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.