Joe Clark: Accessibility | Design | Writing

“Illegible” David Carson cannot not communicate

Typography is supposed to be invisible. At least, that’s the prevailing view. If there’s one cardinal lesson design students are force-fed, it’s this: If the intended reader actually notices the typography and graphic design on a page, then you’ve failed as a designer. The goal of communication is achieved only when typography does not “distract.”

But that dictum has a few (loop)holes. Open up any newspaper or glossy magazine and you’ll find it’s quite easy to distinguish editorial from advertising copy – and where there’s a possibility the latter could be confused for the former, publishers will typically insist on a disclaimer (like a headline stating “Advertisement”). In that case, typography has to be noticeable, however obliquely, to succeed in its mission as editorial copy or advertisement. “Intended readers” of serious literature, children’s bedtime stories, mass-market tabloids, math textbooks, music scores, and consumer magazines are all different – and all have different expectations.

And besides, this is the ’90s, where average people are quite aware that what they’re reading, listening to, or watching are, in fact, media, which by definition interpose themselves between message and reader. (Remember that guy named McLuhan?)

Given this conflict between old philosophy and new reality, it’s no surprise that David Carson evokes a love/hate reaction. The 39-year-old graphic designer, in Toronto May 4 [1994] presenting a sold-out slideshow/lecture sponsored by the Advertising & Design Club, first staked out his turf in the early ’90s with Beach Culture, an obscure California surfing rag with a radical graphic design. Beach Culture featured weirdo fonts (mostly from the kooky Emigre typefoundry), lines of type that bashed into each other and wandered all over the page, and experimental photography and illustration. You’d find no orderly grid keeping page layouts tidy and staid.

The magazine lasted only six issues, but it set the type world buzzing like nothing since the advent of Macintosh desktop publishing, which gave most anyone the chance to become a designer – even, as in Carson’s case, a sociology teacher who “didn’t know there was a profession called graphic design. I didn’t know there was a word called ‘graphic design.’ ”

But what really put Carson on the map is his work as art director for Ray Gun, a magazine that debuted in November 1992. According to a cover tagline, it’s “the bible of music & style.” Though it’s possible to draw some strained comparisons between Ray Gun and other typographic experiments of the past, the monthly magazine is strikingly fresh even now, taking Beach Culture’s design mishmash to the absolute max.

The current issue, for example, credits 25 different typeface designers (including Carson and fading ’80s wunderkind Neville Brody), seven more names than are found in the contributing-photographers list. (That should tell you something about Carson’s priorities.) Every single typesetting rule of thumb you could possibly come up with has been broken in Ray Gun’s brief history: Overlapping blocks of copy; light text against dark backgrounds; dark text against dark backgrounds; running text across pages, including stories that are read horizontally across columns (just hop over the gutter between them); deliberately running photos upside-down.

The magazine’s name has been rendered as rAY GUn, RAYGUN, ray gun, and other variants (Raygun seems to be the ascendant spelling now). The April ’95 issue featured a story on the musical group Pavement that began on the inside and finished on the front cover, which Carson thinks is a first. The affable [not really] designer once set a story I wrote for Ray Gun on the Kids in the Hall in a font without parentheses, em dashes, or accents, resulting in spaces where those characters would have been.

Why break so many rules, David? “I never learned all the rules, all the things you’re not supposed to do,” he said in an interview. (Carson’s formal training in the graphic arts consists of a single brief course – one intended for high-school students like the ones he was teaching at the time.) “So I don’t believe the attitude, ‘learn the rules to know how to break them.’

“The message that the type sends, I feel, is as important as what it’s saying. When those work together, you’ve got really strong communication. You cannot not communicate. If I make this [page] totally unreadable, that’s communicating something. And it might be about the magazine, it might be about this group. It’s sending a message. So that’s much more powerful than leaving it blank, which also sends a message.”

And while it may seem as though each Ray Gun article is randomly designed, in fact a typical story is carefully planned out, though Carson is open to serendipity. In each issue, he says, “there almost always is one [article] that’s more difficult to read than some of the others, but... the starting point is not ‘Well, let’s muck this one up.’ The starting point is to try to interpret the article, and doing that, some of them get harder to read, OK? I don’t have a problem with that, and I really think it makes it more interesting to the reader, especially our reader, where you’re competing with all these other things [like music video and computers].”

I’ve never had a conversation with anyone familiar with Ray Gun that did not include a dismissal of the magazine as unreadable. For Carson, that’s a misnomer. “If you think it’s hard to read or too weird, you’re probably not the audience, and that’s fine.

“There were some writers with the first issue [of Ray Gun] and the first issue of Beach Culture... and their reaction was like, ‘What did you do with my article? I can barely read this thing!’ And by the sixth issue, these same writers – some of them – would call back and say, ‘What happened? You didn’t like my article? It was so plain. It was so readable.’ And a lot of times, yeah, that was the case – yeah, it was a dumb, boring article and we had a much better article that we spent a lot of time on.

“I believe now, if the type is invisible, so is your article, and it’s probably not going to get read, because – at least with this audience, and I think it’s spreading out more – they’re seeing better TV, they’re watching video screens. You give somebody a solid page of grey type and say, ‘Read this brilliant story,’ and a lot of people, they’re going to go, ‘Doesn’t look very interesting. Let’s try and find something more interesting.’ I think if it’s invisible, it’s just done a horrible disservice to what’s potentially a really good article.”

For Ray Gun readers, decoding the text is part of the fun. It’s a heady font soup, and only strong swimmers ought to jump in. If stodgy graphic-design stalwarts are incensed that Carson breaks so many rules and gets away with it (the magazine sells 150,000 copies an issue) – well, odds are they have no interest in pop-music artistes like Porno for Pyros, Moby, the Beastie Boys, or P.J. Harvey anyway. If you think Ray Gun is illegible, you just may not be the Ray Gun type, and that’s OK. You can still make yourself useful – try handing your copy to someone who can appreciate it.

Truth in advertising?

David Carson’s free-ranging layouts caught the attention of Aldus Corp., the company behind the first real desktop-publishing software, PageMaker. Aware that rival program Quark Xpress was eating PageMaker for breakfast in the magazine market, last year Aldus commissioned a PageMaker ad featuring a layout from a Ray Gun story on angst-pop crooner Morrissey. As the ad copy gushed, “David Carson is. And he makes Ray Gun happen.... It’s David. And it’s Aldus PageMaker 5.0.... Quark Xpress? Hot stuff. Even David used it. Yesterday. But he came back to PageMaker.”

When asked, in a taped, on-the-record interview, about his involvement with the PageMaker campaign, Carson said, “I did Beach Culture magazine completely in PageMaker, and then started Ray Gun in Quark, so when PageMaker approached me and said they had revamped the program, I kind of had a sentimental attachment to it, since it’s the first program I learned.... So I said, ‘Great, yeah, let me see it.’ So they sent somebody down to train me on it, and I did use it for a couple of issues, and then they ran all these ads.... And I now have both on the computer, and tend to use Quark a little more than PageMaker.”

Later, in his presentation before some 200 people, Carson admitted that the layout pictured in the Aldus ad had actually been produced in Quark Xpress. When contacted to confirm this revelation, panicked PR executives at Adobe Systems, which merged with Aldus Corp. last year, searched through Aldus files and admitted that the firm has no written record of Carson’s actually approving the copy and layout of the ads. Adobe also had no written assurance that the layout used in the ad was truly produced in PageMaker. Adobe hastened to add, however, that there were no hard feelings between Adobe and Carson.


I sent David Carson a copy of my published story via poste escargot, only to have it returned unopened with a handwritten note declaring: “Joe – I’m not interested in your type of ‘journalism.’ ”

The design prima donna’s antics are increasingly irrelevant now that he has been dismissed from Ray Gun (ding-dong!) and is now a meta-personality famous for being famous, rather like Zsa Zsa Gabor on The Hollywood Squares. No quantity of hagiographic Apple and other advertisements, David, can substitute for a genuine career. And your new magazine Speak comes dangerously close to monomania. Letting you lay it out and edit it and write it is the Peter principle brought to life. Though you’re not interested in my type of “journalism,” more and more readers are losing interest in yours.

Originally published in the Globe and Mail 1995 ¶ Updated here 1999.06.17, 2007.03.19, 2010.12.29, 2011.01.06

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