Barcelona Cultura

David Carson: designing and stimulating in times of immediacy and virtual reality

Graphic designer and art director David Carson is claimed to be the godfather of grunge typography and considered a prominent reference in the field of digital creation. His unconventional, experimental and transgressive style, which he introduced in the magazine Ray Gun, captured “the interests of a new generation of formal-trained graphic designers” in Spain in the nineties, points out Raquel Pelta, curator of exhibition “Do you work or design? New visual communication. 1980-2003”. As part of OFFF, the International Festival of Creativity, Art and Digital Design of Barcelona taking place in the Museum of Design between April 25th and 27th, we talk with him about creativity in the postmodernist era, designing with emotion and formal freedom, and the role of technology within this paradigm.

Contemporary culture is reclaiming the beauty of imperfection. Why does it attract us?

Technology has taken us so far away from imperfection in the last two decades. Things have been perfect for so long, there is a lot of stuff that does not even feel like a human was behind it. Now it feels good to feel there is a human connection again, that things are not perfect, that there is a little more emotion. We are definitely seeing more reaction to that type of work than we did some years ago. I think technology can do so much, but at some point people missed the human context of it all. The further you get away from that, the less effective the communication is, because we see perfect messages all the time, flush-left capital letters that are really telling us: “Do not read this, keep moving, walk by”.

Do you see a lack of a human approach in graphic design?

I think designers have become a bit lazy and let the software make a lot of decisions for them. In doing so, the work has less emotion, and evokes less from the viewer as well. Those simply operating programmes to get their work done are losing the consumer’s attention and probably their jobs soon, because computers will be able to do that work themselves. Programmes have already replaced many designers at ad agencies, who were using Google, to find photos and grab references. Computers can do that now and probably better, because they have access to photos from around the world, unseen typefaces…

How can design be more human?

It is very important to get more subjective in your work and to put more of yourself into it, because nobody else could copy that. Everybody can buy the same software, but they cannot draw from your background, your upbringing, your parents, your whole life experience. It does not mean that you just throw all of that into your work, but there are little areas and fine tuning that the person sitting next to you with the same software might not have done. If you allow that to happen, then you do better work, have more fun doing it and get better response as well.

Why is it essential for design to move forward to be experimental?

For me the only way of working and the way to get a better response is doing expressive, intuitive, emotion-based design.

Implausible shapes, experimental typefaces, overlaid images. Your graphic style broke away from aesthetic rules. Is being disruptive the key to success?

In my case it was never the starting point, but an after effect. I did not have formal training, so I never learned all the things I was not supposed to do. I just did what made sense to me and it worked: people took note of it, loved and hated it in equal measures and still talk about it. The most important ingredient is having an eye, knowing what is better than something else. Intuition is intrinsic and hard to teach if you do not have it. That comes from trusting and listening to your own God, exploring without good or bad.

Are we now at the turning point of postmodernity?

I would like to think we are, but I am not yet convinced that we are going to see this big turn. The best agencies and clients are realising that design has to work with formal freedom and they are readdressing their modus operandi. In the long run, they are going to be more successful than those who have just been rigidly following rules for years. That is not getting people’s reaction anymore.

In the nineties we became aware of the international scene of artists and creators through foreign magazines. Now we get to know them through social media. Is culture consequently getting more homogeneous?

Absolutely. In graphic design, everybody sees everything instantly from around the world, and we can no longer obviously identify whether something comes from, for instance, New Zealand or from Lebanon. I do not think this is a good thing. I want to feel that the area where the work was produced, their people’s unique background and their way of seeing the world, I would like some of that come through. There is no question in my mind that social media has resulted in an overall homogenization of the art field.

Due to this overflow of content from social media, are we moving away from Z. Bauman’s liquid society?

The tendency is not to make us more creative but to make it more homogeneous, less unique, because you can see everything anywhere from anybody. That being said, you still find individuals who are doing things that surprise you and catch your eye on social media. I would guess they are possibly not scrolling through it hoping for ideas. When I was doing my earlier books, there was no social media that could give you instant feedback and affect what you were doing. I was experimenting in public, and that was really true. There was no preview where you could read people’s reactions.

Besides social media, we come across new personalities in the field of creativity at events such as OFFFestival. Why are they necessary?

It is one thing if you see somebody talk on social media but quite another to be there in person. In a festival you are certainly not going to like or get something out of every speaker, but you will happen to see someone you did not know about or whose work you were not aware of and this will encourage you to go back to the studio and to experiment, to try something different. It is a case of human interaction, something unaffordable through a screen, because of an evident physical distance and an immensely bigger volume of content.

What can we learn from design?

Design can teach us how to better communicate. When a good design and a good message come together and are powerful in communicative terms, we are given new ways to understand messages, especially if they are social or political. It is important to realise that through art, design and building we can affect social interaction and make people less lonely. Graphic design has the power to make people’s lives better, even if it is making a simple decision to make something visually more pleasant to experience.

We are exposed to a massive number of messages on a daily basis. Is our cultural consumption more passive and less critical?

In general I think we are not experiencing culture, because who knows what software is isolating us by hand picking the content we might consume, so we are getting a single viewpoint and given the chance to see only what we want to know about. People were used to complaining about early TV. There was no choice, it was whatever came next on that same station. The Internet set a new paradigm, it meant a wider range of decisions. It seems that we are back to the same potential problem. A lot of things are thrown at us with not a lot of depth and we are choosing less and less. What seem to prompt unlimited access to new cultural experiences is in fact going in the opposite direction.

David Carson is one out of more than 100 international talents invited to OFFFestival. For its 19th edition, the festival will be playing host to the leading voices of the creative industry, setting new trends in the fields of design, music, art, performance and digital culture.

Ajuntament de Barcelona