M — N Associates design chic branding for local Vietnamese fashion retailers like labels:. They also create identities for food and beverage brands like the cold-pressed juice company, JUS • Juice Up Saigon. And, among a number of new projects, they’re currently rolling out the new look for the coffee kiosk chain Guta.
The collaboratively-minded boutique design consultancy was founded by Lan Mai and Duy Nguyễn in 2013. Until now, except for picking up a couple of awards at the A’Design Awards & Competition, M — N Associates have kept a low profile. “We wanted to stay boutique to be close to our clients as we figured that was the best way to deliver results without compromise,” Duy explains. But M — N Associates are gradually getting more attention and going overground, “I think we have one foot in both camps,” Lan smiles.
We’re meeting the creative duo at their “super minimal studio,” as Lan describes it. The house off Le Van Sy is all white walls and black furniture without even a plant in the corner. “Actually, we disagreed on which plant to get, so we kept it empty,” M — Lan confesses. There, we talk to Lan and Duy about their work as M — N Associates and the future of the design agency.
What do you both do at M — N Associates?
Duy: I am M — N Associates’ creative director. For every project, I take the lead on brand direction and strategy. It’s also my responsibility to understand our clients’ needs and to solve those requirements creatively.
Lan: And I’m project manager cum production supervisor. Roughly speaking, I take care of all the studio’s internal and external relationships including working with people like production suppliers. I try my best to ensure our projects run smoothly so we can deliver on time.
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Can you describe the company to someone who doesn’t know it—both your focus and also your typical style?
Lan: The name M — N is made from our last names Lan Mai and Duy Nguyễn. And our company name in Vietnamese is Mờ Nờ—the Vietnamese way of sounding the letters “M” and “N.” Some friends call us Mờ Nờ, although we prefer M — N!
Duy: We are a boutique design studio that specialises in creating brands. That means we are not just focused on designing a nice visual identity but we also look to create a meaningful and inspiring brand story.
We like it when a brand challenges us to creatively reimagine their business. So far, those brands have been in retail, hospitality, and the food and beverage industry.
Do your projects have a common visual aesthetic, and if so, what is it like?
Duy: We’re in love with dynamic brand design. But besides that we like visual “sustainability”—something practical a company can use, and that can be sustained throughout the branding—and humorous elements. To us, that reflects the character of Saigon; energetic, chaotic, dynamic…and fun.
Can you choose three of your projects that are most significant to you and explain why?
Lan: Our published portfolio is still growing. So, for now, I choose the three that have brought us success and overground attention: JUS, Mångata and labels:.
Cold-pressed juice is a new concept here, so it’s a challenge growing the brand. For our package design, we created triangle-shaped bottles inspired by yoga movements, and the logo’s lettering is kind of organic and uneven.
Then there’s Mångata. We created this romantic black and gold color palette for the luxury bakery. Mångata won us an award—and a sign of its success is the design has been copied…in France.
Labels: is a clothing store that stocks global labels that look beyond the high-end brands like Chanel and LV. The colon signals the start of a list.
And the circles change shape to represent the brands that labels: stocks. We also designed the stores too with their pink floors.
Duy: Also, currently in progress are Guta Cafe, Leman Jewelry, and Viet Fusion. These three are the highlights of the work we have done this year.
Guta Cafe is a coffee chain with a deep connection to street coffee culture in Vietnam. Their business format is “responsive”—they can easily adapt to any house or building or street vendor location in Vietnam. Rebranding Guta means creating a utilitarian coffee brand.
Meanwhile, Leman Jewelry by Ngoc Doan is an exceptionally high-end Vietnamese jewelry brand. They specialise in custom-designed diamond jewelry. For Leman Jewelry, the branding work needs to be a true representation of Leman—something luxurious and exquisite.
Finally, launching next year, Viet Fusion is also a really interesting project. It’s a Vietnamese restaurant opening in London. Our work for them is a complete fusion in which we’ve drawn together talented Vietnamese from different fields such as Cậu bé Thỏ for Vietnamese folk illustrations, Deto Concept for food photography and KSOUL for architecture who many people know from the KSOUL Studio—the founder, Huỳnh Thế Nguyễn, is pretty underground, although we’re taking him overground. Together, we’re creating an art direction that is a collage of all their work.
How do you choose collaborators? Why do you prefer to connect to the talent at other companies rather than using your own in-house team?
Duy: Our firm’s philosophy is encapsulated in the word “associates.” We look to work with the best people in their respective fields. We do that by examining the portfolios of potential collaborators to understand their expertise in architecture, printing, programming, photography, content, or whatever their speciality is, and we explore whether they are an appropriate fit for upcoming projects.
Lan: Our work for Mångata Patisserie is one example. For that project we chose to work with Deto Concept because their great strength is fine-dining food photography. Another example is the JUS project. There we worked with the photographer Monkey Minh—he’s simply one of the best Vietnamese photographers so there were no doubts in our minds when we approached him.
When you work with a client like Guta Coffee, what is the process like from the very beginning to launching the new branding? How does your process differ from other branding companies?
Lan: We talk to the client a lot and understand what’s it’s like to be in their shoes. Inevitably, we often end up as friends.
Duy: We review the information back at our studio and discuss internally the concept direction we want to take. We don’t create moodboards, we prefer to jump right in.
Globally, which brand would you like to work with—if you could choose any—and why?
Duy: We’re especially attracted to brands that want to work closely with us to develop their business towards global recognition.
Lan: We’re especially attracted to local Vietnamese brands. Why not work with local companies and help them to go global? But besides them, internationally, I admire a brand called % Arabica from Japan. We visited one of their cafes in Shanghai and they have a really cool, minimal aesthetic.
What does the future look like for M-N Associates?
Duy: I usually don’t make predictions. We just hope for the best and try our hardest. Hopefully we will have more cool projects coming up and some companies surprise us with their innovative business ideas.
Lan: I’d settle for remaining a cool studio with great designers and great projects.
Who should we speak to next?
Duy: Anh Monkey Minh, he’s a true inspiration for the next generation. He’s a perfectionist but at the same time he’s friendly and easy to work with. His approach and attitude feel very Japanese—even at the end of a long shoot, he’s still full of positive energy.