Impressions of David Carson
by Jaime Wright

Artist's talk and Presentation by David Carson (for biographical information and achievements: www.davidcarsondesign.com)

November 9, 00 at Anno Domini: 150 S. Montgomery, Unit. B, San Jose, CA; 408.271.5151.




We come to terms with reality most simply and most richly when we merely comprehend it, take it in, allowing our faculties to penetrate its nature and trace its implications. Unlike abstract analysis, or that kind of thinking which must prove its point, this is a concrete and integrated activity of mind...Perhaps we do most of our actual thinking with a kind of "felt logic," through which we realize unities, relationships, proportions, differences, and similarities, in and among whatever we may perceive, as we perceive it.
       --from Myth and Mind, by Harvey Birenbaum

Upper Left Margin: A Scattering Line of Text

A group of more than one hundred people waited outside Anno Domini, beneath the winter stars, for the artist talk and presentation entitled, "The Deconstruction of David Carson." The talk was being delayed by minutes and quarter divisions of the hour. I was beginning to wonder if this was even worth it. I am not a graphic designer nor do I know much about the speaker, design guru David Carson.

My friend and I were cold and getting hungry. Surrounded by people talking about their new art studios, prints, yada yada, I felt outclassed and understudied, curious what tonight would bring and whether I would walk away more knowledgeable.

We were allowed into the building around 6:40pm, or thereabouts. Carson's work was plastered across the front of the large gallery. The exhibit stopped about half way up the two-story brick wall. In the center, of the front wall, there was a makeshift screen for the slide show. It was made from two rolls of butcher paper side by side, falling from ceiling to floor, torn at the top and a bit wrinkled in the middle.

Floating Off Center for Balance: Trans-apparent Images

When shuffling feet across the hardwood floor ceased and all the chairs were full, David Carson introduced himself and began the slide show. He started off showing how he gets some of his ideas -- snapshots, with a point-and-shoot camera -- showing pictures of signs or lights down a hallway or downtown, for example. He would point out what he found interesting in each photo: color, form, texture, juxtaposition. These examples illustrated how he is influenced by local environment in a multi-layered process of design by impressions.

He was intrigued by subtle differences between color and shape, minimal differences that, when displayed in a void of white space, can be drastic and powerful. Although he didn't say it outright, I got the impression that he was into "leaving a little to the imagination." He even applauded, with a degree of non-patronizing sarcasm, a sign in Italy that had been discretely tagged. The graffiti brought out slight differences in angle and style that did not obtrude the sign's rigid lettering and ample use of white space.

Pausing at an image of two garage doors, Carson took a moment to discuss how we react to different types of fonts. Both garage doors were identical in color, shape, and design. Each was a narrow, one-car garage door and was painted to resemble a pack of Marlboro reds turned upside down, minus all the text. The first door's "no parking" letters were little shiny black alphabet stickers. Pulling in front of this garage door, you would read the small letters and think, "OK, don't park here." But you still might be tempted. The next garage door, similar in every way except it had "no parking" spray painted over it in huge, black, dripping letters. Because of the style these letters could have been painted in a fit of anger. Noting our different responses to the font or letter style Carson asked: What is our immediate reaction to these signs before we actually read them? How do we immediately respond to a style of font, or layout; color, sign, symbol?

His answer: Intuition.

Our intuition allows us to immediately comprehend something before we have time to analyze it. Later, he would illustrate this point by surprising the audience with a slide of a "Vote for Hitler" poster. It was a poster used during Hitler's first run for office in Germany. At the time, it was less threatening than a "Vote for Bush & Cheney" sign. But as soon as it appeared on the screen a nearly inaudible, collective breath or murmur was heard and felt in the large room. The poster had a huge swastika over "Hitler" printed in large letters with the "vote" part sandwiched in between in small letters.

Everyone in the audience experienced an immediate emotional response to this sign, this symbol of a dark period and person in history. Our reaction reflected the power of sign and symbol; although this was an extreme example, it illustrates how humans interpret the world through various forms of representation.

Language itself is a representation. Archetypes in literature and art are representations. When these archetypes are familiar, we respond with an immediate intensity. The image is the key fit and clicked into the ignition; fractions of a second later, our thoughts begin to turn over like the engine of an old, cold car. These images engage our feelings about our world. The spark is our intuition, our emotion. It is not an intellectual analysis of the "thinking which must prove its point." What happens in this instant can be described as a type of "felt logic" in relation to the power of symbol.

Carson approaches design subjectively. In preparing to do a CD cover, he'll listen to the CD. He'll use his intuitive sense or emotional response to the work as a foundation for a graphic design. His work elicits a similar intuitive grasp from the viewer. His approach is subjective and specific, an attempt to find "the solution in the thing itself." He intimately entwines this approach with his consideration of locality. He does not approach each job with an "objective-universal" frame of mind. "Neutrality," he says, "is impossible."

Another slide showed an obscured but recognizable Nine Inch Nails logo. Carson explained that he subordinates the obvious to the subtle, which is revolutionary or, at least, subtly subversive because it emphasizes the artwork over the advertisement, the individual over the corporately conformed, intuition over analysis.



We are able to grasp the meaning without the, all too common, overbearing intrusion of the product logo. Carson allows the consumer to respond to the CD cover, rather than shoving the product logo down the consumer's throat. Although I'm not a Trent Resner fan, I congratulate his respect for Carson's subversive design that communicates rather than commands.

Carson expresses this idea more precisely in a piece that states: Don't mistake legibility for communication. But he renders the saying something like:

       don't take
       mis- bility
       legi- cation
       for comuni-

Reinforcing the content with the form. This reminds me of graffiti: local, subjective, expressive, hard to read, subversive, and the message is always reinforced by the form. There is another similarity: conflict. Both graffiti and often the work of Carson conflict with accepted ways of viewing art, design, message, creativity. Carson's work is not always easy. Sometimes titles run over the text of an article, or words run off the page, or are on top of each other so they are illegible. Generalizing, the last thing middle America wants is discomfort. Myself included. But some despise it and get angry when things aren't easy or comfortable as a warm recliner with a remote control to a large screen (perhaps nowadays I should use the example of the Mac G4 with a contoured mouse and DSL.) Carson's work is not for those do not embrace challenge.

Backing Out Beneath a Wave of Star Masked Fonts

During the lecture I looked out of the tall windows from my seat and saw a plane flying at an angle, the sky like the butcher-paper-silver-screen, torn, wrinkled. We were in David Carson's space, displaced by the dimensions of his presentation.

The slideless projector blinked a square of light, an eye without an image. I glimpsed. Maybe I was just hung over from a long work week or have done too much LSD, but -- I'm telling you -- we were a Carson design, the audience submerged beneath the room's ocean of imageless air. The reflection of the slides on the large windows was cut, images incomplete. I walked out noticing a completeness in the crowded hallway, the cold night air, across the parking lot, opening my car door, closing it and becoming someone else: a hungry person who was now wondering where to eat.

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