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David Carson - The Messy Type

Words:

Edd Norval
April 30, 2018

A design autodidact, David Carson rewrote the book on typography with no knowledge of the rules that define the form. He's somewhat of a natural.

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David Carson's design life began at a two-week course and has since led to him being widely regarded as one of the best ever. His defining work took place at Ray Gun magazine - an alternative rock 'n' roll magazine that viewed pop culture through a novel lens. It was Carson's unique grasp of contemporary societal behaviours and popular culture that informed much of his work for the magazine.


Due to him not having an educational background in design, he created a magazine that was instantly recognisable by defying the norms of the time. Breaking free from conventional design grids, Carson's work had a punk aesthetic that made the magazine seem handmade, it was a curated yet D-I-Y masterpiece.


Design has usually been seen as a functional discipline - yet Carson's magazine threw that approach to the side. It was an aesthetic marvel that embraced illegibility and chaos, going so far as writing out entire words or names in symbols (Zapf Dingbats). Radical expression took centre stage in the vaguely Dadaist publication, spotlighting unique musical acts long before they had reached equivalent public consciousness. The magazine was an inherently edgy slice of culture that was as varied in its influences as it was far-reaching in its influence.

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After leaving Ray Gun, he went on to found his own studio, David Carson Design. From here he has attracted such big name clients as Nike, Microsoft and Budweiser. This commercial success lends credit to the notion of Carson's overall design intelligence, however, it was his seminal work at the magazine that has left the most profound impact.


For Carson, it started at Transworld Skateboarding as an art director, where he began to nurture his fractured style of typography and was instrumental in creating not only the look of the magazine, but of helping give skateboarding an identity. His time there (1984-1988) coincided with skateboardings crossover into a more mainstream audience. His magazine had to tap into the psyche not only of skateboarders, but of the masses. What he had to convey was the feeling of a subculture - he had to develop his own visual language that could communicate the poetic nature of skateboarding's interaction with the world.


Spirituality has always played a part in his life - his design philosophy matured in California and influenced his outlook on life. A bohemian existence evolved into a worldview that, like the great ocean surrounding him, knew no limits or bounds. A professional surfer in his youth, the sea seems present in much of his designs. It can be at once meditative, then as quickly as one becomes ensconced in comfort - a rapturous reconfiguration can take place. There is very little consistency, these waves don't form in sets.

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His approach to design is simply an extension of his approach to everything else, it's guided by intuition. Promoting the importance of feeling, he states that, "I try to reinforce visually whats written, spoken or sung. I want the work to connect with people on an emotional level, which is where I feel it’s most effective and lasting." As is often said, people might forget what you have said or done, but never how you made them feel. Why can't that be true in the arts?


The liberal and open-minded environment that he grew up in honed his design work to be more experimental, utilising his lack of education to work in his favour. He saw the world as a child might - with unlimited possibilities. Many artists see their work as something that must be carved away from, much like a sculpture - either to abstraction or to be more lean and economic. Carson didn't have to contend with that - he skipped straight to un-learning.


His legacy on the design world is almost unmatched. The amount of interviews and seminars he does each year is testament to that. Apple voted him as one of the 30 most innovative designers in their 30 year existence (at the time) - there was only one other graphic designer on the list. To see his influence, you don't have to look far - he deconstructed the forms that preceded him and left us with a messy slate and an impossible height to aim for. But we thank him anyway, because he showed us perfectly how much things come down to personal will and desire - not the course we took at university.

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