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Stateside with Rosalea: David Carson at SFSU

Stateside with Rosalea: David Carson at SFSU

By Rosalea Barker

During the 1990s, I suddenly had trouble reading things. It wasn't because my eyesight had deteriorated - page layout had. Letters were bumping into each other or actually overlapping every which way, type was coloured something awful and had no leading to separate one line from the next, different type faces and type sizes were all jumbled up inside the same word, and reading was about as appetising as cleaning up a pool of dog vomit.

So, when I learned I was to go on a class field trip to see the spawner of these abominations give a talk at San Francisco State University my first thought was: will our bags be searched? (That's what living in a gun culture does to you.)

SFSU is famous for its Communications department, and the talk was held at one of its performance halls. On stage was a contraption called the NEC Teaching Pro 5000, which looked like a big silver barbie with a couple of laptops and an OHP kebab frying on it. Nearby was a slide carousel that looked like a digital chip fryer. Were we going to have a cooking show?

The lecture was meant to start at 7.30 but the speaker and his hosts were late, and then it took half an hour to figure out how to get the lapel mike going. Talk about saved by technology! Carson was just so whitheringly funny about these failures that I couldn't help liking him. At one point he asked the department chair, who had to sit on the floor beside the slide projector manually adjusting it, to sharpen the focus on a slide that was obviously completely out of focus when it was taken. Poking fun at himself, he struggled to decipher another slide and said: "I hate this stuff that's hard to read." Later, as they huddled behind the Pro 5000 trying to get the video player to work: "It's OK. I don't think they can see us, and I know they can't hear us."

Carson was credited by 'Newsweek' with having "changed the public face of graphic design" with his personal, expressive and experimental style. He was a sociology teacher originally and came to graphic design from being interested in what happens *before* you start reading. "Don't mistake legibility for communication" is pretty much his mantra, so it's no surprise that the McLuhan family got him to do the layout for the forthcoming 'Book of Probes', which "distills the wit and wisdom of the brilliant man who was first to understand and articulate thoughts on media, privacy invasion, the information environment" - Marshall McLuhan. (The quotation is from Gingko Press's website for the book.)

For any budding designers out there, here is some of what DC said: "Intuition is the only way you can create something unique in design" - using a quote from Einstein to illustrate the importance of intuition, and the familiar feeling of not being able to remember eg the name of a song until we give up trying to remember it to illustrate what intuition feels like.

"If everybody likes your work, you're probably playing it way too safe." "Bad logo design pays really well" - illustrated with the story of how he bad-mouthed the Lucent Technologies logo at a talk he gave only to have someone come up to him later and identify himself as the logo's designer. Carson had said somebody probably got paid a million dollars for it, but the designer set him straight by saying he actually got paid two million.

"I don't work with any grid." "There is a thin line between clean and simple, and clean and powerful." "I show a lot of things that I think could work with a bit of fine tuning" - which is the opposite of what many designers do, who've already settled on one design they're going to go with when they present it to the client. "Just send it in when you're happy with it" - his instructions to the illustrators he works with, which is again the opposite of what most designers do, wanting to impose their own vision on the illustrator.

One of the images he showed was two slides taped together: "I could probably get the same effect in Photoshop," he said, "but it would take me two weeks." Apart from the commercial and music videos, his whole presentation was from slides, not a laptop. He said hand-lettering was the hottest new thing, and that designers now spend hours creating hand-lettered typefaces using typography software. He sighs: "There's another way to do that!"

He gained some interesting insights into other cultures working on a Microsoft re-branding campaign. The German ad agency took out the little African American girl he used and substituted a red-haired German boy. In another Microsoft ad, Japan and France replaced a business executive in a wheelchair with one in an ordinary chair. His own efforts to crop Ricky Martin completely off the cover of a Puerto Rican surf magazine weren't entirely successful, but he did once set an entire interview with Bryan Ferry in 'Rolling Stone' magazine in Zapf Dingbats because he thought it was such boring writing.

Carson's most important message seemed to be to just go for it. His father was a test pilot in the days before computer simulation, and that job carried a 40-50 percent chance of not coming back alive.

Which kind of puts doing graphic design into perspective.

(My own thought on that is: ... unless you're someone like John Heartfield, who was on Hitler's hitlist, and whose magazine covers are as relevant to 2003 USA as they were to 1933 Germany. Take a peek at some at

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