Realise executive creative director and self confessed ‘hero freak’ Don Smith drops in on the man he calls ‘the Bruce Lee of the design world’, legendary designer and typographer Carlos Segura.
“Have you ever met one of your heroes and they turned out to be a dick?”
My answer to Carlos Segura’s question was “not yet, but I had a creative director once who could be a real arsehole.”
This was the incredibly comfortable nature of the conversation I had with one of the modern era’s design legends, and a personal hero of mine.
Now I’m a bit of a hero freak. I have heroes for every area of interest. So I confided in him that I saw parallels between him and one of my other great idols. He smiled nervously. “Okay,” he said. “Let’s hear this.”
I think Carlos Segura is the Bruce Lee of the design world. Bruce Lee had a philosophy of no style as style, no form as form, no way as way. I think Carlos Segura’s work conforms to that same philosophy in design. It doesn’t mean he isn’t a master – quite the opposite, in fact. Because he understands the complete nature of design theory, he is able to apply a blended approach that is appropriate for, and only for, the brief in hand.
He laughed, “I will gladly accept that comparison”. Of course, I have no idea if Carlos could whup you in a street fight, though I suspect Bruce had difficulty kerning a line of type. But Carlos’ outward appearance certainly gives you a sense of peace and puts you at ease. Immaculately groomed and the epitome of the word handsome, his attraction lies in his maturity, confidence and wisdom.
Fit, tanned, and with expressive features, he has soft, flowing waves of vibrant white hair extending from his hairline round and down into his beard. He seems measured, considered, and secure.
Having written that last line, I googled the translation of Segura. And my suspicion was confirmed; it’s ‘secure’ in English. How utterly appropriate. And it also confirms my suspicion that I have a bit of a man crush for him.
I spent an hour in Carlos’ company. I had arranged a client meeting in Chicago and, as this was his hometown, I decided I had to request an audience. We were already friends on Facebook, so I showed him the Milton Glaser piece I wrote the year before last and he graciously agreed to let me pop in for a cup of tea.
It was one of the best cups of tea I’ve ever had. That’s not a metaphor for the meeting: Carlos' managing director, Sun Segura, literally made me the best cup of tea I’ve ever had. It had a very unique herbal sweetness to it, and had exactly the right balance of temperature, colour, scent and taste. It seemed so perfectly considered that it was masterful in its arrangement.
This time, that was intended as a metaphor for Carlos’ office, which is also his home. It's a space of such sublime beauty and perfection that it seems more like a design museum than an office.
Sun explained that it had been a bank vault in its previous incarnation, and that seemed, like so many other aspects of my experience, so very appropriate.
The whole space is filled with design treasures, immaculately curated. Everything was in its right place. Even framed prints sitting on the floor, with other smaller frames placed in front of them, were precisely and deliberately positioned. There was wall space for them, but they didn’t belong there. The negative space was balanced perfectly.
Piles of books and magazines were arranged to form sculpted paper obelisks. Model cars were lined up so that the colours formed a hyperbolic gradient of tone. Even postal tubes for print delivery were stacked in a way that made them seem like the organ pipes of a baroque cathedral. I was beyond myself with jealousy that it wasn’t my own office slash home slash museum slash shrine.
As I entered, Carlos asked me to sign a square white wall with a Sharpie. The wall already contained the signatures of over a hundred visitors. The pressure to find a space and sign my name at the right size so as to keep the aesthetic balance was almost too much to bear. I think I pulled it off.
There’s something really smart about the nature of his office, and I was aware of a similar sensation when I visited Milton. Their environments are curated to their own particular taste, and they are very much at odds with the offices usually associated with design firms. They are personal spaces that you feel privileged to be invited into.
If I put myself into the shoes of a client, both spaces would have told me ‘the owner has a better understanding of design than you do’. Both spaces qualified the skill and mastery of the person you were in the presence of.
Once I had quizzed him obsessively about the room the conversation flowed into the world of design. My intention was to garner some unique universal insights, in the way that Milton Glaser had shared previously. But unlike Milton, Carlos is a more approachable and conversational character, and was generationally more comfortable for me to relax with. But it was only after our meeting that I realised the real lesson he was sharing with me. Keep reading, I’ll get to it.
In the depth of conversation we realised we shared a love, and understanding, of great design. And like all enthusiasts, we became very passionate about the subject once we got into it.
I can barely remember the structure of the exchange, just the various aspects of the topics we discussed. In such an enjoyable exchange, ideas naturally flow into one another. Yet beyond the event, it seems hard to recollect the stream of the narrative. I made notes immediately after, but like a boxing match, you can pinpoint key punches though the nature of the match has to be experienced to be really understood. So, here are the key highlights of the bout.
Carlos had watched a documentary the previous evening on the development of the Macy’s logo. He’d never really considered it before, but was surprised to learn that on the surface, what seems like a simple star shape has hidden depth (it is derived from the tattoos worn by sailors on whaling ships in the 18th century – the first occupation of its founder).
The show confirmed a long held Segura belief that design should have meaning, even if that meaning sat beneath the surface and wasn’t immediately obvious to the viewer or user. And that great design could and should contain some of the character of its originator.
TV led us naturally to films, and a mutual agreement that Grand Hotel Budapest is the most beautifully art directed film of its generation. And no one can say ‘fuck’ like Ralph Fiennes. But for Carlos (and myself, and I suspect most designers and art directors) watching films is always difficult, as your own scrutiny for detail gets in the way of your ability to focus on the film and its narrative.
The often criminal typography of title designers brings out the critic in you, and like an OCD sufferer, you can’t focus on anything but the imperfection. We also discussed cars. It’s an obsession of his, and his typographical car blog, cartype.com, is testament to that. We share a love of Audi, both for the brand and the vehicles.
But Carlos’ knowledge is that of an obsessive. Unlike most of the petrol heads I know, he sees the poetry in the design of a car. The curved nuance of a wing mirror fixing will fascinate him far more than the interior workings. In fact, he’s a shoe-in for the Top Gear presenter role. When he articulates his passion it is compulsive viewing.
Discussing revolutionary design in cars brought the subject of Elon Musk and Tesla into the mix. Carlos had been looking at the Apple Watch recently and his intuition was telling him that this was may be the beginning of the downturn in Apple's dominance.
In Carlos’ mind, Musk’s approach to creativity is a natural successor to Jobs and Apple, particularly the ability to not just improve the world, but to deliver an unexpected answer to a problem. That’s progress.
I’m writing a very Carlos-centric piece, but there was more to the meeting. He’s a curious man is Carlos. He was aware that I had come to meet and interview him, yet his interest in me and my world made it a very even exchange. That’s another thing that is true of great designers. They are always learning, observing and asking questions.
I could have stayed for days and I’m sure the energy would never have dropped from the exchange. Passion and character compounds itself. They are the fuel that powers the machine of progress.
From the minute I walked through his door, Carlos treated me as an equal and as a guest. Actually, what made the whole experience so wonderful was that he treated me as a friend. And if I’ve brought him up in conversation since, that’s how I refer to him. My friend Carlos.
But what did I learn from my friend Carlos?
Well, for starters I wanted to spend more time with him, I knew there was a lot more value to be had in being around his passion and wisdom. I learned that although a brief can be solved, there can be greater meaning beyond that function. That you should craft and obsess about perfection and embrace that love for your work. That you are free to express your passion unapologetically, with honesty and verve.
I learned meaning and depth can sit beneath the surface. I learned you need to look for the unexpected solution, and find that in your own character; you can and should bring some of yourself to your work. That you should enjoy the learning, the exploration, and the adventure of your passion.
As I said, I love my heroes. They have influenced who I am and the work I’ve done. But those influences have produced something greater than the sum of its parts. The reason I can pitch, and win, and then deliver successfully is because I trust myself to do so. I have none of the fears or insecurities I had as a young art director.
The lesson Carlos taught me is that real success as a designer is not about ego, but about getting to the truth of yourself. Accepting yourself, trusting yourself, believing in yourself.
It’s about being secure.
This feature was first published in the 5 August issue of The Drum.