Interview with SDCO Partners

Headquartered in downtown Charleston, S.C., SDCO Partners is an award-winning, multi-disciplinary studio of designers, developers and thinkers. Founded in 2009 by Courtney Rowson and Amy Pastre, Stitch Design Co. combines imaginative ideas with thoughtful design solutions to craft and cultivate brands from various industries around the world.

Amy Pastre is lead designer and co-founder of SDCO Partners. With more than 18 years of design experience, Amy inspires a wide range of branding projects, collaborating with copywriters, artists, photographers and programmers to create engaging and compelling identities for businesses worldwide.

Courtney is lead designer and co-founder of SDCO Partners. Drawing from 20 years of experience in the field, Courtney executes projects that show an appreciation for conceptual thinking, innovative materials, clean execution and attention to detail.

Can you describe your childhood, and what is your earliest memory of being creative or generally curious?

Amy: I grew up in a small Southern town – Starkville, Mississippi. My parents were both university professors, so I was surrounded by academicians, artists and architects. From an early age, I was interested in art in general. I spent a lot of my free time collaging and just being interested in doing things with my hands. I always knew that I wanted to do something creative and be part of that space.

When the time came to think about college and what I would major in, graphic design wasn’t really in my mindset mostly because I was from a small town and that wasn’t a big part of the vocabulary there. I was introduced to graphic design through a class in my sophomore year at Miami University, which was the entry point into the major at the time. I absolutely fell in love with it and I consider myself pretty fortunate that I discovered it (or it discovered me!) at the right place at the right time.

Courtney: I also grew up in a small town in North Carolina. This is a very interesting question to think about because I can’t put a finger on a point in my life where I had that “aha!” moment about wanting to enter a creative field professionally. Like Amy, I was also very influenced by a family friend who was an architect and thought that that could potentially be a rewarding career path. I knew I wanted to pursue a profession that was solution-oriented and thought that architecture might be a good fit. When I was at the University of North Carolina, I came across the graphic design major and realized how solution-oriented it can be and that’s basically what inspired me to pursue a career in graphic design. It’s safe to say that I have no regrets. Yet! (laughing) Maybe later in life, I’ll pursue architecture, who knows!

Written by:
Prabhav Khandelwal

06.01 2020

How would you describe your team’s career trajectory and how they ended up at SDCO?

Courtney: We were both living in Charleston at the time and met while working at other agencies. We enjoyed collaborating together and became fast friends. Our interests overlapped not just professionally, but also because of where we were in our respective lives. Several years went by where we were having these conversations and really enjoy bouncing ideas off of one another. We started to realize that we both have a collaborative spirit and that working together might be a great idea. In 2009, we decided to launch our company.

How would you describe the design community in Charleston? What’s one thing you love about it and one thing you think can be improved?

Courtney: Oh, it’s really changed a lot. Back then there were only a few studios and agencies that would employ designers. By a lot of standards, it still is a pretty small scene, but it has really grown in the last 10 years. When we started our studio, the city was pretty unknown in the design world. There were a couple of small firms at that time.

How has your experience living and working in Charleston been like?

Amy: Great question! We always have been aware of our environment and the fact that we’re living and working in Charleston—and it’s totally a lifestyle choice in terms of how lovely ofa place it is to live. The Charleston community generally has a good sense of work-life balance. Even though we’re based in Charleston, we always wanted to broaden our horizons and have a bigger impact. The goal is to strike a balance of working on local projects as well as clients outside Charleston. I love that we have the ability to live in a place like Charleston, but that hasn’t limited our ability to do the kind of work that we want to do and work with clients of our choice, no matter where they’re based.

What is it like to have a women-owned business in a male-dominated field? And what sort of a unique advantage does that give you in today’s world?

Courtney: In the beginning, Amy and I didn’t really focused on the fact that we’re women-led; we just wanted to be known as excellent designers. But it seems very relevant in today’s environment to be female-led. One way that’s manifested is when we started to grow our team, our employees were very inspired by the fact that two women started and are running this business by themselves. We’ve just never put it at the forefront of our story mainly because we are so focussed on our work and raising the bar aesthetically for our clients. But I do feel like from the outside, it has been a defining factor especially for clients and companies led by fellow women, especially when we are branding a product focussed on a female target audience.

What do you look for while choosing your clients? Are there specific kinds of clients you like to work with?

Amy: We take on projects that we feel connected to — maybe through their mission, product or story itself. Fortunately, most of our clients reach out to us based on a project of ours they’ve seen, or via a referral from a previous client. We spend a lot of time talking to our clients before getting started on a project. It’s essential to listen to their story – show them you’re hearing their ideas, ask them to participate in the process, and try to understand what they have in mind. This also establishes trust and forms a solid relationship with the client, which is when the best work is produced. It’s important for us to set up that level of trust in that first conversation and try to establish a connection not just with the product or the project, but also connect on a human level with the client themselves.

How was been balancing motherhood and family life and operating a business been for both of you?

Courtney: It’s an area that we are constantly working on and continuously evaluating. You’re never great at both those things at once, and it’s a constant give and take. The process of balancing the two is more like that of ebb and flow. We definitely try to set some parameters so that when you’re at home, you’re with family and similarly, when you’re at work, you’re totally at work. Your focus can only be totally at one place, so you have to prioritize and segment the two clearly. Wherever you are you need to be totally present and mindful and you’re giving your full attention to whoever deserves it at that point in time. We feel very proud when our kids get to watch grow our business we hope that we inspire them in some way as well. It’s true that every parent has some guilt about being at work (or not being at work)—we are really proud of the fact that we can show our kids how you can be a successful entrepreneur as well as a present parent. When we were kids, we didn’t know what graphic design or design in general was at all! So at the very least, we’re exposing our kids to something we never had a chance to be exposed to.

Has there been a specific moment while operating a studio where you feel like you have made a huge change, maybe a big risk or some moment that has been seminal in your career journey?

Amy: We’re always having these conversations in the studio. We both work very hard and are constantly thinking about self-evaluations and introspections and figuring out ways we can improve our own work process. If there’s a project we’re really happy with, we always try to reflect back on it and dissect what and why it worked.

Four years ago, we decided to purchase a larger office space knowing we would need room for growth. That was definitely a defining moment for us. It forced us to map out a larger plan for our future staffing needs. We are always trying to balance immediate needs with long term goals and accessing when is the right time to act on those plans. It was a risk that worked out. We are able to create a work environment that is a reflection of our design sensibility and afforded us the opportunity to create a space that invites creativity and collaboration.  

There was also a time when we were taking on projects of all shapes and sizes, which forced us to have the conversation about defining our focus and narrowing down our vision and taking projects that we want to associate ourselves with. Having the confidence and knowledge to consciously make the decision to say “no” and not accepting every project that comes in through the door has really helped us grow.

How would you describe the ethos of the studio and what do you look for in a person when you hire them?

Courtney: One of our very basic priorities is to continue to do good work and look for ways to always elevate our design and approach. We operate collaboratively in the studio and eliminate any lingering elements of our personal life or our ego. These principles have driven our office and our design practice.

If you look at our work, every client varies from one another. We maintain this same philosophy with our team members. It’s very important to us to hire people who can spread their wings and adapt to various styles, trends and philosophies. So, diversity of work is a huge factor that we also look for when we are adding people to the team.  

Looking back on a decade in business, one of our greatest realizations is the importance of establishing synergy – both with our partnership, our client relationships, and our team.

Credits: SDCO Partners

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