Get to Know the Playful Yet Sophisticated Work of Creative Studio Butter
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor
WNW Member Cari Sekendur launched her own studio Butter just over a year ago. We recently caught up with the Brooklyn-based Creative Director, Art Director, Designer (and Founder), and are loving the eclectic range of project highlights already on display in their portfolio: full-scope branding for a boxing-inspired streetwear brand, a Manhattan seafood staple, a Nashville-based coffee shop, a record company, and more. In our interview below, Cari shares why it was time to open her own studio, how Butter determines which projects to take on, whether her approach has changed from her days as a freelancer, and the biggest challenges and surprised in building a studio.
What sets Butter apart from other studios?
First, our aesthetic, which is broad in terms of execution, but concrete in tone across the board; it leans playful yet sophisticated.
Second, we’re based in NYC, but globally inclined. We’re excited about the opportunity to work with clients and collaborators across the globe. I spent the summer in Paris and Berlin working with clients in both places and it’s my intention to continue to have Butter span continents, time zones and cultures while maintaining a home base for the studio in NYC.
Finally, we’re nimble. We can scale up and down based on the scale and goals of each client. This allows us to keep overhead down while making sure the team working on each project is composed of experts in each discipline.
What was the main reason that you opened Butter, your own design studio, last year?
To build a business where I could have flexibility, autonomy, and creative freedom while building long-lasting relationships with clients and producing work that inspires.
How big is your team now?
The size of the team varies. I lead the studio and bring people on as needed per project. Sometimes it’s just me working on a project, often we’re a team of two to four. We work under the lean agency model which helps me maintain flexibility and bring on experts in each respective discipline as needed per project. Two frequent collaborators are WNW Members Molly Carkeet and Robbie Sherrard.
Has your creative approach shifted from your days as a freelance designer?
My approach hasn’t shifted, but when I was a freelance designer I took on more work through agencies, whereas now Butter is the agency!
Looking back over the past year, what’s the biggest surprise or challenge in building a design studio that you wished someone had told you?
At the beginning, I was working from home. I wish someone had told me to get an office or join a coworking space right off the bat. It’s worth the investment. Getting out of the house helps with productivity, and you never know what kinds of inspiring people you may meet.
In establishing the right foundation and identity for a new studio, these early projects are especially impactful. What’s your process for determining which projects to take on and which ones to pass on?
Butter is a full-scope branding studio, so the priority is to take on projects where Butter leads the brand identity creation process from start to finish. We build brands from conception to execution, telling stories through moments of curiosity that spark the imagination.
That can include anything and everything from naming and strategy through voice and tone, visual design and art direction to execution of print and digital collateral, websites, animation, signage etc. Our work is strategically motivated and creatively whimsical, and our brand identity systems are often layered with elements such as color, pattern, illustration, taglines, photography, typography etc., making them dynamic, much more than a logo, tagline, or campaign on its own. Often prospective clients have seen our work and are particularly attracted to our aesthetic and tone.
We’re vertical agnostic, open to any and all creative challenges. That said, we’re especially excited about projects with companies that are female, queer, and/or minority-led and/or are mission-driven. Our process for determining what types of projects to take on begins with an initial conversation with the potential client. If it seems like their goals are aligned with our expertise and style, we’d be thrilled to take on the project.
Which of your projects so far are you proudest of and why?
The re-brand for Flex Mussels was one of our first projects and is one our favorites. It’s a good example of our approach to visual identity design, and the client, owner Alexandra Shapiro, was so lovely to work with she made the entire process a treat to be a part of. Our work for Flex spans print collateral (menus, coasters, to go packaging, matchboxes, check presenter postcards etc.), digital (web design), uniforms (t-shrits, hats), and signage and wayfinding (interior murals and signage, exterior signage), merch (tote bags, pins, sweatshirts, beanies, hats). The brand collateral pieces are full of surprises, intended to bring a sense of discovery and delight to each guest as throughout their time in the space. The system is layered with pattern, color, illustration, and whimsical type treatments. The client was thrilled with the outcome and feels it is the perfect solution to help her business grow from its 10 year history into the next ten years and beyond.
Self-promotion and self-branding is widely considered one of the most difficult components of a professional creative career. Do you feel that it’s easier to brand and promote your design studio?
Yes, self-branding is painful. I’m not one who claims to be a fan of social media self-promotion, and I have indeed found it easier to brand and promote the studio. I’ve approached it more strategically, and while our Instagram follower count may still be below 100 (social media gurus, please get in touch), I’m much happier with the content and process for promoting the studio than I have been with haphazardly promoting myself as a creative. Molly Carkeet has been super helpful in strategizing and writing copy for Butter’s social.
Being in a leadership position, how do you cater your approach to allow your left brain and right brain to coexist?
My professional background is a bit a-typical. I came to design in a roundabout way after having received an undergrad degree in Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies and subsequently working in Operations and Marketing for a few startups in NYC and Berlin. I’ve found this breadth of experience and training to be extremely helpful in running a small business. While I’m certainly no Swiss Army knife, I have found my knack for structure to be a very nice compliment to my creative side, especially when it comes to running a business where the creative is only half the ask.
What advice do you have for other professionals currently preparing to start their own studios?
Be patient, enjoy your down time. Don’t try to force anything that feels like it isn’t working, intentional, or against your values. Maintain relationships that you enjoy. Don’t work from home.
What are you working on now?
Right now we’re about to launch a rebrand and website for a textile manufacturing company, branding and an e-commerce site for a fashion startup, a website for a theater company working to build awareness about children held in detention centers at the U.S. Border, branding for a food and beverage startup, and a rebrand for a storytelling event series in Berlin and NYC… to name a few!
I’m always looking to meet potential collaborators and clients in NYC and across the globe, please get in touch if you’re interested in our work!