Spring 1996

Print’s finale has been postponed

The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson

Lewis Blackwell
Laurence King Publishing,
Chronicle Books

Is everyone destined to succumb to David Carson? For me, the moment of capitulation arrived when I saw a reproduction of a page from Ray Gun that appears a little more than half way through The End of Print. The page in question, the opener for an article on a band called Mecca Normal, is a note-for-note steal of a page from Rolling Stone circa 1982, rendered with the deadly, mocking accuracy of the young Mozart executing a parody of Antonio Salieri. In the midst of so many frighteningly cool layouts, it is in its own deadpan way the most chilling.

For someone who obviously yearns to be scary, Carson’s near-universal appeal is somewhat startling. Predictably lionised by legions of 20-something Mac jockeys, he specialises in Dennis-the-Menace-type antics which are viewed privately with surprisingly affectionate tolerance by the curmudgeons who populate the senior ranks of our profession. The very definition of anti-commercialism, he not only accepts invitations to speak at art directors’ club receptions from Cincinnati to Jacksonville, but actually shows up at many of them. Likewise he is a much sought-after visitor to academia, despite his own conspicuous lack of formal training.

This last may be no small key to Carson’s popularity. As graduate programmes in graphic design multiply and the drive for professional status grows, the field threatens to settle into a comfortable but disconcertingly premature middle age. Into this enervated milieu strides Carson with no more than a few months of commercial art classes to his name, not just untutored but a former surfer of all things, and not just any surfer but the eighth-ranked surfer in the world. Who better to redefine the practice of graphic design than this innocent man-boy? Could any fictional persona be more suited to such astonishingly original work?

And so much of the work, as this book reconfirms is astonishing. Although many of the reproduced pages, spreads and covers are familiar from relentless exposure in design magazines and awards annuals, they retain their capacity to surprise by their freshness and daring. Nonetheless, given the familiarity of these images, most purchasers of The End of Print will be looking for something more: an explanation, perhaps, or the outline of an ideology, even the explication of the apocalyptic worldview suggested by the book’s title. They will be disappointed.

Desperate seekers of Carson’s philosophy will no doubt turn first to the interview with the book’s author Lewis Blackwell, found at the book’s centre and titled “The Venice Conversation”. While the title’s dim echo of “The Geneva Conventions” or “The Helsinki Accords” suggests historic import, in truth the piece resembles Carson’s now notorious interview with Rudy VanderLans in Émigré no. 27 in that the interviewer’s questions at times seem as long as the subject’s responses. Here one learns in time that Carson’s ideology boils down to two simple convictions.

First, never do the same thing twice. “My big training,” Carson tells Blackwell, “was on Transworld Skateboarding magazine: 200 pages full-colour every month, and I had this personal thing that told me that if I was going to get something out of it, grow in myself, then I couldn’t repeat myself. I always had to do something different.” Indeed, a perusal of the captions in The End of Print (which on the whole are the best part of the book) find Carson marking milestones with the pride of a parent recording an infant’s early steps: “First used of forced justification”; “This was the issue that first dropped page numbers”, “The first time in magazines history that an inside story jumped to continue on the front cover”. While the quest for novelty may constitute a questionable design approach, executed with Carson’s virtuosity it succeeds as an end in itself.

The second component of Carson’s approach, on the other hand, will be familiar to any designer from the “big idea” school. “Things are only done,” he says, “when they seem appropriate.” Surveyed as a whole it is surprising how many of the spreads have old-fashioned visual puns as their starting points: from the early all-black opener to the story “Surfing Blind” in Beach Culture to the 3 point body copy used in Ray Gun for a story on the band Extra Large. Contrary to the book’s title, these are literate strategies that would not seem foreign to the likes of Robert Brownjohn.

If the work pictured The End of Print provides testimony to Carson’s substantial imagination, the form of the book demonstrates its limits. The layout of the text, by definition nothing if not self-referential, lapses at times into self-parody. When, for instance, one discovers that the opening must be read, line by line, from the bottom up, the reaction is not delight or even shock but weariness. Moreover, a David Carson layout incorporating blurry pictures of grubby rock musicians is one thing; a David Carson layout incorporating reproductions of still other smaller David Carson layouts is quite another. Carson enlisted a cast of collaborators to submit visual musings on the book’s title; these appear seemingly at random throughout, often at moments when that old devil coherency is threatening to rear its ugly head. One wonders if the shock value would have been great if the entire thing had been designed to ape, say The Graphic Artist and His Design Problems by Josef Müller-Brockmann. At least it would have been funnier.

Although it was not planned that way, the publication of The End of Print marked the end of something else: Carson’s tenure at Ray Gun. This will leave him free to continue to do what the book charmingly calls “Selling Out”: exporting his approach to other clients, particularly in the world of advertising. While both Blackwell and Carson make pre-emptive protests to the contrary, it is clear that most of these advertising clients are mindlessly buying style: design as illustration rather than design as idea. Nonetheless, Carson derives understandable satisfaction from the transaction, saying, “there’s a small part of me that uses this to help validate the work against those critics who say it is weird and unreadable: maybe having Pepsi or Nike or Levi’s as clients suggest it’s not so inaccessible.”

It is somewhat disingenuous for the incorrigible designer who set an entire article in the “typeface” Zapf Dingbat to enlist soft drink companies to confirm his conventionality, but disingenuousness is at the centre of the Carson worldview. Master of the disarmingly laconic response when faced with a hostile audience, Carson is no more revealing in the book that presumably is meant to serve as his manifesto. But perhaps that explains his appeal, at least in part. The work comes to us free of all those burdensome ideas you so often find attached to avant-garde graphic design these days; you don’t need to know anything about French literary criticisms or post-McLuhanite communications theory – much less agree with it – to admire what amounts to no more and no less than a collection of cool layouts.

Given a choice between ideology and cool layouts, graphic designers usually surrender to the latter. And the music fans among us will note that no less an authority than ex-Talking Head David Byrne has joined the legions of those who have succumbed, having enthusiastically contributed an introduction to The End of Print. Byrne, in fact, makes the only convincing attempt to justify the book’s title, suggesting that Carson’s work communicates “on a level that bypasses the logical, rational centers of the brain and goes straight to the part that understands without thinking”. The brain, of course, is where all that doomed print stuff words its fading magic. The end of print, the end of thinking: I’m not sure about the first, but the graphic design of David Carson has got me pretty convinced about the second.

First published in Eye no. 20 vol. 5, 1996

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