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David Carson – What rules?

When we think of skate magazines, we first and foremost think of photos and the photographers who shot them. Maybe we also think about the editors who dug up some fun stories, guys like Carnie, Nieratko, or Phelps. But for some reason, there was never much attention on the graphic designers putting everything together and making it look good in the end. For Solo, it was important from the beginning to have a well-designed magazine that is a pleasure to pick up – something that looks more like a coffee table book. That’s why we finally wanted to shine a light on the design side of things in our 50th issue and got in contact with David Carson, one of the most famous graphic designers in the world (and a great surfer). Before he created the looks for magazines like Beach Culture, Surfer, or the legendary Ray Gun, started his own studio, won awards, and gave design lectures all around the planet, he had begun his career in 1984 at the newly-created Transworld Skateboarding magazine. From there on, he revolutionized the game and made a name for himself with his unpredictable designs, playing with colors, textures, and typography to create something you won’t find in any rulebook. DIY ethos and no rules – well, that’s as skateboarding as it gets.

How did you become the art director of Transworld skate mag and how was working there?

I was teaching high school sociology in Del Mar, trying to sort out getting into graphic design. Peggy Cozens and Larry Balma of Tracker Trucks had recently started Transworld magazine, largely because Peggy felt Thrasher was too radical, and she wanted a cleaner, non-offensive magazine for her young son. They had skaters write the articles, take their own photos, and even do the layouts for their stories, which sounds like a cool idea, but in reality, it didn’t work at all. The mag was super corny and amateur-looking – and not in a good way. One of their only big advertisers was Powell-Peralta. After their first two issues, Stacy Peralta called them and said, “Look, I’d like to support your magazine. I think it’s good to have an alternative to Thrasher, but if it doesn’t start looking better, I’m out.” “What do we do?” they asked Stacy, who said a buddy of his, D. David Morin, editor of Action Now magazine, has a friend who’s trying to break into graphic design, maybe give him a call. I still remember being in the teachers’ workroom one lunch time and getting a call from Larry Balma, saying, “Hey, would you be interested in designing our mag? Can you come up to Oceanside to the Tracker Trucks factory and meet?” “Yes, yes, yes,” I said and I ended up designing TWS for the next three years. I also designed the first issue of Transworld Snowboarding for them. Working there was great for me, being able to experiment and learn graphic design – and I was a bit obsessive about it. They gave me a ton of freedom to experiment with the layouts. On weekends, I’d sometimes have to walk over skaters sleeping in the offices to get to my drafting table… veeeeeeery pre-computer. But I was there more as an aspiring graphic designer than a hardcore skate guy trying to stay in the sport. I think this pissed off some of the hardcore guys at the time, Neil Blender, Lance Mountain, and others. Eventually, largely through the design, we earned the respect of the skaters; and it totally launched my graphic design career.

"What can I pull from what I was given that might be more interesting than the original thing"

What influence did skateboarding and everything that comes with it have in your work?

Probably a lot. I didn’t have any formal training, so TWS became my schooling, trying to sort it all out. With very limited budgets, I was forced to work with some pretty minimal, bad stuff from time to time and learned to start looking at the envelopes, the back, or weird sections of the photos to crop. I still work that way. What can I pull from what I was given that might be more interesting than the original thing. Later, people would say, “Oh, you can’t do that, you broke the rule,” and I would say, “Says who? What rule?” I was just doing what made sense to me after reading the article and trying to decide what that would look like. What am I feeling from this article and images and how can I reinforce that with the design?

How would you describe what a well-designed magazine looks like?

It feels like the subject matter. The viewer gets an emotional response from it and it reflects the subject matter. I never used grids or knew what they were and that also freed me up a lot. A well-designed cover makes someone want to pick it up out of a crowded magazine rack, or now, click on it…

Do you still look at skateboard magazines and if so, what do you think of them?

Well, a lot of my favorite mags have quit print, but if I do see a compelling cover, I’ll definitely pick it up. Mags in general have gotten a lot more pedestrian over the past decade or two.

If you were to start a skateboard magazine today, what would it look like?

Well, I wouldn’t know till I read the articles and saw the photos and got a sense of the point of view of the mag. The only reason to do it would be if the publisher really wanted something different, fresh, and experimental that respected the sport and its culture. And until I dove in, I wouldn’t know what that would end up looking like. It shouldn’t look anything like TWS of 30 years ago though.

Have designs from skateboarding or skateboard magazines influenced the design world?

Overall, no. Although skaters were always so much more progressive in the graphics, art, and attitude than surfers or snowboarders – though, unlike surfers, snowboarders did eventually catch up.

What are your favorite designs from skateboarding?

Early Tracker ads by Craig Stecyk. Anything from Tod Swank or Garry Davis of Skate Fate fame. I don’t see many skate mags these days, so I’m sure there’s a lot of great stuff I’m unaware of.

As you are an expert for The End of Print [that’s the title of a book Carson released first in 1995, editor’s note], how will skateboard media look like in the future?

Well, I hope it stays raw and real. I don’t think it’s a great place for folks more interested in technology than skating, and hopefully, any new skate media will continue to disrupt and upset people.

Do you have any recent skate projects?

I did all the design and branding for a new skate park in Dubai that just opened this year, I have a model with Carver Skateboards that came out last summer, and I have a new deck from Plus81 in Japan just out this month.