Since coming to the United States in 1965, Carlos Segura of Segura Inc. has risen to the top of his field, winning countless awards and even being named one of the 21st Century’s 100 best designers. His name has become a staple in the industry and he has redefined the world of print design, yet behind his success lies a tumultuous past that has shaped him into the person he is today.
“I tell people you can’t tell a story about growing up in war, you have to live it.”.
Segura’s tale begins in a war-ridden Cuba. Born in 1957 in the city of Santiago, he spent his first few years of life in one of the main hubs of Castro’s revolution. Amidst the violence and political division, Segura witnessed his own family being torn apart.
“My father’s family split into two when Castro took over. My father’s brother and his family supported Castro and the communist shift. My parents said, ‘We’re not going to do this, we’re leaving.’”
Carlos and 2 of his brothers in December of 1967
This dissent had its repercussions, and though he was only a child at the time, Segura has vivid memories of how quickly war came to his own doorstep.
“Castro came to my house one day, put a gun to my head and threatened to kill me if my father and grandfather didn’t support him. They arrested my father and took him away for over a week. My grandfather said, ‘Just leave us alone and we’ll give you everything we have.’”
Segura maintains that Castro could’ve taken all they owned anyway, but his grandfather’s gesture succeeded in preserving his life. The family was left destitute, but one of the few possessions they retained was a collection of old Spanish versions of Reader’s Digests, called Selecciones, that Segura’s father would read to him every night. Segura explains how those magazines proved to save their lives.
“When we were threatened with not having anything to eat, every morning we would trade two of those magazines with our neighbor for an egg. We survived on those eggs for about 5 years.”
In 1965, when Segura was only 8 years old, the family finally had an opportunity to leave Cuba and seek a better life elsewhere. With their eyes set on the United States, where other family members had settled, the family travelled to Mexico, the gateway for Cubans to enter the U.S. at the time. Shortly after their arrival, a tremendous act of kindness from strangers gave the family their first reprieve.
“When we landed in Mexico, my mother and father and four kids, we had nothing,” Segura recalls, “There was a Mexican couple there waiting for their daughter to come home from a vacation in Cancun and they saw my parents completely lost. They approached us and brought us to their house, and we lived with them for 7 months. It was the first time I remember being calm.”
After their respite came to its conclusion, Segura and his family made the final transition to the United States, relocating to a housing project in southern Miami. From his first day in the United States, Segura recalls a vivid memory that struck him.
“On the way home, we passed by a gas station. At the time it was Sunoco’s, which had a big gigantic triangle with a red arrow through it. This arrow was on a pole that rotated 360 degrees. I remember passing that sign and being intrigued and feeling something. I can’t describe what it was, but I remember it being the same feeling I had when my father put me on his lap and read me those Reader’s Digest and I saw their logo.”
Segura knew nothing of design at the time, but it’s hard to imagine a more fitting symbol than a gleaming red arrow guiding a young child to a promising future in a new home. Still, that tomorrow would have to wait, as Segura’s surroundings in southern Miami were once again wracked with violence and turmoil. Nevertheless, he found a creative outlet offering an avenue of escape.
“Growing up in Miami was tough as a kid. There were lots of gangs and fighting, and the way I got out of it was by getting into music. I joined the band Clockwork with my school friends when I was about 11 years old and played in it until 1977.”
Segura’s role in the band proved to be threefold: he was the band’s drummer, truck driver, and most fortuitously their cover artist. Though never having even heard the term graphic design, Segura started to gain attention for his creative hand-drawn flyers and album artwork. After he had left the band, these flyers went on to be the seeds of his future in design.
“I was without a job for a while. I sold women’s shoes at a shoe department, worked at a tire store, worked at a gas station. My entire childhood all I had ever known was creativity: creativity in doing the flyers, creativity in making music, creativity in performing. Now I was working in a shoe store. I was so unhappy.”
Segura feared condemnation to a dull and uninspired life, but a fateful lunch with his godfather turned the situation around. Segura’s godfather suggested that he take all his old flyers and put them in a portfolio and interview somewhere. Segura did just that, and in turn his godfather took the portfolio to the engineering company where he worked.
“So he showed my work to his colleagues, they loved it and hired me. So I moved to New Orleans and that was the true turning point in my life.”
While in New Orleans Segura began to consider an artistic career more seriously. While there, he stumbled across a newspaper that featured a competition for a job with an ad agency in Baton Rouge.
“They were having an ad competition to submit an airbrush illustration. I had never even heard the word ‘airbrush’ in my life. I had no idea what the hell they were talking about, but I went to the art store and said, ‘I need an airbrush,’ and they brought me one.”
To his shock, Segura’s first ever airbrush illustration was a winner, and he was offered the position in Baton Rouge. He took the job, and within a span of nine months had begun to make a name for himself.
“Me and this copywriter guy who looked like ZZ Top, beard and all, just put out all this stuff. We got more awards that year than any other ad agency. We got so much buzz that Adweek Magazine did a story on it.”
That story in Adweek Magazine was read by headhunters at a Chicago ad agency, who saw Segura as an opportunity too good to pass up. They called him with an offer, and just like that, without any formal education or training, Segura joined the ranks of the Chicago’s illustrious advertisement and design industry in 1980.
“I didn’t take any courses. I didn’t know anything about anything. Absolutely nothing. It could’ve been a newborn baby left on a doorstep at an ad agency. He would’ve known as much as me.”
Over the next few years Segura worked for a host of different ad agencies, including BBDO, Foote Cone & Belding, Young & Rubicam, Ketchum, and DDB. His popularity increased further when he began distributing floppy disks containing his digital flipbook resume, a practice that was completely unheard of at the time. Soon Segura was receiving a steady stream of commissions for freelance work, and developing a niche in the field of print design.
Carlos's old business cards Photo Credit: Ben Derico
In spite of his skyrocketing success, however, Segura began to feel stymied by working under the regulations of an office, something he attributes in part to being brought up in a civil war, saying that he has a natural aversion to being controlled.
“Somehow it’s in my blood. I just can’t handle the feeling of not being happy. If I’m not happy, I’m going to leave.”
In 1990, Segura set out for new territory and founded his own studio Segura, Inc., along with his wife, Sun. In the last 17 years, the studio has made some of the most innovative contributions to the design community, spanning a wide array of disciplines and mediums. Though the studio has worked on everything from albums for bands to limited edition designs on blank CDs, Segura’s fascination with British and Japanese typography styles remains a recurrent theme.
“By 1994 I was itching to explore the typographical aspect of communication. It was the beginning of the internet as we know it, so we launched T26 and it was one of the first foundries to distribute fonts via the web.”
Prior to T26, font usage was incredibly restrictive, Segura explained. Purveyors would only allow purchased fonts to be used on a single computer. Segura, Inc. disregarded the standard model, opening fonts to be used on multiple computers.
“We wanted to be inclusive in the design community.” Segura says.
The spirit of inclusivity has never waned at Segura, Inc., and lately Segura has ventured even further into the realm of philanthropy with his new project, Streets of Sadness, a nonprofit which aims to expose the stories of homelessness in the community while simultaneously giving back to it.
“We buy the cardboard signs from the homeless. They feel better if we’re buying something from them. They made this and we pay them for it. We accept donations and once or twice a year we have a gallery show. At the end of the year, 100% of the money we make goes to a homeless shelter or service.”
Segura explains the project was inspired by his recognition of the difficulty of the American Dream; that there are many people working for a living with ultimately little to show for it. Rather than express frustration or cynicism, however, Segura reveals how he has embraced his American identity.
“I’m definitely an American. Everything good that’s happened to me has happened to me here. I am who molded me and who molded me is here. I am here.”
We asked Segura for any final pieces of advice for those who are trying to come to the country and attain similar success. His reply was simple.
“If you’re asking me now, I’d say have standards and don’t let people push you around. Immigrants do what others will not do. It’s what we always do, with grace and gratitude and it is what raises us above the injustices we flee.”
To punctuate this sentiment of resilience, we’ve included an image of Segura’s latest work to gain viral acclaim, his contract - part of his “I Am” series.