Carson Redux

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The End of Print: The Grafik Design of David Carson by Lewis Blackwell, originally published in 1995 with a revised edition in 2000, is currently available as a spanking new second edition (in hardcover —with the cover design that Carson wanted but was not used for the original edition, printed for the first time—and paperback).

This edition is timely: During the 12 years since the revised edition, an entire generation came of age that was too young and, therefore, likely ignorant of the design turmoils and debates occurring when Carson was creating what Massimo Vignelli called “paintings with type.”

Now firmly planted in history, The End of Print should definitely sit on the shelf alongside other seminal late-20th-century monographs of modern and postmodern designers. Yet rather than write a critical reprise, let’s return to an article I originally wrote for Print magazine in the early 1990s about Carson’s design revelations in Beach Culture, a few years before his book was published. It’s below. A slightly edited version was later included in the first and second editions of my own Design Literacy.

New hardcover with Carson's original edition cover design, never published

Carson's latest cover for the second edition

Beach Culture / David Carson

On rare occasions magazine designers rise above the design clichés. Every so often a magazine captures the zeitgeist. In the early Eighties Emigre, with its alternative cross cultural coverage and raucous type design suggested a new wave was about to crest. In 1990 Beach Culture, a journal devoted West Coast water sports, became the cult magazine of the moment when it surfaced in design competitions and annuals nationwide. Its primary audience was surfers, but it became the benchmark of nineties design. Its designer, the self-taught David Carson, transformed the magazine into a showcase for radical typography and design tomfoolery.

Beach Culture was full of design indulgences and technological trickery. But it also included striking photography and illustration by recognized artists, such as Geof Kern, Marshall Arisman, Milton Glaser, Matt Mahurin, and Henrik Drescher. A chaotic pastiche of typographic excess, it was often unreadable. Yet conventional readability was not necessarily a virtue given its context. Beach Culture catered to an audience that could easily navigate the visuals and text. No one ever said a surfing magazine should look mainstream. But neither was there demand for it be cutting edge. Certainly most other surfing magazines were void of distinguished design. Since surfing is such a specialized activity, and writing about it is arcane, one would hardly have expected a surf magazine to be typographically innovative or risque.

Beach Culture was born out of a 200 page annual advertorial called Surf Style that included puff pieces about the products advertised therein. Carson embraced the publisher’s idea, to make Surf Style into a real magazine. This former design intern at Surfer publications, former art director of Skateboard and Musician magazines, had studied typography with designer Jean Robert in Switzerland, learned about the power of vernacular forms and how type could be made expressive through abstraction. After the premiere issue of Beach Culture many advertisers dropped out, confused by its odd mix of beach and culture, yet enough of them remained to continue publishing. Carson seized the opportunity; following in the footsteps of contemporary design progressives, such as Wolfgang Weingart, Rudy Vanderlans, Rick Valicenti, and Neville Brody, he began his own expedition into new — and often illegible — realms of visual presentation. Carson’s spin on typographic anarchy was different than his predecessors. He not only infused his pages with wit and irony, but accepting that a magazine page is the ultimate ephemera — destined to pulped — was not to be taken so seriously.

In one issue he ran a story in three conventional columns of type, but rather than read the traditional way — vertically down — it read horizontally across with each sentence jumping from one column to the next. “Usually, I take my design cue from the story or art,” says Carson, “But this time I just did it to have fun. Once the reader catches on I’m sure that they had fun too.” On another page Carson designed the page numbers to be larger than the main headline — a joke in itself — but when the editor changed the order of the pages, he kept the original number on the page because “I just happened to like it there,” he explained. In the final issue (of a total of six) the page numbers are eliminated and jump-lines simply say “continued.” These hi-jinx force the reader to find his or her own way. Carson developed a code that allows readers to become part of the process.

Initially Carson used the newest Emigre typefaces. “I wanted to use whatever was totally new and untried,” he explained. However, as he became more or less dependent on existing typefaces, he published a “Special No Emigre Font Issue “(a reference that went over the heads of most surfers). “Emigre faces were becoming like clipart, too identifiable, too dated,” he explained. “Beach Culture was trying to be fresh, and I was using typefaces that were appearing everywhere because they were hip and cool; it was just too easy.”

Carson went out of his way to make design that was difficult for his readers or writers. “In the beginning there were some writers who were real upset that their stories were too hard to read,” about his propensity for such conceits as forced justification, smashed type, and quirky surprints, he admitted, “But I found after a few issues that the very same writers who complained about crazy design were also upset if their article was not given that kind of treatment.” Giving an article his special attention signaled that it was important. By the final issue, Carson had taken this premise to the extreme by obliterating most headlines. Letter forms overlap, overprint, smash, and are otherwise covered by black, mortised, random bands abstracted to the poin
t of incomprehensibility. Carson was designing for the code-busters to make sense of it all.

.For more Steven Heller, don’t miss his upcoming DesignCast, “Researching Design History: From a Personal Perspective,” streaming live on Wednesday, June 27.

About Steven Heller

Steven Heller is the co-chair of the SVA MFA Designer /Designer as Author + Entrepreneur program, writes frequently for Wired and Design Observer. He is also the author of over 170 books on design and visual culture. He received the 1999 AIGA Medal and is the 2011 recipient of the Smithsonian National Design Award.View all posts by Steven Heller →