Moscow Mule on staying small, remote working and what they’d change about the design industry
Co-founded by Marina Kondratenko and Anna Kabanina, Moscow Mule is a Russian design studio with a vibrant, typographically composed portfolio of work; ranging from intentionally stark packaging for a national supplement brand to an unrealised identity system for a pandemic-effected music festival. Keen to learn more about the studio and why they do what they do, we spoke to both Marina and Anna.
EM Why did you both decide to start a studio together?
MK Initially, we met during our studies at the Stroganov Academy of Industrial and Applied Arts in Moscow. I guess our friendship and mutual interest in each other’s work started there.
After studying in Moscow, our creative paths went separate ways for several years; Anna continued her studies in Barcelona, I had an internship at Studio Dumbar in the Netherlands and worked at different studios in Moscow.
We met again when the studio Redo was formed. I was the co-founder and creative director of the studio, and Anna was a graphic designer.
We worked together at Redo for more than two years, during which we set the graphical language of the studio, formed our own approach to design, and developed a similar vision. We also gained experience creating visual identities and digital projects from first sketches to final production.
AK At some point, we both felt that we reached our limits at Redo. But we always knew we wanted to keep working together, and that there was great potential in our cooperation. So it felt natural to join forces to set up Moscow Mule.
EM Who else is on the team, and what are their roles?
AK At the moment, we are a team of three people: me, Marina, and Victoria, also a graphic designer.
MK We are a small team and intend to keep it that way. We like how much flexibility it gives us, as it forces us to be strategic when approaching design challenges. For example, we often collaborate with other professionals with different skill sets to build a more comprehensive work together. I think the world is moving towards this model: there is going to be a greater number of small teams delivering better results than bigger agencies.
There is going to be a greater number of small teams delivering better results.
EM How do you feel about remote working – do you think office space is still necessary?
AK We started working remotely some time ago when Marina was in Moscow and I lived in Barcelona. So it’s not something entirely new to us. We think that office space is a luxury, meaning that you can operate without it, but it’s good to have a space where you can go to concentrate on work, and this is exactly our case. Remote work has its advantages and disadvantages. Online meetings are the new normal; the chances to get commissioned by people from all over the world are higher, but there is a certain charm of a personal meeting that is gone for now.
MK As Anna said, remote work was not a new challenge for us, but the last year once again proved that it could be very effective. What I still consider necessary is to have a space where you can create a working atmosphere. For me, it is very important to separate work and personal space, and if someone manages to divide these zones at home – that I find great, but I associate being home with a space where I can chill and relax. I don’t like to spend a lot of time working from home (sometimes I have to, of course). What I need is not just an office space but the ability to switch between the environments. We have a small office space in the city centre where we gather to discuss tasks and projects, but sometimes we do work remotely from different locations – restaurants, parks, homes.
We also think that remote work can at some point ‘push the boundaries,’ now, it doesn’t seem bizarre to commission a designer from another continent, and that is a good thing for us.
EM What is the most challenging part of running a design studio?
AK For me, it is very challenging to balance between administrative and creative work. Since we are a small team, we have to be our own bosses, define goals, set criteria and priorities, etc., and, of course, get the job done.
MK When you run your own (even a small one) design studio, you should be multifunctional: from creating design systems to performing administrative functions: management, operations, communication with clients, etc. This requires an extensive set of soft and hard skills. It’s very challenging for me to combine several roles simultaneously; sometimes, it is difficult to switch between them.
It’s also challenging to take responsibility for all decisions and the end results, but this experience of running a business on your own allows you to gain confidence; it cultivates the ability to rely on yourself and your strengths.
When you run your own design studio, you should be multifunctional.
EM And what is the most rewarding part of running a studio?
MK The most rewarding part for me is that now we have the freedom to make a living by doing what we love. We are not judgemental; we learn by doing, we prefer experimentation over pre-crafted solutions. Our ability to adapt to changes and learn fast enables us to take on a variety of challenges.
We are a young female-owned design studio and we have a fresh perspective. It’s rewarding to feel that we formed our own approach to design with a unique graphic voice that is very direct and playful.
AK Despite the fact we have just started the studio, we already established solid professional relationships with some of our clients. Building trust and co-creating with our clients is very important for us because it leads to the best outcomes for both parties. It’s very inspiring to see how our work empowers others.
EM Did you have some clients in place when you first started the studio, or did you have to go out and find them?
AK When we started the studio, we already had a couple of accounts with whom we previously worked. Most of our clients directly contact Marina thanks to her impeccable reputation. Word of mouth helps a lot too! While our website is still in development, we put our bets on Instagram to become our next feasible source for new commissions.
MK We never specifically looked for clients, although I do not miss an opportunity to tell about us and what we can do. I do this not because I look for clients but because I believe in us and in what we do, and I want to share it with the world.
Those who managed to work with us come back again with new tasks or recommend us to their colleagues. While we are in the process of launching our website, word of mouth is what works best for us. Since we are small, we do not always have an opportunity to take all projects we want.
We are a young female-owned design studio and we have a fresh perspective.
EM Your work is full of bright combinations of colour – what appeals to you about this approach?
AK At Moscow Mule, our approach to design is very systemic; therefore, colour plays an essential role in our practice as it serves as one of the main tools alongside typography and grids for most of our projects. But we also think that colour represents our playful attitude to design. I find it really appealing that colour can evoke certain emotions and set a structure at the same time.
MK I really love working with colour; for me, colour combination is a very simple and expressive technique, a powerful tool that instantly sets the mood from the first second of an interaction with a design piece. I think the internship at Studio Dumbar also greatly influenced me. The way they are working with colour inspired me a lot; designers at the studio pay special attention to the selection of colour combinations.
Moscow is quite a grey city, we don’t have much sun here, so we miss colour a lot. It seems to me that we intuitively add more colour to our own lives by using bright colours in our designs.
I think the internship at Studio Dumbar also greatly influenced me.
EM What is the graphic design culture like in Moscow?
MM The graphic design culture strongly reflects the situation in the city – it’s contradictory, heterogeneous, and rapidly developing. A lot has changed here; some time ago, little to no attention was paid to design.
The city has transformed completely; you can find nice bars, chic restaurants, cultural institutions, and museums that can compete with that of large European cities in terms of architectural and graphical treatment.
But the visual culture of Moscow radically differs from the rest of Russia, and even if you go from the city centre to the suburbs, you’ll feel like you moved twenty years back.
So despite the circumstances, many graphic design studios have emerged in Russia in recent years. Some try to be neutral and universal, which is not bad, but some manage to come up with their own style and unique identity – and we find it more cool!
EM What would you like to see more and less of in the design industry?
MM Nowadays, many people create designs that are based on references and pictures they find online; we think this gives rise to a large number of similar works. We would like people to seek inspiration within themselves and in the world around them. Instead of template-based design, we’d like to see more unconventional solutions.
Also, we would like to see more women in leading positions in the creative industry. Although the industry seems to be open-minded and accepting, we see some cultural stereotypes still present in Russia; they make women feel less confident.
EM How often have you been subject to those stereotypes in your own careers?
MM Yes, we have. Especially in the beginning of our careers when we still were students. Now, these situations mostly happen indirectly; it’s usually something you overhear or the way something was said about other women during social meetings.
We want to tackle these stereotypes by encouraging other women to be brave, come out of their shells, and take responsibility for themselves and their business. Ideally, we would like to grow our community of female entrepreneurs to share knowledge and experience.
EM Who would you love to work with, moving forward?
MM Our work often goes beyond graphic design. We come up with strategies and marketing components, where our systemic approach helps us a lot. In general, we would like to work on more complex projects where we can dive deeper into the business side. We see lots of potential in joining projects in the early stage of development, we think designers can bring a lot to the table.
We would like to work with local start-ups more, but, at the same time, we would really like to be approached by international companies with strong cultures and values, such as Nike or Spotify. And, of course, it would be absolutely amazing to get a chance to collaborate with other creatives from around the world. Although we like to work here in Russia, we feel a bit isolated from the rest of the world, so we’d like to overcome this obstacle in the future.