Design: A hero of deconstruction

David Carson printed a dull article as unfathomable symbols. Readers loved it. Lewis Blackwell explores the work of a graphic design genius

As you read this, David Carson is probably in a hotel room in a strange city somewhere preparing for yet another show. From New York to London, Brussels to New Orleans, the tour goes on. His lifestyle echoes that of a rock star, or religious cult leader. But he is something more seminal to this media-saturated age of ours. Carson is a graphic designer.

Once this job description had all the glamour of the technician that it largely described - someone who helped things appear on the right bit of paper. But graphics has changed. In the Eighties, the designer rose to prominence, a figure invested with the authority to remake the modern world.

In their work designers celebrated the Self, trumpeted individualism and led the obsession for consumerables whose value was multiplied through a label. Designer jeans, designer perfume, designer restaurants - the hand or signature of the designer-creator came to be an important (if often spurious) mark of quality. In the past few years, we may have dismissed Eighties style, but there seems little lessening of the desire for creative heroes. In an age when values are at best questioned, at worst entirely shot away, those who can make up their own rules and pitch them out there have the firm basis of a career. Appearance is everything. Until you buy a new one.

Graphic design, which didn't quite peak in the Eighties, has arrived. Now that everybody has an ironic post-modernist take on their information sources, the graphic designer is pitched as high priest at the altar of mass-communication. Press conferences are held to launch minor tweakings of corporate logos, while lavish awards cram the calendar, showering honour on the makers of the media.

But few can hope to catch the wave as David Carson has done. Perhaps it is because he is a one-time professional surfer - reputedly reaching a peak of number eight in the world - that he seems to have an instinctive grasp of the forces behind the times. Perhaps it is also that he is almost entirely self-taught, and thus escaped having dinned into him the "right way of doing things" which inevitably congeals into dogma, the destiny of which is to be torn apart.

Carson has shown excellent timing and an ability to stay at the edge: from the early Eighties when he learnt how to design a magazine as he went along, knocking out a 200- page skateboarding magazine in the evenings after teaching at high school near San Diego, through the years of catching attention with offbeat publishing, to the recent years of stardom and a queue of clients across print, advertising, television and film.

While rivals might question his success, and often speak cynically of Carson's ability to get talked about, they have to admit he does have something - the indefinable eye. Even his enemies admit the man has talent. The distinct difference of Carson's work, and its wildfire effect on the imagination of young designers, has ensured that he is applauded or attacked as the art director/designer of this era.

In the radical vision of Carson's graphics, a generation of designers has a new creed to follow. This involves, to describe the work crudely, free-form pages and films, beautifully difficult-to-read typography, distressed images and eclectic multi-cultural sources of material, all working to spin a richly seductive form for his client's communications - messages which range from the latest Microsoft poster campaign to the Giorgio Armani magazine, anti-smoking ads, short films, books and commercials.

Carson's sold-out speaking tour coincides with the launch of Second Sight: grafik design after the end of print (Laurence King, pounds 35/pounds 25), which attempts to reveal the theory behind the seemingly unruly nature of all this output. The first book on his work, The End Of Print, sold 120,000 copies worldwide - not enough to begin paying out the advance of a John Grisham novel, but unprecedented for a graphic design book.

As the author, or collaborator, on both books, I am scarcely the best person to assess their merit - but can at least claim an inside knowledge of their making and the motives of the man behind the work. With the first book, we unintentionally caught the vogue for "end-ism" (we were at the beginning of the rash of books titled "The End Of..."), noting how the growth of media was changing print and how it was stimulating radical questions about what we read and how we want to see it. With the latest book we looked for the forces behind this design that runs so counter to the reasoning of traditional practice.

Carson is an intriguing mix of innocence and experience. He has a sociology degree and has worked in design for a decade. Yet he still displays remarkable gaps in his knowledge of design history, or indeed of some basic craft practices. Younger designers often assume he is a child of the digital era, where the technology invites play with type and images, but in fact his approach was forged before moving on to the computer. He spends time finding and saving junked materials, taking photographs, and playing with surfaces outside of the computer environment. His work has more in common with fine artists - notably Abstract Expressionists such as Pollock and Rothko - than it has with other designers. He only really uses one software program, whereas the typical young graphic designer tends to dip in and out of a handful.

Instead of having all the answers, Carson's work is driven by asking questions. In an often highly self-conscious manner, his layouts and films are full of details that make you aware of the surface of the page or screen, make you aware of the medium and of its rules - rules which Carson takes as things to be twisted in his intuitive search for new ways of doing things.

This idea of intuition is at the core of the work. In a rejection of the rationalism behind Modernist design, he has embraced intuition as being a long-underrated virtue of creative work. In this he is tapping into a deeply unfashionable area of philosophy, one which connects with the quasi-spiritual approach of Henri Bergson at the turn of the century, and also links with the current vogue for Outsider Art, or Art Brut.

Carson is not expecting a warm reception from the "design industry" for such an attitude. With graphic designers often desperate to suggest to likely clients that their work is some kind of soft science, almost guaranteed to deliver measurable improvement in a company's performance, the last thing they need is a contemporary design guru saying good design is at its best as a personal, gut-feeling, a mixing of self-expression into public messages.

But such words strike a deeply resonant chord with designers as yet free of corporate pressures. They can sense that Carson's approach touches the very reason why they do the job in the first place: to try and shape the world in some way, so that it enriches life in a broader sense than just delivering results on a company's bottom line.

For the general viewer - or perhaps you and I - the appeal of the work is, at first sight, simply that it is refreshingly different. He challenged conventions about readability and about page structure, even magazine structure. This leads to the removal of page numbering, the subversion of descriptive contents pages, even the abandonment of beginning at the beginning (one magazine started in the middle and worked out in both directions, with some articles ending on an associated internet site).

These were pyrotechnics of form, rarely supported by the content of what were otherwise fairly tame editorial products. In his frustration with yet another dull article in the magazine Ray Gun he went so far as to produce it in an entirely unreadable typeface of symbols. Interestingly, this caused no apparent backlash from readers, but only won more admiration.

In moving away from niche magazines and into the world of international advertising, and more heavyweight work, Carson is running the risk of losing control. His most influential magazine work came out of a process that saw him send the magazine to the printer without recourse to the editor or publisher. But such freedom is not possible when you are helping present a global brand to its marketplace in a dozen different languages, with a dozen different corporate divisions all bidding to make their mark.

Only in creating his own book, or in some of his smaller one-off jobs and teaching roles, does Carson now get the kind of freedom that has turned on a generation of graphic designers. Whatever his next move, though, one thing is sure - that he has been a major influence in creating a tidal force of change in the look and logic of contemporary graphics. Next time you like the look of something but can't at first quite work out what it is saying, thank David Carson. Or not

Lewis Blackwell is the editor of `Creative Review'

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
The dress can be seen in different colours
Wes Brown is sent-off
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

    £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

    Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

    £28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

    Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

    £46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

    Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

    £18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?