David Carson: A Post-Modernist Graphic Designer

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David Carson is among the world’s greatest graphic designers and is usually associated with post-modernism (Poynor, 2003). The aim of this essay is to describe David Carson’s positive and negative influence on graphic design and culture in the modern world and to describe the evolution of post-modernist design within the artist’s work.

            David Carson has made graphic designs for Quicksilver, Nike, Yale University, the Levi’s and most recently for Barack Obama during his presidential campaign in 2008 (Carson, 2003). Carson did not initially aspire to be a graphic designer, in fact in his youthful years he was a professional surfer in Southern Carolina and was labeled the world’s 9th best surfer in 1989. Apart from surfing, Carson pursued a degree in sociology at the State University of San Diego where he graduated in 1977 with an honors and distinction class. Carson first experienced graphic design in 1980 when he participated in a graphic design workshop that ran for two weeks (Kirschenbaum, 1999). Afterwards he enrolled again at San Diego State University to per take a course in graphic design.

            Carson worked for publication companies such as Beach Culture, How Magazine and Transworld Skateboarding which are associated with the surfing and skateboarding culture. According to Blackwell and Carson (2000), Carson’s greatest breakthrough came when he was working with Ray Gun Magazine whereby his work was hugely acknowledged and recognized thus unofficially being labeled ‘Godfather of Grunge.’ At Ray Gun, Carson experimented with design to come up with his own unique style currently known as ‘dirty’ type and shared his design with more viewers. Carson’s style did not comply with conventional standards rather he abandoned traditional columns and grid systems, page number, headings and typography (Landa, 2010).

            Soon after his graphic design career in Ray Gun, Carson’s unconventional designs began to be embraced everywhere in the world, which led to the creation of a global movement whereby numerous designers strived to imitate his style. In 1995, Carson resigned from Ray Gun Magazine to launch his own studio called David Carson Design Inc. in New York and later opened other studios in Charleston and South Carolina (Carson & Blackwell, 1997). In the Newsweek Magazine, Carson has been labeled ‘the most influential designer of the last two decades’, whereas Graphis Magazine describes him as a ‘proficient typography master’ (Aynsley, 2001) Furthermore, Carson was listed among the most creative and innovative designers in I.D. magazines.


            In the 1990s, Carson was branded a horrible graphic designer because of his agonized typography. Many critics accused him of not being a serious designer because he diverted from the foundation of communication design. Today, Carson’s designs dominate the Web, motion pictures and advertising. Some artists argue that Carson’s arrangement of text in a disarray manner causes confusion and chaos which they find refreshing and innovative (Poynor, 2003). In addition, his simultaneous utilization of captivating visuals in combination with typography leads to the creation of extraordinary designs whereby images appear with obscuring texts (Heller & Vienne, 2012).

            David Carson believes in simplicity whereby less speaks volumes. He applies the concept of minimalism in each of his designs; therefore he does not utilize additional or adverse effects which would overshadow his message (Carson & Blackwell, 1997). For instance, among his recent designs, Carson created a poster for a benefit event called sold out tsunami relief to raise donations for tsunami-hit countries. His poster displayed the image of a huge wave which was labeled with one bold word “Đ’-Đ’’ help” hence the message he wanted the audience to see was presented in a clear and straightforward manner.

            David Carson’s unique layouts first featured in the Beach Culture Magazine. After his work began to be recognized while he was working with Ray Gun Magazine, the American Center for Design in Chicago acknowledged Carson for producing among the best graphic designs in America (Aynsley, 2001). Moreover, USA Today labeled his work as visually appealing while claiming that his new and refreshing design of Ray Gun would attract more youth to start reading again. After being globally recognized, Carson began attracting high-end customers such as Giorgio Armani and Microsoft to work on contracts for international advertising campaigns and branding (Blackwell & Carson, 2000).

            Post-modernism can be described as a state of art, intellect or culture that lacks a definite organizing concept or a central hierarchy which revolves around ambiguity, interrelations, adverse complexity, diversity and contradiction (Poynor, 2003).Lupton (2012) states that David Carson’s style always displays distorted designs and his refusal to conform to traditional ideas of imagery, typographic syntax and visual hierarchy. In his work, Carson applies the principles of expressive arrangement of columns which are clamped together, erratic spacing of letter across images, reverse reading and justification through extreme force to portray an expressive instead of a normative series (Kirschenbaum, 1999). Carson’s work was greatly influenced by the conservative deconstructive typography that was developed by Cranbrook Academy and the artistic design of Wolfgang Weingart (Carson, 2003). According to many traditional artists, Carson’s style was characterized of a vernacular design which went against the rules of modern typography that is comprised of letterform spacing, multi-complex approach of image and the environment and utilization of multiple weights (Lupton, 2012).

            David Carson contradicts the modernist concept “form follows function” but instead chooses to apply layout to derive meaning (Carson & Blackwell, 1997). Carson’s work also derived influence from his prior career in surfing, which enables the artist to establish a connection with his target audience. Being raised in a surfing culture, Carson was able to develop creative thinking and adopt an experimental mindset, thus his work that adopted a chaotic design greatly appealed to the skating and surfing communities because it enabled the audience to derive a deep sense of belonging and identity (Blackwell & Carson, 2000). Soon enough, various advertisers were able to see the importance of Carson’s work because it could capture the interest of a young audience belonging to the skating and surfing sub-culture. Lupton (2012) argues that David Carson’s work truly upholds key concepts of post-modernism for instance he applies philosophies that contradict modernist theories like the ‘form follows function’. The artist’s contradiction of modernist theories is evident in his visual representation of type by using highly expressive typography forms to bring out his own unique interpretation of an image or the world to the audience (Poynor, 2003). In addition, Carson applies the unusual or obnoxious magnification of single images or the arrangement of letterforms from one spread to another. When Carson worked with Ray Gun, his embrace of post-modernist theories was clearly portrayed, which revolved around his target audience participation, for example, he would display his work to the audience to acquire their feedback on how he should utilize illustrations for song lyrics (Landa, 2010). His involvement of the audience and encouragement of their participation is also key evidence that Carson embraced sub-cultural identity to enhance his work.

            Since the 1990s, Carson’s recognition progressed as he slowly evolved from being a simple graphic designer of a small magazine to among the most acknowledged designers in the world. He has impacted the course of graphic design by continuously redefining the relationship between type and design thus changing the perspective and attitude of a whole generation and making huge contributions to the power of design change today (Heller & Vienne, 2012). Carson currently manages several workshops where he has trained graphic design students from the entire world and has established a huge following of young and inspired designers through mentorship and motivation. However, Carson’s success in the graphic design industry has sparked the interest of numerous critics who argue that he has not established a clear distinction between order and chaos. Because Carson’s work does not apply a distinct theory or fails to follow conventional rules design, does not mean that it is chaotic however it challenges traditional practices (Aynsley, 2001). David Carson has therefore based his work on the concepts ‘you can never fail to communicate’ and ‘do not misinterpret legibility for communication’ (Carson, 2003).

            When David Carson was interviewed, he claimed that his work takes a personal, intuitive and experimental approach. He confessed that he had not received formal training on graphic designs which was beneficial because it allowed him to apply new and innovative ideas rather than conforming to controversial designs (Kirschenbaum, 1999). Carson’s first degree in sociology directed him towards editorial design whereby he worked with true stories about real events, music and people. Before Carson develops his design, he first analyses the article or brief and creates a visual representation of what was sung, spoken or written in order to create overall work that emotionally connects with the audience for a lasting effect.


            David Carson and the application of post-modernism has been a great inspiration in the graphic design industry. His work has inspired designers to apply more expressive outlook for their designs and not limiting themselves to conventional forms of design. It is evident that expressionist designs create more attraction of the intended audience than traditional designs which have little visual appeal. Using Carson’s design theories for designing articles leads to creation of unique work that emotionally connects with the audience, therefore adding extra dimensions to prior practices.


Aynsley, J. (2001). A Century of Graphic Design: Graphic Pioneers of the 20th Century.

            Mitchell Beazley.

Blackwell, L., & Carson, D. (2000). The end of print: the graphic design of David Carson.

            Chronicle Books.

Carson, D. (2003). Trek: David Carson, Recent Work. Gingko PressInc.

Carson, D., & Blackwell, L. (1997). David Carson: 2nd sight: grafik design after the end of

            print. Laurence King.

Heller, S., & Vienne, V. (2012). 100 ideas that changed graphic design. London: Laurence King.

Kirschenbaum, M. G. (1999). The other end of print: David Carson, graphic design, and the

aesthetics of media. In Paper delivered at Media in Transition conference held Massachusetts (pp. 8-9).

Landa, R. (2010). Graphic design solutions. Cengage Learning.

Lupton, E. (2012). Graphic design theory: readings from the field. Chronicle Books.

Poynor, R. (2003). No more rules: graphic design and postmodernism. Yale University Press.

August 01, 2023


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