David Carson rewrote the rules of graphic design.
David Carson read the handbook of ‘good’ graphic design. Then he tore it up, rewrote the rules and found a way to leave his mark.
David Carson is an internationally acclaimed graphic designer who hit hard in the early nineties with Beach Culture and Ray Gunmagazines. His work was intuitive, daring, loose. He revolutionised the font game and turned traditional typographical design theory on its head. And by fusing sophisticated, conceptual ideas with child-like simplicity, he became an art star in a medium that’s generally considered background. His first book, with Lewis Blackwell, The End of Print, is the top-selling graphic design book of all time.Newsweek wrote that he “changed the public face of graphic design.” London-based Creative Review called him “the most famous graphic designer on the planet”. And David Byrne, Nine Inch Nails and Bush contracted his unique eye to design their wares, as did Pepsi, Toyota and Microsoft.
But his visual work is only part of it. He lectures internationally, and has garnered a cult following. He is a lifelong surfer and doting father. I met him in 2001 when we worked together on Big Surf, an NY-spawned single-issue magazine. His downtown studio was a mess. Never in my life had I seen so many icons on a single computer screen. He seemed to be juggling fifty jobs. I was concerned about our deadline, the precious art sent in by contributors that lay scattered haphazardly about his floor, whether he even cared. We were a couple of month’s late with the issue, but of course it won design awards, and is still talked about today.
Which is to say that there is a lot of chance and chaos theory in Carson’s work, but somehow the chips or the cards or the drops of coffee fall in perfect disorder.
Some years back he moved his business into a small studio on Pacific Coast Highway in Malibu. A few yards down the road was a peculiar sign: it read ‘DRUNK DRIVER’ in black, block text, with ‘CALL 911’ just below. Carson marvelled at it. When it came time to put up a sign of his own he copied the exact font, colour, shape and scale: ‘GRAPHIC DESIGNER CALL 457-5652’.
HUCK: You were a teacher before you were a graphic designer. How did you make the shift?
David Carson: I was teaching my first year at a strange little cult religious school in Oregon. I had grades one through twelve all day, in one room. When they had a question to ask they either raised an American flag or a Christian flag, depending on what kind of question it was. Strange experience! Anyway, I got a postcard announcing a two-week graphic design workshop during the summer, and it described what they would be studying. It was for high school seniors. I read the description and thought, ‘Wow, that’s a profession? You can be creative, have fun, make stuff and get paid?’ So I called and asked the school, University of Arizona in Tucson, if I could come, and they said, ‘Sure.’
I returned to Southern California when I was done teaching, where I had secured a job with Nancy Katin [Katin surf trunks]. I worked for a few weeks, not positive if I was really going to the graphic design workshop or not. Finally I told my boss, Nancy Katin, that I needed two weeks off in the middle of the summer to attend this workshop. She told me if I left for the workshop, I would not have a job when I returned. That made the decision a bit more difficult, but somehow I felt I had to try this graphic design thing. And I did. Luckily, I had a very cool, funny and good guy instructor, Jackson Boelts. It’s hard to say if I would have been as interested had I had a loser teacher. But at the end of those two weeks it was so clear to me: That’s what I wanted to do.
What do you consider to be your career highlights?
In terms of work I would really say Beach Culture magazine, for a number of different reasons. It was the first time all my earlier training had a chance to come together. I had done Transworld Skateboarding, I had moved to the East Coast to do Musician and Billboard, and then after I got fired for the design being too radical. I’d heard that Surfer Publications were talking about doing this more experimental magazine, and I flew out to California to interview for the job. Beach Culture was never intended to be a surf magazine. It was loosely hung on this idea that people at the beach also enjoy other things — it was an attitude. It was myself and the editor, Neil Feineman, in the back of the Surfer offices, literally in the warehouse, just doing our thing. I look back now and it was so pure. I was living with it around the clock. We did every issue like it was our last. I was so broke I was scrounging for gas or lunch money half the time, but it didn’t matter. We were experimenting. My thing had yet to take off at that time, but the issues still hold up well. They shut it down about a year before the whole street culture thing kicked in, which was a shame.
And then much later the work I did for Nine Inch Nails, packaging and posters and everything. Trent Reznor was a really interesting person to work with. We hit it off, just a great working relationship. Just the idea that you could interpret somebody’s music and lyrics in a way that they’re happy with was really satisfying. I remember getting an email from Trent when we were done saying that he was really happy about the work. I put it up on my office wall.
I’m also most proud of — I think it was within a year of each other — getting listed in The Encyclopedia of Surfing and A History of Graphic Design.
Your graphic design work soon expanded into giving talks and lectures. Now it seems your renowned for both. And the talks seem to attract far more than just the visual arts crowd…
My next book is called The Rules of Graphic Design, but it’s really much more than that. I think it’s about creativity and trusting yourself and using who you are in your work, whatever that work is. One of the early criticisms of my work was that it was ‘self-indulgent’ and I’d say, ‘Hell yeah it is, I’m totally into it, I’m totally absorbed in it, and part of me hopes it gets recognised and I wouldn’t want somebody working for me who wasn’t just as into it.’
Early on in my career someone wanted me to talk to this group of high finance, venture capitalist people, and I was just kind of dreading it, thinking, ‘What will I have in common with these people?’ And what struck me afterwards is how almost all of them came up to get a book signed or to make a comment and I thought, ‘Whoa, there is a bigger message here than just putting type on top of type!’
What is it you like most about magazines?
Unlike the web, mags are surprisingly social. When I travel, I make a plan to go into the part of the city with the coolest mag store, also visit the CD store and buy some new stuff ‘cause I like the covers, maybe pick up a few clothes, shoes, whatever, have a coffee and watch the world. It’s social; it’s an event.
What artists have inspired you?
I always have trouble with that question, and some of it comes from not having schooling and never learning who specifically the people were, the schools of thought, etc. I hate to come off like I don’t follow anyone, but there’s no one person. Growing up, I memorised all the surf mags — I can pick photos in the old mags and tell you the caption. [Miki] Dora was always my number one hero in that world.
I know you travel often, so a ‘Day in the Life’ might be tough. But what’s, say, a month in your life like?
Just in the last few months I lectured to 1,200 people in Ireland, and then I was surfing in the Caribbean, and then I gave a lecture to the graduate programme in architecture at Penn State, and now I’m in New York seeing about moving my business here. I don’t cook. People ask where I’m based and I say, ‘I’m not sure.’ I’m kind of homeless right now. I love Europe. I was thinking of moving to Biarritz… But boy – typical day? Sometimes I wish I had one. I feel myself wanting for more of a base. I probably spend too much time dealing with email stuff. I get a lot of students doing assignments on me.
How do you like being a father?
I love it, and I love kids. It’s a little tough because when I was in New York their mother moved them away, and has moved them around ever since, like nine different states in eight years. But one of the things I’m very proud of is that I have a very close relationship with my two kids, Luci just turned eleven, and Luke is twelve.
I gave a lecture in New York two weeks ago, and it was the first time either of my kids had heard me lecture. It was kind of a big deal, I was a little nervous about it. I got them special treatment, front row seats, bought ‘em drinks. It went really good, and afterward they had a Q&A, and I was shocked to see my twelve-year-old son raise his hand, and they brought him the microphone and he said, ‘Well, I have three comments I wanted to make. Number one, I really enjoyed the show. And number two, I didn’t realise you were so funny, Dad. And number three, why were there more pictures of Luci than me?’
There’s a story I heard you tell at one of your talks about kids being innately creative…
I think every kid is an artist and it gradually gets beaten out of them as they grow up. ‘No, Billy, cows aren’t purple,’ that kind of stuff. And I always remember this study where a teacher went into a first grade class and asked, ‘How many of you are artists?’ And of course the whole class raises their hands. Then he goes to second grade and asks the same question and gets the same results, the stuff is hanging on the fridge, the parents love it, all kids raising their hands. But by the time he gets up to sixth or seventh grade and asks the same question, only a couple of kids raise their hands. It’s been beaten out of the rest of them.
You once told me about a strange letter you received in the mid-nineties. Some kind of warning about the vicissitudes of high-profile success?
Yes. It was early and things were going through the roof, and I’d just had a front-page article in the New York Times, and it was a fax from someone I didn’t know, and it just said, ‘Congratulations on your story in the New York Times. Your phone will no doubt be ringing off the hook for some time to come. If I can offer a suggestion: Save your money. After they build you up they love to tear you down.’ At the time I just thought, ‘Oh yeah, whatever,’ but boy, did I find that to be true. I still feel busy, and… I was going to say relevant, but I don’t really worry about that. My work polarises, and I decided early on not to pay attention to bad stuff people are saying. Daily I hear from people saying how inspired they are, so I figure why hunt down the bad stuff?
Do you have ever have moments of self-doubt?
I’m very comfortable with how I work and what I do and my eye. I know that I can look at something and make it good. I don’t question, I don’t wonder if something’s up to par. I do go back to old work and think it’s horrible. But then I’ll turn the page and see something I’m proud of. My work has never been something I’ve had to force.