found that since everyone here sees the same stuff in advertising, commercials, products, fashion, etc., the general public thinks and reacts along very predictable patterns. I understood this behavior but whenever I visited Europe, I realized the perspective there was dramatically different. I decided to move to the EU full time because I wanted to challenge myself creatively.

TCP: Moving to a different continent is a bold change. What factored into that decision?

OGD: At the time, I was at a crossroads of going to France or moving to New York. Since I turned 16 I knew I was going to live in NYC at some point – I have an uncle who lived in the city who invited me to visit and showed me around and I loved all of it. Yet I decided to move to France after I spent a Christmas holiday there and I fell in love with a girl. I quit my job and moved across the pond in 2009. I was excited about the new opportunities, both personal and professional, but I didn’t speak French fluently and this was a major hurdle. I was socially isolated and lonely but professionally, it turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I couldn’t verbally express myself, but I spoke a universal language of design.

TCP: What do you mean by the “universal language of design?”

OGD: There are universal basic symbols that many cultures utilize and understand. You can go to most countries and places and know where to stop when you're driving or where the bathroom is. You can even trace the use of symbols back to the prehistoric drawings of cavemen and hieroglyphics in ancient Egypt. Colors can be used in communication as well. Red means “stop;” green means “go”. Color also evokes emotion. These things are the foundation of language. You can take these simple visuals and incorporate them to communicate complex ideas without using words.

TCP: Based on this experience, how do you think cultural context changes the perception of design in different countries?

OGD: At the root, communication is the same. Each culture has its own influences that build off of these fundamentals. The French attach great value to their heritage and history. They pride themselves on being refined and classy. Having an understanding of France with mostly American influence at that point, I was able to come up with ideas that had never been done. I wasn't just a stereotypical American in Paris. Also, at the time the market had to understand and cater to a new generation, the millennials. They were shaped by the French culture, but the Internet has made them global citizens. I belong to this generation, but I was challenged to balance traditionalism and modernism.

Let me give you an example. One of my French clients was Deshoulières, a producer of luxury porcelain tabletop goods

Groupe Deshoulière - Porcelainier de France
Groupe Deshoulière - Porcelainier de France

They had a very traditional sense of design. The target audience for this campaign were affluent clients who are typically art collectors. After doing a competitive analysis of similar brands, I found the style of the industry overall follows a predictable pattern: heavily dominated by beautiful classic forms, gold filigree accents, and arrangements of porcelain displayed in traditional French homes. The collection I was directing was much more modern. Taking these factors into consideration, we came up with a disruptive campaign where the photos themselves looked like art. The pieces were arranged in a way that was a far cry from the old-fashioned spreads. My designs were inspired by the mad tea party from Alice in Wonderland. In some of them, the fragile cups and plates were balancing in asymmetric piles, almost flying in the negative space of the black background. This way the details stand out more because the consumer is intrigued by arrangements that defy expectations: it creates a shock value that grabs people’s attention. Another, more traditional visual motif I wanted to convey was the clock. A number of layouts for this project present a circular arrangement resembling a clock’s face. Why? In Europe, it is much more common to expect a meal to be served at a specific hour when a family gathers at the table and takes it time to enjoy the occasion – a very different setup from the American habit of eating quickly with not much preparation and movies on to the next thing.

TCP: Does this translation from European to American style also work the other way around?

OGD: Yes! A good case study would be the project I did shortly after I returned from France to the US. I was approached by a client who wanted me to design a visual identity for a luxury wine store and tasting room located in Beverly Hills. The owner was French and wanted to appeal to the American clients. I presented them with several logo treatments; the winner design included a classic primary typeface that slightly resembles the serif font reminiscent of the visual identity of Hermès, a world-famous French luxury brand. I combined this elegant but simple typography with a sketched image of a balloon flying over a vineyard, a concept the client loved. It’s worth noting here that when I present a logo design, I usually start with a black-and-white version to establish a sense of shape and proportion that appeals to the client. Only when this is settled, I make decisions on the color. In this particular case, we went with blue reminiscent of the French flag and gold accents that spell out “luxury.” The company was called Heritage so it felt very appropriate. They trusted me because of my ability to understand their Old World ideas and communicate them to the Californian audiences I know very well.

TCP: Can you walk us through the process here?

OGD: I always start with two crucial questions: A: "What is the problem?" and B: "What is the goal?" Before I address a specific assignment, I have to get to know the client and understand the way they think. My client usually brings me a ton of ideas that they want to squeeze into one layout; my job is to steer their focus and help them make decisions. Oftentimes, in the beginning, they present me with a ton of marketing copy they want to incorporate into the design. To make them understand this might be too much, I show them examples of what it would look like with all of it. That’s usually way too much information for the consumer to connect to the product. As I edit down the copy with my editor, it becomes clear that the message can still be delivered with bullet points or less. The best visual solutions often require a “less is more” approach. I often have to persuade the client that subtracting certain design elements does not take away from the message they want to convey. More negative space gives the design a sense of breath and air; as a result, the consumer can focus on the product and connect to it. It’s a balancing act.

TCP: Going back to your professional journey: If you got so much success in France, why didn’t you stay there?

OGD: With all its beauty, sophistication, and amazing flavor, life in France flows at a much slower pace than in America. I began to feel that I was losing my edge and my development as a professional was stagnating. In 2013, I knew I didn't want to stay in France but I didn’t want to go back to California, either. I decided the next step was to move to New York. At this point in my career, I felt ready to work with major players. It excited me that the competition was fierce and the standards and expectations were sky-high. I have such a competitive side of me I had to pick up jiu-jitsu as a way to channel it. I’m a huge MMA (mixed martial arts) fan. It’s actually helped me become a better designer.

TCP: What does cage fighting have to do with design?

OGD: It is a contact sport, but more importantly, a sport based on a very sophisticated strategy. One has to use a combination of physical skills and mental quickness in assessing your opponent. Similarly, in the design process, one has to start from understanding the client, the consumer, and the product. In advertising, you have to understand human behavior and be able to anticipate people’s instinctive reactions. To gain an advantage over your competitors, you always have to be one step ahead. MMA fights are based on the same principles. What counts is the ability to outsmart, out-strategize, and outperform your opponent in real-time. A project that illustrates this idea well was a design I made for the Century 21 department store. They did not want me to redesign their brand completely but asked for a solution that would catch attention, something that would be both familiar and unexpected. Their red-and-white logo is well recognized by customers so, in order to turn their shopping bag into a small artwork, I zoomed on a detail of the swooshy “21” type, enlarging it to the point of creating a semi-abstract icon. While the original brand identity remained intact and was incorporated into the final layout, the design stood out for its boldness and simplicity. My job as a designer is to know in a matter of seconds what will draw a person to a specific product – what color, typography, shape wins the consumer’s attention.

TCP: What is your strategy for working with your client?

OGD: The fundamental part is the idea of trust. To convince a client that my ideas make sense, I have to build a relationship where they trust my ability to understand them. There is no one-size-fits-all approach here: I always listen and learn first. When I am solving a design problem, I start with assembling a visual toolbox of shapes, colors, and inspirations on a whiteboard. Then I eliminate the unnecessary details until I’m left with only the essential element. My goal is to distill something unexpected out of familiar ingredients and create something that didn't exist before. Next, I step into the shower, clear my mind, and ideas start emerging. When I sit down at my computer, I boil down my intuitions into a few visual concepts that end up being presented to the client. I usually start with the less challenging ones and progress to more innovative ideas. Sometimes my clients kill an idea on the spot; more often, they pick one or more and we step back together to see it in a wider context. It resembles looking at a face: if it’s too close, too in your face, you feel uncomfortable and don’t recognize its features. As you zoom out, they come into focus and begin to make sense.


TCP: At which point do you think about people who buy things you design?

ODG: It’s on my mind at the beginning of each project. We talked about design as an applied art and I take this concept seriously. When people buy things, they do it to express their aspirations and ideas about who they are. We all need style and beauty, so we surround ourselves with objects we identify with: that’s how everyone develops their own personal brands. Functionality is important but the decision whether to buy one pair of sneakers or a lingerie set over another lies in important emotional triggers. A great example is a rivalry between Victoria’s Secret and Fenty Savage Lingerie. For years, women bought Victoria’s Secret because they wanted to look like these “perfect” models from the company’s catalog. Now, they revolt against this narrow concept of how a woman “should” look and embrace diversity and body-positive ideas. Fenty did a great job with this message and gained customers; VS failed to pivot and lost a lot of their audience’s trust. My job is to deliver a work of art that fulfills the consumer’s desires not just through visual shapes and typography but also through emotional connections. My creativity serves not just my self-expression; its ultimate goal is to make things that help others express who they are and who they aspire to be.


Connect with Olivier G. Duong via LinkedIn and Facebook

See more of Olivier's stunning photography on Instagram

Photographing Idris and Sabrina Elba for S'able Labs
Olivier G. Duong photographing Idris and Sabrina Elba for S'able Labs


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