The Father of Grunge Typography Calls Out Lazy Design
Legendary designer David Carson on why you should just say no to Helvetica.
For graphic designers, success and controversy rarely go hand in hand. But David Carson flaunted that rule, along with just about every design principle when he became the founding art director of Ray Gun, a music magazine whose raucous look seemed to perfectly encapsulate the ’90s grunge era. A latecomer to graphic design, he did only what felt right to him, not what he was taught. He eschewed order in favor of a noisy, expressive approach to typography that, detractors famously claimed, compromised legibility.
That criticism was overstated, he recently told Magenta. A bigger, widespread crime, according to him, is now widespread — the lazy practice of defaulting to all-caps Helvetica type. “People are barely even seeing that, if they’re reading it at all,” he says. “Because we’ve seen it everywhere, it’s always kind of forgettable.” It’s easy to see why Carson thinks that mainstream graphic design has taken an antiseptic turn flipping through the off-kilter, visually arresting, and mood-setting spreads of old Ray Gun issues.
The magazine folded in 2000, but Carson has remained active — spreading his anti-grid ethos wherever he goes, most recently as an artist-in-residence at the L.A.-based 72andSunny. Here, he talks with us about his ongoing hatred of the grid, his continued love affair with QuarkXpress, and why impactful graphic design is more necessary than ever.
You’ve attributed your success in graphic design to starting your career late with no formal training.
I’ve said it a lot, but I really never did learn all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I started with no experience and just tried to do what made sense to me, without knowing any rules or schools of thought or famous people. In my case and the way I look at things and the way I work, it was an advantage to not have learned all those rules and restrictions. If I have one overall approach or philosophy, it’s, Why not? Why can’t we do that? Why can’t this article continue on the front cover? I’ve never seen that done, but why not? Let’s try it.
Some of that comes from not having formal training, and it’s also related to growing up largely in Southern California and being around surfing and skateboarding and being in those liberal worlds. Then, for some reason, I have an eye and a way of looking at things. All that, combined with my early experiences getting to design a skateboard magazine [Transworld Skateboarding] and then a surf magazine [Surfer], a coastal lifestyle magazine [Beach Culture], and then a rock ’n’ roll magazine, all just worked out well. People say, “Well, if you’re just in the right place at the right time,” but it wouldn’t matter if you weren’t the right person. I’ve always liked this definition of good luck: When preparation meets opportunity.
You didn’t have any graphic design mentors per se, but did you have any artistic influences?
Yeah, probably more than I could even name. But right away, Rothko comes to mind. I’m a huge fan of his work and just the emotional appeal and the simplicity and the strength. The first poster I bought for my college dorm was a Rothko. People might not see the similarities between his work and mine, but I do. I crop or arrange things at times and think to myself, That’s a little Rothko-y. My work tends to be best when it’s either really, really simple or more complicated and busy. If it’s in the middle—and I think it’s true of a lot of people—it’s probably the least effective or memorable.
Do you think of yourself as an artist or a designer?
I would say both, for sure. I think that some of the best graphic design absolutely is fine art. I’ve come around to thinking maybe what I do is a little more as a graphic artist. The term graphic design used to represent something of a more experimental or outlaw quality that we’ve lost in the last decade or two, as the field has gotten more homogenized.
How do you respond to critics who think of your style, with its disregard for legibility and grids, as blasphemous?
The grid thing: I think that’s what has killed graphic design in the last decade. People let the software in the computers set up grids and line things up. They have almost no decision making, and they’re not using their own eye. That’s why graphic design is in such a boring place right now. I never learned about grids or had any idea what they were years into doing magazines. By the time I learned about them or discovered them, I didn’t see any need for them. I still don’t, other than for speed.
And the whole legibility thing. Number one, I feel strongly that it got way overstated. I can think of one or two incidences in my entire career where I would say you couldn’t read something, and at that point it was sending a different message. People read what they’re interested in reading. Recently, researchers gave a bunch of college students information in strange fonts, from Monotype Corsiva to Comic Sans, and another group was given information in Helvetica. The people reading the stranger fonts remembered more and did better on tests later.
I think you do a real disservice to the writer and the reader if you don’t make the design engaging. It’s always been hard to get somebody to jump into a gray page of type regardless of how well it’s written. The designer can help somebody dive in where, hopefully, they’re rewarded with a good story. A couple of writers in some early issues of Ray Gun got pretty upset because they thought their stories were hard to read. Then, by the end of my three years there, some of the same writers would complain if their story got almost no treatment because it was late and got flowed in at the last minute. They’d go, “What happened? My article is so plain. You didn’t like it?”
Are you a type nerd?
Type is a huge part of the decision, absolutely. Every font sends its own message. It communicates a lot before somebody starts reading it, so it’s an integral part. Type is horribly underused right now. Everything is flush left, all caps, probably Helvetica or, if not Helvetica, something very close. If it’s a title for an ad or a brochure or whatever, people are barely even seeing it because they’ve seen it everywhere; it’s the default and always kind of forgettable.
Design seems to be in a place where it’s bending over backwards to be accessible and easy to understand, with standardized system design for platforms. How do you feel about that trend toward uniformity?
I want to say horrified, but that might be a little strong. That’s why there’s a lack of great stuff out there. The effect is that things get glossed over. People aren’t drawn in. Everything looks the same. There are no visual clues that this is something special, or that you really need to read this. Designers seem to have gotten really lazy. But there are some signs that people are yearning again for a little more expressive experimentation, rather than perfect and boring.
But you’re not a Luddite. The desktop tools of the 1990s, like QuarkXpress, helped you define your style.
Yeah, what I found it did was allow me to work faster and explore more ideas in a shorter amount of time. If you don’t have a design sense or eye, it’s certainly not going to give it to you. I think you have to bring your own individual eye to the process, and that’s where you can get something unique and something that nobody else can do.
Do you have creative blocks?
To me, the answer or solution is always in whatever I’m given. Whether it’s a brief or an article or a CD cover, the information always sends me in some direction right away. Then I go to the computer and use that as my sketch pad. I still often work in a very primitive program that you mentioned earlier — QuarkXpress. I think I’m one of three people in the world that still use it.
What have you worked on recently?
I’m really enjoying work on social issues. I just did a big campaign for 72andSunny’s new Australia office to stop shark finning. It’s estimated that 100 million sharks are killed a year, whereas six humans are killed by sharks a year. People cut off all these fins, so that people can have fin soup, and then let the sharks just float down to the bottom because they can’t propel themselves anymore. It takes them a day or two to die. It’s this really horrific practice. It’s a really interesting design challenge, too, because it’s pretty hard to show a shark fin and not have it be menacing.
I’m also involved with Win the Future, or WTF, [founded by Silicon Valley heavyweights such as LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman] to give progressively-minded people a place to meet and connect.
So, living in these surreal political times, what do you think the role of the designer should play in the political conversation?
As more people than ever seem energized in the country to speak out and have their voices heard, design does have an amazing opportunity to be important again and help get their message and concerns out there. It’s not going to be enough to just write a great paper or paragraph about your argument. You have to appeal to people on an emotional level initially, and that’s where graphic design can play a big part. It’s a great venue for designers who like to be involved in something more than just selling product.
Then again, there’s something about a hand-done poster that just screams legitimacy. If, for instance, you give the same, perfectly printed official poster to everybody as they walk into a political convention, it loses a huge part of its message, validity, and impact.