SP09 - Carsen-o-matic for the people

Legendary designer David Carson engages with spontaneity, wit and insight at Semi-Permanent. Well … wit and insight …

David Carson

David Carson let PowerPoint slide. Trays of actual 35mm slides, projected on-screen, accompanied his talk. He’s an analog kid of guy.

Some of the slides were somewhat random. Images of moments caught by the legendary designer and typographer during the most mundane of moments—pickle condiment jars from lunch in Argentina (his mundus is a little more worldly than mine). The images made the point that designers need to observe the world and be open the accidents that occur, rather than allow the mechanica of computer grids to drive the work. He called his photographs opportunistic. The perfect metaphor for his career.

He’s an oddly unremarkable figure. Seemed shortish. Tanned (he still surfs at his homes in California and the Caribbean when he isn’t jetting between his studios in Switzerland and Del Mar (ex Wikipedia)—obviously there is money to be made if you can be a big name in design … I’ll come back to this thought.

I guess I was expecting more of a physical colossus, reflecting his influence on design since before the desktop publishing revolution initiated by the arrival of the Apple Macintosh and PostScript in the mid 80s. You know who he reminded me of? A kind of cross between wandering bachelor mendicant poet Loudon Wainwright III and wandering bachelor mendicant poet Spalding Grey (look 'em up for yourself). Carson has children – I know because he showed slides of his kids.

Who doesn’t want to go to a design conference and look at pictures of a legendary designer’s children? I could live without it.

But I’m being churlish and worse, churlish in hindsight. I just watched a TED presentation by David Carson from 2003. In substance it was word for word. Where there was little substance – let’s call it paddling – photographs of the kids and images of the surf from his beach house in Tortola—you're not missing anything. If you want the whole effect visit David Carson's website—the photos are there.

(I don’t know if that is how its spelled Tortola properly, but like its role in Mr. Carson’s presentation it would require a little too much effort to Google it)

That said … it was a great talk. I diligently made 11 pages of loosely written notes in the dark—had I seen the video beforehand I could have been doodling. What a waste.

There is something subversive and ironic about Carson’s work. Let’s give him credit for that. He’s right to point out that if there is nothing of your personal experience in your design or communications then what is the point? He’s absolutely right to counsel designers to avoid design magazines and annuals or to allow the grid of a magazine to tell the story. Ironically I parted company with a number of art directors and designers in the 80s who were infatuated with Carson’s style (or that of Neville Brody). As a writer I hated their work—it debased the linear written narrative, it seemed to argue for making a visual statement without consideration for content. But time has passed and I have mellowed and I agree with much of what Carson has to say, especially 'Don't confuse legibility with communication'. When you return to your cubicle on Monday morning I wish you every skerrick of luck you can summon in creating an iconoclastic piece of design for a minor corporate client that contains more of you than them.

Maybe, one of these days, you’ll be like David Carson. Your work may never be the same twice (or it may be so emblematically your own that it is always the same?). You’ll be able to travel the world delivering the same lecture and looking for a funky set of condiments to photograph to give the presentation freshness and piquancy while laughing all the way back to the bank (in Switzerland).

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