Reports of Its End Have Been Exaggerated
A review of Lewis Blackwell’s book The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson. The review contains an archaeology of the state of design in the mid-90s and some of the discussions which surrounded the work of the surf pro gone design star.
Is everyone destined to succumb to David Carson? For me, the moment of capitulation arrived at last when I saw a reproduction of a page from Raygun that appears a little more than halfway through The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson. 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. It is 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 frightening of all.
For someone who obviously yearns to be scary, Carsons near-universal appeal is somewhat startling. Predictably lionized by legions of twenty-something Mac jockeys, his Dennis the Menace antics are privately viewedto a surprising degreewith affectionate tolerance by the curmudgeonly Mister Wilsons 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 later actually shows up at many of them. Likewise he is a much sought-after visitor to academia despite his conspicuous lack of formal training.
This last may be no small key to Carsons popularity. As graduate programs 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, in fact 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 but this innocent man-boy? Could any fictional persona be better 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 now familiar from relentless exposure in design magazines and awards annuals, they still retain their capacity to surprise with their freshness and daring. Nonetheless, most purchasers of The End of Print, given the familiarity of the images therein, will be looking for something more: an explanation, perhaps, or the outline of an ideology, or even the explication of the apocalyptic world view suggested by the books title. They will be disappointed.
Desperate seekers of Carsons philosophy will no doubt turn first to the interview with the books author, Lewis Blackwell, that is found at the books center and titled The Venice Conversation. While the titles dim echo of The Geneva Conventions or The Helsinki Accords suggests historic import, in truth it resembles Carsons now-notorious interview with Rudy Vanderlans in Emigre #27 in that the interviewers questions at times seem as long or longer than the subjects responses. There, one learns in time that Carsons 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-color 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 couldnt repeat myself. I always had to do something different. I never used the same approach for any two openers. Indeed, a perusal of the captions in The End of Print (which on the whole are the best part of the book) finds Carson marking milestones with the pride of a parent recording an infants early steps: First use of forced justification. This was the issue that first dropped page numbers. The first time in magazine 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 Carsons virtuosity it succeeds as an end in itself.
On the other hand, the second component of Carsons approach would be reassuringly familiar to any designer from the big idea school: Things are only done, he says, when they seem appropriate. Surveyed as a whole, its surprising how many of the spreads have old-fashioned visual puns as their starting points: from the early all-black spread that opened the story Surfing Blind in Beach Culture to the three-point body copy used in Ray Gun for a story on the band Extra Large. Contrary to the books title, these are literate strategies that one senses wouldnt seem all that foreign to the likes of Robert Brownjohn.
If the work pictured in The End of Print provides testimony to Carsons substantial imagination, the form of the book itself demonstrates its limits. The layout of the text, by definition nothing if not self-referential, lapses at time into self-parody. When for example one discovers 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 also enlisted a cast of collaborators to submit visual musings on the books title; these appear seemingly at random throughout the book, often at moments just when that old devil coherency is threatening to rear its ugly face. One wonders if the shock value would have been greater 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 wasnt planned, the publication The End of Print marked the end of something else: David Carsons 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 preemptive protests to the contrary, its clear that most of the advertising clients are mindlessly buying style, design as illustration, rather than design as idea. Nonetheless, Carson derives understandable satisfaction from the transaction, saying, Theres 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 Levis as clients suggests its not so inaccessible.
Its somewhat disingenuous for the incorrigible who set an entire article in the typeface Zapf Dingbat to enlist soft drink companies to confirm his conventionality, but disingenuity is at the center of the Carson world view. 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 dont need to know anything about French literary criticism or post-McLuhanite communications theorymuch less agree with itto admire what amounts to no more and no less than a bunch of frighteningly 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 books title, suggesting that Carsons work communicates on a level that bypasses the logical, rational centers of the brain and goes straight to the part that understands without thinking. And, indeed, the brain seems to be where all that doomed print stuff seems to work its fading magic. The end of print, the end of thinking: Im not sure about the first, but the graphic design of David Carson has got me pretty convinced about the second.