Rice's Joshua Breidenbach lifts the lid on the Vietnamese studio's ethos, process and future
Having worked with a diverse list of commercial and cultural clients, from a local brewery to an international clothing brand, Ho Chi Minh City-based branding studio Rice broadcasts Vietnamese design on a global scale. To find out more about the ethos and intricacies behind their work, we caught up with co-founder Joshua Breidenbach.
EM Since starting out in 2011, how has the studio evolved?
JB As two young creatives in 2011, we built rice as the place we wanted to work at. We created a criteria to guide our decisions on the types of work to take in, the profiles we invite to join us, and the work we put out. This criteria was created in order to best create solutions for our clients that are excellent, elevating, and impactful. The studio evolved with a clear founding vision, but with plenty of organic sway. We began as two founders with a dream – today, we are a studio of almost 30. Our culture, and way of working is coloured and shaped by our team as it grows. We encourage each individual on the team to challenge, and change us. We all learn from everyone’s diverse experiences in different living and working environments. New people have an impact. ‘This is rice’ – is what we go by, and the team is rice.
Today, we see rice as an ecosystem. Rice is that founding company, and can apply itself to pursue its vision through creativity. Rice Studios is our branding and design practice. Last year we began a new venture, rice store. The store underpins our mission, as we see design and commerce as a way to tell extraordinary stories.
We encourage each individual on the team to challenge, and change us.
EM What challenges have you faced along the way?
JB The industry itself.
Our industry in Vietnam is evolving quickly. What is incredible, is being a part of shaping it. The challenges are exactly what makes this such a great place to be practising in. We are in a constant conversation between over-optimism and reality, challenge and opportunity. Our city seems to encourage everyone to feel that they can start a new business, every day. This drive is great. It can also be a pitfall. We have seen, heard it all after nearly a decade as rice. We meet so many start-ups. Some, yet to crack their product and internal systems. This is at once the most risky and the most exciting time to get involved! As the market matures, experts will rise to the top, which is why focusing on core-strengths is omnipotent. Resting on your laurels, however, is never an option.
We prioritise working with a diverse team. It is important to our work to have a balanced voice in the studio, however, we most often get portfolios from men, this is a challenge. We do not specialise, and approach projects that range from large commercial ones, like our work for UNIQLO, to small, cultural boutique work. Finding a team that has experience to field a wide spectrum can be challenging. If that talent is not found in Vietnam, we look outside, and of course, not every profile is willing to uproot and move to a new country. We aim to be part of the improvement of the industry, and we are certainly very energised for what’s next. Challenges, of course, flipped over create opportunity.
EM There appears to be a broad range of nationalities on the team at Rice. Has that been an intentional approach? And what part do you think it plays, if any, in the work you produce?
JB Intentional. We seek diverse points of view, and perspectives. Our clients benefit from working with a diverse team. Our team benefits from being exposed to each-others backgrounds and experiences. We do the bulk of our work in Vietnam, but we’re doing projects in Japan, Europe and America. Our teams get experience from these other places, and our clients love having a fresh international point of view supporting the work.
EM Do you ever face difficulties convincing clients from outside the country to work with you?
JB Clients from out of the country have reached out to us in the first place. The majority seek us out, often indicating that we have a fresh point of view, and we are good at telling a story. We, of course, prefer meeting in person. Most of our abroad jobs would historically include in-person kick-offs and research trips. Since COVID-19, working remotely has certainly become a lot more ‘normal’, we’ve stopped the trips, of course, for now, and are a lot more used to online meetings. It is working, and we keep improving. We’ve been included in AUFI’s World’s Greatest Internship programme. We were a little bummed to learn our interns would be working with us remotely, but it’s exciting to see how we will work together, and we like the challenge of extending our team around the world.
EM What’ve you found to be the key to a thriving working environment?
JB Selected projects, curious, passionate, engaged people, a commitment to excellence, and an incredibly inspiring context to be situated in. We aim to create a good workspace for our team that complements our culture. This is always a work in progress. We’re seeking more space as we speak, with even more open-air as – for the last three years, we’ve been in the central business district, in business towers. For nearly a decade, we’ve been seeking the greatest studio for ourselves. We’re looking to build our own now.
Above all, we have established a reputation as a group that is committed to delivering excellent, effective solutions. We all kind of thrive off of that. We all feel the responsibility to deliver the most relevant, impactful work for our clients. We simply want to see them excel. We are their biggest fans. We envision their future with them – believe in it, and we believe in strategic design as a change-maker. We believe great ideas are ones that challenge conventions, ourselves, and our clients. We believe the integration of cultural insights, robust strategy and forward-thinking design – results in ideas that make lasting and positive impacts.
EM Touching on ideas – do you think great design needs a concept, or can it be visually-led?
JB We find it hard to separate concept from design. The concept is often a starting point for design – the answer in decision-making, or the way to measure the design. Free design exploration is crucial, as it allows the mind to wander and to make its own connections, so – designing along the way is part of the magic, but the concept would always be there. The concept need not be overly challenging or grandiose. We solve problems, and the concept may just be that most simple solution. It could be at the forefront. In the case of a client like 4P’s the concept is literally the name (for peace). It is simple, but has gone on to inspire and brief a wide spectrum of projects, including a brand mascot we created with former PIXAR animator, Andrew Gordon.
EM Do you encourage your team to work on side projects? Are they necessary?
JB Absolutely, in fact, we have a side project that does exactly that – the aforementioned store! It’s a way for our team to get feedback and development on their personal projects – and then commercialise them. Teammates may shoot with our great studio photographer partner, Wing-Chan, and get help creating campaigns. The added bonus of fruitful critiques from the team is a great exercise for all. It helps designers learn while it helps the studio understand how it works best. Extra projects encourage independence. These projects might help our studio broadcast to the world. We recently created posters for Bao Nguyen’s wonderful documentary, Be Water. We know Bao, having created the identity for EAST, his film production company, but we did the posters of our own accord, after falling in love with his film. It just happened that the posters caught the attention of the Bruce Lee Estate, and will be printed and sold, with all proceeds going to the Bruce Lee Foundation. We’ve since had a bit more interest from Hollywood :)
These projects might help our studio broadcast to the world.
EM What kind of products can we expect from the rice store?
JB It is already fairly diverse. We expect it to open up quickly, especially after the full launch, and there are very few boundaries. Currently, there is a good amount of print. There is furniture designed by rice founding partner, Chi-An, which is a reboot of designs his father created in the ’70s. There is attire we worked on in collaboration with BAEMIN. There is chocolate from Marou – special limited edition ones, and stationeries from local Vietnamese design brand, UNITE. The store is a platform for designers, artists, editors, and other companies to develop their ideas into commercial products. It is also a place where our studio can curate what we find complementary to our point of view on thoughtful, relevant design. We do not wish the store to be a bunch of stuff our studio designed. More than that, we hope to bring together excellent products from our part of the world that collectively say something special.
EM What do you think is the most undervalued part of the design process?
JB The planning. I love visual design as much as everyone else here. I love design that makes it look easy – like a breeze. But most of us know that the hard part is hidden. Design can be so striking that, it’s impossible to see how the designer got there. The research, the reaching, the planning, and the curating. These intangible things are precious – the set up is what takes time, and is also what is so hard for people to understand and value.
EM If you could only show one piece of work – one to define the studio – what would it be?
JB Is it cheating to say our upcoming new website? We’ve been doing our own identity refresh. It was prompted by our view of our studio as an ecosystem. The refresh pins down the things that, after nearly ten years are really true and that what really matters to our studio. Our upcoming site will show it all – from the best work, to our voice of view through editorial content – to our store; which is integral to our aim to showcase Vietnam-based creativity through product. Our new identity comments on modernist graphic design, and utilises fresh cuts of Swiss’ Suisse typefaces made for the Vietnamese language. It’s also just black and white, our expression of duality, and it’s ever-present importance in our work.