Don Carlos

Cuban born Carlos Segura and his type foundry T26 are dubbed as digital wizards who are big on the Chicago underground scene. Emma O’Kelly finds out what inspires him

If it’s true that typography is hip and typographers have taken on semi-rockstar status, then Chicago-based type foundry T26 and its founder Carlos Segura would steal the show at the Grammy Awards. Designing covers for record labels and music videos for fonts, Segura (aka DJ Razorface) and his consultancy have knocked Raygun magazine off the “new rock ‘n’ roll pedestal”.

Segura set up T26 – T for type, 26 for the letters in the alphabet – six years ago after a career as an ad agency art director, something he has gladly put behind him. “Working in advertising made me block out,” he says. “I only want to work on stuff I want to do.”

Uppermost on his agenda is a commitment to promoting typography, not simply for its own end, but as a means of raising awareness of social issues and new talent. His “Aiding” project is one such example; designers worldwide can design an icon related to AIDS and submit it over the Net via the T26 website. Every quarter, T26 gathers the entries, produces a font in which each keystroke represents a different designer, and sells it. The proceeds go towards raising AIDS awareness. Segura explains: “There is still a lot of negativity towards the virus.”

He also gives his support to unknown fonts and new talent through a series of QuickTime movies. He creates a font, gathers images and music by new artists whose work he admires and makes a 50-second movie based on the type. These are then sent out on CD-ROM in direct mail campaigns, the idea being “to promote typography, new artists, musicians and photographers”. Segura explains: “I start with a music track, then I collect images and base them on a name or style of font. Then I ask for permission to use them from the artist.” Most don’t object once they’ve seen Segura’s stunning results.

T26 is the first group in the world to bring type alive in such a way, and with more than 400 fonts to his name, Segura is hoping to make movies on all of them. He is also the first to come up with oval and round computer interfaces which form part of another project to develop an American On-line site to promote font sales electronically.

The T26 team has a reputation for being hardcore “digital guys” and Segura is wary of being judged on his technological expertise rather than his style. He insists that “the computer is only a tool. I have a problem with designers who can’t see beyond the screen or move beyond the monitor. When I design, I do it all in my head first then apply it by hand and then put it on computer.

“I can’t draw to save my life,” he confesses. “I hated doing storyboards when I was in advertising. I’d freak out, get a headache.”

Segura attributes much of T26’s success to innovative direct mail campaigns. And his advertising background has given him an awareness of the consumer: “But whereas advertising sees the consumer as the lowest common denominator, I think consumers appreciate things more than we think.” To this end, T26 produces direct marketing materials which are “like a gift; catalogues of fonts come in a little bag with a tie instead of just being a catalogue,” he explains. Catalogue 19, which comprises 114 pages of new typefaces, was presented in just this way.

Sun, his Korean wife of nine years, attributes her husband’s originality to the fact that he has had no formal training. He claims it’s because he’s had to be streetwise. Born in Cuba, his family left for Miami in 1965 along with thousands of others. “In Miami there was a lot of racism – gang fights every day, police escorts to school with helicopters in tow. I’ve always had to be extra alert and aware of my surroundings and I have regurgitated that into design.”

He became a drummer with a Cuban band as “a way out of trouble”, and has kept his music going, but rather than playing he has set up his own record label, Thickhead Records. Music acts as a “catalyst to get the creative juices boiling”. When he has a block he’ll stick on some Chicago house or loud techno, even industrial rock – “almost headbangers’ stuff. Everyone’s into that scene in Chicago”.

In the same way that being streetwise is instinctive, so is being resourceful: “I take anything I find on the street and scan it.” Funny Garbage and Chunk Chunks are two series of designs made from street trash. He has collections of eps drawings of postscript errors, fax jams and printing glitches, all of which are put to use. And he doesn’t restrict himself to garbage; even dead animals cannot escape his scanner. For the cover of a playstation game, he took real insect wings and built a design around them, and a dead squirrel was used as the basis of an album cover for the band Blackbox. “I was listening to hardcore at the time,” he added.

Not big on schmoozing, Segura is a strong advocate of competitions as a way of promoting yourself, and he’s come out a winner many times. Perhaps his most crucial contest was back in New Orleans when he was aged 20. “I was working for my godfather designing presidential charts and I entered an illustration contest held by an ad agency in Baton Rouge.” Not knowing at that time what an airbrush was, he went and bought one and worked all night on an illustration. He explains: “Four hours before it was done, I spilt coffee over it and had to start again from scratch.” He won the contest and the rest is history. Now when he wins awards he ships them back to his mother in Miami. “She sticks them all on the mantelpiece,” he says.

Despite the fact that T26 is so prolific, Segura wants to keep the company small. He employs seven designers and uses freelance production staff. “The QuickTime movies are a real family affair even though there are members that aren’t family – anyone can submit their work.” It is for this reason – combined with the fact that he is “a loner not a team player” who “hates dealing with people and can be too hands-off” – that he doesn’t want his consultancy to grow.

He was happy being based in the “packaged goods town” of Chicago – until he came to visit London that is. It totally blew him away. He raves about the number of good designers in the UK and the fact that everyone in the design community seems to get along. Could this signal Segura’s second life-changing transatlantic crossing to end up back on a (somewhat less tropical) small island?

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