The evolution of graphic design craft — An interview with David Carson

On February 27th, 2019, two years ago to this day, in my apartment in St James, Cape Town, I sat down in front of my computer, launched Skype, and proceeded to call David Carson. The reason for this call with David, a person whom I had long admired, at least since my art school days, was to talk about the launch of his book, Nuwork.collage001, which remains the most-recent publication produced by the iconic graphic designer. I was lucky enough to get an audience with him for a one-on-one interview just before the launch of the book, which coincided with the opening of his exhibition at the multidisciplinary art space, Haimney, in Barcelona, Spain. We spoke for a little over an hour, and the following interview is the result of that conversation.

As a graphic designer, when one reaches a certain level of the game it starts to feel more like an art and definitely becomes a craft. In this sense, design is not a service, it is a necessity. It is an important driver for the production of culture. Since the ’80s, David Carson has contributed to and altered, the evolution of the craft of graphic design. He became a graphic designer at the age of 26, establishing himself within the bustling surf community of Southern California. The experimental culture that he was exposed to through surfing and skateboarding afforded him the freedom to mess around with the institutionalised modernist dictates of design, of which he was completely unaware. He began his career working for a number of magazines, including Transworld Skateboarding, Beach Culture, and, perhaps most famously, Ray Gun.

It was at the latter where Carson gained international notoriety as a designer and became a household name for his expressive approach to graphic design and art direction. Ray Gun was arguably more popular for Carson’s idiosyncratic style of visual communication than for the editorial focus of the magazine, which was mostly centered on alternative music. He broke away from pretty much every norm that was cherished by the design establishment, opening the field to a whole new world. The visual language he helped to invent was characterised by the fragmentation, interference, distortion, cutting up, texturing, deconstruction, and reconstruction of various typographic and visual elements, which snuffed orthodox approaches to design. The most notable attributes of his work include typography that is worn and textured, often illegible and hardly readable and imbued with an innate sense of human warmth and touch, with an emphasis on craft.

Despite being an early adopter of digital means of production, it is arguably this human element to his work that speaks most broadly to his audience. With this perspective, Carson has become a key exponent, albeit it unconsciously, in defining the cultural zeitgeist we now look back on as grunge, and is often referred to as one of the postmodern-design pioneers. The discipline of typography, especially, has never been the same again, thanks to him.

In 1995, following the popularity of Ray Gun, and with all the media attention received from his incendiary approach to graphic design, Carson established his own studio, called David Carson Design. He blew minds, inspiring fledgling designers in art schools across the world, who took advantage of his style to liberate themselves from the doldrums of late 20th-century design. He democratised design, bending and reforming, continuously deforming and discarding all the dogmatic precepts of design history. That same year, Carson published The End of Print, a monograph that has itself formed part of graphic design history. The title is a response to British graphic designer, Neville Brody (noted for his early work for The Face and his own independent publication, Fuse), who once commented that Ray Gun represented “the end of print”.

Shane de Lange (SD): You started your career as a graphic designer fairly late in life, at the age of 26, and you take pride in the fact that you weren’t corrupted by the institutionalised norms or academic rules that art and design schools teach. You didn’t know about ‘traditional’ approaches to graphic design, such as grid-based systems, typographic rules, and modernism, until much later in your career, keeping your perspective on design raw and unadulterated, which can be said to have democratised the commercial arts. Today, you are often referred to as one of the pioneers of postmodern design, and seen as the “father of grunge”. How does it feel to be a cultural institution, with the tables now turned, crossing over into the mainstream despite swimming against the current your whole career?

David Carson (DC): Well, you never quite feel that. Like now, I’m working on projects, and clients, and this exhibition, and the new book, and just working away. There’s not a moment where one says, “Oh, I’m a cultural institution”, or I somehow feel different. I am just doing what I do, and those kinds of definitions and labels are floating around out there but, on a daily basis, they don’t really affect me. So, I don’t know, I probably wouldn’t agree that it’s that mainstream; it’s bigger than that. Maybe the work is more known or accepted but I still don’t feel that the work is mainstream or the norm. I think its appeal, partly, is because it still feels different to people, especially students I hear from now when they see the newer work. And the older fans, for that matter.

I guess a part of me wishes it was more mainstream, then you would see it everywhere. But, because it’s so subjective, it’s not a style you can teach like you can with grids. It’s hard to do it well and have it work, I guess, whereas anybody can teach people how to make a decent grid system, and they can do something that looks fine and professional, and forgettable. But it’s harder to teach them to use their own intuition and make the piece feel a certain way.

SD: Your sensibility seems to work according to a more-intuitive approach, resulting in a raw, instinctual, and improvised visual language, which has forever changed the field of graphic design. In this context, do you think anybody can be a designer, or is it all about raw talent and pure chance?

DC: Well, I definitely wouldn’t say anybody can be a great, or notable, designer. But anybody can be a designer because you can buy the software and the programs. And it’s like, anybody can be an artist or basketball player, but at what level? So, I think that the area where the best work comes from is the hardest area to teach people. And if they don’t have the eye that allows them to know if something looks or works better than something else, I don’t think one can give that to them, or teach it to them. That’s what elevates the word “design”. And there are a lot of people that do good work; it’s a pretty teachable skill. But, if you wanted to break out of that kind of basic level of design, then that takes somebody that has a different approach and way of looking at things. Where that comes from, I have no idea. That’s why, if somebody seems to have that kind of innate ability, then I really encourage them to pursue that.

SD: You weren’t exposed to graphic design, or art direction, as professional disciplines or valid career options when you were young, correct?

DC: Well, certainly not on any professional or even school level. So, that’s the big question: where does it all come from? I can remember memorising surf magazines at night during my early teenage years, and just pouring over those things. And I can still go back 50 years later and take any page and I can tell you about the caption or photo. And if we knew where that comes from, maybe it would be more teachable. But yeah, for some reason, I know, and I don’t question, as I am looking at stuff right now, I know this looks better than that. And where that comes from, I have no idea.

SD: You were obviously born with an eye for graphic design and art direction, but you weren’t exposed to these disciplines at an early stage. You often claim that your eyes were opened to the power of visual communication when you attended a workshop in Switzerland, presented by Swiss designer, Hans-Rudolf Lutz, whose own work seems to have an uneasy relationship with modernism. In hindsight, isn’t it ironic that it was a Swiss designer who opened your eyes?

DC: Oh, absolutely. Of course, I arrived there very naive to all of that history. More recently, I was invited back to Switzerland, for the premiere of the documentary, Helvetica. There was such a funny subtitle, that stated: “Helvetica brought Carson back to Switzerland.” It is ironic, and I think people are surprised by that. Lutz’s workshop was literally the first workshop that, really early, exposed me to using copy machines, and blowing things up, and cutting up pictures from the back, and then turning them over, and all these extremely experimental things. And not doing it whimsically but doing it pretty seriously.

Lutz did rave posters and stuff that was whatever ‘pre-rave’ was for electronic groups. So, this is me walking into this new profession, and one of the first people I meet as a graphic designer is saying to me, you should go into the newspaper and blow up articles until the words look like what they’re talking about, and keep doing it until you get it. That was like, wow, really, this is graphic design? That’s really interesting. I think that had an early effect, where it’s really wide open and interesting and can be experimental. Lutz is not generally referenced much in the whole Swiss discussion and movement. He was a little, I hesitate to say, [odd], but I think respected. And he had some gigantic books that he made of all his projects but he is rarely in the discourse.

SD: Yeah, it’s crazy, if one looks at the standard graphic design textbooks out there, Lutz is not mentioned very often, is he?

DC: No, and I think that’s a horrible miss. And, if anything is mentioned, it is only referenced now that I have mentioned him. And his books are out there — they’re huge books where he put together his experiments and some of his students’. But I think, at that stage for me, being a kind of sponge for the ultra-fashionable in the field, to see that that was part of graphic design, and one could experiment and stretch and do some pretty out-there stuff, I think that definitely registered and had some impact on me.

SD: I am going to get slightly academic now, and for that, I apologise [laughing].

DC: It’s fine [laughing].

SD: Your work has historically been associated with deconstruction, which is a branch of philosophy associated with post-structuralism and the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida. Derrida himself is often referred to as one of the fathers of postmodern thought. What’s your take on this? Do you think your work has a direct connection to deconstruction, or is it just a cool way to describe your work?

DC: Well, there are a few points there. As you say that name, I don’t recognise it. Perhaps, if I saw it written, and I saw some of his work, I’d say, “Oh, that guy.” I read somewhere that what I did was called “deconstructionism”, and I thought, “Oh, okay, that’s interesting; that’s what I’m doing.” I remember, at the same workshop with Lutz, there was an opening reception, and there were groups of designers standing around dressed in black and they were discussing this kind of stuff. I don’t remember if it was deconstructionism but it was all these kinds of terms. And it dawned on me that I couldn’t jump into any of those discussions, that I knew none of that stuff and I hadn’t studied any of it and didn’t really know what they were talking about. I kind of liked being the outsider in that respect. But I never sat down to do ‘deconstruction design’, just like I never sat down or know anyone who does grunge design. It was definitely a writer’s term.

So, apparently what I do is called deconstructionism, and now I can kind of see the connection. It’s not to negate the guy you mentioned but, as I said, by just hearing the name, it doesn’t ring a bell. I often say, that without four years of training, I never learned all the things I wasn’t supposed to do. I just did what made sense to me. And then other people said that you can’t do that; you broke this rule or that rule. I was like, “Well, says who?” But the starting point wasn’t to say, “Let’s try to break a rule today.” It was just to do what makes sense to me after reading this article, or listening to this music, and what would that look like. Then other people would come in and start analysing, and saying whether it’s breaking rules, calling it what they wanted to call it.

SD: I think the operative word here would be naivety, related to what you said earlier, and how important it is in the overall perspective of understanding design. Would you agree?

DC: Yeah, I think in my case it was very helpful. I didn’t know all that stuff, and then soon I was into a medium that I think demanded and needed certain experimentation. And in terms of me doing a skateboard magazine, that was really the first real job for me. Having not had that rigid, strict background and then being thrown into this very expressive sport — trying to interpret that — not knowing all those rules was an asset. And again, the starting point was not, “What rule can we break today?” or “Who can we piss off?” or even “How can I make this hard to read?”

SD: You have established that design needs to be emotional, experimental, intuitive, and personal, which speaks to your design sensibility, creative instinct, and natural talent, uncorrupted by the limitations of formal education. Your background in sociology, which predates your interest in graphic design, also informs this perspective. This all seems to be focused on the human factor in the overall design process. Do you think that the world is becoming increasingly ‘posthuman’, fuelled by the effects of new media and technologies?

DC: Oh, I would agree 100% and I think that’s why we’re seeing a kind of rumbling again. There’s some movement — people are, I’m sensing, hungry again to feel that there is a human behind the piece of work, for something not quite perfect, after 20 years of perfect Photoshop. Yeah, I’m definitely noticing that it seems to have run its course; at least, people want to feel that there was a human behind the work and I think that’s partly why I’m here getting ready for an exhibition of collage, and work made with torn paper.

So, no question that the human element was taken out; things have gotten so gentrified. And, I use magazines as an example, in the last decade or so there has been a lot of ‘professionally’ executed magazines on every topic but very few that really stand out. They’re all kind of what I would call “B-level”. Everybody’s got the same software, which makes most of the decisions that the designer used to make. And, so, you end up with very professional, solid, decent-looking magazines that are ultimately forgettable. And then people don’t really look forward to seeing what they’re doing next; the overall level has been raised but then it stops and there’s general gentrification of the field.

SD: I definitely see this in the world of branding; they’re all looking the same now, don’t you think?

DC: Yeah, well, I don’t know if you’ve seen all the talk on social media about this? I took a screengrab of it; there was one floating around where somebody took all the logo redesigns of the last however many years. There are a lot of big brands and they’ve all been over-simplified. Basically, they all went to Bold Helvetica Caps, or something very similar, with a little different letter-spacing, or slightly different font, but they are all the same. Now, some of it would have been practical, based on how well it reads on a tiny screen and all that. But, regardless, that’s part of this kind of gentrification of the craft.

SD: One of my all-time favourite top-five books would be Marshall McLuhan’s “Understanding Media”; it made a massive impact on me as a student. You have published many books in your life, perhaps the most popular being “Trek” and “End of Print”. You have also produced a book titled “The Book of Probes”, alongside William Kuhns and Eric McLuhan, in collaboration with Marshall McLuhan. Has his writing always influenced your work?

DC: I would say indirectly. I wouldn’t phrase it like that. I mean, I really didn’t know that much about him until somebody contacted me with the idea of this book. And, at that point, I went in and started researching, looking at a lot of his writings and quotes. Yeah, just fascinating stuff. And I think there was a lot of correlation, maybe, in some of the things I was exploring and what he was talking about. But it wasn’t something where I could say I’ve always been a huge fan of McLuhan; I was pretty pedestrian, just knowing a couple of big quotes, like “the medium is the message”, and not a whole lot else.

And, that being said, I got very into it, interpreting all these quotes and reading articles, and I was in regular correspondence with his son, who recently died. He was always sending me stuff about cave paintings and how they were the first ‘movies’ intended to move with the flicker of the fire, and all these things — always sending me oddball articles and theories. So, I am a huge, huge fan of Marshall McLuhan but I came to it later. Actually, it was a publisher who said, “Hey, we got a possibility to get all these Marshall McLuhan quotes and maybe do a book or something. Is that anything we should go after and look into a little?” I said, “Absolutely! Are you kidding?”

And, so, it’s one book I’m still most proud of, one of the projects that I think went a little under the radar on one hand and, on the other hand, I think it’s fairly timeless stuff that he said in terms of being, of course, way ahead of his time. It just didn’t quite have the impact we thought it might, or would have, in reintroducing McLuhan’s work to a whole new generation.

SD: No doubt. I mean, having the names McLuhan and Carson next to each other, one would think that people would jump at the chance to see it?

DC: Well, you know, it’s funny, I think at the time it was so close to the End of Print but not that close, and maybe the other books and my guess is that there were people who thought those books got too popular. And so, I think, when the Probe[s] book came out, it didn’t get the attention it might have. Even if it was published now as a brand-new book, it would likely get a lot more attention than it got then. I just think somehow the timing was off. It was too soon maybe in my world still; people weren’t ready to fully embrace the idea. There may also have been other issues with the distribution and other stuff that I don’t know about but I haven’t really thought about that. I would say for sure, if the Probes book had been released today, it would have caused a lot more of a stir than it did when it was released. Yeah, so it’s a bit of a lost little gem; I think it’s a book worth having.

SD: Staying with McLuhan, he often referred to the connection between us, as human beings, and our ‘extensions’: our tools, media, and technology. In short, our tools and other extensions ‘accelerate’ our technological growth and progress as a civilisation, and this relates to his oft-quoted phrase, “the medium is the message”. You’ve often said that designers don’t need to learn the rules in order to break them. But, with more and more designers relying on software to be ‘creative’, do you think the tool has now come to dominate to the message?

DC: My immediate response would be: yes, it’s all toned-down now, making it all too similar. Yeah, it’s too available. I think, in terms of expressive graphic design, it has certainly been a negative influence, which is not quite what people expected, myself included.

In the early ’90s, I remember going to Germany; my early work was popular there, and I have had some big exhibitions in galleries and museums in pretty much every city there. I visited a lot of the design colleges [while] in Germany at that time, and I was impressed that they all had computers for every student. Nowhere in the world, that I knew of, had that kind of infrastructure yet, including the [United] States. Every kid had a brand-new computer and printer. I remember telling a friend, a designer in London who was at Tomato Design Group, that “I think Germany is where the next big thing is going to come from — they’ve got all this stuff already, they’re way ahead of everybody else.” And I will always remember him shaking his head, implying that it’s not coming from Germany and, in hindsight, he was right. They had the toys, and it was something different with the promise of a new approach, but it never did, it never happened, it never came from there. And you could argue that maybe it came from nowhere; everything has kind of gentrified since then.

In my lectures now, I talk about it almost like there’s a button. If you need to do a title, you push it and you get all-caps, flush-left, and the title is done. But that’s, of course, really saying: “Don’t read me — keep walking” because it’s all communicated before people start reading it. That’s helped this mundane era in design that we’ve been in for a long time now. And, you know, of course, one could carry that out to logos done on websites for US$29,95, and all the stuff. And that’s why I think a lot of this handmade stuff is getting attention and interest again.

SD: You often quote McLuhan from The Book of Probes for stating: “If you are totally immersed in something, it is no longer work; it’s play or leisure.” Many facets of human life seem to inform your work — naivety, emotion, curiosity, expression, and so on — and in a way, this is your play or leisure, all intimately related to your process. Does this fascination with the human condition ever flow over into socio-political and environmental spaces, especially now that Donald Trump is the US president?

DC: Well, there’s a lot of issues there. I’ve recently gotten more involved, as a lot of designers have, in plastic, to rid the world of single-use plastics. I’m also doing some things to help the fight against shark finning, and the killing of sharks for soup, and other things that have a little more of a social impact. I think this kind of work starts to get more intriguing as you get further along in your career.

Hillary Clinton logo, Michael Beirut, 2016

The Trump thing, that’s a whole other lecture in itself. I mean, I’d like to blame it on Michael Beirut’s logo for Hillary but that might be overstating its importance. Although it was as cold and distant as she was; maybe that wasn’t a good way to go, regarding the logo itself. I did early stuff, some silk screening of a poster that just says “Trump Trump”, when it was still kind of funny, the fact that he was even running. Of course, it has long since been funny. I’m mostly in Amsterdam now, and part of that equation is thinking that maybe it is time to get out of this country that would elect and produce a president like him, and keep him in office. Something’s not right there.

SD: You have mentioned the lasting effects of design in the past. How do these lasting effects differ from the ‘timeless’, or ‘classical’, qualities that many people think ‘good’ design should have — especially, given that your work tends to negate such qualities, falling in favour of flux, interference, and disruption.

DC: Well, I guess it’s not a term that I feel I use often; it’s not like a principal I have. Yeah, I remember Massimo Vignelli, I think in the Helvetica documentary, where he talks about his design for American Airlines, and how ‘timeless’ it is, and it worked pretty well. But, within months of his passing, it was totally revamped, and it feels fresh and does something different. So, you know, I think design needs to be, and should be, of its time, but I don’t spend a lot of time on whether or not it should last forever, or be timeless. Like, people wanted me to redo Ray Gun. You can’t. It’s so different. Everything’s changed — the people, the world, everything is not there that used to be there.

American Airlines logo, before and after, 1968 vs 2013

I always remember John Lennon from the Beatles saying the same kind of thing, “We can’t redo that stuff; we’re all different now. You’re different. The world’s different. We can’t go back and do that tour again.” As much as I would have loved them too, it changes. So, I don’t know, I don’t get too hung up on the fact that things should be timeless.

SD: The title of your latest book, “Nuwork.collage001”, seems to be a collage in itself, complemented by the cover; tell us a little more about this.

DC: Yeah, it was a bit impromptu; the collage already existed. And, there was a part of this new body of work that’s just been happening — since last spring, actually — but the cover is a newer piece. I just thought that might make a nice cover, and then started playing with adding some type to it from an old business card, enlarge[d] it from my name. And, all of a sudden, “that feels pretty good — maybe that’s the cover?”

SD: Nuwork.collage001 definitely exhibits a fresh interest in collage, showing your desire to make things by hand, focused on craft. Would you agree?

DC: Yeah, well, you know, that’s something we haven’t really touched on so far. That’s what’s been lost with the computer and all this other stuff — it’s the craft. The craft of graphic design, I think is lost in a sense, it’s all automatic, and quick, and instant. And the craft for a student, or whoever, taking the time to separate words from a title, much less letters from a word, and actually deal with them like a real [craftsperson] would, that’s what’s going away. The loss of the whole idea of the [craftsperson], and the craft of graphic design has taken a huge hit.

SD: Yeah, I am reminded of some early pioneers of graphic design, William Morris and John Ruskin in particular. They’re pretty much in every design textbook out there, and they really spoke to me as a student. They were all about craft, and about reviving and reforming design during the latter part of the industrial revolution in the late 19th century. Do you think that maybe a return to something like the Arts and Crafts movement today would be helpful in combating this degradation of the craft of graphic design? Obviously, not with the same aesthetic, but that attitude.

DC: Yeah, absolutely, I agree 100%. And there are little stirrings of it everywhere, maybe even in some of the stuff that I am doing. But, yeah, absolutely, a return to the appreciation of craft is needed.

Jacques Villeglé, Théâtre de l’Ambigu, 1972
Jacques Villeglé, Théâtre de l’Ambigu, 1972
Jacques Villeglé, Théâtre de l’Ambigu, 1972

SD: Historically significant names like Jacques Villeglé, Hannah Höch, and Raoul Hausmann come to mind when talking about collage, and contemporary exponents like Mike McQuaid and Faile, to name a few. Do these names ring a bell, and does their work make an impact on your work?

DC: The names don’t, as I hear them. If I saw the name — and certainly if I saw the work — I might be able to say, “Oh, yeah, I love that stuff.” But I guess I feel a little bit similar now to how I felt when I started with graphic design. I mean, I wouldn’t say I’ve been a collage artist all along or even followed that. Although, in a way, I’ve always worked in a collage style, even though I can’t work with guidelines, and I don’t just arrange things on a blank artboard, originally, by hand. So, you could almost say it’s all collage. But, again, I’m not coming into it consciously knowing these names. I certainly see things that I like, that everybody does, but I’m not saying, “Oh, yeah, I have followed so-and-so the collage artist for so long.”

I still feel it’s new for me, just working with shapes and colours. I try to have type in some form in pretty much all of them. I’m already excited about the next phases, where the collages could maybe have more importance, maybe issues. Right now, they’re just the first iterations, the first round, which is really just visual. I see other work out there where there’s a little more of an issue attached, whether it’s political or not, and that seems like the next logical step for this work. At this stage I don’t like anything too literal; if people look at the work and they say, “Oh, there’s a bird and a plane,” then they’re probably not getting it. If somebody just looks at it, and feels good about it for some reason, then they’re closer. But, yeah, I feel like a novice in it, really, just literally started last spring doing these, and it’s just something I’m drawn to. I can’t get up and walk by them and not tweak something a little bit or move it around. Or, even in the middle of the night, it’s nothing I have to force.

SD: Collage is a conceptual game; it’s a little mental, especially if you look at the appropriation and juxtaposition of different surfaces, materials, and subject matter. It’s kind of insane, actually, all the fragmentation, erasure, degradation, interference all still communicating something, many things, all at once. Aside from the craft aspect, there’s a definite conceptual strength to collage that separates it from most other disciplines. Would you agree?

DC: Absolutely, yeah. It’s a huge communicator; it impacts people. And, you know, that’s one of my issues with these big agencies when they say they get this stuff. But they just don’t, they still don’t get the power of graphic design, even though they’ll say they do. I think you’re right on that.

SD: It seems that you are tentative about the fact that your work has always been part of the rubric of collage. One can argue that it’s more about fragmentation and ‘deconstruction’, as mentioned earlier, following your trademark approaches to type and other graphic elements, using mechanisms such as pastiche, erasure, cut-ups, and juxtaposition, combined with photography and other visual material. One could argue that you never really crossed over into ‘pure collage’ until very recently, evidenced by the album cover art you did for John Coltrane’s “1963: New Directions” boxset, which was released a few months ago. When I first saw this stuff, I thought this is a new period in your career. Am I correct in this reading?

DC: Yes, absolutely. I feel like I just started. I mean, I can take it back to May or June of last year; that was the first time I think I really started with collage. And I can feel it, when I look back at other work, I think that’s kind of what I was doing because I was moving things around until they felt right. But, in terms of ‘pure collage’, I think it’s brand-new. It’s been less than a year now, and kind of amazing, because I have this book already. And there’s something nice about making it happen so quickly, even though I feel like a novice. It’s early stages and I’m curious to see where it goes.

SD: You once said, wryly with a little giggle, that “even words can communicate”. This statement needs a fair amount of non-literal, fairly lateral thinking to decipher. It’s a pretty conceptual statement — is the sentiment implied here similar to your perspective on collage?

DC: Well, I think what I’m trying to say is: the shape of those words can communicate a lot. And even what they say can have some meaning as well.

SD: That’s very Burroughsian?

DC: William Burroughs said, “The word is an image”. He had a great voice, I did a little film about End of Print where he did the voiceover. We wanted him to talk about the end of print, which he didn’t want to do because he didn’t believe it was, and instead, he quoted himself: “I remember attending an exhibition called ‘Photography, the End of Painting’. It wasn’t at all.” You could just imagine that, when people perfected photography, with all those naysayers all saying, “Well, that’s it, you just ruined painting”, because they could just take photographs.

SD: Talking about American icons, like Burroughs, your work seems to show the influence of abstract expressionism. Especially, something like the album cover you did for “The Fragile”, by Nine Inch Nails. It almost seems to channel Mark Rothko, or Barnett Newman, or even Robert Rauschenberg. Newman himself saw the blank canvas as a void, implying the artist's helplessness before it. Your approach seems to be similar, based on chance, working only with the information that has been given to you. This ‘gut-feeling’ approach, liberated from systems and formulas, seems to allow you to dive straight into the void. Is this element of your creative process an effective measure against the gentrification of design that you mentioned earlier?

DC: Well, it’s not my starting point. It’s not my goal. It’s not what’s driving me, to combat this. It’s just the way I work, or enjoy working, and it’s kind of the only way I know. So, I’m not thinking of going the opposite direction to all this stuff, or to shake it up.

And I think I’ve always been drawn to abstract art. When you say abstract expressionism, I’m not even sure what you mean. But, certainly, I’m geared more towards anything abstract vs a perfect rendering of something. An, I have had trouble with that, with surf magazines where they went through a phase where the picture was only good if it was absolutely perfect. Perfect colour and perfect focus. For me, rarely is that the best solution.

SD: I was amused by one interview you did, where you mentioned the word “kook”, which is a fairly derogatory word used in the surf community to describe someone who isn’t a real surfer, even though they look and act the part. So, I thought I’d string together a question out of that. Do you think there are too many kooks in the proverbial design kitchen?

DC: Well, the short answer would be “ye”s. It’s funny because it has such a negative connotation in the surfing world, it almost feels too cruel to all these students and everybody trying hard to be a graphic designer. Somehow, it’s different, I don’t know, maybe you can pose as a surfer and be a kook but you can’t pose as a graphic designer for very long and get any kind of work done. But I would say that there are too many people now relying on the software and not putting themselves into the work. And, in some respect to that, the term “kook” is an interesting analogy.

Ray Gun Brian Ferry Spread, 1994
Ray Gun Brian Ferry Spread, 1994
Ray Gun Brian Ferry Spread, 1994

SD: Last question. Has anyone ever sent you interview questions to review all set in Zapf Dingbats?

DC: Well, yeah, there’s a lot of issues there too, actually. No, they haven’t. What I have had is articles written, or posters done, for talks where people have done that. I haven’t had somebody actually send me the questions written in Dingbats; I think that would have been pretty good, and probably better than those who reference the original spread that I did in Ray Gun.

This always reminds me of some bands, when they say they wrote a song in the taxi in 10 minutes on the way to the studio because they needed one more song. And, all of a sudden, it’s the only song they’re known for and asked about. I feel a little bit like that with the Dingbat thing. For me, it was one spread from 30 issues of Ray Gun overall, not that big a deal. I don’t show it because I don’t think it’s that great; the design is not resolved. I don’t think the page on its own works; it’s just kind of a funny thing, and I like that aspect of it. But, from a pure design perspective, it’s not a spread I show. Yeah, so it was a once-off, one-shot, can’t do that again. And, I suspect, with the audience that the magazine had, it probably made it even a little cooler for the people that got it. But it was more about the spirit of the topic in the magazine itself. I don’t see it as any kind of big watershed, but it sure does get referenced a lot.

Somebody once told me that their teacher actually told them to go and decode that article. Which you could do, I don’t know why, but anyway.

SD: David, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. Thank you for taking the time.

DC: Yeah, well, thank you for the good questions. That’s what keeps it going.

Shane de Lange is the owner and graphic designer at www.gilgamesh.co.za. He is also the founder and curator at www.colophon.co.za.