Designed for Dialogue

Rooted in social responsibility found in Cuban-inspired posters, creative firm CARTEL uses design to drive conversations around inclusivity and urban development in St. Louis.

Work

Story By Heather Riske
Visuals By R.J. Hartbeck

When Carlos Zamora and his family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba by way of Ecuador in 2006, he brought with him about $7,000, his nine-month-old child in his arms, and an extra checked bag full of posters. His family couldn’t believe they were paying to transport a stack of posters, but to Zamora, they were so much more.

“The minute I arrived, I put the posters up in the apartment we had, and they immediately created my world,” he says. “More than anything, it was emotional for me. A poster is like a blankie.”

Growing up in communist Cuba, Zamora was exposed to posters — known as “carteles” — seemingly at every turn. Posters are the primary means of promotion or advertising in Cuba, he says, and while at the Havana Design Institute, where he earned his Bachelor of Arts in 2000, he studied under several professors known for their poster designs during the 1960s and 1970s. Before long, he couldn’t conceive of a career as a designer that didn’t include poster design. 

“In the way I was educated in poster design, designers had a social responsibility — a voice and a voice for society,” he says. “That was expressed through poster design, and poster design was that bridge between design and art. It was the perfect balance because you were communicating an idea, something that was happening in a moment, or you were persuading people to do something. I grew up with this social duty toward poster design but also the love of creating something ephemeral that becomes a piece of graphic history and also the capacity of synthesis that a poster requires.” 

Carlos Zamora (pictured second from left) sits with the CARTEL team in their new offices inside the Post Building at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.

Zamora found that the methodology of combining words and images used in poster design easily translated into other areas such as branding and marketing. 

“At the end of the day, a poster is a combination of typography and image,” he says. “That type of relationship between word and image is basically the root of being a good communicator and marketer. In a way, from poster design, I learned how to become a designer.”

Poster design inspired not just the name but the ethos of CARTEL, the St. Louis design firm he launched in 2020 that specializes in illustrated branding. The company uses Zamora’s love of poster design as a vehicle to distill clients’ ideas and concepts into their essence, and also brings together his distinct experiences as a designer over the past two decades. 

While working at Kiku Obata & Company, a boutique design firm with offices in St. Louis and London, he learned how design shapes the streets around us through wayfinding and problem-solving in urbanism. As creative director for Express Scripts, he helped evolve the company’s branding after its acquisition by Medco and, later, Cigna. And as a professional illustrator, he created designs with a unique voice and personality for national clients including Lincoln Center and Nespresso. 

Carlos Zamora poses in the CARTEL offices at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.

“That was our positioning for the initial three years of CARTEL: creating an agency that was able to illustrate, and not only create designs but also generate original art that was both iconic and memorable,” Zamora says. 

Zamora refers to the creative team at CARTEL as “design-strators,” as they straddle the line between designer and illustrator. In addition to developing a strategy — by understanding the market, the problem at hand, and how to talk to different audiences — they’re able to expand brand outreach by generating new illustrations for different projects. They create an illustrated world for a brand to live in, he says, which creates meaning and enhances what the design is able to do. For a corporate client, for instance, they might illustrate some of the company’s values, which extends the outreach and the meaning of what the brand stands for.

CARTEL works with clients both in St. Louis and around the country, including nonprofit organizations, corporations, and developers. The company has a particular interest in promoting the arts and culture scene in St. Louis, working closely with local organizations such as the St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, National Blues Museum, and Music at the Intersection. Over the past few years, CARTEL has also turned an eye toward promoting racial and economic equity, partnering with a few social justice organizations in New Orleans such as Beloved Community, Louisiana Policy Institute for Children, and People’s Housing+

A peek at some of CARTEL's work, including for St. Louis-based clients such as Music at the Intersection and Clementine's Naughty and Nice Creamery.

While their portfolio is a bit of a mixed bag, Zamora says the throughline across CARTEL’s work is in distilling the ethos of the task — whether for a nonprofit, startup, or corporation — and figuring out how design can take them to the next level in their goals. 

“I always say design is dialogue,” he says. “Design is that bridge between the needs of an organization and where they want to be in their next step. The whole point of design is problem-solving, creating methodologies to understand the problem. There’s always a message that needs to be communicated to an audience from someone that needs something. We really dig deep into what we are talking about. What needs to be informed? We create a space for conversation where we’re able to suggest, persuade, and make change.”

With that in mind, CARTEL’s work often goes far beyond design or illustration, helping clients strategize to create a sense of alignment in their teams, discover their blind spots, meet their business goals, and thrive. Rhonda Broussard, the CEO of Beloved Community, a racial and economic equity consulting firm based in New Orleans, found her experience working with Zamora and CARTEL to be much different than other design teams in this regard.

“Most everyone until I got to Carlos would listen to what I was describing and would then create what I asked for,” Broussard says. “With CARTEL, they listen to what I’m describing, get to this essential centralizing process, and then they actually push on design. Like, ‘You’re asking for this technical thing — let us explain to you how that technical thing is going to change the way that people interact with your design and interact with the brand.’ That pushback is something that other groups don’t do. What comes out of it is you have clear buy-in from folks at the organization because they understand how it came to be and also why we do it in these particular ways.”

Carlos Zamora (pictured left) collaborates with CARTEL's chief operating officer Zach Gzehoviak.

CARTEL’s vast and vibrant portfolio is on full display in its new office in the southwest portion of the Post Building at 900 N. Tucker Blvd. in Downtown St. Louis, where the company moved in early 2024. After housing the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for nearly a century, the building has been completely transformed, and the former lobby and adjoining mezzanine areas now house offices for CARTEL’s team, including those working in creative, brand development, and business development. 

Just down a flight of stairs off the lobby, tucked in the basement of the building, the Paperboat Gallery displays CARTEL’s portfolio of poster work from over the years, including designs for Laumeier Sculpture Park, the St. Louis International Film Festival, and the Tennessee Williams Festival. Zamora sees the gallery as a way to help create a sense of pride in St. Louis and celebrate the city’s cultural vibrancy. Soon, he hopes to start hosting events for different organizations in CARTEL’s offices to showcase the historic building and open up the poster gallery to the public. 

CARTEL’s new office, which is roughly three times the size of the company’s original home in the Hi-Pointe neighborhood, marks a major investment in Downtown St. Louis and a newfound commitment to reimagining the neighborhood’s potential. Before moving into the space themselves, the CARTEL team designed the visual identity for the Post Building — which is also home to Square — as well as the Globe Building and the Downtown North Insight District.

Founded by the Globe Building, Post Building, and T-REX, Downtown North seeks to connect, attract, and retain companies in order to drive regional growth and positive social impact in the area. John Berglund, managing partner of The StarWood Group, which led the renovation of the Post Building, says that significant investments have been made in Downtown North with the goal of attracting geospatial and fintech companies to the area. CARTEL has played a major role in furthering that goal.

A peek inside the CARTEL offices.

“The default narrative of Downtown is one of disinvestment: there are entire groups of people who would not think of coming Downtown except for a sporting event,” Berglund says. “We are intentional about changing that narrative. CARTEL has been integral to our change of messaging for this part of Downtown, amplifying the positive work that has been going on with The Post, The Globe, and T-REX.” 

Zamora was inspired by this growing development in the area — including the $1.7 billion Next NGA West campus for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, slated to open in 2026 — and excited by the opportunity to help be a force for positive change Downtown. Armed with three-plus years of experience working with equity and social justice organizations in New Orleans, he felt CARTEL was uniquely positioned to help inform new ways of developing the Downtown North district.  

“I create brands,” Zamora says. “And what is a brand? A brand is a belief system. I want to believe in things. People need to believe in things. I get excited when I wake up in the morning because I’m part of this group of people believing that Downtown St. Louis must be better. 

“And at the end of the day, I’m an immigrant. We have the resilience of building and thriving not always in the best circumstances. So it’s exciting to be part of the solution and I encourage everybody to come Downtown because we have to take the space. Creatives, designers, makers, startups — that’s what the city needs. It’s on us.”

Carlos Zamora poses in the CARTEL offices at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.

To deliver on its promise of creating a space for conversation that drives change, CARTEL also teamed up with Berglund to launch the Insight City podcast, featuring conversations with local and regional civic leaders including Unitey Kull of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, Tosha Downey of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and Gabe Angieri of Arch Grants

In addition to promoting urban development, Zamora also believes design and the dialogue it creates can be a tool to drive inclusivity. 

“It’s not just about having DEI training and political correctness,” Zamora says. “It’s really understanding the needs of the disadvantaged and also the dialogue between the ones that have and the ones that don’t — we are that bridge, too. We are creating a space for conversation. We’re not gonna solve all the problems, but we can establish the space for dialogue.”

He’s also passionate about continuing to make St. Louis a welcoming place for immigrants, and CARTEL collaborates frequently with Gilberto Pinela, director of the city’s new Office of New Americans. Zamora also served on the advisory board for Loyola University in New Orleans in order to help improve the university’s design programs and provide more opportunities for people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in the field. CARTEL itself has a multicultural ethos, Zamora says, employing designers with family roots in Mexico, Hungary, Denmark, and other countries, as well as entry-level designers just starting out in their careers.

CARLOS ZAMORA (PICTURED LEFT) POSES WITH CARTEL'S CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER ZACH GZEHOVIAK AND THE FIRM'S HOUSE MAGAZINE.

“One of the things that I’ve been excited about with CARTEL is how invested they have been in growing local talent,” Broussard says. “I think to myself, if this is my first job out of undergrad, how I would see the world differently? You’re going to learn those technical things anywhere you go, but (Zamora) really has had this eye around young designers who have their own perspective on social justice, advancement, community engagement, and how to use design for good. I think there’s a real force there.”

Zamora has known the power that poster design holds ever since checking that extra suitcase nearly two decades ago. Now, by welcoming people into the Paperboat Gallery inside CARTEL’s new offices in the heart of Downtown North, he hopes to put that power to good use — and to remind St. Louisans just how much there is to love about the city.

“There’s an emotional connection to a poster because behind the poster, there’s always events or moments or organizations that are trying to raise money, create awareness, or shift somebody’s perspective,” he says. “I always say the most important thing is what’s behind the poster. And it’s the people you work with. I have a huge collection, and now we have the luxury of having a poster gallery for the city to enjoy.”

Carlos Zamora poses in the Paperboat Gallery at the CARTEL offices at 900 N. Tucker Blvd.

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