Worlds Most Influential Graphic Designer Cultural Studies Essay

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Considered to be one of the worlds most influential graphic designers Layers Magazine, 2007 David Carson is a name synonymously associated with post-modern design. This essay investigates Carson's career from its beginning in the design industry by means of a full biography before venturing on into post-modern and sub-cultural influences on the designer, the emergence and development of key aspects of post-modernist design within the work of David Carson and the positive and negative impact and influence he has had on modern graphic design.


Born in Texas on September 8th, 1955 David Carson dedicated his early career to being a professional surfer, David attained a standing of number 8 in the world rankings while being a high school teacher in California (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012a). A late starter to the graphic design industry, Carson's first real design experience came during a two-week commercial design course in Switzerland as part of his sociology degree. The class, taught by Swiss designer, Hans-Rudolf Lutz (Sacharoq, 1996: p.8), whose influence was so significant that Carson made a decision to pursue a career in graphic design and enrolled full time in a small 'art college' upon his return home to the United States. In an interview with Marc Cameron, founder of; Carson explains the beginning of his design career: 'taking the advice of a friend' who, at the time was the editor of Skateboarder magazine to contact the art director. 'I immediately started harassing this art director, sending him every little thing I was working on' (Cameron, 2012a). This dogged persistence paid off and soon Carson was working in the studio voluntarily; pasting up advertisements and eventually composing an editorial spread for the magazine.

Carson's first 'real job' in the design profession was working as a designer at the surfer publication titled Self and Musician as well as being an employed part-time designer for the magazine Transworld Skateboarding (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012b). This enabled him to experiment with design, developing his now characteristic style of chaotic spreads - overlapping photos and mixed up, altered typefaces. In 1989 Carson changed occupations and became art director of Beach Culture magazine producing a total of six magazines before the journal folded, this earned him more than 150 design awards (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012c) and a new position in a design role at its sister publication Surfer magazine, which catapulted him into the design spotlight. Carson then caught the attention of Marvin Jarret, publisher of Ray Gun an alternative music publication, who hired Carson as its art director in 1992. The monumental success of the publication between the years 1992 and 1995, with the help of Carson's radical design vision, saw Ray Gun's subscribers triple in numbers. This feat is most commonly attributed to the design strategy that seemed to be particularly appealing to the youth demographic (, n.d.) which led to several large corporations spotting an opportunity in Carson's design work to increase youth sales of their respective products. Commissions earned by Carson followed to design printed advertisements and direct television commercials.

In 1995, Carson left Ray Gun and established his own design company David Carson Design. The business was an instant success, and Carson was able to secure a large and diverse corporate client base with companies such as Microsoft, Pepsi and Giorgio Armani. Carson's first book titled The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson, released in 1995 and has since become the top selling graphic design book of all time with sales in excess of over 200,000 copies (David Carson Design, n.d.). Followed by the boldly experimental books 2nd Sight (1997), Fotografiks (1999), and Trek (2003) (Encyclopaedia Britannica, 2012d).

Post-modernist design and its influences on David Carson

Post-modernist design, described in the art and popular culture encyclopaedia as:

A cultural, intellectual or artistic state, which lacks a clear central hierarchy or organizing principle and which embodies extreme complexity, contradiction, ambiguity, diversity and interconnectedness (, u.d.).

This is evident in Carson's hallmark style of distorted type and his rejection of the conventional ideas of typographic syntax, visual hierarchy and imagery. The text in Carson's work often challenges the fundamental criteria for legibility by the exploration of reverse reading, extreme forced justification, columns jammed together with no gutter and the erratic letter spacing across images, arranged in expressive rather than normative sequences.

In his book, A Century of Graphic Design, author Jeremy Aynsley (2001: p. 233a) states that:

Carson's work is greatly indebted to the work of Wolfgang Weingart and the Cranbrook academy, belonging to the tradition of deconstructive typography.

This statement holds a immense amount of strength as Carson has characterised his style by embracing what could be considered as vernacular design, upsetting the rules of modernist typography with inconsistent weights and spacing of letterforms and adopting a multi-layered approach to both word and image; a style that has been an identifiable hallmark and key aspect of post-modernism.

Aynsley (2001: p. 233b).goes on to explain how:

Carson counters the modernist position "form follows function", instead opting to use layout to explore the meaning. The typographic form is expected to represent ideas actively, rather than present a transparent medium.

Much of Carson's work has also been influenced by the surfing sub-culture; his early professional surfing career allowed him to identify with and relate to his target audience. In his interview with Marc Cameron, Carson states: 'growing up around that culture put me in a more experimental mindset' (Cameron, 2012b). This experimental and somewhat chaotic approach to design appealed to the sub-culture that surrounded the surfing and skating communities, and in a sense gave them their own identity with the styling of publications related to their specific demographic. Aynsley (2001: p. 232) has claimed that advertisers soon noticed the potential benefits of someone who could embody the interests of young consumers.

The work of David Carson and its post-modernist theories

The impact of David Carson on modern graphic design

David Carson is arguably the most innovative and influential graphic designer of the 1990's (Blackwell, 1995: p. 1) and without doubt the most talked about, gaining an army of both admirers and detractors throughout his career. Blackwell (1995: p.10) has noted how 'Carson has progressed from being an unknown designer of a short-lived specialist magazine to being one of the most decorated designers in the world'. This statement that holds weight in the sense that Carson's work has made a breakthrough from sub-culture to the mainstream of mass communication his work now considered being 'the cutting edge of the leading communications culture' (Blackwell, 1995: p. 18).

Carson's continual reinvention of the relationship between design and type, has changed the course of graphic design and crystalized the look and attitude of an entire generation, making him a powerful catalyst for design change (Aynsley, 2001: p. 233c). Running several workshops for graphic design students worldwide has provided Carson with a cult following of inspired young designers while at the same time angering some communications professionals who believed he had 'crossed the line between order and chaos' (Meggs, 1998: p.463). The lack of a prominent theory or a defined set of rules within Carson's work does not necessarily mean that the work is chaotic; instead it challenges conventional design practices with Carson's belief that as Blackwell (1995: p 27) claims that 'you cannot not communicate' and exploration of the full range of expression possible.

How my studio work has benefited as a result of exploring the topics covered in this module

The topics covered in this module have dramatically benefitted my studio work; they have given me an insight into historical design practices and an understanding of key movements that I previously would not have considered in both my research and in producing potential design solutions.

Post-modernism and David Carson in particular has been a monumental inspiration and my work in both the learning activities and the summative assessment covering the subject of his design work and processes; inspiring me to take a more expressive outlook on my design and not limiting myself to conventional solutions to design briefs. I now take into account how more expressionist designs can attract and engage the intended audience, more than traditional messages that offer little visual appeal. Designing pieces that have direct links to Carson's design philosophies; considering the emotion conveyed by a piece of work has added an extra dimension to previous practices and has reignited my passion for design.