"You have to be prepared to fail. The consequence of having standards and sticking to them can often mean getting fired." The designer and creative advertising visionary speaks to Mark Penfold.
CA: Did you always want to become a graphic designer?
CS: To be perfectly frank with you, my career in this business is a complete and total accident. I actually didn't know there was a graphic design or advertising craft. I was a drummer in a band and as far as I was concerned that was what I was going to be doing for the rest of my life.
CA: So how did you get started in design?
CS: I got into the band at 12 years old, and I had been in the band all my life, basically. I had three tasks: I was the drummer, the truck driver and promoted where we played next. When the band broke up I found myself not really knowing what to do with my life.
I had been making these flyers, much like today's rave flyers except I was doing it by hand with press type and stuff. I got known for that. I got jobs here and there until I landed a job with an ad agency in Baton Rouge and then Chicago.
CA: What kind of advertising work were you known for?
CS: I loved print. When I was growing up in the ad business, broadcast was king. Everyone wanted to do TV commercials, but I was the print guy and got known as the print guy in Chicago, so everyone would use me to create unique campaigns, not only for existing clients but also for new business pitches. My introduction of design sense into ad work kind of separated my work from that of everyone else.
CA: How long did you work in advertising?
CS: Thirteen years, until I set up my design firm. Primarily because I had no idea there was a difference between advertising and design. I probably stayed longer than I should have, but human beings are an odd bunch - you start to get comfortable with the big salary and the lunches. You basically sell out.
CA: What are the differences between advertising and design?
CS: Obviously there are exceptions, but I think advertising is meant to appeal to the masses and therefore involves a lot of compromises. Design is meant to appeal to your senses and has a higher level of creativity involved - assuming you have the right client, of course!
CA: When you set up Segura Inc in 1990, what were your founding goals?
CS: You know, I'm really not as smart as most people think. I had no goals and no plan. Fortunately for me, I had become known as 'the print guy' while working in advertising, so the moment word got out that I was a free agent I got calls from almost every agency in Chicago to work freelance on pitch development.
CA: Did you have a well-developed style at that time?
CS: I think that I can generally call my style more experimental. This was timely because ads at the time were very templated. It was set in its ways, and I was bringing design and a heavy sense of typography into it.
Also, I've always been influenced by two markets: Japan for aesthetics and London for typography. I worked really hard to make that combination a critical point of what I created.
CA: And you never received a formal design education?
CS: I never went to any school. You know what? I really think there's no reason why anyone really interested in doing something can't learn on their own. Especially today with the web. There's no excuse for not knowing.
When I was growing up in the business, paper companies produced these amazingly educational and helpful paper promos, unlike today where they're full of effects for the sake of doing it. I used all those things to learn as much as I could because I really knew nothing.
CA: There must have been some tense moments if you were winging it?
CS: Absolutely, it did go wrong. I was always on pins and needles, man. I was so afraid that I was going to make a mistake because I didn't have the experience. And all this was manual labour back then; typesetting, stripping, leading, printing, separations, retouching. None of this stuff was done by the designer - it had to be farmed out and paid for in a big way. When you made a mistake it was very expensive.
CA: So were you worried that it might all fall apart?
CS: You have to be prepared to fail. That's a consequence of having standards and sticking to them - and that can often mean getting fired. You just have to be willing to live with that if you want to stand for something.
CA: Are you always that robust with your clients at Segura?
CS: We have always been selective about the jobs we take, and I think that has added a certain validity to our brand, if you can call Segura a brand.
I think you can do great work for any category. I think the greatest dictator for that is the personality of the client. For them to treat you with respect and acknowledge that what you bring to the table has value and to make sure that they as a client, even though they are paying the bills, are irrelevant - the only relevant points are the strategy and the audience. A lot of clients don't like hearing that or have a difficult time accepting it.
CA: Living up to that kind of thing takes great self-belief. Where does that come from for you?
CS: Well, I was going to joke that it comes from the fact that I'm somewhat lazy in the sense that I don't like doing stuff I don't want to do. So I work really hard to prevent myself from doing things I don't enjoy.
In all seriousness, I don't know if that's out of laziness. I just have a low tolerance for excuses. I can't see myself going through life doing something I don't enjoy. And at the end of the day, sure, money's great - but happiness is better.
CA: You have described yourself as 'a type guy'. Is that why you set up your foundry, T26?
CS: You have to go back in time. We started T26 in 1993. Back then there really weren't that many choices out there if you were a young type designer.
We wanted to start something that was more than just another foundry. We created a business plan that reflected more of an art gallery approach, but with fonts instead of art. We were one of the first - if not the first - type foundries to credit the actual font designer, if you can believe that!
To this day we're the only type foundry that offers a 40 per cent discount to students, and we're very proud of all these things.
CA: What's getting you up in the morning these days. Is it still type?
CS: One of the happiest things I've been involved with lately is Cartype.com. I can't even tell you how rewarding that is. Not only do I talk about cars but about type on cars, emblems and logos, who designed them, how long ago they were used€ It's not much of an income generator but it's absolutely the most satisfying by far.