TH E SU RF E R WH O C H AN G E D G R AP H IC D ES I G N
CARSON The Surfer Who Changed Graphic Design FRED LAMECK
CARSON CORCORAN PR E SS
WASHINGTON, DC 2013
DAVID C The Surfer Who Changed Graphic Design FRED LAMECK
Some men are simply not meant for a straight
path and are destined to push established
boundaries. In the design community one such
man is David Carson. He began his career as a
high school teacher and discovered a passion
for design later in life, but his surf sub-culture
and experimental editorial work have inspired an
entire generation of designers and has gotten the
attention of numerous critics.
SURFING SOCIOLOGIST A Texan by birth but a California boy at heart, Carson was born September 8, 1954 in Corpus Christi, Texas, but he later went on to attend the San Diego state university, where he received a BFA degree in sociology. It wasn’t until he was 26 that Carson first came in to contact with graphic design in 1980 when he attended a two week graphics course taught by Jackson Boeltat at the University of Arizona. Then a few years later, in 1983, he took a three-week graphic design workshop in Switzerland. The classes taught during the day were by more traditional designers, but at night the program exposed the students to more “fringe” designers. One such designer he encountered was Hans-Rudolf Lutz, and he had a major influence on Carson.
Carson describes the influence of Lutz had
on him at the time when he states, “He was
doing these amazingly experimental things
that struck me on two levels: One that they
were so experimental yet he took them so
“Well, Southern California was the home of Kustom Kars and Low Riders, both examples of beautiful, radical, impractical design of and by the people.”
seriously, and that he had a reason for every-
thing he did” (Blackwell, 2ndsight). He adds, “Being exposed to him and his experimental approach early in my development - that registered. I thought to myself: you can be experimental in this field, you can do things the way you want to do them” (Blackwell, 2ndsight). After college, Carson began working as a teacher in Torrey Pines High School in San Diego, CA, from 1982 to 1987. During that time, he was also a professional surfer, and in 1989 he was ranked as the 9th best surfer in the world. He was fully immersed in the Southern California surf culture, and this is attributed to his unique style. David Byrne explains, “Well, Southern California was the home of Kustom Kars and Low Riders, both examples of beautiful, radical, impractical design of and by the people.” It is in this culture of “guitars and offset fanzines” that Carson will get his first opportunities in editorial design for skateboarders and surfers.
THERE IS A TENDEN C Y
Experimentation is at the center of Carson’s approach
to his work. His philosophy is grounded in often break-
ing rules and abandoning some conventions for the
sake of arriving at something new and expressive.
I N T U I T I V E E X P E R I M E N T S According to Blackwell, “In teaching he likes others to show what is in them, questioning the work which reflects his own or the style of others. In his selection of new artists, there is a tendency to admire the naïve; in his commissioning of established illustrators or photographers, there is a tendency to offer these artists the freedom to experiment, to break from the structures that are normally contingent on a brief” (The End of Print). Through his work, Carson rejects established structures or theories in favor unexplored means of communicating visually.
As art director, Carson work was less focused on established design theories about visual hierarchy and legibility, and more directed at creating a visceral response. Even if this meant making his audience work harder to read the content. Carson’s approach has a lot in common with
“i f a label is required, his work is full of devices that visualize an emotional and non-figurative, non-literal response to a brief.”
expressionism, but Blackwell warns against this label when he says, “If a label is required, his work is full of devices that visualize an emotional and non-figurative, non-literal response to a brief, but the expressionist tag is likely to be misleading as it is helpful. While he admires artists such as Mark Rothko and Franz Kline, both key participants in the hey day of American abstract expressionism, so he also draws on other art forms, from street imagery and elsewhere” (The End of Print).
Although a lot of the underlining principles and devices used by the expressionist are employed by Carson, he is also influenced by various subcultures to create a style that is his own and builds on the conventions of expressionism. Blackwell explains, “While some may seek out the work, all the more convinced by its avoidance of categorization, others can chafe over the lack if an expressed unified theory, sneer at the unconventional aspects of the work dismiss them as irrational gimmicks, at best the fashion of the moment” (The End of Print).
“The lack of a big theory, of a rulebook, doesn’t necessarily mean the work is intellectually unsound.” An underlining ruling theory is not presented in Carson’s work, but this doesn’t mean that his design is without a clear intent. Blackwell states, “The lack of a big theory, of a rulebook, doesn’t necessarily mean the work is intellectually unsound, or that its freedoms imply chaos.” He adds, “Instead of a system the design takes place more organically. And the connections change not only in the form of logic of the resulting images, or word images, but also in how they connect with the viewer/reader” (The End of Print). It is evident Carson has a lot of trust in his audience, and with that trust he then ignores or purposely strays away from basic design principles. His respect for his audience and their intellect is central to his success as designer. In a sense, Carson gives his audience little or no hand holding, not relying on the standard tools designers us to guide their audience. Blackwell discusses this when he states, “But the chief thrust of criticism would seem to be that function in graphics requires that it either obeys established agreed principles, or that it carries on its surface an explanation of any radicalism. It would seem that graphic design is often expected to be transparent of flattering of a viewers previous experience and values” (The End of Print).
Intuition is also important to Carson’s design work and his process. He feels that it can lead a designer in new directions. He states, “Using your intuition doesn’t make something good or correct (whatever they may involve). Being intuitive doesn’t automatically make it beyond criticism. It often also has to work for whoever it is aimed at. But including intuition in the process allows you to get to a place you otherwise wouldn’t arrive at by simply applying formal design ‘rules’” (Blackwell, 2ndsight). David also has a huge respect for words, but he is sometimes criticized for not respecting the author or the writing when it comes to his design. He addresses this criticism when he states, “I read all the words, I look for ways to bring across the meaning of those words - it still amazes me when I finds out how many designers don’t read the words… I don’t understand that” (Blackwell, 2ndsight). His respect for words can especially be seen his work in publishing.
N e ver doing The same thing
Transworld, Contents Page  17
Carson’s first work in publication design was in 1982 as
the art director for Transworld Skateboarding. While
still teaching, he started to experiment graphically.
FANZINES TO MAGAZINES
Blackwell describes Transworld as a “glorified fanzine,
with up to 200 full-color pages heavily supported by
advertising, and yet the editorial - copy and pictures -
was largely the product of the skateboarders.” It is at
this time that Carson really started to form his design
philosophy of experimentation. Blackwell adds that
Carson “was able to respond to a readership eager for
new ideas by committing to never doing the same thing
twice without good reason” (The End of Print).
Beach Culture 
Beach Culture, “The Wedge People” 
Then in 1989 he was offered an opportunity to help launch Beach Culture where he first worked with Neil Feineman. Blackwell describes how Carson initially came to the project when he states, “Carson was brought in on a freelance project to art direct Surfer magazine’s annual publication Surfer Style, which was little more than a shopping catalogue of clothing ads supported by advertorial. However, the editor Neil Feineman and Carson had very different ideas: they changed the name, the content and the frequency and managed to launch Beach Culture on a pre-recession wave of good-will.” Even though the publication only published six issues during its two year of distribution, Feineman was a leader in alternative culture and featured good writing. This environment allowed Carson to stretch the possibilities of print communication.
After Beach Culture, Carson was asked in
1991 to lead the art direction and redesign
for the parent company’s flagship, Surfer
publications. It gave him an opportunity to
revamp the 33-year-old magazine, and his
success as surfer and his familiarity with
the culture helped fuel his design. The
style he developed at Surfer has since been
seen copied across surfing lifestyle media
(Blackwell, The End of Print).
“his familiarity with the culture helped fuel his design. The style he developed at Surfer has since been seen copied across surfing lifestyle media.”
Surf Magazine, “Photos That Changed the Way We Surf.” 
Surf Magazine 
CHALLENGES th e noti on
o f d e s ig n a s m e r e f o r m
Then in 1992, Carson rejoined his former editor Neil Feineman when the former publisher of Creem, Marvin Jarrett, decided to create Ray Gun magazine. Jarrett wanted to create a publication that embodied the alternative fashion and music developing during the time period of the 90s. Ray Gun is Carson’s most noted publication, and it garnered a lot of attention from the design community, and regularly featured the works of major illustrators and photographers. Carson’s strong art direction and point view was clearly a major factor in its success and rapid growth. Blackwell states, “The strength of art direction as content challenges the notion of design as mere form, as a container for content of words and pictures” (The End of Print).
Ray Gun 
Ray Gun, Contents Page 
Ray Gun, “Hot For Teacher“ 
Blackwell discusses how Carson’s lack of a rigid structure and form-driven approach can be seen as working to elevate the content when states, “Instead of the grid, the underlying bedrock that most magazine layout relies on, here pages are freeform, each one a fresh canvas onto which type and images are applied. And instead of a limited and consistent palette of typefaces, new faces tend to be introduced with every issue of Ray Gun, not as a matter of novelty but as a matter of finding new expression of content” (The End of Print).
“Instead of the grid, the underlying bedrock that most magazine layout relies on, here pages are freeform.”
Carson’s work in publishing as had a wide influence publication design, and experimentation can be seen throughout his career. But illegible has often been the criticism most often attached to his work.
Blackwell states, “Throughout a decade of magazine art direction, Carson has persistently pushed at the conventions of the medium, most controversial in his typography. This has raised cries that the work is illegible, despite the fact that for the target readers the magazine communicates, otherwise the would not buy it, in fact, readers’ letters suggest that for many the art direction of the
“This has raised cries that the work is illegible, despite the fact that for the target readers the magazine communicates, otherwise the would not buy it.”
magazine helped establish a new relationship between them and their reading choice” (The End of Print).
We can see Carson’s growth as a art director through his work in publishing. Blackwell states, “From the early Transworld Skateboarding work to the more recent Ray Gun, there is an evolution from oneoff visual and verbal playfulness to a position of, at times, graphic abstraction. Increasingly marks and color exist not as elements that build or frame pictures and sentences, but make emotional contact directly as marks and color. They are not metaphors, but often seem to exist beyond rational explanation” (The End of Print). His ability to visually tune into our basic human emotions through experimentation with typography and imagery is what makes Carson such a noted designer. His work is designed to evoke feelings and engage his audience.
With the commercial success of Ray Gun, advertisers began to take notice of Carson’s work. Blackwell discusses how Carson’s approach appeals to agencies when he states, “They have been seeking a way of achieving Ray Gun, “Bryan Berry” 
the emotional connection with the customer that comes before logic of the sale, in this work they have seen something that works beyond the strictly rational.”
Ray Gun, “Too Much Joy” 
Blackwell adds how his commercial success disproves some of his critics when he states, “Carson’s appropriation by the advertising industry also has another significance in the assessment of his work: if it is ‘self-indulgent,’ the favorite criticism of the design establishment, then it manages to be so at the same time as meeting the tough mass-communications criteria of these clients” (The End of Print).
BYPASSES the logical,
centers of the brain
It’s amazing what this California surfer has been
able to accomplish, and with such little formal
training. His background in sociology may have
been the perfect preparation for career in design,
as he creates works that connects with people on
very visceral level, not a easy task my any means. Byrne describes the psychology of Carson’s work when he states, “David’s work communicates. But on a level beyond words. On a level that bypasses the logical, rational centers of the brain and goes straight to the part that understands without thinking. In this way it works just like music does slipping in there before anyone has a chance to stop it at the border and ask for papers.” Like a mad social scientist, Carson has experiment and taken risks all throughout his career, but he puts it easily in perspective when his talks about his father, who was a test pilot. Carson states, “ There’s not a lot of risk in the way you put text and image on paper” (Brisick).
WORKS CITED B L AC KW ELL , Lewis, and David Carson. David Carson: 2ndsight: Grafik Design after the End of Print. London: Laurence King, 1997. Print. B L AC KW ELL , Lewis, and David Carson. The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson. San Francisco: Chronicle, 1995. Print. B R I S I C K, Jamie. “5ive Things About David Carson.” Trek: David Carson, Recent Work. Corte Madera, CA: Gingko, 2003. 95-102. Print. S A N D Q V I S T , Gertrud. “Intuition.” David Carson: 2ndsight: Grafik Design after the End of Print. London: Laurence King, 1997. N. pag. Print.