Three years back, Vietcetera had a discussion with Duy Dao, a renowned designer and art director recognized for his innovative works. At the time, Duy had already received prestigious international awards from the Art Director Club, International Design Award, One Show, Type Director Club, AIGA, and Adobe Achievement Award.
Fast forward to the present, we had another chat with Duy Dao, who has recently been nominated for the Best Boxed or Special Limited Edition Package at the 2024 Grammy Awards. This significant achievement marks the first instance of a Vietnamese creative work being nominated for an award by the Recording Academy in the United States.
Duy Dao continues to embody an authentic and unpretentious spirit, both in his personal and professional life. His acute sensitivity and profound connection to each project are evident.
In this latest dialogue, Duy provided more profound insights into the creative process behind the album ‘Gieo’ by Ngọt and its journey to the Grammy nomination. His reflections not only uncover previously untold narratives but also illuminate distinct approaches and perspectives within the creative field that he passionately embraces.
How did you meet Ngọt and end up designing the album ‘Gieo’?
I and the founding members of Ngọt, specifically Thang and Nam Anh, lived on the same street for over 20 years before fate brought us together. My first collaboration with Ngọt happened quite serendipitously: I assisted the band with the title for their MV ‘May Khi,’ then proceeded to work on the ‘Gieo’ album, and now we’ve become friends. Actually, it was Nam Anh who introduced me to the rest of the band.
Although I don’t consider myself an avid fan of Ngọt, I take great pride in their work and accomplishments. I hold deep respect for Vietnamese values and am always eager to lend my support to the community. I even brought ardent fans of the Ngọt band from my team to collaborate on this project, including Colin, Hiep, and two assistants, Huy and Thuy. They listen to Ngọt’s music more frequently than I do.
What inspired the design of the ‘Gieo’ album?
The inspiration came from the band’s commitment to excellence in every aspect of their product, beyond just the music. It was also influenced by the album’s psychedelic rock style, vibrant energy, and the unique colors of the band members.
For me, owning a physical CD goes beyond just listening to music. People seek out physical albums for deeper emotional experiences, making them like sculptural artworks. The interaction becomes a celebration, forging a strong bond between music, people, and these tangible objects.
In discussing the design concept, I envisioned creating a festival woven into a “time capsule.“ Beyond its simple exterior, it’s a festival full of color and vitality, a space where emotions are expressed, and messages are sent to the future. It also acts as a portal inviting listeners into Ngọt’s ‘Gieo’ world, where the psychedelic spirit of the past comes to life.
The album ‘Gieo’ came to life during a time when Ngọt took a break, and society was adjusting to the ‘new normal’ post-COVID-19. Our goal was to create something that radiates optimism and joy, bringing a festive vibe.
I named the album ‘Gieo’ (meaning ‘Sow’), inspired by the idea that every new creation is like a seed, going through a process of accumulation, much like the life cycle of a seed. These symbolic seeds are planted in a ‘time capsule,’ carrying messages and hopes for the future.
Our approach to the boxset design was different, including posters, lyric cards, CDs, photo books, notepapers, stickers, actual seeds, and planting foam. The main idea was to see the album as a time capsule - a treasure to be buried and discovered later. It blends whimsy with a tangible, personal connection through words, materials, and design.
What part of this project did you find most exciting and challenging?
The biggest joy for me isn’t just the final result but the process itself - the creation, research, and discussions with the team. There’s a unique thrill in convincing others to believe in the unseen and explaining a concept never tried before.
The real delight comes from the energy and vibrancy of these moments, the true essence of happiness. I’m also grateful for the wealth of innovative ideas within my team, often feeling lucky to be the one bringing these diverse thoughts together into a cohesive and superior concept.
The challenge wasn’t really frustrating, more like a small hiccup. Thang wanted to release the album fast because of fan pressure, and I preferred more time for refinement. We solved this by playing rock-paper-scissors to agree on a compromise deadline. But, let’s be honest, no one really enjoys working against the clock.
What were the notable challenges you and your team faced in this project?
Every project and team has its own interesting stories to share, and ours is no exception. For example, scheduling a photo shoot was a real struggle. On the day, 3/4 of the band members showed up with high fevers. Despite feeling exhausted and collapsing in the studio, they still came out of respect for each other and managed to get up and pose for a few shots...
This led to a photo series titled “Thang Collapsing“ in the album book. Another time, I intentionally placed one of my team members at another advertising shoot for the band to capture candid moments outside of the studio.
The design and production phase had its share of stories as well. We utilized a variety of recycled or repurposed materials, with the goal of not only minimizing costs but also adding greater significance to the product.
How did you submit the work and get nominated for the 2024 Grammys?
There were numerous rounds and stages just to get to the point of “submitting the application.” Luckily, the Academy recognized the sincerity expressed by our team through the product and acknowledged it with a nomination.
From what I understand, many other music publications from around the world also competed this year. Since the Grammys are one of the biggest awards globally, they have rigorous criteria, making just qualifying to submit a challenge in itself.
After that, there were several more rounds to narrow down to the top 5 nominees. The toughest part, I believe, was because Ngọt is an independent indie band, not under any record label. As Hoang in the band said, “Duy, you’re literally catching bandits with bare hands” (haha).
How would a design product that captures the essence of your work and reflects your personal style look for you?
In my perspective, design and creativity are service-oriented professions at their core. This means putting a spotlight on the audience or subject of the design. The uniqueness of each project comes from its particular approach, research process, and execution.
Blending my personal ethos with the project’s purpose is crucial. Broadly speaking, my signature is in the high standards I set for every project I take on. I often express that the best project I will ever do is the next one.
What are three indispensable principles you adhere to in every creative project?
These are more learned insights than rigid rules. Here are five key takeaways:
- Approach each project with a blank slate, ready to learn and understand the subject, and then discern what’s already out there to create something distinct.
- Embrace the romance in both the familiar and the uncharted.
- There’s always room for improvement. This belief probably explains my reluctance to call a project complete. As the saying goes, “All design is a Work In Progress (WIP).”
- It’s good to be emotionally involved like a child during the creative process. But this should be kept to oneself when alone – don’t let others see this side of you to maintain professionalism.
- Sometimes, things are best left unexplained.
Are there particular design trends you’re into or looking to explore? Also, what are your long-term professional goals right now?
I don’t adhere to any particular trends. Design, in my perspective, is fundamentally about the concepts and intentions behind it. A good idea should always stem from a noble intention. This philosophy is what ensures that the designs remain timeless.
Do you think local, traditional, and diverse elements are important for making creative design products more impactful?
I believe it’s essential to use these elements judiciously, ensuring they’re not overused or, worse, allowing them to overshadow the main idea of the design.
From a wider perspective on the ‘creative market,’ how do you assess the strengths of your peers in Vietnam’s creative industry?
As a developing country, Vietnam presents a landscape full of untapped opportunities and potential. This situation provides numerous chances to set new benchmarks in various fields for future endeavors.
The only real challenge is people’s willingness to engage. The primary hurdle is overcoming one’s limitations. If someone else can achieve something, so can we. Remember to seize your moment when it arrives.
What artistic stereotype do you most wish to dispel?
Often, people quickly dismiss the artistic or cultural value of something if it doesn’t resonate with them. However, every element can hold significance if placed rightly in time and context. In art, it’s often said, “No color is bad; it’s all about how and where you use it to create beauty.”
Rick Rubin, a renowned producer, encapsulates a more radical perspective: “The audience comes last. The audience doesn’t know what they want. The audience only knows what’s come before.”
What projects are you currently working on?
I’ve recently completed leading two significant projects: ‘Gieo’ with Ngọt and the rebranding of a dairy brand. So, I plan to take a break to rejuvenate.
However, whenever an exciting project comes along, and I see an opportunity for my team and me to enhance its value, we’ll jump right back in. After all, the next project is always poised to be the best one.