Creative Director and Entrepreneur in Ho Chi Minh City. Grew up without a toothbrush; used to rub his fingers on lime leaves and then brushed his teeth. Necessity breeds creativity.

LocationHo Chi Minh, Vietnam
DateMARCH 19, 2018
The meetup

Fun fact, there were two locations in Ho Chi Minh with the address that Tuan had given me. Of course I went to the wrong one first. Tuan showed me his cozy cafe as well as his entire office and then we sat down for the interview.  

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If we’re not good at something we will try to do it anyways and along the way we will try to figure it out.
Chapter 01
About the designer

Hey Tuan! Can you tell us a bit about yourself ? 

Sure. My Name is Tuan Le. I studied business before entering Art School. I worked in Advertising for a while in Dubai. I came back about 5 years ago to Vietnam to open my own businesses and one of it is The Lab, a design studio, where I spend most of my time.

“One of it”? Do you have several businesses?

We own a couple of businesses in Saigon (Hô Chi Minh) and Hanoi. The first one was a co-working space. After that, we opened a cafe and later on, this design studio. 

The Lab Showreel

What led you to Design? 

After school, I became a fire alarm salesman and I was really bad at it. I took a class in Advertising to try to help me sell more and after that I fell in love with Advertising, Arts, and Copywriting so I enrolled at the Academy of Arts in San Francisco. One thing led to another, I ended up in Advertising and that’s when I was exposed to Design, Creativity and things like that. 

I guess you were not the kind of kids drawing in the back of the classroom? 

No, I was way more the suit business guy holding a suitcase and selling you stuff but again, I sucked at it.

If we’re not good at something we will try to do it anyways and along the way we will try to figure it out.

How would you describe the work you are doing?  

I’d say our work is experimental. As in, if we are not good at something we’ll try to do it anyways and along the way we’ll figure it out. For example, we never designed clothes but as we got into it, we work with people who do know and we learn from them. We never designed Interior before but we jumped into the opportunity of a project anyway and now we’re taking on big interior design projects. So our work is experimental in that way. If we don’t know how to do something, we’ll try, fail and then see if we can find another way to do it. 


Candy machine by The Lab


Clothes by The Lab

How many people are working here and what are their backgrounds? 

We started with 3 people and now we are 24. 18 of them are designers and 6 of them are admins and accountants. Most of the designers are graphic designers, some of them are interior designers, others do photography and digital animation. 


The Lab's Team

What would you say is the thing that you do most here at the LAB? 

We mostly do branding.


Anan Branding


Reclub Branding / Nhaunhau Branding

This being said, by nature, interior projects are bigger projects so they would take us three, four or five months when branding will take us around two months.


AIA Office & Nambento Office (Interior Design)

And what would you say is your biggest project so far? 

The biggest project is a space in the Bitexco tower called Nest, it's a financial hub. Think insurance sales office meets a café. Probably the biggest project that we have so far.


Nest Bitexco - Interior Design


Nest Bitexco - Interior Design

How are you involved in those projects? Do you oversee them?

It depends. At the beginning, I consult clients, give creative directions to my team, and take more of a backseat as the project progresses. I also present and sell most of the work.

What is the favorite part of your job? 

Probably working with the team when they come with design proposals or ideas. I love helping my team realize what their ideas are. They spend a lot of time working on it and my job is to help them make it better, get it presentable to the client, and help the client understand. I don’t usually kill ideas or anything like that. That part is probably my favorite because you feel their passion. And when they show their work to me, it feels like Christmas morning. And that's cool. 

Circle of Friend

How often are those meetings happening? 

We run parallel projects so every single day there's probably one or two teams presenting something to me.

With those meeting times during your day, I'll be interested to know more about how a typical day look like for you?

When I arrive in at 10:30, I'll probably meet with our Account Manager because she knows what everybody's working on. Oh no, actually the first thing I do is get coffee! I check with the account manager, review the teams, and then in the afternoon I get some time to answer emails, call clients, do my own work and then in the late afternoon maybe last checkup for anybody that missed the morning meeting and then I go home at about seven. 


Company values on a thread

Okay! Do everyone get to the office at the same hour and leave at the same hour? 

People come in from 10 to 11am and leave from 6 to 7pm. Everybody tend to go home at the same time. Sometimes they have yoga so they’d stay a little bit longer. 

Are there any other team buildings activities that you guys try to do together as well? 

Not so much team building, but more like self growth. For example, we have English classes as well because some of our people don't speak perfect English. 

Oh great idea! Where are your designers from?

Different places. Some are local. Some studied abroad. They’re Vietnamese but studied in Singapore or Malaysia. I speak mostly in English with them because when we eventually talk about that work to the client, it's in English.

I love helping my team realize what their ideas are.

Can you tell me about the project that you are the most proud of? I'm sure it's not digital.

I think the project that we're the most proud of was something we did before we had the design studio, before we called ourselves “designers”. It was our cafe. We loved seeing it come to life and being able to use it to entertain our friends.


The Lab's cafe

In order to achieve those kind of work, digital and non digital, where do you find your inspiration? 

Sure. Before the design studio, it was Pinterest. Now with the design studio, I made a no-pinterest rule in the team because I start to see so many Pins show up in client brief and in designer presentations as well. They all take from the same source and regurgitate it. I prefer them looking at old books, films, art galleries or whatever.

Would you say the same for Dribble, Behance and those kind of website ? 

Yes, same. It’s a personal preference. I try to block them out. I don't want the team to consciously take something on Pinterest and then use that as a starting point. You can see this rule on our website. No weekends, no nights, no same day, no pitching as well. Of course, we break our own rules sometimes.

Oh, so you don't pitch to find any new clients? 

No, you can do that because cost is relatively reasonable in Vietnam. It’s not like in San Francisco where overhead is really high.

So what if you don't have any clients or if the work is getting slower? 

We work on our own brands. We have a lot of cafes and restaurants and bars. We do our own stuff and it's easier. 

How is it easier to work for yourself than working for a client ? 

For example, let's say we work for one of our clients and their decision makers are a team of 10 people. Here the team is two people, just my partner and I. Maybe we are harder to convince but at least we decide quickly.


Interior Design by The Lab

As you are not looking at Pinterest and websites like this, what do you do when you get stuck creatively.

I would probably talk to my partner or to the seniors. Usually, between us we come up with a solution. If it didn't work, I'd look at movies, art galleries and whatnot.... but no, Pinterest! (laugh)

How do you keep learning and growing as a designer or as a creative director? 

There's a lot to learn from books and stuff, but I feel like you learn the most from other people. Just by working with younger people, I get so much inspiration from them. I think the way to grow as a designer is to meet other people and other designers and not stay in your little shell. I think I learned a lot more talking to people than I do looking at any site.

That's interesting because usually it's the other way around: young designers working with more experienced ones tend to grow but you are saying that the opposite is also true.

I think it's probably more true because they are exposed to different stuff. I used to teach a design class here at night, and the students are always interesting. The old guys, they have a bag of tricks and they always go back to it, whereas the students will try something new if given the chance.

I made a no-pinterest rule in the team. [...] I prefer them looking at old books, films, art galleries or whatever.

What is the best advice you ever received? 

That's hard man, I gotta think! There wasn't a moment when someone sat me down and blessed me with a quotable piece of wisdom. I've learned a lot from people and internalized it without much reflection. Though I did like a quote from a book I read recently: "Young men grow up in libraries believing it their duty to accept the views which Cicero, Locke, Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote those books". It's from the book Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. 

Because you said that you are teaching classes, I would like to know what kind of advice you have for students? 

The one thing I keep coming back to is being generous with time and talent. Meeting people, talking to people and if they need help, lend your help. If they need advice, lend your advice. In return if you need help, don't be afraid to reach out as well because I feel like if you're in an island it is really hard to survive. If I don't know how to do something, I will talk to somebody who does and we share credit, we can share everything even money, but at least we teach each other something. 


Halong's bay by night - © Robin Noguier

Chapter 02
The design industry in Vietnam

How would you describe the design education system in Vietnam?

Seeing the guys come out of school here, I feel like too many people are doing the same thing. For example, they have a case study of a really great branding project, a case study of a really great architectural project, and I feel like a lot of students are designing to that, replicating it. A couple of years ago the thing that was really hot here was using Vietnamese tiles. If you go around some old cafes, you will see branding and interior design that use these everywhere. And that's what I don't like about the industry here in terms of education : you see something great and everybody does it. For one year of class everybody will come out with the same portfolio. I feel like the teachers need to encourage them to do different. It could be wrong, it could be bad, but at least it's not the same.

What about the design industry? Do you think it's crowded or is there a lot of room?

There's so much room! Just a few years ago it was dominated by big global agencies. And then now other design work is kind of trickling down to boutique agencies like Rice Creative, m - n associates or us The Lab but there's a lot of room for other people as well but please don’t come to compete with us (laugh) 

Who are the clients here and how are the budgets?

It really depends. There's a lot of major companies like Coca Cola and Uber. In terms of budget I would say it is about twenty thousand to a hundred thousand dollars range, for branding and communication.

What is your advice for someone who wants to become a designer? You already talked about the fact that they should try to do something different in school. In fact, should they go to school? 

I don't think school is necessary. Yeah, don't go to school. I think mindset, attitude and perspective are more important and you can improve that by going abroad for a while. I don't think it's necessary to leave and come back, but it helps because of language and perspective: you can bring a lot of stuff home. That's something interesting so I think that really helps.

I'm just wondering how or why some countries are more well known for design than others.

For you, what is a good designer? 

Someone who brings experiences or things that they've seen, unique stuff that we haven't seen and then try to bring it into the design. Let’s say you have a guy who loves pottery. If somehow he can bring that love into his design then he'll be different than the other who only use photoshop. For me that's interesting. Some girl might really love arts and crafts and if she can somehow bring this to her designs, I think that's interesting. I think what makes a good designer is anything that can make someone different. Make yourself stand out. There's so many things right now, if you're not different then you get lost.

Who are some of your design heroes? 

I love Sagmeister of course, Dieter Rams and... the countless redditors and youtubers doing amazing DIY stuff. I skim and get inspired but never find out who they are. 
In terms of design companies, I really like Party Tokyo. They started as a creative agency, there's only a few guys but they helped design the Tokyo airport. They came from advertising but they just applied the creative thinking to something else. I also love  Wieden Kennedy for their film craft and advertising. I love IDEO as a design company because they apply their creativity to different stuff. Finally, I really like Acne studio. They have their own brand called Acne and it's even more popular than the design studio. Again, they applied the creative thinking of their design into some products that they love. 

Thank you for your time Tuan! 

Thank you for coming. I just really want to see what other people say about the stuff that you ask because it's really interesting. I'm just wondering how or why some countries are more well known for design than others. Vietnam design is not even on the map yet and I'm just wondering why. Maybe when Esperanto launch we'll finally be on the map (laugh).


Reach out to Tuan

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Final boarding call

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