What’s the secret to success as a designer? According to Carlos Segura, founder of five businesses to date, including the now-legendary type shop T.26, it’s being “big-headed.” Not in the sense of being vain. Rather, he means “having a head accommodating enough to fully take in the big picture”: a mind broad enough to love many kinds of art; flexible enough to be endlessly imaginative; and focused enough to remain steadfastly pointed toward the work you want to do, sometimes at the risk of turning down sexy jobs and high fees. In addition to contributing to his success at home, Segura’s single-minded philosophy has led to an unexpected, but very gratifying typographic stardom – in Japan.
Segura and his wife and business partner Sun recently returned from Tokyo, where he was a guest speaker at the Tokyo Art Director’s Club and the winner of 14 certificates of merit and a bronze medal. It’s rare indeed for an American to figure so prominently in the Club’s annual recognitions: Segura was also featured in a special section of the Tokyo ADC’s yearly awards book, a publication that has inspired him since his career began. “It was a very, very defining occasion for me,” the designer says. “[The Japanese designers we spoke to] want to be like us. But they are very good designers already. It was humbling.”
The Seguras have achieved acclaim in many design circles, but in Japan, they have an almost movie star-like status. It’s a role that surprises and slightly mystifies Carlos. From conversations with fans, he knows they respect how his design agency, Segura, Inc., doesn’t have a single style that it tries to paint on to every client’s problem. Japanese admirers also love his personal and typographic passion, exemplified in the way he can stay true to a client’s strategic goals as well as his firm’s creative ambitions. Finally, Segura is uncompromising: a single word on a business card gets the same typographic care as an annual report.
“Everything we do, without exception, has some kind of conceptual foundation to stand on,” he insists. “If [a job] has no reason for being, we turn it down. You might have a client come in with a cool project, like when MTV came to us last year, and your eyes light up. But they turned out to be one of the worst clients we ever had. They just didn’t get it.”
Segura’s popularity in Japan is fully reciprocated. The designer loves the subtleties of Japanese typography. “Japan is one of those societies that is unique in that it’s very homogenous. Almost everyone who lives there is actually Japanese. It’s not like here, where someone is American but Italian or German as well. So when a Japanese artist creates something, he or she can be much more subtle because the culture is more unified,” he says.
“The Japanese are more fine art-oriented in their commercial art ventures. Of course, this might just be the view of an outsider looking in. For a Westerner looking at Japanese letters, the experience is more like looking at art,” he explains. “That being said, they do inject much more calligraphy and art into their typography than most Westerners do. That’s very exciting to me.”
Perhaps Segura’s own flair for creating and designing with artistic type forms offers the same excitement to his Japanese admirers. Segura, Inc. designers, often using T.26 products, use design as a canvas for their typography. “Instead of art or photography, we use type. We don’t just communicate with typography – we paint with it,” Segura says.
Like anyone who is passionate about his convictions, Segura can be intimidating one-on-one. But to an audience, like the one at the Tokyo ADC, he is approachable and inspiring. And, following a recent, serious motorcycle accident this spring, he is searching his soul for ways to become even more accessible. “I need to work on my faults. I tend to be very outspoken. I tend to be unforgiving about clients who take shortcuts for the wrong reasons. Sometimes I don’t have confidence in clients or ourselves,” he says, adding that he is trying to step away from doing everything at Segura, Inc., T.26, Thickface Records, 5inch.com and Segura Interactive, his five businesses.
But he knows that his passion and energy, as revealed in his designs and personal actions, are part of what makes his work compelling. “When you have the flame in you, you do it. You don’t calculate the struggle. You just do it for the love it,” he says.