There are a few, remarkable people who show us that there’s another way.
They take the tools from our hands, and do amazing things with them that we could never have contemplated. Where we see unbreakable rules, they see uninteresting choices. The results leave some people so affected that they never again look at their tools in the same way.
These people generally fall into three categories. First, there are those who were so far ahead of society’s ability to comprehend their efforts that their work is only “discovered” and lauded after their deaths. Kafka was one. Van Gogh another.
Second are those who break established rules again and again to increasing acclaim, yet always stay ahead of their imitators simply because they don’t know of any other way to behave. Picasso, let’s say. Radiohead, perhaps.
And then there are those people who have a single flash of genius at the very moment that society’s mirrors are perfectly aligned to catch its light. Though the rest of their work may be perfectly competent, everyone clamors for the lightening to strike again and again. It’s not these people’s fault that they can’t replicate that moment.
Given the title of this piece, you can probably see where I’m going with this one.
David Carson’s editorial design career currently has three significant phases of its own. Firstly, there was Transworld Skateboarding, Surfer, and Beach Culture. A former professional surfer (ninth in the world at one point, apparently) Carson created a sprawling, gridbreaking design style for these publications, taking every element he was given for the page and treating them as visual objects to play with, often whimsically.
He essentially set himself up as an artist who had taken on the position of a graphic designer – text, typography, photography were all elements of equal weight, to be treated like free-floating pieces of a collage. This sensation continues to echo in his work.
Then came the extended flash of genius that was Ray Gun – a lightening strike that lasted three years. Under the almost-criminally overlooked editorship of founder Marvin Scott Jarrett (who went on to create Nylon), and working with art directors such as Chris Ashworth, Carson invented a sprawling, gridbreaking, unpredictable, and above all highly distinctive design language. It was strange, experimental, and often unpleasant. Yet it was rarely less than interesting, and its look and feel matched the nonconformist attitude of the grunge music that the magazine covered.
Graphic design is about content and message, and his designs only truly succeed when their message (usually attention-seeking confusion, chaos, nonconformity) match the story within the rest of the content. Some grunge tunes were barely more than unlistenable rage; some of Carson’s designs were unreadable messes. Purists and industry leaders hated both; at a time when computer-based DTP was encouraging typographic homogeneity, they were a perfect match.
The magazine’s aesthetic was widely copied by design students everywhere, and richly deserves its place in the unofficial hall of cult editorial fame.
And so Carson became a hero figure to many designers aged under 30. The phrase “The End of Print” was coined in reference to him, tongue in cheek, by another contemporary typographic enfant terrible, Neville Brody. Never one for deadlines or even necessarily turning up to his own events, Carson’s legend became as rebelliously romantic as it was untouchable.
Often passed over by those searching for a nonconformist idealism to match his visuals is the fact that he left Ray Gun in 1995, in order to focus the work of his studio on corporate projects and personal artwork, with the occasional editorial commission for old times’ sake.
Now, sixteen years since he left Ray Gun, we have Carson – a bimonthly magazine named after the man’s own legacy. It’s edited by Alex Storch, previously the editor-in-chief of a counter culture online magazine about Los Angeles, with creative direction by DavidCarsonDesignInc.
Here’s the first strange thing about Carson: Beach Culture appeared as part of an emerging surf culture, documenting what it meant to drop out and surf. Ray Gun was created as way of discussing and contributing to the rise of grunge, and everything it stood for. So what is the cultural driving force that led to the introduction of Carson?
Independent magazines. It feels like this magazine exists principally because of independent publishing. Even though magazines aren’t its theme, the often nonconformist energy in this ever-growing field is what has made it possible, and made it happen.
However, the first issue of Carson isn’t a reaction against all that the editorial establishment stands for. Instead, it’s a kind of mishmash of unconventional storytelling, self-aggrandizement and shameless promotion loosely connected to the magazine’s opening theme, Survival.
First, the positive:
The best piece by far in both design and content are Mike Doughty’s Ten Kinds of Survival. Its personal, engaging, bloglike style points to a possible direction for the whole concept: tight, sharp, witty, dark personal publishing, echoed by Carson’s slightly creepy, individual twist on the images and (literally) on the text.
The design forces the reader into a more active level of engagement with the words, questioning without obstructing. The piece is not easy reading, either literally or figurative. The design complements it well without becoming overbearing.
Though I’m not entirely clear why it was applied, I really like this typographic bar code, too. I felt very positive about what was to come.
The inverted pyramids on this piece also made for an unexpected reading experience.
However, that’s about where my warmth ends regarding this issue of Carson. Some of the content, as I mentioned early, reads as thin PR-led copy by people pushing furniture/books/themselves on the reader in self-important terms. Writers’ biographies often stretch to two paragraphs (and are styled like body text, which doesn’t help, as they read like the end of the article.) There’s a lot of vapid writing, without much evidence of a tight, unconventional editorial remit. Potentially the best piece of the lot, by Neil Strauss, collapses due to poor editing on the second page.
Many of the designs are unusual, but without a strong editorial concept behind their strangeness, they just seem willfully hard to read. Paragraphs without indents or separations might look pretty, for instance, but they’re hell on the reading eye. That’s never Carson’s main concern, of course – his designs only ever referenced a text’s content in passing, if at all.
But if you’re going to hire him to design a magazine, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t, then you have to provide content that is not only enhanced by his stylings (some of which feel quite fresh, most of which feel like they could have been taken straight from 1994), but also reward the inevitable strain of trying to read most of the words. Almost nothing in Carson did.
Ultimately, however, the biggest problem of the magazine doesn’t come from its big-name designer, but its overall concept. I just don’t understand what it’s about, who it’s for, or why it exists.
The very best titles justify themselves through everything they do, because without them we wouldn’t adequately follow, understand, analyze, enjoy, learn about, react to whatever corner of the world we inhabit. They force readers to subscribe because the idea of missing an issue actually feels painful. They convey the passion of an editor for whom every word is a result of a painstaking decision process.
But far too many pieces in this first issue of Carson felt rushed, undramatic, and left me thinking, “So?”
This is only the first issue, and I will watch to see how it improves. It has a long way to go. Right now, it feels like Carson exists because a) his name means something, and b) now is a time for independent publishing. It’s not enough.