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"Land a job in design by making work you love" — Hung Vinh

D&AD’s top ranking Design Director of 2022 tells us how he got his foot in the door of the design industry

Illustration by Jael Umerah-Makelemi

D&AD’s new Foot in the Door series continues with Hung Vinh, a Design Director based in Chicago. Former Head of Design Department at Energy BBDO, Vinh is a creator who knows the importance of diversifying his skills, and working across areas such as motion graphics, branding and identity.

Earlier this year Vinh broke out on his own to launch Hung Design Studio, where his work on Reverse Renegade has seen him ranked as one of D&AD’s top Design Directors of 2022. Here, he tells us how he manages his busy day-to-day, sharing his tips on getting a start in design and the importance of balancing work and free time.

Getting the big break

Growing up, I was either playing basketball or drawing. So when I graduated high school and it was obvious I wasn’t making it to the NBA, I figured I should do something within the art world. I had heard about graphic design, but honestly didn’t know much about it at the time. Google didn’t exist yet, so I went to a Barnes & Noble's and did some research, immediately getting hooked in the area. I enrolled into The University of Illinois, Chicago, which had a great design program; that’s where I learnt so much about the fundamentals of graphic design. It really built the foundation of the way I see the area today.

Getting my first design job out of college is what I consider my big break. I remember thinking my schoolwork didn’t feel strong enough to get hired — not because the program wasn’t fantastic, but because I honestly wasn’t that good. So after I graduated I put some time aside and assigned myself some made up projects. I created posters and magazine layouts and combined them with the pieces I felt were my strongest from school and posted it on a platform called Creative Hotlist, which is similar to Behance.

Eventually a startup agency reached out and hired me. At the beginning, it was literally just the founder and I, and I was doing a variety of different tasks. One day it could be a print piece in a magazine, another day it could be direct mail or an animated flash website. In hindsight, this was integral to my creative growth. The startup was small, so I had to wear many different hats, learn things on my own and challenge myself everyday. I think it really prepared me for the variety of work I had to do in bigger agencies. So I think the moral of the story and what I would tell upcoming designers is if you feel your client work or school work isn’t strong enough, make the type of work that you love.

Learning is never a waste of time

Practice, repetition, constantly learning and making sure to develop new skills is so important. I try to stay on top of what’s going on in the design world and apply it to the projects I’m working on. Whether it’s design or motion graphics, I’m always trying to push the work and do something new with it, and make sure I’m stepping out of my comfort zone a little. I learn the best by just sitting down and doing it.

Almost always, somewhere during the process of creation and exploration I’ll have an idea and want to push the boundaries. It could be adding motion or 3D or designing and developing a site, but that’s usually where I’ll do some research and look up tutorials on how to make my vision come to life. I’ll either go to Greyscalegorilla, Video Copilot, Webflow Academy, or just YouTube or Google specifically what I wanted to accomplish. You can find tutorials on anything you want nowadays and there’s really no excuse to not be able to learn something. It just takes time and effort.

Sometimes the vision doesn’t end up exactly how you imagined and comes out horribly and you have to start over again. When that happens, it could feel like a waste of time, but I always try to remind myself that it’s never a waste of time. It might not have worked out for this particular project but I learned something new and eventually that knowledge will apply to something else in the future. This mindset has helped me as both a designer and director, because I always felt that I couldn’t direct to the best of my ability if I hadn’t gone through similar situations myself. This way I’d understand the designer’s challenges and where they might get stuck creatively and be able to help them along the way because I’ve experienced similar challenges myself and understand that there’s always a way through them, under them or around them.

Find a balance

Since the pandemic, my whole mindset on what’s important to me and how I should spend my time has completely shifted. I try to make time to meet up with my friends and family for dinner or lunch here and there, but for the most part every day I’m either working, working out or spending time with my wife and daughter.

My office/workspace is my loft in my house. I wake up between 4-5am and start working on either a client project or a new skill. An average day usually consists of working 8-12 hrs on projects and/or learning something new, mixed with playing with my dog and walking up and down the stairs to get more coffee. Whilst I’m doing that, my wife holds down the fort and makes breakfast whilst getting my daughter ready for school, after which we both walk her to school at 8am. Then my wife and I will get a run in and do some weights or rounds of boxing for about an hour — then it’s back to work!

Build variety — but specialising has value too

I always feel it's so essential to have a variety of skills, just because there’s so much variation in the type of work in the agency world. One day it could be a logo lockup or a site design, another day it could be a motion graphics piece, or visual identity for a campaign, so I’ve had to be able to adapt to anything that was thrown at me.

I don’t think that should apply to everyone though. You could be a specialist and focus on honing your skills in one particular area — that was just the mentality I had because I loved every area of creating. But I think the key to progressing is to just try to be better than you were yesterday, and always remember to have fun and enjoy the work you’re doing.

D&AD’s new Foot in the Door series asks creatives to share their unique route into building a creative career. Read our first interview with creative copywriter Yolata Boti here.