SDCO Partners’ Courtney Rowson and Amy Pastre on building a dynamic studio always willing to pivot
Founded in 2009, SDCO Partners is an award-winning creative studio based in Charleston, South Carolina. We had the opportunity to chat with founders Courtney Rowson and Amy Pastre who share the story behind the founding of SDCO Partners, the evolution of the studio over the years, and the unique approach they bring to their work. From Charleston’s creative scene to the importance of a clear philosophy, the pair reveal the essential elements that have helped set the studio apart and thrive over the years. Furthermore, we gain insights into a typical week at SDCO Partners and their goals for the future, including their focus on experiential design and integrative branding.
PT Hi Courtney and Amy! How’s everything going?
SD Hello! It’s wonderful to connect with you. Everything is going well here in Charleston and we’re finally getting a taste of cooler weather. Thanks so much for speaking with us. Our studio has been an admirer of The Brand Identity for a long time!
Career-wise, we were ready to make the next move.
PT Our pleasure! Can you tell us a bit about how SDCO Partners was born? What inspired you two to start the agency back in 2009?
SD We first met while working at other agencies in Charleston. We had the opportunity to work on a few projects and enjoyed working collaboratively together and developed a fast friendship. Our interests overlapped not only professionally, but also because of where we were in our respective lives. We formed a genuine camaraderie that manifested in lengthy conversations about design, business and shared experiences. In 2009, we decided to launch our company, SDCO Partners. The timing was right for both of us; career-wise, we were ready to make the next move. Charleston is a small city, and 13 years ago, it was even smaller. We’d both had great experiences working for agencies in Charleston and other cities, but we felt that in order to advance creatively, starting our own business was the next logical step. The company has now expanded to a full team of designers, strategists, writers and developers, with a portfolio spanning hundreds of clients around the world.
PT Why did you decide to include a ‘Philosophy’ on your website? What was your process for defining and writing it?
SD Last year, we invited the team to help us put words and thoughts around our philosophy and grounding virtues. What came out of those conversations was a clearer understanding of what makes our process and approach different. We use these as daily practices and guiding principles for the way we operate, act, create and communicate.
It’s allowed us to better articulate our mission – to help create, guide and translate client’s visions through design, strategy and story.
What we do is no longer a static solution, but rather a system of solutions.
PT Do you think it’s changed over time?
SD Not necessarily. We’re just getting better at being able to define what makes our studio unique.
PT And likewise, how would you say the studio as a whole has evolved since you first founded it?
SD We are working much more holistically than ever before, which is incredibly exciting. Earlier, a client would come to us for a logo or a website. Now, they come to us to help create, guide, and translate their business through design, strategy, story and place... I think this is a shift in the industry as a whole, and signifies a deeper understanding of branding, and the depth it can bring to a product or the customer’s experience. What we do is no longer a static solution, but rather a system of solutions – from website animation and print, to product development and immersive interiors.
PT How much have you had to adapt your creative process as the team has grown?
SD If we learned anything from the early years at SDCO, it’s cautious optimism and a willingness to pivot. We are fortunate to have a resilient team, and they quickly adjusted to the rapidly changing world and work environment. The past few years forced us to think about the workplace, our process, and relationships in new ways. It also opened up a thoughtful conversation about what we need as people and creatives to continue to nurture our relationships, feel inspired, and thrive.
PT Were there any tricky lessons along the way?
SD Of course. We are still learning as we go, and are always reevaluating our approach or reflecting back on how we could have done things differently. The lessons we’ve learned have helped shape our studio today. The trickiest lesson of all? Never assume you have all the answers.
We’re deeply invested in the enduring success of our clients.
PT How would you summarise your approach? Also, what would you say your strengths are?
SD We believe that great design transcends mediums, disciplines, and platforms, and becomes part of a rich, lived experience. Our work reflects the depth of our relationships with clients and partners. We’re often invited into early conversations when a brand is simply an idea, a sketch on a napkin, or a legend ready for reimaging. We listen deeply to understand a client’s vision and build the trust that inspires strategic, scalable solutions and meaningful, long-term relationships. We’re often part of larger creative teams, working in concert with architects, interior designers, and developers, which allows our designs to infuse every part of a product, a space, and an experience. We’re deeply invested in the enduring success of our clients – which allows us to think, strategize, and design non-traditionally and holistically – to identify challenges and opportunities, and create immersive, compelling, and enduring solutions for brands worldwide.
PT What do you enjoy about Charleston as a city to work in, and be based in, as a creative?
SD As a city, Charleston cares about beauty and design. Everywhere you look, old or new, there is inspiration to be found – from Philip Simmons’s decorative wrought ironwork and historic architecture, to modern art at Redux Contemporary Art Center and the vibrant poetry and literary community. The inherent creative sensibility that resides here is an invitation to think far beyond the expected and create work that’s layered, nuanced, and interesting.
PT Who makes up the core team?
SD We are a team of 20, composed of designers, strategists, writers, developers and thinkers.
PT Do you work in-studio, or have a hybrid approach?
SD We fully embraced the hybrid approach. Our studio is headquartered in downtown Charleston in an old historic building. The majority of our team works in the studio, but a handful is fully remote in various places across the US. Last week, we hosted the full team at the office for our bi-annual workshop. It’s always amazing to have the full team in the studio. So many rich conversations and ideas get sparked when we connect in person as a group.
We strive to honour everyone’s unique expression and experience.
PT Can you describe a typical week at SDCO?
SD Our weeks are quite productive and vary depending on the mix of work in the studio. Last week, for example, we had a strategy and identity presentation for a hospitality group, visited a property for a new project that’s about to begin, and launched a new website for a growing e-commerce shoe brand. We try extremely hard to protect a work/life balance for our team, and try to create an environment where we are all fully immersed in the work during the day and can put our work down when the day is done.
PT What have you found to be the key to creating a positive working environment for everyone?
SD One of the other grounding virtues of our studio is curiosity – to remain open and receptive to new ideas and ways of doing things. We are always open and receptive to ideas and strive to learn every day from our team, partners, clients and each other. It’s been a good reminder to surround yourself with people who inspire you and support your growth. We strive to honour everyone’s unique expression and experience, because that’s the space where the work we create is more resonant and meaningful.
Our team is curious about experiential design and integrative branding.
PT When it comes to running a studio, is there anything you would change?
SD That’s a tough question. We’re not adverse to change so I guess you could say, if there are things we would change, we likely already have!
PT What are your goals, moving forward?
SD Our team is curious about experiential design and integrative branding. Creating spaces and experiences that feel transformative, emotionally compelling, and connected to a brand’s story and purpose. Introducing new ways for people to engage with brands. Making design an increasingly sustainable industry. Balancing the digital experience with the in-person experience. It’s an incredibly exciting time to be a designer!