When a new album drops, most of us focus on the music itself and the artist behind the tracks. But an album is more than just its sound; it represents a collaboration of many artists working in many mediums that have come together to create a collective piece.
Amaya Segura is one of those artists, and she works as a senior art director at Sony, helping to create some of the most exciting album art on record store shelves (and, yes, streamers).
The Bronx-born designer is Dominican, attending 8th grade in the Dominican Republic and her first two years of college at the Parsons affiliate there, Altos De Chavon, before finishing up her degree at Parsons in New York. She’s now bi-coastal, living in East Harlem and dashing out to LA at least once a month.
After featuring Segura’s art direction work for VanJess’ Homegrown cover in our roundup of the best album covers of 2021, we knew we had to speak to her directly about her practice. Lucky for us, she was down to chat, sharing her experiences in the music industry, learning to design in the Myspace era, and the importance of standing guard for her culture as a Black woman in design.
(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)
What’s it like collaborating with some of the biggest names in music working today?
The key is collaborating with another artist. For me, that’s the most gratifying part. At the end of the day, creative directors and designers are artists, and musicians are artists too.
Ultimately we’re giving these sounds a visual. Which is such a poetic existence. I really do vibe with that and love that on a fundamental level. To have that experience of speaking to someone about what they want a sound to mean has allowed me to grow with them. For Doja Cat, for example, I worked on Amala—I jumped in and did the type and some of the layout stuff—and to see how it grew from that one album to what people are now looking at for Planet Her is crazy.
Likewise, with Giveon. We were shooting in a random warehouse in LA at the start of the pandemic. Now, you can see so much growth in him as an artist. I feel like I also have been able to grow along with them and those journeys.
Every time they’re facing a new challenge, it’s a new design challenge for me as well. It’s the challenge of a follow-up project. How do we keep building on the story we’re creating? It makes it a lot more of an endearing process for me. I’m sure they all feel like their albums are their babies; in a way, I feel like they’re my babies too.
As an artist, there’s nothing more pleasurable than creating art for artists. There’s also nothing more difficult. It goes both ways.
Are you a musician yourself in any way?
I wouldn’t claim to be a musician. But the reason I started in design was that I was active in the early reggaeton days when nobody knew about Daddy Yankee. Finding that music in the US was very difficult, so I had to troll all the forums trying to get the new stream links for the music. In that process, I ended up doing a lot of spoken word battles (I won’t call it rapping). They had an area in the forum that was like, “Battle rap: you have 24 hours to respond!” So I ended up doing that and got a crew, and we ended up rolling together and battling together. It all sounds very crazy to me in retrospect.
We started creating banners. That was the age of Myspace, so someone needed to learn Photoshop to do all of that. That’s one of the main ways I started getting into designing; it was through starting to write music.
I also played the violin and piano. Nothing ever really stuck, but I’ve always been very musically aligned. I’ll probably get back into it eventually. I’ve been looking into learning how to make beats because I think it’s similar to how you think when you’re designing. You think of layers and meaning, and it’s similar to how musicians make music. That’s why there are so many graphic designers who are also DJs.
I’m guessing as a creative director you have to approach a project holistically from all angles, so this foundation in music and being able to speak that language must be critical.
Yeah, I’d like to think that being passionate about music helps you remember what it’s like as a fan. I still have a very clear memory about the sensation of opening the TLC FanMail CD. I remember picking it up at the store, and there was a fold-out poster inside. Because those moments were so special to me, I definitely want to make sure I’m leaving that for listeners today. And it’s been lovely to see that physical sales have been picking up, even though I think there’s a lot of potential in what we can do digitally as well.
Hearing you talk about the nostalgic relationship we have to music and how your design skills originated when you needed to create banners and designs for platforms like Myspace makes sense to me, given the aesthetic of a lot of your work. There’s this retrowave, 90’s, Y2K feel to it that’s having a resurgence more broadly right now too. Would you describe your style as falling into that category?
I’ve always had a hard time describing my aesthetic to people. I believe in design as a solution, not a style. What I mean by that is I think a lot of times designers can come into a style that people love a lot, and then they’ll hire you for that specific look or feel. I think that’s awesome, but for me, that already starts to border on being a fine artist. You are doing that style because it’s you, because you are inspired to bring that, and people are coming to you because they love what you’re creating. It’s more about you.
From my point of view, when you’re a creative director or a designer, a large part of that is the core of design, which is creating a solution for a problem. There has to be someone giving you a prompt or inspiration or a question, and you should be coming to that and bringing the best things that you know of that make sense with that, instead of a predetermined style. I always try to approach projects without bringing in anything too personal in terms of my preferences and listening to what the person or project needs and wants.
That said, I grew up idolizing and dabbling in graffiti. Myspace was a huge influence on me. TLC and the 90’s era of music. I grew up with Latin American parents who exposed me to the old salsa poster aesthetic. So I’m sure a lot of that has slipped into my work and subconscious. But I do try to be open to seeing beauty from other people’s perspectives. It’s important to be open to the definition of beauty changing for you.
What are some of your own favorite album covers?
It’s tough for me to say because so much of album covers to me is part of the music. I have the memory of listening to it attached to it, so is it the best album cover? Or was it the best full-package album? I feel like I always go back to Missy Elliott and some of her work just because it was so formative for me, but I can’t really say that’s because the design was the best thing I’ve ever seen, or if just collectively, all together, I was so very thrilled to enjoy the Missy Elliot experience as a whole.
So many covers come to mind when I think of things that were impactful. Dookie by Green Day was a huge cover for me. I think illustrated covers don’t get enough credit. Also OutKast’s Aquemini. Those are really solid covers that I still visually reference in my mind at times.
We aren’t meant to divorce the album cover design from the music itself anyway, right? We shouldn’t judge an album cover purely on its design merits. It’s inherently informed by the music; it’s a package deal.
Exactly. If it’s working correctly, it should feel like the music and the cover are one.
Of your recent projects, are there any you’re particularly proud of?
Right now, we’re waiting on the deluxe version of Heaux Tales, and that’s a special project to me because conversations about love and Black woman are something that I’m very much involved with as a Black woman myself. It’s something that’s very dear to me as someone who has grown up in that world.
I actually just posted about the choice of the typeface for that whole branding. It was a long blurb about why I chose Helvetica for this project. No one is on my Instagram asking me about that, but I think it’s important to share those details for these types of projects.
Lots of fonts come from European countries or America, and there aren’t that many fonts that have come from Africa. So even just bringing little nuances like that and the understanding that the authority that Helvetica has within society is because it comes from Swiss design, being lent to Black women to bring their stories and their voices has significance to me.
I felt like all those little choices that I could make speak to this issue in my own way; the same way that Jazmine is speaking to it through the music.
In general, I feel like it’s been amazing across a lot of fronts being able to work more and more within the areas of music for and by Latinos and Black people.
One of the first projects I did at Sony was a reissue of a Thelonious Monk album. It was amazing packaging, but I couldn’t find who designed it. The white photographer was tagged, but whoever designed the package was not credited anywhere. And considering the time of Thelonious Monk, there’s a likelihood that whoever worked on that was a Black person who was able to contribute to the music, but that contribution wasn’t logged in the same way.
That’s what’s significant for me—being present and standing witness, but also standing guard to the culture and being able to be a part of it for all of these artists.
For the most recent Aretha Franklin single art that we did for “Never Gonna Break My Faith,” for example, I thought about how some font designers used to be slave owners, so putting that font on a song that’s literally about oppression would be crazy. So I looked up photos from the March on Washington and built it from letters I saw on the signage. I’m sure a lot of people wouldn’t notice it, but that’s what I mean when I say “standing guard for the culture.” It’s making sure that those little nuances are there.
What has that experience of being a woman of color in such a white and male-dominated industry been like?
There’s always that moment in design when you realize you’re Black. You’ll go through the experience of being different from a lot of people in your classes, but it’s never marked until you start moving higher and higher up through the tiers of design. That’s when you begin to feel that you’re the only Black girl in the room. I always tell my friends that I’m suffering from “The Only Black Girl” Syndrome, and I feel like there’s a cultural point that I want to get across, but I realize that nobody in the room will understand what I’m saying.
The year I did the bling type for Rosalía’s Con Altura, that type was everywhere. She went on tour with it, and it was all over the place. So I sent it to a competition, and it didn’t even make it into the first round. I realized there was no one to document the history of what bling type has done for so many different industries. That chromed-out type that came from mixtapes that so many artists are still using to this day is an aesthetic that a lot of people see and are like, that’s corny or cheesy or cheap. But that style has so much historical reference at this point and so much impact. It’s become an aesthetic that people are using in an un-ironic way.
Those are the moments when you start to feel that you come from a culturally different place. When you’re the only one in the room who knows how to do bling type and at the same time are the only one in the room who knows the value of it.
I would love to eventually create a way to document overlooked design elements like bling type. Even little things, like how the doors of barbershops and barbershop menus are hand-painted, which is something unique to Caribbean and Black culture.
All of those little language bits are all designed, but it’s just not getting documented anywhere—it’s not being seen as part of design. There’s a lot of important Black design that has gone on to influence many things, but it’s just not included in the design books.