What Matters to Butler Looney

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Debbie Millman has an ongoing project at PRINT titled “What Matters.” This is an effort to understand the interior life of artists, designers, and creative thinkers. This facet of the project is a request of each invited respondent to answer ten identical questions and submit a nonprofessional photograph.

Butler Looney is the US Executive Creative Director of global drinks design agency Denomination. He’s had the good fortune of working for great brands, clients, and collaborators.

What is the thing you like doing most in the world?

There’s a book by the comedian Patton Oswalt called Zombie Spaceship Wasteland where he divides people into groups based on the different genres of science fiction they like. I’m very much in the spaceship camp. That’s where I’m happiest— at the helm of my little ship, looking after my family, making sure everyone is taken care of. That’s not to say it’s always going to be a smooth trip. There’s always going to be an asteroid field in your way or a meltdown over why someone can’t have sprinkles in their Golden Grahams, but that’s just part of the journey.

In these space operas, it’s also appropriate that the captain isn’t always the smartest or the most essential member of the crew. They’re often transporting the much smarter and more gifted characters to defeat the evil empire to stop an alien invasion. I can relate to that too. My crew is a spouse with a PhD in molecular biology and a 4-year-old who speaks fluent Mandarin. This captain just draws pictures and cooks fairly well.

What is the first memory you have of being creative?

In the first grade we did an exercise on paper making. I remember making my little paper sculpture and at the end asking the art teacher if I could go outside to find a leaf to place in the center. She agreed. I got my little leaf to complete my piece, and I was happy with it.

The reason this sticks in my memory is that it was the first thing I did that people liked. I remember my art teacher showing it to my mother and this little paper sculpture eventually hanging in the school offices. The piece was fine, but I remember finding so much satisfaction in the joy it brought to others. I still love that part of design.

What is your biggest regret?

For a whole host of reasons, I had trouble having difficult conversations well into my adult life. I used to avoid conflict and hope everyone would just like me in order to keep things smooth and calm. That’s no way to live, however. Not voicing dissent or putting a voice to what you need so as not to risk ruffling a few feathers only leads to frustration and resentment.

Being comfortable in uncomfortable moments is something I’ve worked on quite a bit over the last 10+ years. It’s still something I’m trying to get better at, and I certainly feel more in tune with myself now than I did back in the day. That’s the good part about working on yourself.

The bad part of doing that work is that you have to contend with those memories of your past self. Therein lies the regret: How could I have handled that situation better? Would my relationships be in a better place? Those “what if” thoughts just unfurl themselves.

All that looking backwards, however, is helpful in moving forward so you don’t repeat those behaviors. It also ensures you don’t model it to others— something I’m very cognizant of as a parent.

How have you gotten over heartbreak?

I remember asking my mom how to get over heartbreak as a young, heartbroken teenager and her telling me the only salve for that pain is time. That was so hard to hear at a young age since time seems to move so slowly as you’re growing up. I pressed her for some other answer, something I could actually control, but she stuck by her answer: time. She was right.

What makes you cry?

Anything around family and family relationships. My son watched the Pixar short “Bao” the other day about a mother coming to terms with her son growing up and moving away. The film might be steeped in metaphor with the boy anthropomorphized by a steamed bun, but I was a mess. My son, on the other hand, found it hilarious.

I’ll also happy cry when it comes to family. I was listening to Bono’s memoir Surrender on audio book the other day and cried as he recounted a conversation he had with his late father on his wedding day. There I was, driving across the Bay Bridge at 8 AM, tears running down my face, and no idea why.

How long does the pride and joy of accomplishing something last for you?

I don’t bask in it, but it’s important to stop and recognize those accomplishments and be grateful for what you did and who helped you do it. It’s also healthy to carry them with you. This business can be hard, and you’re going to need to recall those little wins when all you’re finding are headwinds and losses. Certain projects can often offer no quarter and nothing you do seems to get it on track. In those moments, it’s important to have the memory of those wins in your back pocket.

Do you believe in an afterlife, and if so, what does that look like to you?

Yes, and I have no idea what it looks like. To be honest, I don’t really think about it. I’m an Episcopalian, so on the surface one would think I would have some mental picture, but I think the reason is that my idea of what it is or what it could be is evolving. At a young age, it was something like the closing scene of Return of the Jedi with ghostly renditions of lost love ones. Now it seems less representational and more about feeling. Something more akin to the feeling you get of hugging your child. Something that is less about a visual construct and something more emotional and heartfelt.

What do you hate most about yourself?

One of my deep Southern grandmothers would always say to us “hate is a strong word” whenever one of us grandchildren would use it. She is right. I have a host of shortcomings and fallibilities, but I don’t think there’s anything I “hate” about myself. In fact, I think it’s imperative we address failing and qualities we don’t like about ourselves before they metastasize into things we hate.

What do you love most about yourself?

Compassion and empathy. It’s something I try to practice regularly. Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is a great way to gain a little perspective and try to meet them where they are instead of bending them to your worldview.

What is your absolute favorite meal?

My grandmothers and mother gave me a love of cooking and a great foundation of Southern recipes. My wife taught me technique and exploded my notions of what recipes were possible. It’s where our respective selves meet— in the kitchen, the designer and scientist.

I adore cooking Southern classics executed with finesse and with a bit of my own spin on it. I love a meal that takes a staple like that and pairs it with something unexpected and more reflective of my contemporary palette. A meal that fuses what I grew up loving with the cuisine I’m passionate about now.