David Carson is the most famous graphic designer currently living.
His body of work’s monumental, and his methods? Haphazard to say the least, but god they work. Take a tour of Carson’s bought-on-a-whim Caribbean beachside den, and then engage the thoughts and career trajectory of the great man below. When Carson talks, you listen.
Interview originally conducted by Jamie Brisick and published in MC issue 31.
Give me an abbreviated run through of how you got into Graphic design…
Well, it’s a second career. And I have a degree in Sociology. I took that basically because it was interesting to me and my parents kept saying, ‘Go, take business. You’re always going to use some kind of business.’ So I took sociology, majored in it. Now, what do you with it? So, I found myself getting a teaching credential largely so that I could have the summers off to go surfing, short days. Of course, now I realize that’s not a good reason to go into teaching. You should go into it because you love it, because you can’t wait to get in the next day and you’re going to try all this new stuff. That’s rare. Anyway, I was doing that at Torrey Pines High School in San Diego. It was okay. I didn’t love it and I didn’t hate it. It just kind of worked. And, that’s just never been the way I wanted to live my life. I got something in the mail advertising a workshop, this thing called ‘Graphic Design.’ I read the description because I’d never heard the term, and thought, ‘Wow! That’s a profession?’ I ended up going to it. And, that was it. The two weeks were just like, ‘Wow!’ I don’t think anything’s ever been so clear to me. That’s what I wanted to do and whatever it took. I had a good teacher, which was a big part of it, but it just clicked. I remember my first assignment. The teacher gave us all these newspapers and black and white ink and basically said, ‘Okay now, just do whatever you think you should do.’ Everybody kind of looked at each other and the people just started painting. I just remember that he’d stop and he’d talk and work with people. He came to mine, this was my first class ever, he looks at what I’ve done and he goes, ‘Yes, you’re getting it. You’re getting it.’ He keeps moving on, and, I’m thinking, ‘What am I getting? What am I getting?’ But it kind of gets back to that thing about this looks better than that. And, that’s going to be more powerful and more striking. I wish I know where that comes from or how you could transfer it or teach it. I don’t know that you can.
What do you consider to be your career highlights?
In terms of work I would really say Beach Culture magazine, for a number of different reasons. It was the first time all my earlier training had a chance to come together. I had done Transworld Skateboarding, I had moved to the East Coast to do Musician and Billboard, and then after I got fired for the design being too radical, I’d heard that Surfer Publications were talking about doing this more experimental magazine, and I flew out to California to interview for the job.Beach Culture was never intended to be a surf magazine. It was loosely hung on this idea that people at the beach also enjoy other things—it was an attitude. It was myself and the editor, Neil Feineman, in the back of the Surfer offices, literally in the warehouse, just doing our thing. I look back now and it was so pure. I was living with it around the clock. We did every issue like it was our last. I was so broke I was scrounging for gas or lunch money half the time, but it didn’t matter. We were experimenting. My thing had yet to take off at that time, but the issues still hold up well. They shut it down about a year before the whole street culture thing kicked in, which was a shame.And then much later the work I did for Nine Inch Nails, packaging and posters and everything. Trent Reznor was a really interesting person to work with. We hit it off, just a great working relationship. Just the idea that you could interpret somebody’s music and lyrics in a way that they’re happy with was really satisfying. I remember getting an email from Trent when we were done saying that he was really happy about the work. I put it up on my office wall.I’m also most proud of—I think it was within a year of each other—getting listed in The Encyclopedia of Surfing and A History of Graphic Design.
Your graphic design would expand into giving talks and lectures. Now it seems you’re renowned for both. And the talks seem to attract far more than just the visual arts crowd.
My next book is called The Rules of Graphic Design, but it’s really much more than that. I think it’s about creativity and trusting yourself and using who you are in your work, whatever that work is. One of the early criticisms of my work was that it was “self-indulgent,” and I’d say, ‘Hell yeah it is, I’m totally into it, I’m totally absorbed in it, and part of me hopes it gets recognized and I wouldn’t want somebody working for me who wasn’t just as into it.’Early on in my career someone wanted me to talk to this group of high finance, venture capitalist people, and I was just kind of dreading it, thinking ‘What will I have in common with these people?’ And what struck me afterwards is how almost all of them came up to get a book signed or to make a comment and I thought, ‘Whoa, there is a bigger message here than just putting type on top of type!’ One of the greatest compliments I can hear after a lecture, and I’ve heard it a few times, is people say that it made them want to go right back to work that night. They left the thing wanting to go back to work at 10 o’clock at night or they decided, ‘You know what? That thing that’s almost done, screw it. I’m going to go back in and change it completely.’ It’s all about pushing yourself, doing stuff you enjoy, not getting stale.
You once told me a great story about kids being innately creative.
I think every kid is an artist and it gradually gets beaten out of them as they grow up. ‘No, Billy, cows aren’t purple,’ that kind of stuff. And I always remember this study where a teacher went into a first grade class and asked, ‘How many of you are artists?’ And of course the whole class raises their hands. Then he goes to second grade and asks the same question and gets the same results, the stuff is hanging on the fridge, the parents love it, all kids raising their hands. But by the time he gets up to sixth or seventh grade and asks the same question, only a couple of kids raise their hands. It’s been beaten out of the rest of them.
What artists have inspired you?
I always have trouble with that question, and some of it comes from not having schooling and never learning who specifically the people were, the schools of thought, etc. I hate to come off like I don’t follow anyone, but there’s no one person. Growing up, I memorized all the surf mags—I can pick photos in the old mags and tell you the caption. Dora was always my number one hero in that world.What are the things that you look at or pay attention to? What keeps you inspired? Well, it sounds kind of cliché or corny, but it’s just everything around me. And I’m always taking pictures. Somebody once told me, ‘Hey, you’re always scanning, aren’t you?’ And yes, I’m kind of always aware of, you know, I choose restaurants, generally for atmosphere over food. It sounds corny, but I get inspiration from life. Like, after this I’ll go over to Other Music on 4th Street and, if nothing else, just stare at the covers. It kind of reminds you why you’re in the field or gets you pumped again. The way I work, the thing is always on the thing itself, like the solution is always in what I’ve been given. When I’m given a certain project, I have a certain audience in mind and I’m not just blindly doing something I like. I think, ‘Okay, what have we got to do here? Where’s it going to be? What are we competing with?’ I mean, there’s a lot of stuff that goes into it even though, you know, I’m known for breaking the rules blah, blah, blah.
What would be your dream job?
That would be a tough one, because I’ve had so many of them. You know, I’ve had total freedom, from doing surf and art and rock ‘n’ roll to trying worldwide branding with Microsoft to airlines to Armani. Not that those are all great, but they are all different experiences and different things. So I feel that I’ve had a fair amount of those. Probably more with the magazine work, you know, with Beach Culture and Ray Gun. When I finished designing the issue, I sent it to the printer. Nobody had to ‘okay’ it. I had an amazing amount of freedom and I was always aware of that. You didn’t know how many more issues we were going to have so it was a very unusual situation; you needed to run with it and push yourself. There are some horrible pages and there are some great ones, but it was allowed to become something. And I think that’s where the best stuff comes from; if you get a person that’s given the freedom to do what they do, whatever that is. That happened to be the case here. That’s not to say my dream job isn’t out there. I’d like to do something big and something I haven’t done before and something that a lot of people would see, good visibility, and something that people would not expect me to be working on and something where I could make a significant contribution or change. That’s some of the reason why I recently did this job with Bose speakers. What finally sold me was them saying, ‘Hey, just think about it: you can reintroduce this brand to a whole new generation.’ That was kind of intriguing. And it would be kind of cool if that was allowed to happen, which it wasn’t. So I don’t know, I guess it would have to be a big one, big visibility, a lot of freedom, decent pay, and near some surf. I often thought that’s the same thing about surfing, that indefinable thing. That it could be good tomorrow, or next week. There’s something about surfing that is hopeful. I guess I feel the same way about work: I’ll go home tonight and check the email and see if I’ve got any cool projects that came in. And that’s exciting.