The End of Print (Again): Why David Carson Still Matters

David Carson came to the fore of visual culture in the early 1990s, solidifying his place in 1995 with the publication of The End of Print: The Grafik Design of David Carson. His frenetic lettering and layouts inspired countless designers to push boundaries and break classical rules, qualities that are still prized today. So much so that a new second edition of Carson’s book—which, in 1995, was received by many as a brash polemic—has just been released.

Carson is a member of the graphic design community to be sure, but his admittance was fraught with criticism and rebukes, accusations of ignoring style and demeaning content. In truth, the work featured in the 1995 edition of this monograph represents the worldview of a revolutionary staking his claim before anyone else had decided what side they were on, or had even realized that sides needed taking.

The End of Print (All Carson book images: Laurence King Publishing)

In this latest edition of The End of Print, there is a letter penned by Jessica Helfand, addressed to her daughter. In it, Helfand sets out to explain graphic design. “Print isn’t dead, sweetheart,” she writes. “It’s just sleeping.” The act of reading, she goes on, wakes up the letters that comprise print, regardless of how and where they appear—on paper, billboards, or screens. And while typography and design influence the act of reading, they are not the act of reading, which is something that “will never die,” Hefland writes. “Reading is your ticket to the world.” So true—and in delineating the difference between reading letters to form words, sentences, and paragraphs, and seeing them within the context of an overall design, Helfand admits that, ultimately, reading is more important than design.

In his introduction to The End of Print, Lewis Blackwell sums up why Carson still matters today: “The work celebrated the resonance of print and its processes, as well as the potential for a more intense visual media.” Helfand’s daughter, two years old in 2000, is a member of the generation that does more of its reading on screens than on pages, instilling a familiarity with “intense visual media” where once there was novelty. The End of Print serves as a threshold between the two eras, showing the way from the print to the digital age in the same way Marshall McLuhan tried to make sense of the electric media age.

The Book of Probes, via Gingko Press

Though The End of Print contains plenty of eye-catching work—from a Leonard Cohen wine label to a Pepsi campaign and spreads from the magazines Ray Gun and Beach Culture—it is still a traditional monograph, a representative offering of Carson’s oeuvre. But for those interested in seeing Carson’s work fire on all cylinders, and getting a better understanding of its wider cultural importance, check out his design for The Book of Probes, a collection of McLuhan aphorisms and adages, quips and japes, heavy as an old disk drive, and designed, it seems to me, to be as obtrusive and noticeable as possible. In his essay about The Book of Probes, McLuhan expert W. Terrence Gordon writes that Carson’s treatment of McLuhan’s words “provides a haven of rest for an eye exhausted by the price it pays for its addiction to linear space . . . Carson tweaks the nose of our eye with a wake-up call to resonant utterance, scattering visual reminders of how we impoverish our sensory lives by clinging to linearity.” (Full disclosure: I have worked with Gordon on two McLuhan-related projects.)

The End of Print

Looking at the pages of The End of Print, what stands out is how Carson’s work has always dealt in images—text and shapes of varying sizes and colors not necessarily meant to be read from left to right, word by word, line by line, but seen all at once, like a painting or a photograph. Such an approach defied tradition when it first appeared, but was prescient in terms of how we do so much of our reading on screens today, catching headlines, moving to videos and animated GIFs, skimming lists and infographics. Media has become more about reading ideas than reading words, which is something McLuhan recognized and Carson visualized using technologies that preserved remnants of human touch.

The most telling image in this edition of The End of Print is not an actual Carson design, but a salvaged makeready from Hatch Show Print. The caption explains the image’s provenance:

Carson rescued this piece from the trash bin during a visit in the early 1990s. The original poster never had its second color applied, and was also cut up into sections before being discarded. . . . Carson found the juxtaposition of font, photo, and white space to be of his liking.

It’s no wonder—the letterpress remnant looks like a Carson layout: appropriated, and evidencing the process of shaping ink on paper during an era where registering color and dealing with “creep”—the result of actual physical, human energy put into each print—was coming to a close. Carson brought into graphic design the end of the roll being yanked through the press; ripped, contorting grids; mutating point size; letting body text run into the gutter. Today, we live among a scaffolding of grids holding windows functioning on algorthms capable of giving you a view of anything. The work in The End of Print owns the shift between print and digital. It is not ungrounded in a tradition; it just so happens that the tradition is not that of graphic design. It is a visual electric media environment that Carson was responding to and interacting with, using tools of graphic design in an effort to represent ideas that transcend graphic design.

The End of Print

McLuhan wrote in The Book of Probes: “The images of mankind have become the most basic thing about them.” And: “In the age of the photograph, language takes on a graphic or iconic character, whose ‘meaning’ belongs very little to the semantic universe, and not at all to the republic of letters.” Before ever working on a McLuhan book, Carson, knowingly or not, was trying to make visual McLuhan’s prognostications. The lack of cohesion in graphic style, the free-form approach on spread after spread, project to project—what awaits discovery is how stylistic continuity is willfully sacrificed for, in Blackwell’s words, a “coherence in thinking.” What David Carson committed himself to was reading culture as it existed in technological frameworks that altered visual communication and short-circuited longstanding traditions of design and typography in order to fuse them to new and indifferent mediums that were no less effective in making their points.

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Print‘s August issue is devoted to trash. It includes a special section guest designed by Sulki & Min; a visual essay by Jillian Tamaki; a look into the garbage cans and recycling bins of 18 designers; and stories by Rick Poynor, Steven Heller, Debbie Millman, Fritz Swanson, Michèle Champagne, and more. Order your copy, or download a PDF version, at MyDesignShop.com.
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2 thoughts on “The End of Print (Again): Why David Carson Still Matters

  1. Robert Anasi

    I’ve been following Poole’s work for a few years now, and what always strikes me is his clear-headed calm in the face of the wild changes in the way we encounter text. He’s both cognizant of the new possibilities but too assured to succumb to hype. Coming as I do from the print side of things, I find it assuring to have a steady hand on the tiller as we cross the River Styx. This article is a case in point.

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