David Carson is a prominent contemporary graphic designer and art director. Through his unconventional and experimental graphic style David Carson transformed and revolutionized the graphic design scene in America most notably during the 1990’s but also throughout his career.
— The Logo Creative™ (@thelogocreative) December 11, 2019
Self-taught, in an admirable grid-free way, and unafraid to speak his mind with a funny personality.
Carson’s work made designers realize that editorial layouts didn’t have to stick to the rules around image placement, consistent typography, or persistent flowing copy issue after issue.
He was the art director of the magazine Ray Gun, in which he introduced the innovative typographies and distinct layouts. He is claimed to be the godfather of ‘grunge typography’ which he employed perpetually in his magazine issues.
On September 8, 1954, Carson was born in Corpus Christi, Texas. He went on to study Sociology from San Diego State University and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree. He touched upon graphic designing briefly while attending a two-week commercial designing class at the University of Arizona, in 1980. Subsequently, he attended the Oregon College of Commercial Art to study graphic designing and a three-week workshop in Switzerland as a part of his degree.
He also took up a teaching job at a Californian high-school where he taught for several years. Besides, his many talents include professional surfing and he was ranked 9th best surfer in the world, in 1989.
David Carson embarked on his passion for graphic design in his later life. A the beginning of his career he worked as a designer for Self and Musician magazine that covered surfers’ interests. Carson’s early experiences also included working for the magazine Transworld Skateboarding which paved the way for his experimental designing.
He became the art director for this magazine in 1984 and revised its style and layout until his tenure ended. During his time at Transworld Skateboarding, he developed a signature style with the use of unconventional ‘dirty’ type photographic techniques. In 1987, he also lent his expertise to the extension of the magazine, Transworld Snowboarding.
Later in 1989, he landed a job at the magazine Beach Culture, as their art director. After the publication of only six issues, the magazine folded. Notwithstanding, Carson made a name for himself through the opportunity, as his designs were recognized for his unique style and typography and consequently earned over a hundred design awards.
During the year of 1992, he was offered a job at an alternative-music magazine Ray Gun, whose publisher saw the true potential of his graphic design skills. Once again, Carson proved himself as he tripled the magazine’s circulation and attracted a wide readership. In fact, to keep the spirit of the magazine alive he notoriously published a tedious interview with Bryan Ferry in Zapf Dingbats (symbol) font.
His work is characterized by his signature chaotic typography and patterns his work embodies, the disarray of photos overlapping each other, seemingly meaningless at the surface but holding a larger picture. To put in simpler words as Albert Watson stated, the disorganized use of his typography has its own purpose, such as each stroke of a painter’s brush evoke different emotion, imagery and idea, so does Carson’s designs possess such attributes. Where his innovative style of visual communication attracted new readers it also repelled many who considered his work fractured, hence misleading.
Although his covers for Ray Gun were often radical and bold, it fascinated the young readership, thus the big corporations also hired him for their brand advertisements through both print and electronic media. In 1995, Carson quit his job at Ray Gun and established his own firm, David Carson Design. He signed contracts with a host of major corporate clients, including Nike, Pepsi Cola, Ray Bans, Levi Strauss and MTV Global among many others. Additionally, he published a comprehensive collection of his graphic works The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson (1995) and other highly experimental works; 2nd Sight, Trek and Fotografiks.
It’s rare to speak to designers who are into zines, music, and a generally less strict aesthetic, and have them not cite Carson as an influence. The American Center for Graphic Design has exalted him as having made “the most important work coming out of America,” while Creative Review has called him “the art director of the era.” In 2014, he was awarded the AIGA Gold Medal. But for all the praise he’s received, he’s rather lovely to chat to, and pretty humble also.
The Logo Creative – Hi David its a real honor to have you take part in our designer interviews.
David Carson – Hi Andrew, absolutely this sounds really good. Let’s do this!
The Logo Creative – What was the turning point in your life when you decided to become a designer and how did you proceed?
David Carson – I was teaching high school sociology, and had decided to take a 2-week summer workshop about this thing called “graphic design”. I had gotten a flyer in the mail from the University of Arizona in Tucson to put up for high school students to see. It was the first time I had heard the term ‘graphic design’. At the end of those two weeks, it was clear to me what I wanted to do.
Everything shifted so its a full 2nd career for me, and I had a great teacher, Jackson Boelts, who I’m still friends with. I went to conferences, heard speakers, but mostly learned the craft in free internships and on the job training.
The Logo Creative – What does your day consist of?
David Carson – I don’t make a big distinction between work and I’m fortunate to make my living from what feels more like a hobby. so I never dread going to work. I tend to not be a morning person. I’m in Amsterdam now, and I don’t have wifi. it helps force me not to stay in the apartment all day checking emails. so first I go out and get coffee and check emails.
I bike ride, I work, no real typical day I guess. and definitely no set schedule. Now that I’m based in Europe I speak at a lot of conferences all over Europe, this is nice and so different than being in the states.
The Logo Creative – Are you a morning person or night owl and is there a reason why?
David Carson – I used to think I got my best work done in the morning, but now it’s just as likely to be late afternoon or evening or night.
The Logo Creative – What was the first logo you ever designed?
David Carson – For a small restaurant in Ashland Oregon, it was a competition at the small little art school I attended for a few months. I’ve got it stored away somewhere, it’s pretty traditional plus the restaurant picked it. pretty fun to see it up.
The Logo Creative – What is your favorite logo you have designed?
David Carson – Having done hundreds, possibly thousands, I definitely can’t think of one favorite, I always show clients a bunch of logos, maybe 30-40, some conversation, some very experimental, all ones I think are better than what they have. I get their feedback and then go in and fine-tune the ones there liking till we get one signed off on. I don’t show any I don like as they for sure will pick them.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite logos of all time?
David Carson – I have no idea. so many over the years I’ve liked, definitely not one favorite. the new designuanl logo is nice. rather than the one “s” backward they put the whole word backwords on the redesign it’s nice!.
The Logo Creative – Can you describe or give us an overview of your logo design process?
David Carson – It’s all driven by the brief. who is the client? what are they trying to say? who is their audience?. I take all the info I’m given then start. I work in a basic page program, quark express, and its really easy for me to copy and paste a lot of versions pretty quickly. I may come up with 4o-50 and show the clients my favorites. maybe half or more of those I did. I don’t feel anyone design is so precious, and I’m very comfortable showing a lot of ideas. something st hey surprise you and pick the more out there, or experimental ones. often not.
The Logo Creative – What brands do you most admire and how do they influence your creative thinking?
David Carson – Apple, clean simple intelligent branding. logos, like graphic design, in general, have gotten pretty generic over recent years especially with £29.95 offers on the internet. it’s not a particularly inventive time of logo design. I like ones that are unexpected, get my attention, and in some way represent the brand, that the viewer feels the logo as well as read it.
The Logo Creative – What do you consider your most successful design project, and why?
David Carson – Its a tie. my work for the magazine beach culture. 6 issues in 2 years. when I finished an issue I sent it to the printer, no one had to ok it or approve it. (the same thing happened later with ray gun magazine) it was a work of passion, with no money. I think the 6 issues still hold up well today, even tho it was done in the early ’90s. then years later working with the band nine-inch nails.
and more recently my new book, nucollage, showing all new work form the past year. You can see The Logo Creative advanced preview of the book below.
The Logo Creative – How long does it take to complete the average logo design project from start to finish?
David Carson – Well, its never start to finish, but probably a couple of day sessions of 3-4 hours to create all the initial ones, then another day or two to fine-tune. I find logo design goes quickly.
The Logo Creative – What are your recommended design books to read?
David Carson – Any that catch your eye at the book store. I browsed a lot of them over the years, but never really read one start to finish. The History of Graphic Design. Vol 1, and The History of Graphic Design. Vol 2 is probably a decent place to start.
The Logo Creative – Which software do you use frequently and is there any you would recommend to designers?
No, it’s not about the software, it’s about your idea and vision. if you don’t have those, no software will give it to you. I work primarily in quark express. and I tweak my photos on my phone.
The Logo Creative – What is your favourite style of logo design? And why?
David Carson – Any that feels personnel, and different form all that’s out there. and anything that doesn’t look like the secretary could have just typed it in. any I react to emotionally, “oh nice” who did that? kidnap thing…
The Logo Creative – What is your daily inspiration when you design?
David Carson – Why not try that? music helps too, I can’t design without music on, at least any screen-based design. my collages I don’t seem to need the music, but it can help. you’ll usually do your best work if you work listening to music you like.
The Logo Creative – When you’re not designing do you have a favorite free time activity you like to do?
David Carson – Here in Amsterdam I enjoying riding my bike, I enjoy long walks and skateboarding in the park. beers or coffee in the outdoor …..
The Logo Creative – In less than 10 words what is graphic design?
David Carson – A visual way to communicate before someone starts reading…
The Logo Creative – What steps did you take to start your graphic design business? Did you have to make any sacrifices on your journey?
David Carson – Any journey worthwhile requires sacrifices. I gave up tenure teaching high school. I gave up living in San Dingo and moved to Boston. in the winter. and I put off marriage. altho I’m now married ; )
The Logo Creative – Do you have any regrets? Is there anything you would have changed early on in your career?
David Carson – it’s gone better than I ever could have imagined. I’m better now with money.
The Logo Creative – If you could go back in time, what would you tell your younger self?
David Carson – Take care of your money. spend more time with family and friends.
The Logo Creative – What’s the most important piece of advice you have received as a designer that’s helped you?
David Carson – Just keep doing what you do, don’t listen to all the noise and distractions. saul bass told me this!.
The Logo Creative – What would be your advice for new Logo and Graphic Designers?
David Carson – Don’t be afraid to show the clients a lot of ideas. trust your own intuition and sensibility, don’t copy from the internet. show the clients a range of simple to more complex and experimental logos. read the brief, listen to the client and imagine, what would that look like? how can I represent this thru type and form, and later color. Trust your gut. that’s why you’re a designer.
Also published on Medium.