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David Carson: A Self-Taught American Graphic Designer & Design Director

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David Carson (b. 1954)

Design legend David Carson is known as a rule-breaker. He forged a new frontier of graphic design—creating innovative magazine designs and using wildly experimental typography. Carson is frequently referred to as one of the most influential graphic designers of his era, if not of all time. What’s more, he’s won more than 230 awards throughout his career. What a legend!


Carson is definitely a Renaissance man. A former high school class president, Carson studied sociology at university in California and was also a professional surfer! But you won’t believe how he got his start in graphic design. Carson was 26 years old, teaching high school in southern Oregon when he intercepted a flyer meant for his students. Carson himself jumped at the opportunity—enrolling in a summer program for graphic design at the University of Arizona. It turned out to be a serendipitous decision, because the course was run by Jackson Boelts, who became Carson’s mentor.

Fast forward a few years and a couple unpaid internships, Carson traveled to Switzerland to take a summer workshop with Hans-Rudlof Lutz, who broadened his horizons and encouraged him to experiment with his work.

Carson’s first official art director role was in the extreme sports scene—with Transworld Skateboarding from 1984—1987 followed by Transworld Snowboarding and Beach Culture. But his most prolific position was as the founding art director of Ray Gun magazine. Ray Gun magazine was an alternative music and lifestyle magazine that debuted in 1992. Carson used this publication as a platform to cultivate his signature style—using the crazy fonts, creating unexpected layouts and experimenting with revolutionary typography.



“[My work is] subjective, personal and very self indulgent.”

Carson shoot to design stardom during the early 1990s when new technology opened new doors. Working in QuarkXPress and Pagemaker, he worked efficiently and developed an interesting technique to explore and manipulate accidental creations.

Throughout the 90s and early 00s, Carson ran his own creative studio David Carson Design, working with huge clients like Nike, MTV, Quiksilver and Toyota. In recent years he’s served in a variety of positions like creative director for the Bose Corporation and Creative Director of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston.


I love Carson’s work because ultimately he was a rebel. He through all the rules out the window and the end result was experimental, intuitive and personal. My favourite Carson story is when he was art directing for Ray Gun, he didn’t like the article that had been written on Bryan Ferry, so he set the entire spread in Zapf Dingbats.

In 2014, Carson was honoured with The AIGA Medal. It’s clear his revolutionary style has made a lasting mark on the design world.

Want to learn more about Carson? Watch his 2003 TED Talk.

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