David Carson

david carson head shot

By Peter Plagens and Ray Sawhill

Now read this — or try to, anyway: words in oddly mixed capitals and lowercase with some letters blurred, overlaid on photographs or crammed into little tilting boxes. That’s just a magazine page, which at least stands still. Try TV: the same, except everything moves — in and out, up and down, over and under — to the sound of giant gears grinding and a voice-over hustling Hardee’s burgers or Glendale Federal’s friendlier checking accounts. (Hitting the MUTE button doesn’t stop the sell; the type keeps on coming.) You start to feel like a top gun with a MiG in his sights, doing a barrel roll at 900 mph.

If you can read any of it, you’re probably under 50. If you really like it, you’re most likely under 30 and recently weaned from your skateboard. And if you dig it enough to stand in line and pay $10 to hear the designer of all this give a lecture, you might be a starry-eyed student at New York’s Cooper Union or Michigan’s Cranbrook Academy of Art, and David Carson has been your graphics hero since you subscribed to the magazine Ray Gun. Like, you’re probably carrying a just-bought copy of Carson’s and Lewis Blackwell’s new book (with a foreword by Carson client David Byrne) “The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson” (Chronicle).

Carson, a 40-year-old former professional surfer, stumbled into graphic design when he was 24 and teaching high school on the West Coast. He came across an advertisement for a two-week design course for high-school seniors and decided to catch that wave. Then his grandmother staked him to commercial art school in Oregon. He stayed all of six months. Carson pestered art directors at surfer magazines until one finally let him intern for free until somebody else was fired. Carson temporarily left Del Mar, Calif., to do short stints at Self and Musician. But he first hit his stride at Transworld Skateboarding. “They had 200 pages every month, in full color, and no budget restrictions,” Carson recalls. “I had an audience that wanted something experimental.”

Equipped with a conveniently inadequate design education (“There’s a conformity that comes out of some of the schools,” Carson says), he changed the public face of graphic design. The pre-Carson problem, as one designer puts it, was that “the modernist grid subverts the personality of the designer to the primacy of the corporate.” Carson shattered the nice, clean, readable grid, scattered headlines and text across overlapping photos, and raised illegibility to an art form. (Carson says that “overall people are reading less,” and he’s merely trying to “visually entice them to read.”) At Transworld Skateboarding and then Surfer, he worked improvisationally. “His work reflects his work habits — disarray,” says Joni Casimiro, his successor at Surfer, with admiration. Once, he accidentally cut his finger on an X-acto knife. He decided he liked the drops of blood that fell on the layout, and left them in the final design.

Transworld Skateboarding wasn’t the most mainstream publication, and neither were the two magazines Carson completely designed himself — Beach Culture and Ray Gun. But they appeared when such companies as Nike and Levi Strauss were looking for ways to make their ads appeal to the generation who squirrel into 7-Elevens on skateboards and say, “Make that two Big Gulps, dude.” They hired Carson and it worked, and on more than just the plaid-shirt crowd. Carson now counts MCI, Ray-Ban and Jaguar among his clients. He’s gone bicoastal, opening a New York office and taking an East Village apartment. LiFe IS gOOD.

In the hypercompetitive design world, however, Carson has his detractors. One is Rudy VanderLans, co-owner of Sacramento’s Emigre Graphics, the Home Depot of the postmodern graphics business, and the source of many of Carson’s favorite fonts. “He’s been the Billy Idol of graphic design,” VanderLans says. “A lot of suburban kids who were afraid of the Sex Pistols could suddenly like him … He’s a ferocious promoter and he has a gigantic ego.”

Which is exactly why Ray Gun publisher Marvin Scott Jarrett fired Carson last fall. Andrew Blauvelt, who chairs the graphic-design department at Cranbrook (the Harvard Law of the field), says, “I don’t find his ads interesting at all. The ads are kind of crude. They just have the hip factor.” There are even grumblings from young designers and illustrators who feel that Carson has taken all the credit for what is essentially a collaboration with them. Carson says, “I’ve never said I’m the one who’s done the whole thing.” And in his most recent talks, he scrupulously mentions other contributors.

But cannibalism — or at least collage-ism — is in the nature of graphic designers. They take this typeface, that photograph, this copy, that illustration, and cobble together a screen, a page, an article, a magazine or a book. They’d rather quibble about who deserves credit for changing recent design history. “If you look back at the dadaists and the futurists in the 1910s,” says ARTnews design director David Walters, “they were doing things that were more unreadable.”

The first postmodernist grid-loosenings occurred in Europe a few decades ago. Americans such as Los Angeles designer April Greiman went over in the ’70s and brought back a Euro-American hybrid (lots of diagonals, lowercase type and color bars poking into the page). Typographic designers like VanderLans and Barry Deck chipped in new fonts (Deck’s oscilliscopish Template Gothic is the hit of the ’90s). But what shook tradition most was the advent, in the mid-’80s, of the Macintosh computer, whose infinitely malleable screen began to replace the pencil and T-square for most designers.

“I’d call Carson a popularizer,” says designer and historian Steven Heller. Carson concurs — with an edge: “I’m experimenting in public. At the design grad schools, these are people sitting around in groups, putting their work on a wall, analyzing it and putting it back in a drawer. I think there’s little risk in that.” Carson himself may be tiring of playing typographic bumper cars. Speak, a new Carson-designed quarterly concerned with “design, culture and a smattering of rock and roll,” debuts in April. “You’re going to see things getting cleaner now,” says Carson. Which is just what you’d expect from someone who’s jumped from a skateboard to a Jaguar.

Peter Plagens, an artist who was also Newsweek’s art critic, wrote this piece; I came up with the idea and did the reporting. I’m including the piece on this website with Peter’s kind permission.

©1996 by Newsweek Inc. Reproduced by permission.



Loose Talk

By Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill

Ray Sawhill: “Voyeur” is a video game with sex-thriller and “Dynasty”-like narrative elements. It’s played on your TV, meant to be enjoyed by grown-ups, and to turn them on.

Polly Frost: Computers, multimedia, pornography … Why do I have to share your enthusiasms?

RS: I don’t care if you share them. I only want to know how you react to them.

PF: I really went for Masa, the Japanese eco-terrorist. He’s one Pacific-Rim hunk! You seemed to like the scene where that major cocktease Chloe, in skimpy undies, interrupts Masa’s martial arts work-out and gets him to rub her shoulders. You interacted your way every single time to her cute little blonde-girl butt.

RS: Only because it reminded me of yours.

PF: Hah. And you liked the line Chloe says to her cousin’s uptight wife Lara, “The bra has to go.” Would you like to say that to your woman?

RS: Actually, I liked hearing a woman say it to a woman.

PF: How passive of you. “Voyeur” is about as effective a marital aid as getting a flat when you’re on vacation, and one of you has to read the instructions while the other one changes the tire.

RS: An erotic suspense story should have an I’m-on-a-waterslide excitement. In a movie it can be arousing that you can’t re-run a favorite scene — narrative does have its purposes. I never experienced linearity as the horrible thing some theorists make it out to be. Did you?

PF: I grew up on the LA freeways. I wouldn’t know what linearity is.

RS: Now that digital media give us the ability to bring up our favorite movie and video bits instantly, and run them past over and over, I wonder what new frustrations and yearnings we’ll discover. How did the partial point-of-view work for you?

PF: It was like a Christmas advent calendar. You’re in an apartment, looking through a video camera. Across the way is the mansion of a powerful, sinister family. You’re peering into their windows, at pieces of a story. Some are video segments with actual actors, some are audio clips, some are clues you zoom in and pick out. You have a limited amount of time to solve the mystery. Then you warn the character in danger, or you contact the police. When I heard the words “interactive multimedia” I was afraid I was going to have to do a lot more than that.

RS: “Voyeur” is halfway between a movie and a video game, and it isn’t a satisfying mesh.

PF: If you play a typical video game, you enter into it as a character, like Sonic the Hedgehog. He’s your id set free. “Voyeur” would be more fun if you could be Reed, who wants to be President and tries to bury his dirty secrets, or Chantal, the dominatrix who really runs his empire.

RS: It seems to have been made by entrepreneurs rather than entertainers.

PF: It didn’t lead to great sex; it led to weird dreams when we conked out instead.

RS: And different kinds of dreams than the ones movies stir up.

PF: Death or sex should be the catharsis of interaction. In “Voyeur” I never even got to see anyone killed. It might work if my prurient interests were being more expertly catered to.

RS: Inept game-players like us need more payoffs along the way. Maybe what’s supposed to be adult about “Voyeur” is the endlessly postponed pleasure.

PF: Interactive multimedia makes me feel like I’m in one of those restaurants where they tell you to create your own omelet. I say, show me what your chef can do. Then let me bitch about it. I don’t want to be the one who decides whether Anna Karenina jumps in front of that train! Is it the technology itself that turns you on?

RS: It’s like watching the birth of a new medium. Imagine being in on the first days of movies, when people were trying things out that had never been seen before.

PF: Film seems far richer than multimedia.

RS: I think that’s because only a few people have begun learning how to do more with multimedia than show off the technology. Lousy as “Voyeur” is, look at how complicated even it gets. When we cut in close to gather evidence we sometimes wind up looking at someone’s computer — we’re watching our TV, which is portraying an image seen through a video camera that shows us a message on a computer screen. For 25 years, worlds-within-worlds self-referentiality was an aspect of art that baby boomers were obsessed by. Who knows why? But for better or worse multimedia is the recently-hatched culmination of that obsession. And people are still mostly just fumbling around with it.

PF: It gave me a headache.

RS: Humanizing the computer world and learning how to interact with it are two of the great intellectual/aesthetic challenges of our day. Can I make some other fast points?

PF: Only if you number them. I love it when you make lists.

RS: 1) When you’re using it with interactive programs, your TV becomes a different device than the one that’s discussed by critics of TV like Neil Postman. It’s no idiot box. Imagine: all that theorizing disproved, just like that. 2) Videocam style is entirely different from the classic visual language of the movies, and may be obliterating it. 3) The home entertainment center — the stereo/TV/computer rig — is today’s cathedral, museum and theater. 3a) Don’t do that.

PF: Don’t do what?

RS: Don’t scratch your back yourself. Think interactive, baby. Tell me how you want it scratched.

PF: Down up down right there yes not there do it right aaaahhhh. This is exactly why I find “Voyeur” boring — if I’m going to boss someone around I want to do it in person.

©1992 by Polly Frost and Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.

Cannibal Culture 2

By Ray Sawhill

Over and over I hear — sometimes from young people, sometimes from video-parlor clerks — that people in their 20s won’t watch black and white movies. Yet ads and music videos aimed at young people often use black and white.

How to account for this? My guess is that it isn’t just a question of pacing. In the ads and videos, black and white is used as a sign. We read its meaning: “low-budget integrity,” “drained of affect,” “1950s glamor” — nostalgia for the childhood someone, somewhere must have had. In the old movies, black and white doesn’t need de-coding.

20somethings seem to find it inconceivable that one might move into and inhabit a language. Suggest that it’s possible, and they look at you with “what kind of dinosaur are you?” disbelief. External reality consists of a desktop to be customized, and icons to be clicked on.

Movie language, evolved during the “organic unity” modernist era, strikes young people as fit only to be parodied, referred to ironically, or shunned.


The baby boomers who now run the media were once known as the Movie Generation. The 20somethings, their progeny, may be the Anti-Movie Generation, even when they make movies. In their films, people wander out of frame, someone horses with a videocam, partners shift, time drizzles by. Finally, someone confesses that he feels miserable.


“Bodies, Rest and Motion,” “Clerks,” “Reality Bites,” and the grandaddy of the genre, “Sex, Lies and Videotape” — even the titles demand a lower-case, sans-serif typeface. There’s something abroad that’s beyond language, we’re being told. It demands diagramming-out, new thought patterns, new technologies.


“Late Bloomers,” by David Lipsky and Alexander Abrams, is subtitled “Coming of Age in Today’s America: The Right Place at the Wrong Time” (Times). There aren’t any surprises in the Generation X complaints it sets forth: AIDS, the deficit, divorced baby boomer parents. GenXers of the most self-conscious type — MediaSomethings — Lipsky and Abrams spend most of the book worrying about media portrayals, complaining about them in one paragraph, using them to bolster their case in the next.


The MediaSomethings have grown up surrounded by cameras and recording devices. They seem to want to protest against the society of the spectacle, and to be videotaped doing so.

As prose writers, the MediaSomethings have two major modes: the mock-selling (ie., commercial) style, and the no-style (ie., truth or art) style.

The commercial style seems to come equally from ads, stand-up comics, e-mail, and video jockeys. It’s raucous — full of imperatives, YO!-style attention-grabbers, dropped subjects, and invisible auxiliary verbs. It’s prose that wears its baseball cap backwards, and pushes its snout into a wide-angle lens. Entire sentences seem to turn into contractions. “Never mind those stories about … “; “So it’s gross. So what did you expect?”


The art style is in love with the poignancy of nothingness. Lipsky and Abrams stand firmly, or limply, in this camp. Their specialty is the forlorn, stray clause, and the whimsically dangled participle: “It wasn’t a surprise, exactly … Perhaps, in a weird way … Divorced, you see them as people … ” These are words lying immobile among dirty sheets, mourning another drab day, unable even to shut off the alarm.


Elements of the MediaSomething magazine style include mix-‘n’-match visuals, splatter-font typography, and tail-end-of-the-roll photos. In book-jacket design, the wan, faded-and-blurred photograph has already become a cliché. So have brackets used for no grammatical reason.

The mainstream has been quick to pick the style up. Nonsense brackets have made appearances in ads for Ikea, the discount-furniture chain. New York Magazine’s recent makeover features blocks of type crushed together, and a color-Xerox-and-video palette. When layouts first started being done on Macintoshes, the idea was to use the machines to streamline the design process. Now ads, magazines, and books are made to look like computer screens. The world inside the computer has become primary. “The trash can in your office has become an icon for the trash can on your Mac screen,” an artist friend says.


Another artist tells me that when he shows his students a slide of, say, a Velázquez, he can’t get them to see it as a unique work. It registers instead as “Old Master.” “To them, an image is only an example of a category of images,” he says.


The professor and critic Hal Foster described in the Times what he sees as a new “ethic of the loser,” and managed a good description of Nirvana’s music: “a lullaby droned to the dreamy beat of the death drive.” Still, I think he’s wrong to find only defeatism there. Not working in a media factory, he may not hear the sound — it may be a whine, but it’s a self-confident whine — of the MediaSomethings making their way.

My theory is this: the MediaSomethings were raised under the spell of victimology and deconstruction, yet they still crave stardom and sex. So they brandish not self and language, but the signs of victimhood. Hence, young guys in granny dresses and dreadlocks, young women in washed-out babydolls and tatoos.


A man who once did business with Kurt Cobain told me (with wry exasperation) that what isn’t understood about Cobain is how badly he wanted stardom. My theory suggests that Cobain’s suicide was the ultimate act of MediaSomething self-assertion. Bookstores are awash in new titles by and for MediaSomethings, but none have sold many copies. Why? Shannon Maughan and Jonathan Bing report in Publishers Weekly that young people prefer to buy products that blur boundaries — CD-ROMs, book-and-disc packages. A bookstore manager tells me that what he sees young people buying are books about television. One hit was “The Entertainment Weekly Seinfeld Companion.”

Publishers are still trying to find a formula, according to Maughan and Bing. Silhouette has kicked off a series of romance novels featuring “dismal entry-level jobs, credit card debts, drugs and HIV infection.” One agent has reached a sensible conclusion. Since “corporate America is obsessed with marketing to Generation X,” he said, let’s sell the books about 20somethings to the baby boomers.

©1995 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared in The Modern Review.