David Carson Is Ready For His Closeup

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His latest compendium of design wisdom and weirdness, Trek: Recent Werk (which also doubles as a travelogue), was published by Gingko Press a few months ago, but David Carson, the surfin' superdesigner who's reached the age where he'd rather not tell you his age, has kept a fairly low profile of late. He no longer has a regular magazine gig; long gone are the days of his Ray Gun notoriety. Remember Ray Gun, the sometimes impossible to read rock magazine that brought the notion of grunge to the printed page in all its glory? Nowadays, Carson limits himself to one-offs-a guest issue of Big magazine, or print work for Quiksilver, and he designs a special issue of Surfing every summer. What he does a lot of lately is jet around the world at the behest of ad clubs and colleges, lecturing and running workshops. He talks about his past projects-"The dreaded phrase in design circles is 'show and tell,' " he says-and if he's basking a bit in his past glory, he notes that while the marketplace of imagery may have changed somewhat since his rebel years, when he broke every rule of magazine design several times over, he hasn't changed-"In general, things have gotten cleaner and simpler both in motion and print, but my basic approach is still what it always was. It's intuitive; I'm self-taught."At the same time, he sees a lot more loosening up lately, "more hand-done things," like the Microsoft "We See" campaign with the white overlays, which he very much likes. "There may be a little backlash that brings us closer to the hyped-up, all-effects kind of thing again," he says approvingly. "It's indicative of the times. Handlettering in print has come back in a big way."

But never mind print for the moment; in addition to Trek, also from Gingko comes Carson's "collaboration" with Marshal McLuhan, The Book of Probes, which features McLuhan's words and Carson's imagery. A typical McLuhan media morsel: "Effects are perceived, whereas causes are conceived." And Carson himself has conceived a new cause, one that lies not only beyond print but beyond TV typography, which he's done plenty of, and motion graphics, too. He just plain wants to be a director. He names David Lynch, unsurprisingly, as a major film inspiration, and among recent films he's seen, he singles out Tim Burton's Big Fish for praise. But Carson is a big fish in magazines, not film. He doesn't outright reject a steady magazine gig; "It would depend on the magazine. If I had the right subject matter, the right degree of freedom and the right team, I wouldn't rule it out. But right now, I'm more fascinated by moving images."

The question is, Is print design's loss film's gain? Based on Carson's sheer ability to dazzle, one would surely think so, but his film experience is rather limited. True, he's already done some directing, even with a touch of dialogue here and there, for clients like Lucent and MCI/American Airlines, the latter a campaign that ran on planes, with on-camera dialogue, not just a VO. But he admits his dialogue experience is very thin, and he's aware that this puts him at a disadvantage. As far as his mostly type-based TV/film work goes, he's got some gorgeous stuff, as you'd expect, including: a stunning campaign for the Bank of Montreal where the camera seems to swirl out of a fingerprint; a short art film called Second Sight, produced with R/GA; "Discoball World," a music video for David Garza, which features beautiful 3-D type effects; a Nike "Dots" spec campaign that mixes cool old-school CG with Carsonesque expressionism; Canadian spots for Leap batteries that are intriguingly weird in a sort of Japanese manner; a Nine Inch Nails concert video projection; and right now in Times Square, his somewhat fractured surf-based Quiksilver promo film plays to millions at the Quiksilver store. "It's got odd takes on cutting that may look like mistakes, but they were all planned," he says.

See the URL below for QuickTimes of his work. Speaking of which, what about the web? Carson finds it disappointing, despite the fact that he feels the energy of graphic design has been "dispersed, most of it stolen by the internet. I got into it kind of early, like a lot of designers did-I did a huge redesign of a site for MGM back around '96, for instance. I spent the entire summer on it, and it was a major frustration with all the restrictions I had to deal with. The site ended up somewhat decent, nothing I'd say was groundbreaking. At that point, I went more into title design. There's no question web design has gotten a lot better, but I'm still not as intrigued with it as I am with film." He feels his own site walks a fine line between his trademark style and the necessary practicalities of the web. "I did an early version of my site where it was virtually impossible to get through it, just as a statement about the web. But after a few laughs and some angry e-mails, I realized it wasn't doing me much good. I think the web has become more about the final product, not what it takes to get to it. My site is a little unorthodox without being totally inaccessible."

Asked to name a corporate website he likes, Carson, interestingly, nominates Mini's. "The attitude, consistency, accessibility, the humor, the whole thing-their template was very well done and very appropriate for what they wanted to do." After spending some time on the Mini site, he actually bought a Mini, though the overall Mini 'tude had earlier wowed him no end. "The print, the TV, the collateral, the billboards-it was all equally well done." When told it's the work of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, he confesses his ignorance of the name. After getting a quick lowdown on the hot shop, he says, laughing, "Hook me up," and he's not kidding. Though he has a toe or two in the ad biz, Carson is not well connected. "I'm working on some DirecTV proposals right now, direct with the client, but I'm kind of functioning as a freelancer, waiting for the phone to ring. I'd like to hook up with some of the bigger agencies and production companies. I'm trying to shop myself around a bit, actually."

Before he ever thought about getting himself some serious representation, "agencies started coming to me direct, and I found myself working on a freelance basis. Then there was a period where they started to use me less, when Flame operators convinced the agencies they were really Flame artists-and there are some really good ones, I don't mean to dis the whole group-but now I think the ante's been upped again and I'm hoping the better agencies are going back to specialists, like me, who work with imagery and unusual design."

Formerly based in New York, he's also somewhat geographically hampered, having moved for family reasons to Charleston, S.C., "which I know has hurt me," he says. "People used to just walk over to me in New York to work on something. But Charleston is my base now." Nevertheless, he's intent on getting into film and TV for real and he's just as set on doing dialogue work. "My background is sociology," he points out. "Combined with my graphic approach, if I could do some film projects I think I'd be very good at making documentaries eventually, but people don't think of me for that, of course. But dialogue is something I know I can be good at. I'm looking for that client, that agency or that representation where they realize it's really about a sensibility; I have an unusual approach that can end up with unexpected results." While it's questionable just how much the "unexpected" is valued as a TV commodity by clients and agencies, Carson is optimistic. "As jaded as we've become, I still think the television commercial can be a great creative medium."


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