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Reactions to David Carson 30 years later

I had a coincidence happen recently where a friend mentioned something that sparked “that makes me think of…” David Carson and she said “Who’s that” which led to some Googling and a stumble upon an article from 2017 about what he’s up to recently and how he thinks designers have gotten lazy. And then yesterday in an email newsletter was another article about him with a similar bent. So that got me thinking about what I loved so much about his design work in the 90s when I was coming of age as a designer, and what I’m missing now in my (and others) design work.

Some History

For a good article, I can’t just jump into the thesis. Here is some history if you don’t know who David Carson is or why he was/is important. Skip this section if you have that context already.

The work of David Carson straddles the line between fine art and graphic design. He certainly has a more emotional, visceral, and overtly expressive approach to design. He most famously was art-director for Beach Culture and then more famously Ray Gun magazines. Both were 90s niche publications that took risks with their content and layout.

Ray Gun was very anti-establishment, just like some of the alternative, punk, metal, and industrial music that it was covering. The design was not on any sort of grid, and the number of fonts that were used, manipulated, or designed for each issue was astounding. The “grunge” design aesthetic owes a lot to Mr. Carson. If he was not the originator of the style, he certainly pushed it along and made it palatable to a wide audience.

Carson has had no formal design training, and often cites that fact as a way to explain why he was not afraid to break the rules of legibility, composition, or color theory. He went on to work with big clients like Nike, David Byrne, American Express, MTV, Nine Inch Nails, Sony and the like. He has kept working ever since, moving between personal projects, corporate work, and politically motivated non-profits. He still surfs as much as he can.

Engaging Readers with Design

Design purists in the schools of Paul Rand and Jan Tshichold used legibility as a reason to denigrate Carson’s design. “It’s not legible!” they’d cry. To that, Carson famously replied People read best what they read most to say that its like any language — the more you speak it, the better you get at speaking it. The more you read his style — his muddy typography, his blurry photos and saturated color fields — the easier it is to read more of it. Its a visual language, but its still language.

He was very good at evoking feelings and moods of an artist or band. The non-grid magazine layout approach was new at the time and pushed to its limits in many ways. Illegibility was even taken to an extreme, with the most famous example being the Brian Ferry interview set in Zapf Dingbats. In the pre-internet age, it was amazing to read that he received very few comments from readers, ever. The most blowback he every had to deal with was from the writer’s themselves:

I think you do a real disservice to the writer and the reader if you don’t make the design engaging. It’s always been hard to get somebody to jump into a gray page of type regardless of how well it’s written. The designer can help somebody dive in where, hopefully, they’re rewarded with a good story. A couple of writers in some early issues of Ray Gun got pretty upset because they thought their stories were hard to read. Then, by the end of my three years there, some of the same writers would complain if their story got almost no treatment because it was late and got flowed in at the last minute. They’d go, “What happened? My article is so plain. You didn’t like it?” David Carson, Magenta Magazine

He used illegibility as a way of pushing readers to become invested in the content. Granted, Ray Gun was a music magazine. Its readers were already interested in the content, and its audience was probably 2/3 alternative music lovers and 1/3 designers/photographers/illustrators that loved the radical approach to visuals. We (as I was among both audiences) loved the magazine and would spend hours pouring over every spread, reading every detail, and wondering what half of it even was. But I agree with his idea that making someone work at the content a little bit makes them more invested in it. Maybe I already love this band that was interviewed, therefore, I’m invested in reading it. And then maybe, with the emotional typography and photo treatments, I get more of an emotional output from it and enjoy it more deeply than if it were black letters well-spaced on a white page.

Only recently has science potentially backed up this point of view. There was a study in 2011 about how hard to read typefaces have some benefits. There is a less-than-beautiful typeface designed for people with dyslexia and more recently a typeface was released specifically designed to help people remember the content better. That font looks right out of an issue of Ray Gun, to my eyes. Bunk science? Maybe… but people are thinking along these lines and it feels like there could be merit in it from a non-aesthetic point of view.

Then there was the Web

Carson did his seminal work in the early to mid-90s, right around the time that the internet was becoming a thing. And this was WAY before the internet even started to consider intentional design as a possibility. Jennifer Robbin’s first commercial “web design” was rudimentary compared to what a designer can do in print. The tools were just too limited.

Fast-forward almost 30 years later and our design tools for the web are much, much better. But do we see design as emotional and creative as Carson’s work? I don’t think so. The editorial web has become a tool of quick consumption. Carson has been quoted as lamenting the laziness of designers, but I would say that it goes both ways:

Everything looks the same. There are no visual clues that this is something special, or that you really need to read this. Designers seem to have gotten really lazy. David Carson, Magenta Magazine

A better statement might be:

Designers and Readers have gotten lazy. Me, just now

With movements to slow us all down (slow web) and others advocating for more consciousness and intentionality on the web, it might also be time to design with more emotion and more creativity. If readers have gotten lazy, it might be because we (designers) have allowed them to become apathetic by serving them the same 12-column grid structure in Helvetica over and over.

If a chef laments that their customers never order anything exciting, but all they have put on the menu is mac and cheese, who’s to blame — the chef or the diners?

But too, there is UX

On the other hand, we have UX. I agree with the assertion that for a positive UX experience, components of a web page need to work the same everywhere. Form fields are form fields, and they shouldn’t require a user to relearn them — not should a designer or developer recreate them every time a project calls for their use. Nothing annoys me more than a form field that doesn’t act like any other one — why can’t I paste my generated password into your App’s form field!?

There is also accessibility to consider. A lot of care and work went into creating HTML components that are inclusive in the way that delivers content and utility. Not just form fields, either — buttons, links, navigation, heading structure… all of these done well make the web more inclusive.

But form fields are one animal (or zoo, to torture the analogy). They are not an entire website. Should a hamburger menu always work the same — exactly the same? The icon itself is recognized as “a thing” and people press it. Whether it opens a screen takeover or slides in a menu from the right or left makes little difference. In fact, if a small thing like the way it animates on and off the screen adds user delight, so much the better.

Accessibility is as much about the way something is coded as the way it is designed. It can designed to delight and surprise a visual user and still be accessible to someone using an assistive device. The font size can still scale according to the needs of the user and not completely break the layout. It might be harder to accomplish, sure, but its not impossible. Too often, what is a little harder is just simply not done.

Yes, Good UX might be Boring UX, but there is probably more room for creativity than we realize.

Maybe we Need more than one Mode for the Web

Jeffrey Zeldman recently pushed the idea that there is a slower, more intentional web and there is a faster, transactional one. I think this might be the right frame for a discussion about “Good” UX vs. Creativity. Is David Carson’s style the right one for a transactional website? Probably not… 

Can you imagine his treatment for the homepage of a online banking platform, where people need to log in, check their balances, and pay some bills? That’s probably a terrible idea. The emotions communicated here would be frustration, anger, and resentment.

But editorial, that’s a whole other matter. There is little reason why in this age of the New York Time’s Snowfall, ESPN’s long form stories and countless others that we don’t already have something like Ray Gun on the web. Something edgier, more experimental, and not so heavily reliant on grids. Maybe we do and I just haven’t found it.

Big editorial machines like the New York Times have gotten closer. Not in style, but in interactivity and animation. They have made rich stories richer with photography, video, animation, and data visualizations. There have been long long long form stories, too, that take readers on a journey. These are getting us closer to the goal of rich editorial experience where emotions can be conveyed and expressed as easily as splattered a piece of paper with typography and color.

Boris Müller penned a post ”Why do all websites look the same” on Medium that got a bit of attention, and he followed it up as well. In it he says that he thinks the web is in its “paperback stage” to mean that we are publishing large amounts of content very cheaply and efficiently in a well-worn format (black text on a white page). He goes on to say:

There is nothing wrong with paperbacks. In many contexts they make sense and there are even a number of really well-designed paperbacks out there. But the claim that there should only be paperbacks is downright silly. There is a space, a market and a need for hardcover novels, photographic travel journals, extravagant exhibition catalogues, lavish cookery books and so on. Boris Müller, Balancing Creativy & Usability

We have not yet gotten to the latter types of lavish hardcover books yet. We are getting closer, though, and I have hope that we may be able to stop lamenting that the entire web looks the same.