"It's not about knowing all the gimmicks and photo tricks. If you haven't got the eye, no program will give it to you." Tom Dennis discusses aesthetics with the legendary designer.
From his centre of operations in Zurich, David Carson oversees the design empire of David Carson Design, Inc. Its client list stretches from behemoths like American Airlines all the way to skate-culture title Transworld SKATEboarding. And he's not just a design giant: he was once the ninth-greatest surfer in the world...
CA: Given your reputation for breaking conventions, The Rules of Graphic Design seems like an odd title for your new book. What exactly does the book explore and what prompted you to write it?
DC: People thought The End of Print was an odd title, too. It just seemed time for a book addressing all the rules of graphic design - the good and bad, the old and the new. I've certainly heard a lot on the subject over the years... We all have rules, whether they are self-imposed or otherwise, and this book takes a look at both. I asked people to send me their own personal rules and got some great responses, many of which appear in the book. Some folks have illustrated or designed their answers as well.
CA: When you were working on Beach Culture or Ray Gun did you ever imagine you'd eventually produce books, in other words create design rules and codes?
DC: I never started out to do design books, much like I never started out to be a magazine designer. I just knew I wanted to work and play in this field.
The books are fun to do overall, and my last one was over five years ago, so I figured, why not? Maybe it's time again. Maybe not. I don't look at the books so much as creating rules or codes, but hopefully more as starting points of inspiration for people, who then take things in their own direction. One of the greatest compliments I get when lecturing is when people tell me I made them want to go right back to work, or that they rethought some project and are now much happier with it.
CA: You don't have that much formal design training. Do you believe that designers need to learn the rules in order to break them?
DC: No. That is a silly old wives' tale to use a sexist old American phrase, much like 'You can't judge a book by its cover.' Though if the designer's done their job right, you should be able to judge a book by its cover.
What matters is that you have an intuitive design sense, listen to it and explore your uniqueness through your work. Create rules that work for you and the type of work you're doing. I never learned all the things in school I wasn't supposed to do, so I just did, and still do, what makes sense to me.
CA: Much of your work assumes a level of intelligence and interaction on the viewer's part - do designers tend to underestimate the sophistication of their audience?
DC: Overall, yes. Everyone's seeing better work now, in lots of different places. Here in Zurich I see so much good graphic design that really does give the viewer credit. On the other hand, big agency advertising tends to horribly underestimate the basic intelligence of human beings.
CA: You have an affinity for everyday objects, things that other people would dismiss as rubbish. Why is grounding your work in reality important to you?
DC: Well, if you dismiss everyday things as rubbish, you live visually in a pretty bleak world. On the other hand, if you can find beauty and interest in everyday things it makes for much richer days and can enhance your overall living experience. The importance for the viewer, wellâ€¦ they may take away a different perspective of how they view their world, things they notice or become intrigued with. It can help you to live more in the moment, to take note of the stuff around you.
CA: Do you think designers need to put more emphasis on readability or tone when selecting type?
DC: They don't have to be exclusive. The emotion of a piece and its type are extremely important to sending your message. Hopefully the writing actually backs up the design. But I'd say pick a font that expresses the tone of the message first.
CA: Which contemporary designers do you rate and why?
DC: I don't follow contemporary designers so I don't know who they are, but they're out there somewhere, most likely still in school or underemployed.
I appreciate anyone who is trying something different and speaking in their own unique voice. Design work needs to be personal and subjective to be of interest and value. Anyone can buy the same software and do a reasonable newsletter or business card. But no one can pull from your unique background - upbringing, parents, life experiences and all that. That's where the really interesting work comes from; also it's the most rewarding and fun work to do.
CA: Type plays a slightly lesser role in your current work than it did in the early 1990s. Have you lost your passion for it?
DC: Hopefully my work evolves, though the basic approach remains the same - to interpret the emotion or tone of a piece through the design. I've always been very involved in photography, and the type placement always interacts with some aspect of the photography or art. The newer work gives equal or top billing to the photography or art. It's amazing how quickly some of the 'cool' fonts became so dated and unusable.
CA: Does your background in sociology have an influence on your design work?
DC: I'm interested in the viewer's response. I'm very curious about who the audience is and how best to speak to that group. I was drawn to editorial work early on because it was much more interesting for me to read a real story, about a real person or event, and try to interpret that, as opposed to redesigning a soap container. So, it may not directly affect the outcome of the work, but my interest and degree in sociology steers me towards certain types of work.
CA: When working on a long-term project, like art-directing a magazine, when do you know it's time to move on?
DC: When it no longer consumes you, it's time to move on.
CA: Your recent work, for example the Quicksilver campaign, could be described as more beautiful compared with your earlier work, especially in terms of colour harmony. Was this a natural transition for you or was it something you intentionally aimed for, given the types of client you now work with?
DC: The answer to any design problem is always within the project itself: who's the audience; what's the message; what has the client done recently; where will the work be seen or read. All these considerations should send you in some direction. With the Quicksilver work, I saw the problem as standing out among zillions of colour photographs in a very crowded surf magazine environment. So I chose to examine some extreme cropping that forced the viewer to look at the image in a new way - to hopefully stop at the ad and spend a little time sorting it out.
On another level, it also sends a good message about the company - that they try new things, that they are progressive or whatever. Hopefully people feel the product is of the same attitude - unique; leading not following. Design can help send the message the product is good, without having to come out and say 'The product is good.'
CA: You're back working with Quark. Do you think contemporary designers depend too heavily on the abilities of their software packages?
DC: Absolutely. I work in basically one program, Quark. It's not about having and knowing all the latest gimmicks and photo tricks. Good design comes from the most basic decisions - cropping, font choice, the overall design. If you haven't got the eye, no program will give it to you.
It's partly why we see so many solid, well-designed magazines today, but almost none that stand out. Designers get lazy and let whoever made their software make decisions for them. Your computer shouldn't tell you the proper distance between columns of type - you need to be making those decisions. Get that title, subtitle and byline out of the same box!
CA: What are your thoughts on the design lecture circuit that's grown over the last few years? It seems that some designers are too busy giving lectures to produce new work.
DC: If the lectures inspire people to go out and do some great work, or something new they wouldn't have thought of or tried before, then yes, lectures can definitely be a good thing.
CA: Where's the best surf found?
DC: In my front yard in the British Virgin Islands, on the island of Tortola. Seriously!