As a lecturer, I have to, but I am always troubled after delivering my introduction to David Carson.
It would be a gross injustice to deny his place in the history of graphic design, especially in typography. David Carson’s distinctive design style released the floodgates to the era of grunge design, bred and released thousands of imitators and propagated the cult of ugly. His arrival as the new design rock star in the mid-90s hogged enough spotlight to displace the cool-functional-modernists and the almighty Americans who were monopolising most of the design awards (the Pentagrams in particular — Paula Scher, Kit Hinrichs, Michael Bierut; the undisputed virtuoso of magazine design, Fred Woodward; and the retro charm of the Minneapolis gang led by Charles Spencer Anderson and Joe Duffy).
David Carson became the design idol. He became the epitome of “cool”. Aspiring designers — young professionals and design students alike worshipped him for the spirit of liberation. For once, everyone could put aside design theories, mainstream typography and grids, big ideas and strategies and just design. As David aptly put in, design as according to intuition.
But is Carson just an overrated designer?
Here’s the confession. I used to go goo-goo-ga-ga over every issue of Raygun. That damned dirty typography. The who-heck-cares screwed layouts. It was both inspiring and liberating. It encompasses all the things that I am forbidden to do on real jobs. Many of Carson’s magazine spreads were just, paradoxically beautiful. And somehow, Carson has his ways to discover many new talents (for example, Hayes Henderson).
Back then I was a Carson groupie.
I am well over my Carson-phase. The troubling thing about Carson is that he built an entire career over his signature style. When it was the “in” thing, Carson was king. It would be unthinkable to do a Carson-style design right now. The cool-minimal-functional-modernists are still popular. Pentagram is growing stronger. Joe Duffy has become a multinational branding company. The new “in” thing of vector graphics (with that unmistakable floral leaves and patterns + butterflies + cute deers) is still everywhere. But it just ain’t cool to do the Carson thing anymore.
As a designer I have come to realise what’s most important in designing is to ensure the meeting of communicative objectives. However much I admire those who excel with distinguished styles (M/M Paris, Non-format UK etc), stylistic executions mean nothing if the design does not communicate.
Meanwhile, Carson lives in his past glory as he goes around the world conducting workshops and seminars. He is notoriously known as conference organisers’ worst nightmare — for cancelling appearances at the very last minute, or simply disappearing when he is supposed to be on stage, most likely to be found drunk in his hotel room. One thing for sure — it is creepy for an established designer to decorate his official web page with more testimonials than a teenager’s Friendster page. He’s got a seriously inflated ego to deal with.
That chap called David Carson.