The Drum / by Carlos Segura

Don Smith, Executive Creative Director of Realise, interviews Carlos Segura and the online article an be seen on The Drum and Medium.

“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. Although 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.

I’m a bit of a hero freak. I have loads of them. From every area of interest I have.

“Carlos, I think there are parallels between you and one of my other great heroes.” I confided in him. “OK.” He smiled nervously, “Let’s hear this.”

“I think you’re the Bruce Lee of the design world.”

Thankfully he laughed and took it as a compliment, so I continued.

“Bruce Lee had a philosophy of no style as style, no form as form, no way as way. I think your work conforms to that philosophy in design. It doesn’t mean you aren’t a master, the opposite in fact. Because you understand the complete nature of design theory, you apply a blended approach that is appropriate for, and only for, the brief in hand.”

“I will gladly accept that comparison.” He said with grace.

Now I have no idea if Carlos could whup you in a street fight, but then I suspect Bruce had difficulty kerning a line of type. His outward appearance certainly gives you a sense of peace and puts you at ease.

He’s a gorgeous man. Immaculately groomed and the epitome of the word handsome. Like all charismatic men, his attraction lies in his maturity, confidence and wisdom. Fit, tanned, expressive with soft, flowing waves of vibrant white hair extending from his hairline round and down into his beard.

He is measured and considered and secure. Having written that last line, I just googled the translation of Segura. And my suspicion was confirmed; it’s ‘Secure’ in English. How utterly appropriate.

It also confirms my suspicion that I have a bit of a man crush for him. I spent an hour in Carlos’ company. I’d 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. The managing Director (and Carlos’ partner), 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, color, scent and taste. It seemed so perfectly considered that it was masterful in its arrangement.

That last bit was actually a metaphor for Carlos’ office, which is also his home. A space of such sublime beauty and perfection that it seemed more like a design museum than an office. Sun explained that it had been a bank vault in a previous life, and that seemed, like so many other aspects of my experience, so very appropriate. The whole space is filled with design treasures, curated perfectly.

Every thing was in the right place, even framed prints sitting on the floor, with other smaller ones sitting in front, were precisely and deliberately positioned. There was wall space for them, but they didn’t belong there. The negative space was balanced correctly. Piles of books and magazines were arranged to form sculpted paper obelisks. Model cars were lined up so that the colors 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 thing 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 — we were at the top of the house in his office — 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 generationally more comfortable for me to relax with. Only after our meeting did I realize the real lesson he was sharing with me.

Keep reading, I’ll get to it.

But 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 it. In such an enjoyable conversation exchange, topics 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, but 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 eighteenth century — the first occupation of the founder).

The show had 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 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 naturally discussed cars, it’s an obsession of his and his typographical car blog, 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 topic 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 maybe the beginning of the downturn in apples dominance. Musk’s approach to creativity is a natural successor to Jobs and Apple. Especially 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, always observing and always 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. It’s an energy, and another of the traits of great creative people. 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 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.

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 meaning and depth can sit beneath the surface.

To express your passion unapologetically.

To find unexpected solutions, and find them in your own character.

And to 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.

Written by Don Smith and first published in The Drum magazine on August 5th, 2015.