Karin Fyhrie, BFA ‘02, came to WashU a blank slate. “I had no clue what I wanted to do, but I was enamored with the school’s campus and liberal arts focus,” she said. “As a kid from the Chicago suburbs, WashU was an exciting and expansive new world to me. The breadth of cultural exposure among the WashU community really widened [my] aperture.”
On campus, she found herself pulled to psychology, philosophy, business, and marketing. “When I finally had to pick a major, I ended up in the College of Art because the visual communication program held a lot more creative potential and self-authorship than marketing (in the business school)…which has proven to be a useful expertise in an increasingly media-dense society.”
Fyhrie’s exploratory approach turned up again when she studied abroad in Melbourne, Australia at the end of her sophomore year. Behind in her art and design credits after choosing her major so late, she signed up for any class that had the word “design” in it. “Which meant that I had accidentally enrolled full-time in industrial design at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT), a renowned program,” she said, “and I fell in love with it. When I returned to WashU, I started splitting my time between the architecture school — where I could continue building furniture — and the visual communication program. Later, my teacher, Ken Botnick, encouraged me to switch focus from advertising to design.”
After WashU, Fyhrie began her career at Toky, a St. Louis-based brand firm. She later moved to New York City and San Francisco. Some of her notable experiences include leading design teams at IDEO, Google Creative Lab, and Collins — which won “Design Agency of the Year” three times under her management — where she honed in on her specialty of bringing business strategy and brand expression together for clients such as Netflix, Meta, and Robinhood. “Blending those two things got to the systems nerd in me,” she said, “without sacrificing the artistry. A large part of my job is giving power to often immeasurable, and therefore, risky, creative choices. We do this by giving clients the tools to understand how their values, vision, and promise translate into formal design decisions, creative leaps of faith, and business best-practices.”
In the last two years, Fyhrie started her own business, Sovereign Objects. “There are times when I wonder why it took me 20 years to start!” she said. Her global, remote team focuses on worldbuilding — a new take on business strategy — that helps companies see, reimagine, and proactively plan for the future’s complexities. “A brand is no one thing,” she said “it is the total impression someone has of a company and its actions. A product malfunction or cultural meme could change its perception in a day. Brands need a lot of flexibility, range of personality, and room to grow” she said. “Our job is to build a large enough system and set of principles that allows a brand to engage with its audiences, try out new things, and evolve without losing what’s been true to it since day one.”
Beyond brand strategy, Fyhrie is passionate about leading in a way that improves her industry and the quality of life for those working in it. “There’s so much exploitation of creative labor. And I’ve found that creatives are most engaged when they have a lot of freedom, whether that’s who they work for and with, or when and how they work.” With team members across the U.S., Europe, and Asia, she’s fully invested in a flexible, dynamic model. “To me, a leader is someone who questions the systems that exist and steers teams through the ambiguity of pursuing something more sustaining, equitable, and adaptive.” And her number one rule for leadership? “Stay inspired. Then make sure you hold space for your team to stay inspired, too.”
Image - Collins
San Francisco Symphony
Image - Collins
Image - Collins
Karin Fyhrie (née Soukup) is the Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Sovereign Objects, a global design collective focused on transporting era-defining companies into the future they’re building. Core services span brand system development, product strategy, innovation consulting, and experience design.
Fyhrie has had the fortune to work at three of Working/Not Working’s “Top 10 Places Creatives Would Kill to Work For,” including global innovation consultancy IDEO, design think-tank Google Creative Lab, and award-winning branding agency Collins. During her tenure as Managing Partner of Collins’ San Francisco studio, Fyhrie helped Collins to be honored as “Design Agency of the Year” by AdAge and D&AD three years in a row (2019, 2020, 2021).
Notable clients have included Netflix, HBO, Meta, Robinhood, Dropbox, Nike, Bose, the San Francisco Symphony, the MacArthur Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, among others.
In 2016, Fyhrie was co-recipient of a media experiments grant from Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, where she explored audience engagement in virtual reality storytelling. The subsequent insights were referenced by speakers at conferences such as Google’s I/O 2017, Interaction 17, and MIT Open Documentary Lab’s “Virtually There” conference. She is also the recipient of an Emmy (her highest achievement as an intern!) and holds top honors in the design industry.
Fyhrie earned her bachelor of fine arts in visual communication from Washington University in 2002 and her master of fine arts in design entrepreneurship from The School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2011. She currently lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, while working with collaborators and clients internationally.