The term "busy" floats around a lot as being synonymous with successful. We live in a "rise and grind" culture which puts mental health by the wayside and can turn incredible work into a struggle to hold on. Albert Nguyen, Managing Art Director for Hudson's Bay, one of Canada's longest standing department stores, understands this all to well. Having gone through periods of burnout and overworking through his craft, Albert has become an advocate for mental health and pushing the conversation around the topic forward, especially for men and minority groups in which the stigmas around vocalizing feelings are eminent. We got the chance to chat with Albert about his struggles with burnout, his outlook on the creative industry, what it was like coming up as an Asian designer in Montreal and his advice for new designers looking to establish themselves and build a career through their passions. Read through the conversation below and share with a friend as the information that Albert shares is priceless!
Hey Al! Great to be chatting with you. For those who aren’t familiar, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
So my name is Albert Nguyen and for a living and as a hobby, I am an art director and a designer. I come from a fashion, art and design background so I’d say I’m a designer first but I love my work as an art director. My art, my photography style, it all comes from design.
I worked in the fashion industry for corporate brands for a long time like Le Chateau and Rudsak and was the art director for Little Burgundy for a while. After a while, I chose to leave the corporate world and design on my own which was great. A couple years later, The Bay called me up for an art direction role and I took that which is where I am today.
What led you to the decision of leaving your stable corporate job and going solo?
Honestly, I faced some serious burnout. I was working like 12 hour days grinding through. We live in this culture of being busy and I thought 12 hours days were the norm and never thought I’d hit a wall but I did. When that happened to me, I was able to take a month off of work but at the end of the month, I didn’t feel ready to return back to that lifestyle.
I had always had this feeling like I could be my own boss. It was tough though to start my own thing. Especially as an Asian designer, it was very tough. The design community is very white and I felt like there were all of these lines I had to stay in [at Little Burgundy] but I was like “Ok, I’m not white. I can do my own thing.” I started really tapping into my Asian roots, which was super scary, but I did that for about three years and got some awesome clients like SSENSE and Raised By Wolves which were really great.
And now you’re at The Bay. What was the return like after 3 years of being solo?
When The Bay called me, COVID was pretty nuts and things were drying up a bit for my solo work. I had a couple options of what I wanted to do next but I thought The Bay could be a good fit to try out. Now that I’m there, I see a lot of value in what I’m doing there. Although it’s not as wild and crazy, it’s a place that really values new ideas and new perspectives which is needed because it’s been around for so long. Luckily, when I came in, I got the keys to concept out the spring 21 season and made it super fun and different and it’s been great since. They’ve also let me take breaks when I need, which is something most companies wouldn’t be ok with. I really value that with The Bay and we have a really good working relationship.
Albert Nguyen on Thinking Out Loud by La Rue Inspire
That’s awesome to hear! It’s definitely not always easy for creatives to find that balance in the corporate world so we’re stoked to hear that you have it. Let’s talk about the burnout a bit more because we think it’s super important for people to speak about. Can you tell us what that was like, how you identified it and what helped you through it?
Yes! I really like talking about it because you’re right, people definitely don’t speak about it enough. There’s a lot of stigma around this, especially for Asian men too, but it’s super important for everyone to be aware of. Men don’t talk about mental health much and it’s not discussed in Asian communities. I’m glad that the conversation around mental health has really stepped up lately and it makes it easier for people to talk about it.
So firstly, I felt tired all the time. Like I said before, we think it’s normal to keep pushing until you break but it’s not. I wasn’t focused and my work wasn’t as strong. If you notice this happening for a long time, definitely take a step back and look at your situation.
So these are some things that worked for me but it might be different for others. The big takeaway for all of them though is that it’s important to be consistent with them. You can’t just do these things a few times and then it’s over. Consistency is key and even though I’m in a better place now, I still do these all of the time.
Therapy: What helped me a lot was therapy. During that time, I started meditating every morning. It doesn’t have to be a really long time. Even 10-20 minutes is great. The future is uncertain and the past is the past, but meditating to focus on the present which is, in that moment, good, can really help start your day off the right way. Now I’m doing it a few times a week and still love it.
Improving your diet: Eating bad will make you feel bad and if you’re overworking yourself on the wrong diet, it’s going to be really tough.
Mushrooms: I’ve started incorporating micro doses of mushrooms into my day to day a bit. There is an incredible movie called Fantastic Fungi which explains everything around how mushrooms have helped humanity for millions of years.
That’s really good advice and we’ll definitely need to check out Fantastic Fungi! Switching gears a bit now. You have this great role as Art Director for Hudson’s Bay which takes up a bunch of time. What are you working on for your freelance now?
The Bay takes up a ton of my time now so I really only do t-shirt designs these days as a freelancer. I did some stuff for Raised By Wolves who are good friends for their FW 21 line and have been working on a bunch of charity tees lately. There is one coming for Skateistan which is this awesome organization that provides education and leadership training, along with skateboarding, to children in underprivileged communities around the world. The tee I’ll be dropping is for Skatistan - Cambodia which I’m super pumped about and there’s also another tee I dropped with Lopez MTL to raise funds for Club Sexu, a non-profit group that aims to make discussions around sexuality more fun and inclusive. That one is sold out on Lopez but we’re going to do another drop for it soon!
That’s really awesome! What kicked off these charity tees that you’ve been working on?
During covid when all the stuff was happening against Black and Asian communities, everyone was sharing posts and talking but I felt like it wasn’t helping much and was thinking like, “ok, so what’s next?” I was thinking about how I could actually take action and use my skills to do some good. In the example of Skateistan, that’s a culture that has always been so close to me since I was younger so being able to create t-shirts that can connect people with that culture and help those in need is so awesome to me.
Love that you’ve found an avenue to use your skills to make a difference. Amongst your full time role as Art Director for Hudson’s Bay and all your freelance work, and thinking about your mental health, how do you keep organized and on top of everything?
Set priorities. For me, it’s The Bay. So once I plan that out, I assess my time and be really critical about when I can take on other projects and then go down the priority list.
Know your limits. We live in this culture where we see all these people saying “hustle hustle hustle”. We look down on “laziness” which is a word I hate because it makes people just work all the time. People value being busy too much and then become way too busy. Know your limits and what you want to do and stick within that.
You’ve spoken about facing discrimination as an Asian man throughout your career. What was that like, especially when you were younger, and how did you get through that?
I grew up in Montreal and I speak french but even being in that community, it’s not very accepting of Asian creatives. I realized a while back that none of my clients here are french. Clients in other cities and countries seem more stoked to speak to me. I’m not sure why that is but it feels different here. Quebec has a very particular style and is in their own thing. Maybe it’s the French thing, maybe not, but that was tough for me coming up.
To be revered in this world as an Asian, you have to be this exceptional version of an Asian man. The ones who have a lot of clout are insanely amazing but you never hear about the good Asian creatives. Same thing if you’re Black or Middle Eastern or Indian or Arab. It sucks but I just kept pushing and knew that I could get to a place to make a difference. I’m luckily in a position today where I can start opening doors for other Asians and all the homies. This season for The Bay I cast all Asians. These people are already really good but just not tapped into enough. It’s amazing to be able to give people a chance with what I’m doing. That’s probably the best part of my job.
It took me some time to get to where I am but I’m glad I had the path that I did because it’s forced me to get out of my comfort zone and I’ve built so much character through my work with others.
Hudson's Bay Summer 21 Campaign
Let’s show Asians some love! Who are 5 Asians doing incredible things that you admire?
Tam Vu (artist): He’s doing great things for the vietnamese community
Lian Benoit (photographer) She just left an agency to go solo. I just wrapped a job with her and she’s awesome.
Yang Shi - She’s a model but also turned photographer with her partner. JG & Shi is their collective.
Celia Spenard-Ko (art director): She’s like a sister to me. She lives in Paris and is the Art Director for Goodee which is an e-commerce platform for ethically minded consumers.
Christian Chico: A homie in NY that always kills it at whatever he does.
Some great names in there and others that we’ll need to check out! Given your many years of experience, what tips would you give to new artists or creatives looking to make a name for themselves in the space?
The first thing I’d say is do your research and put in the hours. My work is a little crazy and non-traditional sometimes but I had to learn all the rules before I could start breaking them. A lot of young designers start with “I want to make all the wild stuff” and it can turn out poorly. Study up and pay attention to what’s out there.
With that being said, to stand out, your work has to be a little bit jarring. It has to make someone feel like “woah, what’s happening here?”. Once you learn to be thoughtful in your design, you can break the rules and that will help you find your voice.
Albert Nguyen for SSENSE x 88Rising
Any tips on developing a unique point of view when crafting your voice as an artist?
Inspiration comes from everywhere. Put down the phone and get outside and experience things around you. If you only get inspiration from what you see online, that’s what your stuff is going to look like. Get outside and get out of your comfort zone with stuff? Try new things. Don’t stay stagnant. Never stop experimenting.
As expected, these are great tips. It seems obvious when you say it but it’s definitely easy to forget these things. Lastly, what’s coming up that you're excited about, whether in work or in life?
I’m really excited about this charity work that’s coming out. The designs are awesome and the money is going to a great cause. I always get excited to see my nieces and nephews too. Something about kids sparks a lot of stuff for me. I’m also talking about moving to Ottawa. I need a change in scenery and somewhere quiet to create. I don’t need the big city anymore and I have tons of people in my network in Ottawa that are helping me find a spot. I’ll get out there soon I think!
Make sure to follow Albert on Instagram for updates on his work and t-shirt releases and don’t forget to keep it locked to Pier Five for more interviews and stories with the coolest entrepreneurs, designers, artists, activists and more.