Prove that you have an appetite to make things real. Beyond identifying unique but prevalent problems and designing solutions that solve them, demonstrating measurable impact alongside concrete results distinguishes an innovation portfolio from a design portfolio. The truth is… innovation isn’t easy. It is driven by people who are excited by the thrill of discovery and chance to impact the world. At the core of an innovator’s DNA is a simple desire to make things better and make better things.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing VUONG TONG, Head of Wix Playground Academy.
Vuong Tong is head of Wix Playground Academy, a 3-month long summer web design program that bridges the gap between design school and the professional world with help from award-winning designers like Jessica Walsh and Debbie Millman. He is an MA graduate of the University of the Arts London, and has worked on projects for clients like the Smithsonian Institution, the University of Pennsylvania, Diageo, Pearson, Arup, and Method Design Lab. Today, Vuong leads all initiatives related to the Wix Playground Academy, including student outreach, design lectures, curriculum development, partnership outreach and management, on-going student mentorship, and more. His goal is to make work feel less like work and more like play.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
The concept of “play” has accompanied me throughout my career, starting at my first design job at a boutique firm. There, my role was multifaceted, and I gained invaluable experience in both design and business. After a few years, I developed a deeper interest in solving more complex challenges, especially those related to business, and was inspired to return to school to study Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins in London.
After graduation, I took a design manager role at an innovation consultancy firm where I managed a diverse team of designers — from packaging, to branding, to motion graphics, to web design — working together to visualize innovative near-future products and services. I often needed help on projects and would hire freelancers, and after reviewing portfolios from both recent graduates and experienced designers, I could see a clear difference. Young designers had well-researched projects, while experienced designers had more real-life design projects with a developed consistent look and feel. However, I saw that experienced designers’ work seemed less playful and experimental. There were obvious benefits to both styles, and it made me question how the practice of play could be reinforced to students earlier and sustained throughout their career in their professional work.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
I have a team member that loves going on AirBnB experiences. She has a passion for research and uses that inspiration for our program’s benefit. For example, she experienced a tea ceremony right before we began the Academy. Since then, we have an ongoing collaboration with them, conducting tea ceremonies and art experiences for our cohorts over the past three years. We learned that once we give our team members and colleagues the space for creativity and play, we bring this energy to our students; exemplifying the excitement that experimentation brings into our artwork.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When we first began the Wix Playground Academy in 2018 we were in Chelsea and located on the fifth floor. In that space, the elevator remained locked unless you had a key to access it. Every time we ordered food, got deliveries or had visitors, they buzzed and we would assign different people to run over and let them in.
We learned our lesson and opened a brand new flagship location in the beautiful Meatpacking district, with ground floor space filled with light from massive windows and intentionally located across from the incredible Whitney Museum. Our signature space is now more accessible — no more buzzing!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
One of our projects during our summer program is the Social Good Project, where our design students work together to create a professional and beautiful website for a nonprofit. They use real business tools in order to reach new audiences, gain more volunteers, increase visibility and get more donations. The students help these NGOs market themselves in a way where the design of their brand lines up with the good they do for their community.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
I had a student named Alicia van Zyl, an illustrator and letterer from South Africa. She is also a skateboarder, feminist and created the first women’s skateboarding group. With a proactive energy of wanting to change the world, Alicia created websites to promote anti-racism and another for protest posters during our program. I felt we gave her a platform to amplify her voice for social change and build a network to collaborate. As well as being an inspiration to us, she was one of our stars who helped our cohorts be able to see their potential because of her story.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
- Devote more resources into providing accessible education for all.
- Create educational programs that implement more real life experiences for students.
- Pay closer attention to nonprofits and give them more funding to hire professionals to help them succeed.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
I think leadership means uplighting those around you. Great leaders have a way of supporting others and making them more productive and effective. At Wix Playground Academy, we work alongside students on their projects. Great leaders should also be active partners!
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- Quality over quantity. Highlight the type of work you want to do — don’t show material you’re not interested in doing. The work in your portfolio should represent your best thinking and craft, not everything that you’ve ever created.
- Your journey is as important as the outcome. Just as innovation is achieved through a process, your design process should be demonstrated and clearly articulated. Your work should consider the business impact, address consumer needs, and generate desire.
- Your medium is the message. How you present yourself is just as important as what you present. The “how” includes structure and appearance. Make it easily navigable but also have it express your taste. The same principle applies to your resume. Your portfolio is your heart while your resume is your face.
- Find a moment to inject personality. Innovation consultancies are not only looking at your skill set, but also your cultural fit. Find appropriate moments in your email, CV, or portfolio to express your unique personality through humor, wit, and intellectual provocation As the world of consulting can be demanding and fast-paced, having a bit of humor to keep stress-levels manageable and having a sense of curiosity keeps work interesting.
- Prove that you have an appetite to make things real. Beyond identifying unique but prevalent problems and designing solutions that solve them, demonstrating measurable impact alongside concrete results distinguishes an innovation portfolio from a design portfolio. The truth is… innovation isn’t easy. It is driven by people who are excited by the thrill of discovery and chance to impact the world. At the core of an innovator’s DNA is a simple desire to make things better and make better things.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Designing for social causes is a way to challenge your craft, all while creating a positive impact. Nonprofits and socially-oriented businesses have inspiring goals and so much to offer to the world, yet rarely have the time and resources to broadcast their message. I would like to see creatives step up and devote more of their time to helping these causes.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“In order for us to grow as creatives, we need to be able to enter a playful state of mind.” — Wix Playground, Jessica Walsh
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would have lunch with architect Santiago Calatrava. His work has the ability to make me stop and wonder. He is a designer who is able to combine different disciplines into his work and from various sources of inspiration. Santiago’s arresting architecture incorporates elements of grace, while he presents himself with quiet leadership and confidence. He makes a bold statement in the simplest and purest form.
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This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!