Less, Better and With a Vietnamese Soul

Find out why industrial designer Neo Nguyen describes himself as an idea-to-product translator

Modern Minimalist design was first championed by architect Mies van der Rohe, who famously used the words “Less is more” to describe his design style, referring not only to how something looks, but also the components that make it function. Industrial designer Dieter Rams took this philosophy a step further and declared “Less, but better.”

Ho Chi Minh City-based industrial designer Neo Nguyen agrees. If architects design a house or a building, then industrial designers design everything inside. Industrial design and product design are terms sometimes used interchangeably. The Industrial Designers Society of America (IDSA) says product design is about designing a product to be sold to consumers and is how new things or new versions of things are created. Industrial design adds a functional value. Functionality may require more industrialization to produce such as in a motorbike or a shopping mall, but industrial designers also improve functionality for manufacturers, as well as the end users. “It’s just like translation,” Neo says. “You translate an idea into visible design for useable tools that are helpful, valuable.”

Typically this process includes technical drawings, concept and final renderings, mock-ups, models and prototypes, through to manufactured final product. Neo takes my notebook and pencil to further diagram an explanation. Industrial design, he says, should also include knowing how to produce a comprehensive brief that reflects back to the client things like their ideas, constraints, purpose of the product and end users. Crucially, he says, industrial designers should also be able to make the mold of the product in question, something he says he wasn’t taught at university. He remedied this by taking an extra mechanical engineering class. He says what’s currently taught is design only: sketching and 3D modeling. “We were just taught to draw, draw, draw,” he says, waving my pencil. “So products don’t have functionality or usability designed into them.”

NEO Studio (www.neonguyen.co/neostudio) was founded in 2015 to showcase Neo’s commitment to these skillsets, and his philosophy of minimalism not compromising functionality. He says his firm is a two-way studio that offers clientcentric design services and teaches industrial design skills. “I opened this studio because I love beautiful products and I love beautiful design.” His locates this design aesthetic squarely in central Vietnam and in particular, the old capital Hue. For him, this describes design that reflects humility, subtlety and grace, without shouting to be seen.

Some say minimalism is just lazy design because it appears so basic and elemental. Neo takes out an elegant pen, which I promptly scribble with in my notebook. Back in his hands, he hefts it gently and describes how it’s used to write with, has high usability and yes, a clear minimalist design. He says a laser pen or a pen with multicolored inks-in-one, for example, confuses too many functions. “Less is better, that’s why we use this pen. It’s smooth, well-shaped and writes nicely.” With minimalist design he says it’s important for consumers to be comfortable using a tool and not be confused by these gimmicky add-ons. He calls it “cutting the exuberance.”

Neo laughs when he says his best design so far is also the one that made him the saddest. He designed a set of luxury speakers that didn’t make it past the design stage. However, NEO Studio does specialize in electronic products design, such as those stylish speakers and high-end turntables. Neo shows me another example from his studio, a backpack or rather, a “modular gear bag” designed with three detachable, but usable components. It’s a great visual for the essence of industrial design: make products perform better in order to improve our day-to-day life.

He explains Vietnam has design and computer-aided design (CAD), but prototypes typically are modeled by the manufacturer and further, there is a lack of designated prototype manufacturers here. This presents both challenges and opportunities for design in Vietnam. Neo says, for less money, clients can purchase designs from China, modify them slightly and have a prototype ready to go. That same client can also purchase the 3D model and the mold, thereby eliminating the need for Vietnamese designers at any stage. The solution lies in greater demand for in-country design and less copying.

He says design originating in the US, for example, is a potpourri of styles with little inherently recognizable about its origins, whereas he believes Vietnam doesn’t have that mix. He’s aiming instead for design that is recognizably Vietnamese and mentions how other countries such as France, Italy and Denmark have identifiable styles. He pauses while reflecting on the future of design. “There is a rich Vietnamese history here that needs to be mined,” he says. “We can design with the inspiration of this history.” He sees interior, graphic and industrial designers working together to create a shared definition and vision for a Vietnamese style and do it while unearthing that rich past. This is industrial design that includes culture, traditions and experience. “I want to create new design,” he says, “and it’s minimalist design with a Vietnamese soul.”

Images by David Dredge

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