David
Hoang

David is a product designer and angel investor. He believes everything should be prototyped and explored, whether it's a product or your life.

Santa Monica, United States • April 22, 2021

What led you into design?

I spent the majority of my life thinking I wanted to be an artist. As a child, I remember picking up a pencil and marker before any other activity. I pursued this passion in college, earning a BFA in Painting. While in school, I found my interest spanning outside the art building, most notably in the Humanities and Computer Science buildings. Though I didn't study CS, I took a few classes to explore the medium to see how I could incorporate it into my art. I took courses in HTML/CSS and Flash, the program that got me into scripting.

My goal out of school was to apply to a master's program so I could teach art. It turns out grad school is expensive, so I spent my time between school working to save money and develop more of my digital art skills. Though I love art, I found design more interesting to me (not that they are mutually exclusive). I loved design’s impact in creating and building for functionality and purpose. I was lucky and this time was when iOS first came out. My skills of being able to create skeuomorphic interfaces and ability to lightly code gave me opportunities to freelance and transition into the world of design. It's been that since.

What does a typical day look like?

I wake up pretty early naturally. My day starts at 5 am PST. When I moved back from the east coast my body never adjusted, so I rolled with being an early bird. Rituals are important to me and I try not to skip them. I start my mornings with a coffee (or two) and write in my notebook to plan out the day. Depending on how much time I'll go for a walk or a quick bike ride. This gives me a few hours in the morning to catch up on things I know I won't get to during the day, such as meeting with startups I advise, mentorship sessions, and replying to emails.

Once I start Webflow work, I know it'll be a solid block of time to focus. As a design director, it's part of the role and importance to enable your team to have the focus time. To be fully honest, it's also a lot of meetings. Aside from meetings, a lot of my time is meeting with teams to help them connect with all the initiatives we're doing. I really enjoy joining design demos and workshops where I can ideate with the team pretty early to unlock ideas.

Screenshot of Zoom meeting with Webflow team

My evenings are usually either teaching User Experience Design at General Assembly (if I have a cohort) or writing my newsletter. Weekends are entirely different and dedicated to deep work. This varies between honing in my craft as a designer, reviewing pitch decks for startups raising money, or writing. I think it’s important for leaders of all levels to continue learning and growing in what’s relevant in design and this is my focus time to do this. This makes me sound like a workaholic though I know my tolerances well and balance work with life pretty well!

What’s your workstation setup?

I'm envious of designers who have the perfect clean desk, organized cables, and plants. My workspace is always a mess and not very Instagrammable. I have three spaces in which I primarily work. The first is a room I’ve turned into an office, where I do my Webflow and General Assembly work. I think it’s important to have spaces that serve purposes to give them the right intention. For example, I don’t want to work on passion projects at the desk where I’m doing day work because I might start thinking about work. This is why I have a second and third space. The second space is in my garage where I can get away from feeling like I'm at a work office. I don't have any monitor here and designed primarily for work on the iPad or sketching on paper. The third might be my favorite, which is a simple floating desk outside to get sunshine while I read and write.

Photo of David's office with two desks and monitors by the window
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The majority of my workflow is with pen and paper. I don't like sitting in front of screens all day so I try to problem solve at the lowest fidelity possible before I crank something out. It annoys me to move pixels without knowing what I want to achieve. I religiously use the Leuchtturm1917 dot grid sketchbooks, document them with Scanner Pro, and build my idea repository.

Sketch workspace
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Wherever I am in the house, my cat Wilson is always nearby. I got him during college when he an 8-week old kitten. I would put him in a shoebox and sneak him into the art studio so he could be at my side all night as I paint all night. 18 years later, not much has changed. He's a friend who has been supportive throughout my entire creative career.

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Where do you go to get inspired?

Whenever I need inspiration, I force a shift in my perspective. This could be through knowledge from mediums such as literature and media. However, my favorite is traveling to other places in the world to seek inspiration.

I lived in Brooklyn, NY for four years, and still think of it as the place that is most "home" for me. I take quarterly trips to New York (during non-pandemic times, of course) as my creative pilgrimage. To me, there is no greater place than New York because the world comes to it. The city forces you to be the best version of yourself, and every time I land at JFK International Airport, there's something that activates in my heart and soul...I am home.

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Obviously, I love New York and also love so many other cities throughout the world. The one that comes to mind is Lisbon, Portugal. The city is so inspiring with the colors and patterns you see wandering around. If I had to live outside of the United States, I would book a one-way flight to Lisbon.

In addition to travel, I spend a lot of time reading, watching films, and studying (I'm a perpetual student!). My inspiration comes from Science Fiction, a genre that makes us dream big and ask powerful questions.

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When home, you'll find me either in the desert (Palm Springs) or at the beach (Santa Monica). Since our history as humans, we tend to get lost in the desert and sea, but also emerge discovering ourselves through some trial and tribulation. I love taking trips out to take photographs with friends and simply be mesmerized by this planet. Earth is the best designer.

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When it comes to collecting inspiration, I try to keep it simple, with albums on the Photos and Notes app. Though I explore and try apps, my personal workflow is pretty simple. It's exhausting to try all these different apps and I try to keep my workflows and systems as is until I really need something different.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

I recently bought an espresso machine that's essentially a concrete block. I love it so much. Though you can buy machines just as nice at a lower cost, I feel like I own a coffee maker and a piece of art. I think opinionated products that have a sense of expression are so joyful to experience. This is the Brooklyn Bridge of espresso machines.

Photo of Anza espresso machine
Anza Espresso machine

When it comes to a digital product, I am in love with Obsidian MD, a bidirectional note-taking app that enables you to store local markdown files. I've tried so many productivity apps and feel the speed and local access are still so crucial for me. I don't like friction between thought and capturing it, that's why Obsidian and Apple Notes are essentially the only two apps I use for collecting inspiration.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

I honestly can't point to a particular piece rather impact at companies. When it's all said and done, I truly think the work at Webflow will be what I'm most proud of. As someone who learned how to code through visual programming tools, Webflow has such a great opportunity to continue that lineage and beyond. At One Medical, I had the opportunity to lead an amazing design team, including shipping a lot of our core virtual care platform features many use today.

There was a project I did while at Black Pixel that I frequently reflect on I can’t say what it is but it was prototyping work for a consumer app many of us use today. To this day I found our R&D work on it to be the best way of working. It was a lean team of me, a few engineers, and our client iterating on a concept, and we shipped multiple times a day. Getting tiny things out there and immediate feedback helped us so much.

Finally, I’m proud of running my own company for five years (2009-2014) with one of my best friends. We did design and development services for some pretty cool clients and it really forged my entrepreneurial spirit. Three of the apps we worked on were featured by Apple. During that time we created an iPad client app for Instagram called Carogram. Though it didn't last long, I was really proud that we had an app idea and executed on it from end-to-end. I think this was for iOS 5!

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I view my portfolio now less about the actual designs I work on and more of an investment portfolio of companies and people. People ask me all the time if I miss being a direct contributor, and though I still care about the details of design, I don't miss it. I feel my output is channeled through the amazing people I get to work with.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Our focus is making Webflow easier to learn for everyone while ensuring it retains the power and customization, which is easier said than done. It's an exciting problem because it requires understanding customer experience, human behavior, and technical capabilities and infusing all those systems together in a cohesive experience.

As far as design team challenges, I really believe most design teams encounter the same problems. They're universal challenges that we endure, such as enabling focus time, fostering more collaboration, design being in a more strategic position, and the growing pains of scale.

The most complex system design problem is getting a group of humans to work towards a common goal in a dynamic environment. We all experience the same challenges.

What music do you listen to whilst designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

Stay curious and never stop learning. The best people in any field are the ones who are experts at becoming experts. If you’re autonomous and autodidactic, you will be infinitely relevant in design. My career has spanned working in Objective-C, Swift, HTML/CSS varying from industries in consumer, fashion, health, and design tools. The desire to learn and explore will take you to possibilities you may have never imagined.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

Follow what we're doing at Webflow. It seems wild to say that we're just getting started in our mission to enable everyone to build on the web without needing to know how to code.

The best place to follow me is on my website at davidhoang.com. In addition, I interact on Twitter and my newsletter.