Cari Sekendur on the perks of unconventional backgrounds, launching Butter Studio, and working globally
For many creatives, the career path into branding and graphic design isn’t as straightforward as the BA to CD pipeline. However, thanks to the broad and varied insights these routes bring to design, the industry is all the better for it. This is particularly true for Butter Studio’s Founder & Creative Director Cari Sekendur, who recounts her own journey into the industry, and how it has shaped her practice. As founder of the brand identity and digital design studio, she revisits the path that led her to starting the company, how sport has played a vital role in both her life and work, and why the industry needs greater diversity in leadership roles.
PT Hi Cari! How are you?
CS I’m great, Poppy. Thanks for having me!
PT So I have to ask…. How did you come up with the idea for your landing page?
CS I wanted to create an experience that allows visitors to feel a sense of intrigue, followed by a moment of delightful surprise: something we strive to incorporate into much of our client work.
Landing on the final concept took lots of iterating and going back to the drawing board. Designing for oneself is difficult because it lacks the parameters that we put in place during client work. Our team iterated on concepts until they captured this feeling of intrigue and surprise, represented the Butter brand, and were feasible from a 3D web development perspective. All of which was a challenge to figure out!
It’s a foundational element of the most delicious things in life.
PT And where did the name ‘Butter Studio’ come from?
CS Butter is a connector. Everyone loves it (even if they hate to admit it). It’s a foundational element of the most delicious things in life. It brings people together. It inspires joy. Design at its core is the same. It’s a tool for connection. When we build brands, we do so in order to connect a company with the audiences they serve.
PT Who makes up the Butter team?
CS I, Cari Sekendur, am the Founder and Creative Director of the studio. I lead the team creatively and operationally. Beatrice Sala is our master Designer and Illustrator. Nayla Al-Mamlouk is our Whipsmart Copywriter, and Beth Carter, is our incisive Director of Brand Strategy. Sasha Danandeh is our brilliant Fall Design Intern.
I had the opportunity and vision to switch careers to design.
PT What did your path prior to design look like? And what led you to embrace a creative career?
CS Unconventional! Surprise: I didn’t go to art school. My favourite story from my childhood is that I told my mom I wanted to be a ‘rainbow painter’ when I grew up. And I ended up as a gay graphic designer, so I was actually quite spot on!
Jokes aside, my path to design was a confusing one when I was in the midst of it. I refrained from studying art in undergrad because of an ignorant fear (I was 18, give me a break) of becoming a starving artist. So, it wasn’t until 3 years after graduating and working in marketing and operations for start-ups that I had the opportunity and vision to switch careers to design. I was working for a company called Fab in Berlin and they shut down the Berlin office, and I took that loss (and my European severance package) as an opportunity to switch careers to pursue what I’d always been inclined towards – a visually creative one.
PT Coming from a non-design background, do you have any observations on the design industry?
CS A benefit of having an unconventional career path – which spans a liberal arts education NS years working on the business side of start-ups – is that I do come at design from a very different lens.
This background has allowed me to incorporate a level of business acumen and strategic thinking into my creative work that is historically uncommon in the design industry. Now, alternative education has become much more popular, and I’m excited to see more and more people entering the industry from a variety of different academic and career backgrounds.
It’s still a very white-male-dominated industry (as most are).
PT As a queer woman, what do you think creative leaders can be doing better to support queer creatives, as well as creatives from marginalised backgrounds?
CS I would like to see more women, queer people, and people of colour at the top levels of the creative industries at the big agencies and brands. So the answer would be to hire more top-tier diverse talent at the highest levels.
It’s still a very white-male-dominated industry (as most are). There’s a statistic from Forbes in 2019 that says that 0.1% of creative agencies are run by women.
An industry colleague of mine, Rachel Gogel, and I have been interested in trying to reassess that metric because we both believe that a ton of studios and firms led by women have sprung up in recent years. I have no idea what the stats are for queer women and women of colour in design leadership roles. It’s statistically proven that diversity is better for business. I have no doubt that we will see more impactful creativity across the industry as more diverse people are promoted into the top levels of leadership.
I would choose an unsexy brand led by genuine gems 1,000% of the time over a sexy one led by jerks.
PT What do you look for in a good collaboration?
CS I’m glad you asked. People often ask what types of businesses we work with. What I care most about is working with good people. What that means to me is people who are kind, open, curious, respectful, and eager to engage in a process where we are all learning and building from each other’s talents. A testament to this are the relationships I have built both with collaborators and clients. I am grateful to say that I call most of them friends as well as colleagues. I would choose an unsexy brand led by genuine gems 1,000% of the time over a sexy one led by jerks.
PT If you weren’t working in New York, where would you be? Also, what kind of working environment do you best thrive in?
CS I’m actually in Berlin! I was largely in New York for the past decade or so, with stints in Paris and Berlin. So there’s your answer. I travel a lot. It’s hard for me to sit still. I’ve always had my heart between New York and Europe ever since I spent a year of high school studying in Spain. This winter I will be in New York, Mexico City, Chicago, the Canary Islands, and Berlin.
Remote has been a true gift, allowing me to bounce around for most of my adult life. I thrive in an environment where everyone has autonomy and is responsible for their own work.
PT What have you learned in the five years you’ve been running Butter?
CS I have learned how to lead. I’ve learned how to thrive doing sales (that one was a real learning curve). I’ve learned how to prototype in Figma :) I’ve learned what process works best for me, and it's very different from the ones I was taught at other agencies. I’ve learned how to manage a remote studio. I’ve learned so much from collaborating with our internal team and a broader network of partners, especially with designer/illustrator Beatrice Sala, who has been my closest creative collaborator for the past few years. Most importantly, I’ve learned how to be authentic and true to myself, which I believe shines through in all of the work. Most recently I’ve learned that I really enjoy sharing my creative and business knowledge with a wider audience. I’m currently doing this through my podcast, The Spread: Where Sports and Creativity Meet Bottom Line, and sharing thought leadership pieces on LinkedIn and in our Newsletter “I Can’t Believe it’s Not a Newsletter”. Butter also has a blog coming soon. Butter also has a blog, “The Melt” coming soon.
PT Any highlights or funny, happy or enlightening experiences along the way?
CS This past year we did an offsite in the Canary Islands in Spain! The Butter team hung out IRL for the first time together and it was fantastic. We saw multiple rainbows. We hiked. We ate Jamón. We built a fire. We watched a lot of The Sopranos!
PT Which projects have been particularly important to you?
CS Every. Single. One. Because the process and results were enriching for the people involved.
Women in Soccer (WIS) has led to more equity in the Soccer industry, and deep friendships that have flourished between myself and the WIS team. Creative directing PUMA’s period-activewear product launch was a big milestone and a meaningful one for us that hit all the marks of values-aligned work, aesthetics, and a fantastic team of women to collaborate with. GTIS Partners and Tavalo were also big milestones for Butter as they were large projects in both the deliverables and the time spent building them. En Passant Digital was a true joy on every call – the laughs and the jokes were infinite. CITIUS MAG was an inspiring delight with the most high-energy, thoughtful, passionate founder, Chris Chavez. There are too many to recount all of the amazing relationships and results here, but I’m proud to say that they have all been rewarding for us and our clients.
It was natural for the studio to build a niche within sports.
PT Can you tell us about the studio’s relationship with sports?
CS Sports were formative for me. My way of being in the world was shaped by playing on teams as a kid. I’ve always been a big fan too – from growing up in Chicago in the 90’s as a Bulls fan to watching the 1999 Women’s World Cup final and losing my mind over it.
It was natural for the studio to build a niche within sports. I argue that sports and music are the two most impactful types of entertainment for culture globally, so to be a part of it is incredibly meaningful. Working with sports brands is a way for us to harness design as a tool to help grow businesses that we believe in, that have a big impact in the world. I also love the space because it spans every vertical. For example the sports brands we have worked with encompass media, nutrition, venture capital and finance, non-profit, B2B, fashion etc.
PT And what is your next priority for the development of Butter?
CS I’m very happy with where we’re at. I’d like to continue to build our impact within the two core niches that we’ve been digging into over the past few years: sports and finance. Alongside the client work my priority is to continue to share the knowledge I have gained as a creative leader through my podcast, The Spread, blog, newsletter, and LinkedIn.