A Conversation with Nguyen Le of Verse

Name: Nguyen (pronounced – ‘new-in’) Le
Location: Melbourne, Australia
Designation: Freelance Designer, Creative Director & Storyteller
Associated with: Verse, Bliss Media

I’ve been following Nguyen’s work and his stories for quite some time now and I won’t hesitate to say that I’ve learned more from Nguyen than any other designer or a book about the process of design.

Nguyen is a passionate designer and an incredibly humble guy. He’s only 30 and has already been professionally designing for more than 10+ years. From his consistency with Verse Journal to his hunger for making digital products, there’s a lot about Nguyen that inspires me.

Let’s learn more about Nguyen and his design journey.

Hey Nguyen, how’re you doing? How about we start with a little intro?

Nguyen: Hey, I’m doing great. I’m Nguyen, a Creative Director and independent designer from Melbourne, Australia. I was on the agency circuit for 8 years of my career and did large-scale work for international brands such as Adidas, Nintendo, Nissan, Target and for some banks in Australia and the Australian government.

And for the last 3 years, I’ve been freelancing, running Verse and sharing in-depth courses such as the Process Masterclass to help other designers out there.

Type playbook by Nguyen Le
Type playbook by Nguyen Le

You’ve been designing professionally for 10+ years now, how did you get into designing in the first place?

Nguyen: I’ve always been interested in art, design and creativity since a young age. Drawing, sketching and being creative. But,  it wasn’t until I was 15-16 that I started getting into digital art. I used to be a part of various online digital art communities and used to create forum signatures for the games I was playing. Playing around and manipulating images, type and creating things in Flash. It was the wild west online and it was all about creating cool stuff, rather than work with clear objectives. Initially, I didn’t think that you could get a job being a designer.

In truth, I didn’t even know what being a designer entailed. I thought it would be more practical to get into engineering or accounting. In the end, there were new media courses that were coming out. So, I applied to Multimedia – Business Marketing. If the design and media side failed I always thought I could be practical and go into marketing.

In the end, I got an intern turned junior designer position – where I started building and designing websites and website assets. This was around the end of 2006 and the start of 2007. And that was the beginning of my professional career. From drawing to digital art to professional digital design.

Modern traveller – Flexible grid by Nguyen Le
Modern traveller – Flexible grid by Nguyen Le

Prior to being a full-time freelancer, you had a stable job as a Creative Director at an agency in Melbourne, what prompted you to make the move?

Nguyen: I think it all became too easy. Complacency breeds mediocrity and I felt I wasn’t being challenged anymore. The work was getting a bit staler. I was going to more meetings and doing more Creative Direction and high-level strategy and wireframes etc. And less on the tools. There are many Creative Directors who don’t touch the tools anymore and that works for them, but for me deep down I am a craftsman.

It was a slow chip and decline in passion. I’ve always been passionate and excited about what I do, and we were like a family in the early days. We operated more like a startup. But, as the team grew bigger, and the clients too grew bigger, it didn’t exactly equate to more interesting work. And in the end, I think I just needed a new challenge. It was around this time that I’d job offers to go to New York and London. Which was the initial plan. You can read more about why I quit here.

Tell us the story behind Verse, how did it come to life?

Nguyen: After I quit, I jumped head first into quite a bit of freelance work that came from my Dribbble account. I also got a ton of questions on Dribbble as my followers grew. It was around this time that I’d been thinking of sharing my experiences – I actually had a medium post that I’d started writing and was sitting on for like 2 years (Which is still unfinished).

In the end, I decided to knuckle down and start a blog. Done was better than perfect.

This was the manifesto to why I started Verse, which I wrote in 2015 and it still holds true today.

  1. Help share knowledge about design, freelancing and the design industry as a whole.
  2. Build an audience by being honest, transparent and help others by sharing resources and knowledge.
  3. Build a personal brand and create a second stream of income that is independent of client work. More time to experiment and create things people can use and also learn from.
  4. Have an outlet to voice my opinions.
  5. To create a challenge for me as complacency leads to mediocrity.

Your course about teaching a solid design process – Process Masterclass looks very promising. Could you tell me how did it come to be and how has the response been so far?

Nguyen: Creating the Process Masterclass was the natural evolution of what I was doing with Verse. Verse would be where I would build credibility and offer as much front-end value as possible.

It’s the Gary Vaynerchuk method of jab, jab, jab, right hook.
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The Process Masterclass was the right hook to monetize and support the blog and all the free resources I create.

The response has been phenomenal, Up to this point, 2500+ students have gone through the free email course. And 526 students have gone through the paid course.

It’s amazing to see the success and growth of students and it’s incredibly rewarding and humbling. If it wasn’t for the mentors I’ve had throughout my career I wouldn’t have gotten to where I am. And in a way, it’s great to pay that forward.

You can read some of the student stories and testimonials here.

Process Masterclass- Prototype lesson by Nguyen Le
Process Masterclass- Prototype lesson by Nguyen Le

We have a strong Slack community which we have been running for 1.5 years. Everyone is trying to learn from each other and help out. It really feels like a group of friends and a little community. Something that is a testament to the wonderful designers who registered for the course.

Your designs are very minimal, crisp & clean and follow a particular style. What’s your say on the debate of having a style versus not having one?

Nguyen: I think that’s the kind of work I want to create and that’s what I put forward as part of my positioning. In the past, my work actually took on many different incarnations depending on the project’s requirements. So it is a purposeful curation as opposed to that being the only style that I create if you will.

I am much more interested in creating work that delivers on great user experiences and business outcomes.
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I actually wrote a short piece on this topic in the past. You can find it here.

Visual Direction by Nguyen Le
Visual Direction by Nguyen Le

What role do you think a community plays in the growth of an individual as a creative person?

Nguyen: I think having mentors and a community is hugely important. How else will you be able to benchmark and push yourself? They say you are the average of the 5 people you most associate with. I think if you’re heavy into researching, learning and growing naturally you just become involved with different communities and people.

I’m a strong believer in learning from others, collaborating, and then triangulating your own thoughts.
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You’re super consistent with whatever you do, be it making products or writing your weekly journal or even working on a client project. How do you keep up with all the work?

Nguyen: People have a misconception that I must be working a lot to get all these things done. But, I’m also a husband, dad, son, friend etc. which takes up a good amount of my time. How I do it is I just prioritize and try to stay hyper-focused when I’m working.

I use the Pomodoro technique and since I truly love and am passionate about what I do, it really feels integrated into my life. So, I’m just a bit more productive than say if I’m in an office working 9-5. I can knock out a ton of work in a few hours without distraction and plan out my month and quarter completely. 

Tennis by Nguyen Le
Tennis by Nguyen Le

I’m actually not that organized but have just built habits over time. Consistency builds accountability and habits. Over time, it just becomes a habit. I try to create and have fun as much as I can. So, I’m always learning, reading, creating, building writing and it just becomes this efficient process over time.

What are some of the challenges that you face while working from home as one-man-army and how do you tackle it?

Nguyen: I’ve got an incredible partner. My wife – Phuong makes it all possible. Prior to having kids, I could work at any time. I could night owl it, or work in the morning in between my tennis sessions and what not.

The biggest challenge you face is distractions – it’s very hard to focus when you’ve kids. I love my children more than anything but it’s impossible to have them on my lap as I design – and then I’ll have to change a nappy. It breaks the flow and rhythm. Which can take 30 mins to 1 hour to get back into.

Nowadays the kids are at Grandmas 4 days a week with my wife. Which helps create that block of time to focus and be productive.

Source landing page by Nguyen Le
Source landing page by Nguyen Le

Apart from that, I love working from home. The commute time is 0 and whilst I don’t have a fancy view and big building like my old office desk, I get to be with my family most of the time and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Related story: The future of Remote Culture and Individuals working Independently.

What do you think is the key to running a successful freelance business?

Nguyen: Stop thinking about yourself and provide value to the marketplace. That and learn how to talk to people, put yourself out there. Also, learn marketing and sales.

If you believe in the work and do great work – then it’s your duty to put yourself out there. People can’t hire you if they don’t know you exist.
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Once you land your first couple of gigs, just truly give a shit about the success of the client. Go above and beyond for them. Do what you are saying you are going to do and then deliver on time and above expectations. That’s key to repeat business and referrals.

That and stop undercharging. Charge based on the value your work provides. Running a successful freelance is hard but totally worth it – when you put the right pieces together.

TheWeekday App - Article layout by Nguyen Le
TheWeekday App – Article layout by Nguyen Le

You share some great insights via your journal and are such an inspiration. What piece of advice would you give to the up-and-coming designers?

Nguyen: Be passionate about what you do. Keep learning. Keep trying to close that gap between you and the people you look up to. Find mentors either in books, blogs, videos, courses or in person.

More people are rooting for you than you actually think. You just have to show the tenacity and willingness to work.
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Do good work. Have fun. And be nice.

Nguyen Le's Workspace
Nguyen Le’s Workspace

Rapid Fire Round

Your source of inspiration?
Just the world around us. Stories and books.

What’s your favorite cartoon character and why?
Don’t really have one off the top my head. But if pressed, I just think back to my childhood. So, it’s the response the 6-year-old version of me would give. Lion-no from Thundercats.

Two words to describe the design scene in Australia?
Talented and hard-working.

Your favorite leisure getaway?
Well, I love to travel. And my favorite cities are Tokyo, New York, Paris, Barcelona and I just love exploring my own city – Melbourne.

If Nguyen wasn’t a designer, he would probably be______.
Doing something creative. I love creating experiences and designing for emotion. So maybe a filmmaker.

Designers who would do good as Actors?
Stefan Sagmeister.

If Dribbble is pink, Behance is blue.

Children are amazing when ________.
They give you the biggest and tightest hugs.

Darshan is _______.
A very tenacious but also a patient individual.

Damn, this conversation with Nguyen has been jam-packed with insights from his healthy experience over the years. I thank Nguyen on behalf of the readers of this blog for being a part of the Conversations.

Nguyen sends out a weekly newsletter with fresh insights and personal stories. I strongly recommend subscribing to Verse Journal. It’s a gold resource for the creative folks out there.

He also updates his Dribbble and Behance quite regularly. Following him there is a nice way to keep a track of his new projects. And feel free tweeting to @newincreative in case you’ve any questions for him.

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Matt Olpinski


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