David Carson: a critique
Guy Julier 15/07/04
It's probably a bit late to say this now, but of all the design diversions of the last 10 years, graphic designer and art director David Carson's self-proclamations must have been the most facile. In fact, they were worse than facile because hundreds, if not thousands of design students across the developed world became seriously diverted by that Carson thing.
Firstly some biography. This is what I wrote on him for the 2004 edition of the Thames and Hudson Dictionary of Design since 1900 .
Carson, David (b. 1956) became renowned for his inventive graphics in the 1990s. Having worked as a sociology teacher and professional surfer in the late 1970s, he art directed various music, skateboarding and surfing magazines through the 1980s. As art director of surfing and style magazine Ray Gun (1992-5), Carson came to worldwide attention. His layouts featured distortions or mixes of 'vernacular' typefaces and fractured imagery, rendering them almost illegible. Indeed, his maxim of the 'end of print' questioned the role of type in the emergent age of digital design, following on from CALIFORNIA NEW WAVE and coinciding with experiments at the CRANBROOK ACADEMY OF ART . In the later 1990s he shifted from 'surf subculture' to corporate work for Nike, LEVIS and Citibank.
His published ouevre includes D. Carson (with L. Blackwell) The End of Print: the Graphic Design of David Carson (1995); D. Carson (with L. Blackwell) 2 nd Sight: Gra fik Design After the End of Print (1997); D. Carson and P. Meggs Fotografiks (1999); D. Carson Trek: David Carson, Recent Werk (2003)
Having dispassionately give the facts, what do I find so stomach-turning about his renown? Here is the evidence.
- The 'End of Print' drones on and on about David Carson's 'radical' graphics. Who are you kidding? This type distortion and multi-layering thing goes back to Tissi-Odermatt, Muller Brockman and other late-comers of the Swiss School but was also being done in fanzines across the UK in the late-1970s.
- Strictly speaking, I fail to see how ad campaigns for corporate clients such as Nike and Levis can ever be 'radical'. Politically engaged graphics, such as Ken Garland's for the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmanent produces radicalism.
- I remember reading Rick Poynor commenting that it is difficult to claim that we are beyond print. Have you been to Borders or any other large bookstall recently? I think that, as Emily King once quipped, 'The End of Print' actually means 'Nothing interesting to say'.
- Many of David Carson's publications are filled with his evidence of how loved he is: e.mails, notes, photos, letters of adulation. But it's all a bit self-abusive. For example, 2 nd Sight features photos of him lecturing to packed throngs in Zagreb circa 1996. If his talent and fame drew the crowds, then good luck to him. But I suspect that the attraction had more to do with a post-war zone location where young people are eager to engage with anything international rather than David Carson himself. I think that making a judgement about his talent should be left to the reader not the author.
David Carson's books achieve enormous volume sales. He was constantly cited as an influence by graphic design students in the late-1990s. Many of these students extended his approach into more engaging and sensitive typographic creations than Carson was capable of. But what do these books contribute to understanding graphic design, its processes, organization and reception?