Who are you and what do you do?
I’m a dad of two amazing little women 13 and 11, a husband and an immigrant. A family guy that happens to make a living from bringing strategy to life through visual storytelling, creative direction, graphic design & illustration. This year I published my first book for kids with Scholastic which also makes me an author. I’m also Cuban, and now Cuban-American which makes things sort of interesting or complicated, depending on the day.
How did you get into the creative field?
Via radio. I spent my teenage years as a radio host. I had a radio show for four years in my home town. The name of the show sounds ridiculously weird now “El Bugui Bugui” which was a Spanish translation for “The Boogie-Woogie”. Don’t ask me why. I did an audition, they liked my voice and I got the job. I was 14. By the time, I was 18 and ready to go to college, I was convinced I wanted to be a communicator. My hometown is at the center of Cuba and our region is known for a neutral, well-articulated Spanish accent. Two of my radio co-hosts ended up with careers as news anchors on national television. We all took it very seriously. I had many books about the BBC, how the UK built its empire with radio, and took all sorts of diction, enunciation, pronunciation and voice acting classes. I was always at the radio studio. It was awesome. It got to a point when I was conflicted about my career path. I didn’t know design existed as an option. I always thought I wanted to be an architect, and the only thing that didn’t make sense with the world of radio was my passion for drawing. So, eventually things clicked with me and graphic design became the big revelation.
Was there a defining point in your career, and if so, how did it shape you as a designer/creative?
I’ve had many important turning points that shaped my path. This is not my first rodeo. After spending 5 years in design school in Havana, I’ve been professionally doing this for 18 years. I’ve spent more than half of my life pushing pixels and loving type. I had amazing experiences as an art director at La Gaceta de Cuba magazine that paved my way to the in-house design department of Casa de las Americas. Both pivotal institutions in Havana. I also designed the first website of the cigar company Habanos S.A. and cleaned porcelain ashtrays with Fidel Castro’s signature in gold. That was quite epic. Another one was writing a statement describing a design layout for the director of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso. She was blind. Words mattered
However, the turning point happened under different circumstances. La Habana has always been an isolated cultural universe within itself and designers were in high demand after my graduation in 2000. In a very short period of time, I became an established entrepreneur and designer with plenty of clients. The pinnacle of them was the Centro Cultural de España. A cultural center subsidized by the Spanish Embassy that quickly became the place for all the designers, intellectuals and critics to gravitate towards. I assisted a friend with the branding for the place and we were in charge of the print collaterals for the monthly programming. In 2003 the center brought the Proyecta Design exhibit with the Best of Year Spanish Design and a designer named Isidro Ferrer came with them for a workshop. The center was under the Cuban authorities’ radar since there was a lot of heated discussions taking place behind their walls. A gorgeous colonial palace facing the sea, all modernized with a library, classrooms, coffee shop and art gallery. It was “my Brennan’s” in Havana, at the time. During the third day of the workshop I woke up and saw the Secretary of State on national news delivering a very passionate speech against the Center Cultural de España. It was the last day of Isidro’s workshop. The Secretary of State was saying that the center was a hub for dissidence and it would be closing its doors. He was calling out names and it sounded serious. I fetched a cab and flew to the center and saw Isidro. I brought him posters. I apologized to him. We were all confused, yet calm. He told me a mob of police and government people came, shut down the place, said everything on the premise was confiscated and the director had to remind them the center was under diplomatic immunity. That day, for the first time in my life, I felt I had to leave the country. There was a before and after, in my life after that day.
Outside of other design, what sorts of things inspire you and influence your work?
Seeing my daughters grow and become little adults is quite something. Cooking. I love to cook. I also like getting lost in my thoughts while somebody else is driving. I miss that from Havana and it’s one of my favorite things to do when I’m in New York, or other cities with cabs at your fingertips. The act of mixing ingredients while cooking or seeing a lot of visuals passing by has a mesmerizing effect on me. I also love to talk to old people. I enjoyed that a lot. I was raised in a very old colonial house, built in the 1700’s, and my grandparents lived with us. Architecture. It’s also a huge inspiration, specifically how the rules of the built space influence behavior.
In the last three years, I intentionally decided to move my career more towards illustration. I’ve always loved poster design, but illustration is bigger than that. Illustrating is a totally different process than designing. You have more freedom as an illustrator. Design is about rules, math, logic. I found more freedom in illustration and I’m starting to understand the rules of freedom. At the same, I’ve been taking more management and mentorship roles shifting my focus towards visual strategy, team management and design scalability.
What tips would you give to anybody who is looking to get started in design?
Read, observe, listen, explore… Question everything. Identify your strengths and more important try to identify the things you want to learn. I also tell students to start by following something they love. Be specific. It can be a random thing, say a classic font. Once you do that, ask yourself why and what makes you love it and start digging. Get to the font designer, the history of the period, the things that happened during that time that might have influenced the design. Make connections. We are in a profession with so many layers and our billable-time culture doesn’t necessarily give us the time for research and wonder. A good question can take you places.
How do you know you’ve succeeded?
Success is elusive. I’ve failed at so many things, so many times and at so many levels that I guess I’ve had acquired a well-rounded understanding of our industry. But failure also means I’ve tried something too. There’s no growth in the safe-zone. I’m very aware that we all live in a society with a winning obsession. I’ve also won sometimes. There are expectations, labels, income brackets, real estate and zip codes. All of which is used to measure success.
I remember a billboard I saw in New York in my very first trip to the city. The billboard was a double panel portraying about nine people seated at a bar. It had the sassy Latino, the smooth black girl, a senior aristocratic lady with a posh terrier, a sleek Asian, a girl next-door having a beer with friends, a Wall Street dude. All of them sipping their drinks together in the shot, yet minding their own businesses. The copy said: “Welcome to Empire City…” They all seemed cool in a lonely sort of way. And then, the second ad came. And that was really the killer. The same individuals were all looking at the camera with a sort of genuine welcoming expression finishing the message: … where everybody loves a winner.” The question that popped in my head was: “what’s-up with the losers?”. The ad was meant to be funny in the best NYC humor. It was an actual welcoming message with all the diversity checks and the right amount of wrong. However, I had a 360 perspective of all the rights and wrongs about it. I could name people I respect that could have been offended by such an ad. I knew cities in the world where that ad would have been unthinkably wrong. But hey, that was Empire NYC 2007, and in that moment, in that place, in that time, that message was a city saying: “Welcome”. I took a mental note and said, “thank you for the welcome” and moved on.
I live my life in the United States with a level of hyper-awareness that I’ve learned to turn on and off. Otherwise, I’ll go crazy. My head switches from cultural references that are not only different, but opposites. In time, I had to define it in order to use it to my advantage and it is my most powerful tool as a creative: I’m an engaged outsider. For my clients, I connect elements, write strategy, illustrate, direct photoshoots, dissect the scope in tasks and milestones and get to the bottom of what’s the best way to say, portray and present to their audiences. I’ve mastered the art of persuasion between worlds that are opposites. I’m a Cold War kid. We grew up watching Russian cartoons about humanity, community and anti-consumerism with a huge dose of propaganda -not different to the dose of propaganda that’s present in our daily lives. Every culture comes with its agenda. As a Creative Director, borrowing nuggets of wisdom from previous life experiences is key for success. I succeed when I’m a bridge.
What are the biggest challenges you face as a designer/creative?
Unconscious biases in the decision-making process. Sometimes, I’m able to walk around it. Sometimes I confront it. Sometimes I’m able to persuade, educate and elevate the conversation. I also have my own unconscious biases.
Sometimes I’m not in the mood. Racism is a very dangerous form of ignorance.
Another biggie is work-life balance. That’s the real challenge. Finding the time for my family and my company gets difficult at times. Time for my wife. For my kids. For my sister. For my father in Cuba. For myself. That’s tough when I have expectations about what they need to live their lives, and I feel I’m the one that needs to provide it to them. A Jewish friend told me I had a severe case of survival’s guilt. We laugh about it, but there’s a partial truth there. Being able to turn the Design switch down. That’s just impossible for me. I’m always working in my head and I used to pretend I was present. Not anymore. Unplugging and connecting with my daughters. I’m starting there.
What about being in St. Louis that inspires you?
Saint Louis’ unresolvedness. It’s contradictions. The gap between what this city was built for and what it actually turned into. The constant flux of the public opinion on local issues. I love all its civic drama. If the Loop Trolley won’t fit the railings, if Cortex is getting traction or not, if WashU is building their campus properly. If we deserved Amazon. I see all the entrepreneurs, all the corporate giving, restaurants popping up every week. It’s all happening here. People are getting involved in their future and minorities are claiming a seat at the table. People care.
I’m inspired by what we are building here now. Today. I see the post-Ferguson St. Louis and its lessons and yes, there’s a lot of work to do, and no, I’m not African American. My struggle is a different struggle. That said, there’s a lot of organizations doing a lot of work to move this city forward. I’m proud and excited about that. This AIGA STL Design Week is a great example of civic engagement. I’m proud of our AIGA STL Board and all the agencies that come together and elevate design for all.
At a personal level, my second daughter was born here. She is the first American in the family – which, I don’t know… it feels special in some way that I can’t quite describe. She’s different from the rest of us. She’s the only one with one passport. St. Louis is my daughter’s place in the world. This is Lucia’s city and that means the world to me.
I was living in Quito with my wife in 2005 when my mother-in-law called from Pittsburgh saying she was moving to St. Louis for a job at Washington University. My wife wasn’t necessarily happy about it and seemed preoccupied after the call. We were pregnant with our first daughter, Aitana, and I sensed a hint of concern. She introduced me to the concept of Bible Belt cities. She talked about racial tension. She talked about being far from the water. She didn’t want to raise our child in the Midwest. I challenged her: “Mississippi River Saint Louis? The Mighty Old River? Tom Sawyer? Mark Twain’s St. Louis? Josephine Baker’s St. Louis? Tina Turner’s St. Louis? Mid-modern century design mecca St. Louis? Eero Saarinen’s St. Louis? Tennessee Williams? T. S. Elliot’s St. Louis? You can’t be wrong with a city with so much culture. I bet it will be a great place to raise our children and build a Cuban-American design studio, right in the middle of Uncle Sam’s empire.”
She was right. She’s always right.
13 years passed in the blink of an eye.
I wasn’t wrong. Not then. Not now.
Learn more about Carlos and his work at Carlos Zamora | Design & Illustration