David Carson Gets the Blues

FTR-Primary Concerns/David Carson Gets the BluesGraphic designer David Carson hasn't got the blues, but he sure knows his hues, having spent his adult life in and near the ocean. As art director of the magazine Beach Culture, the former pro surfer mixed skate and surf culture with raw typography that skimmed the edge of legibility. He really broke through with the 1992 debut of Ray Gun, a music magazine that raised hackles with its grunge typography. Carson became the most famous designer on the planet.

Carson's client list runs the gamut from Meg Ryan to David Byrne, Microsoft to Pepsi, the Bank of Montreal to Nine Inch Nails. After serving as creative director for the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, S.C., Carson recently moved his office back to Southern California. Current projects include the identity and signage for the Salvador Dali Museum and rebranding work for Western Union.

He served as design consultant for Blue, an adventure travel magazine that debuted in 1997 and enjoyed a brief but well-regarded few years. His design for the cover of the premiere issue of Blue was chosen by ASME as one of the 40 best covers from 1965 to 2005 (No. 20, in fact).

Okay, so why was the magazine called Blue?
Carson: It was originally going to be called something like "Adventure Lifestyle." It just seemed so predictable and unexciting, with no real mystique. It turned me off that it was so specific. At some point I suggested, "We need to call it something and give that name its own definition. We could call it 'Blue,' for instance."
At the time, blue seemed to be a good, positive thing to which we could not only give definitions, but it already came with some. You've got the obvious ones of the sky and the sea, openness. ... Good things are associated with blue, like clear days, more than singing the blues. Just the word 'blue' in the singular is full of optimism and positive connotation to most people.
I think we've seen a lot of examples of giving a name its own definition in the dot-com world. Amazon, Google, Yahoo - these are names we never would have dreamed major corporations would choose. I think with Blue, it was the right time for that.

Isn't that how the design process usually works? First, the intuitive part of your mind comes up with something, and then, later, the rational part makes explanations for it?
I'd like to think there's a starting point with design. When I'm looking at a magazine, I'm reading an article, looking at the photos, maybe listening to music, and that's sending me in a certain direction. I'm not quite ready to say design is done only strictly because it looks good, and then later comes the rationalization.

Is blue your favorite color?
No, I tend to like greens more. But blue is not an alienating color like others can be. Some people hate lime-green; red has all this emotional baggage. Blue seems to be overall one of the more positive colors, and a little more serious than yellow.

When approaching a design project, do you begin with color?
Color is tied directly into the subject matter and all that involves, and that will send you to a certain palette. Right now, for instance, I'm doing something for a younger surf/skate crowd, and with them, the neons are back again. I was surprised that plaid was followed by neon.
For me, the design is central. If I'm doing a logo, I'll do it in black and white. Once the form is feeling right, only then do I start exploring the color palettes. A good example was the process of rebranding the Salvador Dali Museum. I did at least 100 versions in black and white. We narrowed them down to the final couple. At that point, I presented them in color to help make the selection. Of course, they weren't random. You have to take into consideration the subject matter. This is Dali, so it wouldn't be tans and whites or neutral colors. You may not want to think what he would do, but that gives you a certain direction.
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