C-Word Talks #34: David Carson

The graphic design legend talks type, legibility and communication.

Written by Craig Berry
Former Junior Designer at VBAT

David Carson C-Word talk posters

On the 23rd of August, David Carson, (yes that David Carson) visited VBAT to give a talk, primarily about his recent artist-in-residency at the hotel, Zoku in Amsterdam, but also about his colourful and illustrious career to date. Sharing stories and showing some of his most iconic work; a full house of VBAT-ers and guests were all ears.

David Carson is a legend in the graphic design game, arguably the most famous commercial graphic designer ever. He revolutionised the industry in the 1990s through his unique and unconventional ‘grunge typography’ style of design and art-direction, working on various magazines and corporate clients. Originally a world-class surfer and high-school teacher with a degree in sociology, he came to graphic design relatively late aged 26; after a few design workshops he discovered his new calling in life and quickly picked up work at Self and Musician, a small surf magazine. Later he moved onto Transworld Skateboarding magazine where he was able to experiment further whilst gaining more exposure and as they say, the rest is history.

David Carson – Transworld Magazine

After some time to warm up, David started his talk at VBAT by presenting some images of typography which he found interesting: photographs of letters on drain covers, new and old street signs, humorous shop signs and just general day-to-day type. He was showing us how there is great typography everywhere and how this form of primary research is something which can’t be replicated looking through Google or Pinterest; you really have to get out there and happen upon these gems — something that is easy in the type-rich city of Amsterdam.

David Carson at VBAT

One of the messages David expressed early on in his talk was: “Don’t mistake legibility with communication”. Basically meaning that although legibility and communication are related, they are very different. Legibility is how easily something can be read and understood whereas communication is the measurement in which something can be read and understood.

David Carson – Don’t mistake legibility for communication

“Just because something is legible doesn’t mean it communicates and something difficult to read may be very easily communicated. Both legibility and communication are of equal importance.”

This statement can be used to summarise a lot of David’s work which has often been regarded as illegible; however it is the design ethos that David has followed in his career, still to this day and it has worked.

Though David notes Transworld magazine as the job that made him, most people will know him for his work at Raygun magazine in the 1990s as a founding art-director and designer. Raygun was in no way a magazine related to graphic design but through David’s exploration of typography, layout and visual storytelling it changed the approach of many graphic designers who saw it. David explained how he was experimenting with the public when creating work for Raygun which included each issue’s cover and all the inside content pages inside, there was no set grid, formula or format for the magazine. Each page in each issue was a new assignment where the music and words would dictate the design. David was art director at Raygun for 3 years and oversaw 30 issues, although he set a precedent for later designers and art directors to follow throughout the 7 years and 70 issues the magazine existed.

Raygun Magazine Issues 1 – 30 (Nov 1992 – Oct 1995)

When looking at David’s work, for not only Raygun magazine but for other magazines and corporate clients, I can’t help but hear the alternative music of the 1990s, bands like The Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth, Radiohead etc. The link between the aesthetic of his work and the sound of these bands is clear to me; there is a sense of going against what was deemed the ‘right way’ to do things both in music and graphic design. They ultimately both have a sense of counter-culture. I made the below playlist with a number of artists who featured in Raygun and to me, sound like David’s work looks. David also answered a question he was asked about his favourite genre of music with the vague answer of “I don’t have a favourite genre of music as such but if there is an option on itunes or spotify for ‘alternative’ I’ll normally click that”.

DC Inspired/1990s Alternative Spotify playlist

During his talk, David shared a lot of work, showing stuff he did for Nike, Miller Lite, Beach Culture magazine, Chrysler, Emporio Armani, Budweiser, Microsoft and many more corporate clients and magazines. However to me, the big job he did which stood out to me was his work for Bose Audio in 2010 for the reason he mentioned himself which was that it was the first time Bose had put out an advert which featured predominantly lower case typography which touched and more importantly featured a person who was not a white male. Through David's design and art-direction he was able to create a new image for Bose which featured women and people of colour; his design was able to change the mentality of a huge multi-national corporation, showing the power of design.

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David Carson – Bose Audio
David Carson at VBAT

As well as working on corporate clients David has spent time working with charities and organisations such as Kill the Fin Trade, an organisation dedicated to banning the shark fin trade in Australia through a unique collaboration with 72andSunny, Sea Shepherd and others. David explained that as a former surfer he has a strong affinity to the ocean and respect for its inhabitants such as the sharks. For the campaign he created a logo as well as a series of posters to raise awareness for the campaign. It is refreshing to see someone who is clearly passionate towards a cause, create something in an attempt to make a change in the world. Regarding the design he explained how he thought the use of watercolour suited the context of the ocean whilst having a sinister feeling to it through the use of the red for blood. The repetition and scale was to represent the amount of these sharks killed each year.

David Carson–Kill the Fin Trade

Finally to end his talk David shared a project he has been working on recently with a previous C-Word talk speaker: Thijs Biersteker: an interactive designer focusing on installations, products and services which make people smile and think. His project with David, Mind over Matter, is an installation which can be controlled by your brainwaves; the installation and video shows that if we can keep our focus on the right things in life, the world doesn’t spin out of control. For this David has created a number of design elements: typography and imagery in his trademark style.

David Carson at VBAT
Thijs Biersteker & David Carson – Mind over Matter

All in all, David’s talk at VBAT was a real treat for everyone who attended. He had a lot to share in terms of imagery, words and knowledge which I think everyone appreciated; it’s not everyday that a legend in your industry is in your workplace. What I found most interesting and inspiring was how he stuck around after his talk for over an hour, talking to the people on an intimate level and especially to a small group of interns and juniors, including myself, answering all of our questions with really great and well-thought answers. Although his style of work is very much his and cannot be truly replicated by anyone; the words he had to say about how to think about design, how to approach briefs and how to give commercial work a sense of your own style were invaluable.

Whilst writing this post I came across this video titled: All For a Few Good Waves, which gives a great, personal insight into David’s life, career and passion.

David Carson: All For a Good Few Waves

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written by Craig Berry, Creative at VBAT
edited by Connie Fluhme, PR at VBAT

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