An interview with David Carson

First published in MacUser, 2008

It’s not every day you get to meet the world’s most famous graphic designer. Not even when it’s in his diary. The last time MacUser was scheduled to interview David Carson, it was 1998, and the convention-smashing, deconstructive, who-says-you-have-to-learn-the-rules-before-you-break-them style he’d pioneered on the US magazines Beach Culture and Ray Gun was beginning its crossover into the mainstream. Nobody was hotter than Carson, and as I (with art director Paul Kurzeja) waited for him in the foyer of a London boutique hotel, there was a mounting sense of expectation.

It kept mounting for two hours. He never showed.

Fast forward ten years, and there’s still nobody hotter than Carson. That’s why Quark have hired him as part of their campaign to make friends with designers. This is both logical and bizarre, more of which later, but the important thing is they’ve brought him back to London, and MacUser is promised half an hour of his time before his public event at Hammersmith’s Riverside Studios.

This time he’s only slightly late, completely charming, talkative and very funny. He cheerfully runs over our allotted time, and then he gets up on stage and gives the audience more than their money’s worth too.

Did anyone really expect PowerPoint? Carson simply fires up his MacBook, revealing the same chaotic desktop displayed at, and starts pulling bits of work out of folders. The narration is whatever occurs to him, often ‘Mmm… no, not that one.’ Gradually he warms up, and so do the audience. When he overruns the published schedule before he’s even half finished, the only people walking out are those with trains to catch. The place is so packed that a couple of coach parties barely leave a gap anyway.

Then he moves on to the slide projector. Slide carousels, like deckchairs, have built-in comedy potential, and Carson, whose laid-back sense of mischief doesn’t end with his layouts, knows perfectly well that venues hate them. The first technician goes off shift, defeated, as the event spirals on into the night. On we go. Slides stick, fall out, recur, go backwards. At one point they start popping out like toast.

Carson has deconstructed presenting. It’s not supposed to be like this, but it’s a lot more fun. ‘That’s too bad,’ he deadpans, as the machine breaks down for the twentieth time, an hour after the advertised finish. ‘The really good stuff was just coming up.’

We’ve seen plenty of good stuff, and all of it unmistakably Carson, from the first Ray Gun covers to the latest commissions for po-faced blue-chips. When he finally gives way to Q&A, my neighbour in the audience asks how he persuaded BMW to let him cut up the letters of their logo. He pauses. ‘Well… Those pieces didn’t actually get accepted.’

Still not quite mainstream, then.

If one thing characterises Carson’s approach, it’s the ability to engage totally with a piece of work and yet never get precious. Where design is usually a succession of decisions that narrow an infinity of possibilities to one finished product, he starts with finite ingredients and somehow multiplies the possibilities. What emerges is still crackling with the potential of ripping itself up and starting itself all over again.

Another audience member suggests design should aim to be timeless. Carson unhesitatingly disagrees: everything must change. For me, QuarkXPress will always be associated with that period in the early 1990s when it was the newest, fastest and best way to play with pages. Carson, too, is unashamedly a product of that time. Yet if we catch up with him again in another ten years, it’ll be no surprise to find he’s still the world’s most famous graphic designer.

Adam Banks: You’ve just arrived in the UK?

David Carson: Yes, I just got in from Zurich and I’m not quite all here. But that’s maybe not unusual.

AB: I like your desktop. It kind of looks like our office.

DC: And the funny thing is, that’s not even particularly bad.

AB: It gets worse?

DC: Someone sent me an email and I couldn’t get it to open. Then I realised it was open, it had just blended in.

AB: It’s a creative way of working. You have music on as well?

DC: I literally cannot work without music.

AB: I think that goes together, because there’s chaos and there’s stimulation. You once said: ‘Don’t mistake legibility for communication.’ Sometimes people misinterpret that and think you’re not trying to communicate, that maybe it’s just some designer’s game, but that’s not it at all — it’s about engaging, isn’t it?

DC: It’s very communicative. And there’s many ways you communicate. With colour, texture, sound… [Wry smile] Even words can communicate. It’s trying to communicate an idea, and in doing that, sometimes something became a little harder to read, but I think the whole ‘hard to read’ thing got way overblown.

AB: [Laughs]

DC: [Laughs] I really do.

AB: Well you did set a whole article in Dingbats…

DC: That’s what I always hear about. Thirty issues, and one article…! Well, I admit that was one you could not actually read.

AB: But you’ve got to push the envelope.

DC: It has a lot to do with what you’re interested in reading, too. People who weren’t into the music [we were covering] or that particular band tended to write the whole thing off as being unreadable.

AB: The reader has to make an effort as well.

DC: Yes. When I first redesigned the Surfer magazine, a magazine about magazines took a copy to the famous American designer Milton Glaser, and surprise surprise, he hated it.

AB: It’s hard to think of a designer more unlike you, really!

DC: [Laughs] Yeah. But my thing is no, take it to an 18-year-old kid coming out of the water with a surfboard. If he loves it, it’s probably working. That’s kind of what happened with Ray Gun. The publishers were kind of worried about the first issue. Maybe we‘ve gone too far. I think there was a point where they actually tried to get out of it. But then from the start it got a good reaction, advertisers came in.

AB: It was hugely influential obviously, Ray Gun and the other magazines you were doing at that time, Beach Culture

DC: Yeah, well I tend to think Beach Culture was actually a better magazine, but fewer people saw it. Ray Gun I was getting busier, there was other things starting to happen. If you can somehow, which you can’t, construct a tree of influence, it would be more than people realise, just in terms of…

Sometimes I used to think in New York City, at some point I noticed in their headlines all of a sudden that two words touched. I can’t say I’m responsible for that, but somewhere in this whole thing it was loosening up, and so this was not such a big change when they had two lines of the title touching each other. It helped open a door, I guess. When I show some of that early work tonight, to students, for example, they might think what’s the big deal, but in the early 90s there wasn’t anything like that.

AB: Absolutely, it was a real revolution. It’s getting away from literalism, because at that time, when you commissioned an illustration it was always supposed to be ‘about’ the copy in a really literal way, whereas what you do is about creating almost a state of mind that might refer to the text…

DC: No, and the literal ones were always the least successful. When I work as an art director I don’t ask to see sketches from illustrators or photographers. I give them a basic idea and then I say send it to me, it’ll be fine — I get out of the way. Let ’em do it, and nine times out of ten it’s woah, look where they took it, I never would have thought to go there.

AB: You edited a book about lucky accidents…

DC: Yeah, it should have been called Happy Accidents, I think, but it’s actually called Lucky Disasters. That’s overkill, those are not disasters.

AB: But there’s a lot of that in the process. In your interviews with Quark you say something about playing around with something and suddenly it just works. To just let it…

DC: Yes, the process is a big part of getting a solution. You have a general direction where you think you’re going, but you have to be able to do things along the way that maybe you weren’t expecting. It maybe happens a little less now, as we’ve gotten so, so…

AB: I was going to ask you about that, because…

DC: Earlier, things would fall on the ground, and you would go ooh, that could work. Or the printer would mess up, or you would just do something you didn’t know what happened on the computer, which didn’t make it good, but sometimes it might be better than where you were headed. Maybe I can pick that up and scan it in… So it had to have some relevancy, it wasn’t just ‘that’s weird, let’s throw that in’.

People began to realise it was harder to do the freeform, expressive stuff well. It’s easier, in a sense, to do simple, classic design. You can teach someone to do a reasonable newsletter, you can get people off the sidewalk and teach them to do a business card, and the software’s there. But if you took that same group and said, I’m going to play some music and let’s come up with a concept for the CD [box artwork] that really fits, most of them would be lost. But a couple people would do something amazing because that music spoke to them.

AB: It’s the state of mind, isn’t it?

DC: You read an article, what do I get from that? That’s the starting point. If I’d just had a grid system set up like most magazines, and the box is already there for the photo… Some of that’s just expediency, but it usually kills the impact. I look at a photo and I say, wooh, that needs to bleed, I need that big. And I was always changing around pagination depending on the art — I need a couple of pages to get this art big. Maybe I’d find a section of the photo and blow it up…

AB: And again you often see that done now, and before the mid-90s you just wouldn’t see it done, but now everybody’s kind of got permission to do it. They’ve seen it work. And it’s really mainstream now.

DC: Yeah, I was talking to an educator from Cranbrook just a year or so ago, and he was very matter-of-fact and saying, well, it’s over, we won. I hadn’t really thought of it like that, but watch the news, watch CNN, everything’s flying up, they show a war graphic and it looks like a game show — maybe it wasn’t a good battle that we won! But there’s no question, my folks, get up there and watch some of what they watch on television, it’s stuff that would have been total state of the art ten years ago, and now it’s become commonplace, you’ve got the type doing all these things. I sometimes wonder about that…

AB: Do you think there’s a danger that as the tools get more sophisticated, and as you say places like Cranbrook are now teaching people how to do the kind of stuff that you do, is there a danger that we lose those happy accidents?

DC: Well, there is… I read a good essay in Time or Newsweek, basically the guy had said OK, we’ve had all these bells and whistles now for a while, all these programs and all these effects — when are we going to see something really fresh again? It’s not about all the tools, it’s really gotta come from the individual. It’s the only way you can do anything really unique or different, is utilise yourself. But I think there are less accidents that happen now.

AB: I suppose we have to mention Quark. It seems to me Quark and you are quite a good fit, because I always think of QuarkXPress version 3, maybe even version 2…

DC: [Laughs]

AB: …when we were all just starting to use it and it was quite exciting, and it was quite a primitive tool at that point. When I think about the new versions that have come out, I guess you don’t sit around a lot putting soft drop shadows on things, so…

DC: [Laughs] You know, it’s funny you said that, because just recently [I’ve been] getting introduced to some of the newer functions, and for me that was kind of… Because my work is pretty basic, and most of it is done in QuarkXPress. But anyway I had a couple of clients that I had done that on, I had done what I accused other people were doing. I had found the button! And to their credit, both those clients said, umm, do you think maybe we should lose that drop shadow?

AB: It’s an addiction, isn’t it, when you try it?

DC: Well, it was new to me! But I was initially in [Adobe] PageMaker, everybody was at the time, and I was one of the last holdouts, but I think it was when the printer would no longer accept those files, it had to be Quark.

AB: Quark was so much faster, wasn’t it?

DC: There’s no question. New technology, that part of it was not why I went into the field — Ray Gun was printed out of the computer onto a bad printer, then pasted down onto art boards. It was OK if it was a little bit soft or ragged.

AB: OK, commercial over… A catchphrase that’s associated with you is ‘the end of print’. Obviously you can take that in two ways, that it’s the end of print in that it literally finishes and we don’t have it any more, or it’s the end of print as we know it and we’ve got to make it into something else. It seems to me that you’re still quite wedded to print as a medium.

DC: I think there was a lot of confusion that we were trying to say it’s the end of writing or it’s the end of reading. No, the medium is changing, and rather than debate whether that’s good or bad let’s accept it and address it. At the time I really thought the title was quite funny, a little thought-provoking, but I’ve come to think it probably was the early stages of the end of print as a primary source of information.

AB: One of the things that it’s the end of is the idea of a finished product. You know, when you put something online, you can change it whenever you want.

DC: The other side of that is that you have some editors that are a little concerned because they’re no longer quite as powerful. Anyone can put something out there. I think most of the major newspapers and magazines, circulation is down.

AB: But that’s not the only form of print — other forms of print, you still get masses of mailings through your door…

DC: Exactly, it just changes into something else. It’s hard to be the one saying it, but maybe I can push it over onto Neville Brody, he actually came up with the quote, he looked at Ray Gun and he said, well, this represents the end of print. That’s it, we’ve taken it as far as we can. That was where it came from. I think he was a little early on that, but it’s become more and more true. There’s quite a decent little thing you can get now, a book, you can order up any book in the world there in your hand, read the first chapter and decide whether to buy it…

AB: But it’s not the same, is it?

DC: No, I agree, when I get a new magazine the first thing I would do, just an unconscious ritual really, the first thing I would do is the weight, does it feel like a thick issue or a thin, did that cardboard insert help, and number two would be the smell, and then you start looking at it, how does the paper feel?

AB: A website can never be an object… can it?

DC: You lose that, and I think the question becomes is that bad, [or do] we just shift and adjust. I met a long time ago with a bunch of other designers, we were all down in Brazil, and the main person who apparently prints most of the newspapers down there, an older guy and it was a family business, but he said look, is it realistic for me to think that a kid born today, 50 years from now, are they gonna get most of their information picking up this big paper thing and turning a page and finding out what happened yesterday in the world? And he said no, that’s just not realistic. That would be putting my head in the sand.

There was a lot of arguing, it’s the texture of the paper, you put it in your pocket, but that was somebody who made his living on print. It continues to change, it becomes more of a novelty item, like vinyl records…

AB: Well, like McLuhan said, when it outlives its relevance it becomes a work of art. Do you think we might all be in the heritage industry in a few years’ time?

DC: It was also David Byrne who talked about that in the intro to The End of Print, he said: ‘Print is no longer obligated to simply carry the news.’ It had been given freedom to be more expressive, to serve other purposes. This may not relate, but I was on a panel for this movie Helvetica, and this guy Erik Spiekermann went on and on about the alphabet, an amazing system that can tell you everything you need to know with just these few symbols.

Well, something didn’t hit me right about that, but it took a student to say afterwards, ‘What’s he talking about? The alphabet has failed miserably for the internet. We have to invent smiley faces, LOL, this whole other language has evolved because [the language of] print works so poorly on the internet.’ Laughter, sarcasm, jokes… So we have this whole other thing of frowny face, smiley face, which I hate but it’s functional.

AB: Which is kind of doing the same thing you’re doing: rather than just conveying the text, you’re conveying the state of mind.

DC: Well exactly, see that’s an interesting analogy, because what I was trying to do, if it’s a humorous tongue-in-cheek article I want somebody to turn the page and kind of get a sense of that straight away — now this looks like a nice read. Now maybe it’s been reduced down to smiley faces. I think that’s maybe a different interview, but there’s something interesting there…

Sometimes I think that Neville Brody was right, that Ray Gun was kind of this last gasp of print being important. And I don’t think you can point to something since then that has had as much effect. And I don’t say that bragging, I just think what would it be, I couldn’t tell you. In terms of something that fundamentally had this with people hating, loving, writing about, big debates… That hasn’t happened again, and there’s a part of me that thinks maybe it won’t. Now print will maybe get back to being a little more functional, a little more sedate. I’ve always said there will be the next big thing.

AB: There’s always a next big thing, but you can never tell what it’s going to be.

DC: No, and it’s taken quite a while, longer than people expected. There was Neville Brody in the 80s, and I had all this stuff in the 90s…

AB: Well look at everything that’s happened since then, I mean the internet barely existed…

DC: Yeah, I think it’s specifically because all that energy got dispersed, and all these very creative people were all of a sudden doing websites. I know it because a lot of them wanted to get back into print, I was getting calls and resumés all the time because they were bored to death of the early websites, but yeah, it dispersed a lot of very creative people that somehow would have done the next thing.

AB: Well, those ripples are still going out. I think we need to end there, so thank you very much, that was great.

DC: That seemed a little scattered… But I’m scattered.

‘You can’t put your own face on the front cover unless you’re Austrian.’

Referring to the self-promotional tendencies of Stefan Sagmeister, the world’s second most famous graphic designer

‘I like to show a client a lot of stuff. But don’t show them anything you hate, because you know if you do they’ll pick it.’

‘The first rule of graphic design is don’t announce you’ve got a book coming out when you haven’t done it.’

On The Rules of Graphic Design, the non-existent book for which this was supposed to be the promotional tour

‘Even [non-print jobs] like commercials and music videos, I still print them out.’

‘Never having learned all the things you’re not supposed to do helped a lot.’

‘I did a big poster for the movie Helvetica. I set it in Franklin Gothic.’

All images by David Carson; copyrights acknowledged