A lot can happen in four years — a conversation with NATION Co-Founder Diego Segura
After dropping out of high school, Diego's career has snaked from startups to the world's top branding agencies, through to using design as a translator for esoteric technology. In conversation with Elle Bland, they recount some of the journey.
Interviews

Diego Segura is the Head of Design and Co-founder of NATION. Below is an interview with Elle Bland about his journey from high-school dropout to the creative director.

Today is September 13th, 2022. Can you tell me what Diego was doing on this day, four years ago?

I think I was getting fired. Well, let's say I was "let go."

For context, I was 17, I had just dropped out of high-school, and I was working for a start-up in Austin, Texas. Their office was downtown on sixth street. Every day, you'd hear cover bands start playing at the end of the day for the college kids to drink to — I wasn't even 18 yet. I'd just look out the window and lust after a social life.

But it was a great internship, and I was doing well. I spent as much time in that office as I could — after all, the alternative was to fail at this internship and be in a really bad spot since I'd just dropped out of high school a few months before.

I spent my alone time reading, contemplating design, and trying to improve. Everyone in the office loved that about me; I was green, but I worked hard, and learned a ton.

Elle: So, what went wrong?

Diego: Long story short, my direct manager wasn't shipping a lot of my work. Just small design and writing tasks — collateral that other departments needed — but the work wasn't getting delivered. I didn't know, at the time, that I probably shouldn't rely on someone else to ship my work.

I was a pretty mild-mannered intern up until I started to figure this out. I knew my place; I was the little brother of the office. But one day, I overheard the Head of Client Services asking, "Hey Diego, didn't we ask for a new design of this doc for us? That was weeks ago."

“Wait. I designed that already. Let me Slack it to you. Did [my manager] not send it?”

After he got the file, he asked, “Why the hell did I never see these?”

And, my mild manners went out the window. I shouted across the office, "That's a great fucking question," and they all laughed because it was like hearing your little brother curse for the first time.

It turned into me complaining to the head of the company, and my opinion didn't matter much to her, and in a few days, I went from the "prodigy" marketing hire to "maybe you should work an administrative role at the parent company, if you really need the job."

I cried in the office, left before 5PM for the first time that summer. So much was weighing on me. I'd just dropped out of school a few months ago, and here I was being told that I should probably look elsewhere.

Elle: Wow.

So yeah, that's a great opening question. What was I doing on this day four years ago? I was crying while listening to a cover band blast their music on a Friday night, preparing for a lonely ride home on Austin's one northbound commuter train.

It all worked out, I'd say.

Elle: God, that must have felt horrible. Actually, can I read you a quote that might fit well in this context?

Diego: Sure.

Elle: “You cannot refuse to look at an idea objectively and expect to learn at the same time. You have to be willing to ask yourself and seriously answer, ‘What if I'm completely wrong about this?’”

Diego: Did I write that?

Elle: You wrote that in your book The Dropout Manifesto, published in May of that year. Four months before you were "fired".

Diego: Damn.

Elle: So, after that internship, did you feel like you were wrong about your career so far?

Diego: Yes, no, and maybe so. Doubt becomes a guest to a young person’s mind whether you invite it in or shoo it away. I didn’t feel like a very good designer, but at least as time went on, I started to understand why — and improve.

Elle: That learning happened at COLLINS New York, I assume?

Diego: That’s correct.

At my first internship in Austin, when I was told I wasn’t very good at design, half of me thought, “Damn. Am I really not good at this?” And the other half of me thought, “Wait a second. I was really good two weeks ago.” Clearly this was a matter of politics.

Thank God I didn’t let it discourage me from reaching out to the designers I admired at the big firms in New York. Pentagram. Sagmeister & Walsh (when it was called that.) COLLINS. I was invited to all three of those office spaces as an 18 year old. Everyone was so gracious — and encouraging.

And, of course, Brian Collins was the one who really drilled down to understand why this random kid from Texas was so enthralled by design. By November, I was flying to New York City to meet his team.

Elle: What was it like meeting Brian for the first time?

Diego: He invited me to the COLLINS New York office on a Saturday. I remember, I walked into the elevator, I’m led up perfectly fine, but the doors open and nobody’s there. Until I see Nick Ace, an award-winning Creative Director and filmmaker who was also working for Collins at the time.

Nick was standing over a desk looking at a collection of shapes and symbols on the table. Brian peaked his head out from somewhere behind him and shouted, “Diego! Come here, come sit. We’re doing a design review.”

It was fast. Intense dialogue. Highly detailed. But as I watched them collaborate, I thought, “These are the people I need to learn from.”

That was my first time seeing what creative direction looks like.

Elle: Now you are a creative director. What have you learned during your transition from young designer to Head of Design at NATION?

Diego: Before anything, I think the title Creative Director is one reserved for people way better at design than I am. I do CD-esque things — but I’ll let the Nick Aces, Tom Wilders, and Megan Bowkers of the world really own that title.

But I have learned that, to be a good design leader, you need to be able to imagine that something could be. The simplest word for it is foresight, and in my first internship (in Austin), nobody had that. But once I went to work for Brian, Nick, Tom, Leo [Porto], I was seeing great design happen almost by pure instinct.

They allowed me to explore and refine my own instincts, too. It wasn’t about, “Here’s my answer, go do it.” It was about, “Here might be the answer. And here are some possibilities that you didn’t think of. Go have fun. And make something strange.”

Strange was always a compliment at Collins.

Elle: From what I’m hearing about your past, it seems like you always knew that you would be a designer – but what about DAOs? Did you ever think that you would be working in Web3?

Diego: No. Not at all.

At Collins we worked with some very large crypto brands, and that's when I started to realize this shit was in vogue

Around that time is when Ryan Shea, our CEO and co-founder, reached out to me. We had both applied to work at Collins. I got the job, and he made his way to Solana Labs.

One day, I saw an email from him in my inbox. Eventually that snowballed into steady conversations back and forth, bonding over our shared interest in design and technology.

Eventually, Ryan led me down the road of NFTs, DeFi, and DAOs.

Elle: Obviously that road led to NATION, but walk me through the process. Were you skeptical of web3 at first?

Diego: Yes.

NFTs passed me by very willingly. I didn’t care how much money people were making. I didn’t understand how they were making it. Why were they valuable? Why did people want them? It seemed crazy.

But with DAOs, it was obvious. You could buy land together, you could start companies together, you can make art together. New forms of philanthropy. Community-funded spaces. It wasn’t about crypto. It was about discovering a technology that could help communities create change.

That’s why I jumped in.

Elle: You mentioned that Ryan is the one who introduced you to DAOs. I believe he has been working in web3 since he was 14. What is it like to work with someone who is “crypto-native” while you are still learning the ropes?

Diego: It’s a beautiful contrast.

When you’ve been in crypto too long, you start speaking like a “crypto-native”, and you forget that most people have no clue what you’re trying to say.

Whenever Ryan would explain a complicated concept, I would immediately search for ways to make it sound simple. That ended up becoming one of our greatest priorities — making NATION easy enough for everyone to use, regardless of their experience in web3.

Elle: As someone who is new to web3, yet tasked with writing about it, I can confirm that simplicity is greatly appreciated. I’ve scavenged the internet for newbie-friendly resources, and the options are slim.

Diego: Exactly. And that’s the problem.

DAOs have the power to generate massive impact. More importantly, they give communities the power to make that impact themselves.

In the past, the top 1% had the upper hand. Now, a small group of friends can finance their own film. A couple of social activists can inspire a global movement.

But those things will never happen with DAOs if the everyday artist, activist, or community member can't understand what they're participating in. We need to make it easy.

I want to end this interview with a quick callback to the beginning of your career. It’s another line from, The Dropout Manifesto. Are you ready?

Diego: Oh God. Yes, I think so.

Elle: “We [dropouts] are purposeful. We know that everyone has a purpose and we sure as hell know our own.” Do you feel like you know your purpose?

Diego: Only somewhat. I cringe when I read those lines all these years later. It seems 17-year-old me was far more certain about his purpose.

But I do feel a sense of purpose. I'm compelled when I'm learning new things, collaborating with brilliant people, and producing something tangible. As you can imagine, running a team at NATION is a dream for me.

That doesn’t mean creating the “best” design or winning the most awards. It means producing work that I am proud of, with people I am proud to work with.

Eliz [Akgün, Designer at NATION] told me during a design review that she felt like she was improving as a designer since working at NATION. That almost gave me goosebumps, because I felt fucking useful to someone's world. I know how thankful I am, years later, to the people who taught me things. Anything. I'm still learning a ton, and I learn from every member of our team, and it's nice to know that I'm able to help others out, too.

My purpose is to one day have the same massive impact on a young designer, writer, or founder that my mentors have (and still have) — Brian, Nick, David, Megan, Kinney, you know who you are.

Elle: Thank you again, Diego.

Diego: Thank you.