There’s a mythic quality to the way people find inspiration. Some wait for it to strike at that perfect moment made of chance and light, while others set out to look for it on their own. For David Dat Nguyen, inspiration lives in the great unknown. As Gusto’s Head of Design and very first employee, David (who goes by Davey) has a unique perspective on how to spur creative thinking. A naturally curious person, Davey comes alive when he pushes himself to the brink. In this interview, he chats with us about the magic of the uncomfortable, his people-centric design philosophy, and what inspires him to work on things that bring meaning into his life.
Q. Let’s start from the beginning. How did you become a designer?
A. An electrical engineer who runs design? Crazier things have happened. Here’s my highlight reel: I went to Stanford, double majored in electrical engineering and economics, and then pursued a career in online advertising. After that, I became a professional photographer. I’ve always been captivated by the way photography is used as a vehicle for storytelling, so I decided to take a leap and turn that passion into a profession. During that time, I discovered that when your passion is your job, you can lose sight of what made you fall in love with it in the first place. It wasn’t working for me, so I made the conscious decision to walk away.
Q. What came next?
A. I decided to get back into tech, but I needed to do something that was meaningful. I knew Josh from Stanford, so I took him out to dinner to see if he could connect me with people in the Valley. I asked him if he knew of any startups that were doing cool things. He said, “Davey, let me tell me you about payroll.” To be honest, he kind of lost me at “payroll.” I had to dig deeper. Four hours later, on a sidewalk in Menlo Park, we were still talking about payroll.
Q. And three years later, you’re still talking about payroll.
A. Every day.
Q. Now that you’re leading design at Gusto, tell me this: what does design mean to you?
A. A while back, I had to come up with my own definition of design. Here it goes: “Design is about thinking how the world should work tomorrow. It’s about solving a problem for the people of tomorrow — today.”
Q. When you’re solving design problems, what inspires you? What energizes you creatively?
A. It all comes down to the people: the people I surround myself with and the people I serve. I try to immerse myself with folks who are motivating, inspiring, hard working, and something I like to call, “creatively fun.” The beauty of having been at Gusto early on is that I’ve interviewed many of the people who have since joined the team. I’ve trusted them to have the same high bar, if not higher, when we bring people on board. Having these types of people around you, people who draw from their own histories and want to solve problems — well, it’s pretty special. Inspiration is contingent on having great relationships with others.
I also get my energy from the small businesses I serve, something I never want to lose sight of. I’m the kind of guy who prefers the local cafe, the Thai place around the corner, the boutique gym. The owners of all these places are people who serve our communities. They have dreams, a true sense of purpose, and provide a great life for themselves and their families.
Q. Is there any other place you get your inspiration from?
A. My natural sense of curiosity. You may hear people ask why I’m involved with all these random things: I set off fireworks (professionally), teach spin class, and take ridiculous risks. I love the feeling of nervous excitement, where I’m a little scared, but I push myself because I have to see what comes next. You know that feeling when you’re skiing, you look down, take a deep breath, and keep going? That’s me. I find a certain kind of energy in the chaos.
Q. What about other artists? Do you get any energy from other creatives?
A. I love to see how people tell stories or solve problems in meaningful ways; Ansel Adams for photography, Monet for painting. However, I don’t rely on one sole source for inspiration. I think everyone I interact with has something to teach me — whether it’s about what to do or what not to do.
Q. Ten years ago, you were in a very different place than where you are now. What advice do you wish someone had given you back then?
A. That it takes a lot of hard work to do something really amazing. Ira Glass once said that when you’re an artist, there’s this constant struggle happening inside yourself. Your taste is so high, but your ability to execute isn’t quite there. But, “you’ve just gotta fight your way through.” My advice to other artists is to know that this road is supposed to be long and tough — so tough that every day you are going to question why you want to do it in the first place. But that’s okay. Every successful person has gone through it and continues to go through it. Keep on aiming higher and dreaming bigger. You will never reach perfection, but man, it feels so good to work in that pursuit. So be patient.
Q. Time for last words. What words do you live by?
A. The year I graduated from Stanford, Steve Jobs spoke at our commencement ceremony. There’s a part of his speech that just kind of hit me:
“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”
It’s funny because that’s what I do every day: I take problems, break them down into smaller points, and then solve each one in its own way. And I can look at each dot with a different perspective because of my unconventional background. For me, that melding of my experiences is what really brought me to where I am today: a place where I’m constantly inspired and truly enjoy what I do. Three years ago, I never would have imagined that the dots would look so beautiful from here. I’m also excited about the dots that will follow. I hope that I continue having these experiences when I look back on all the years.