CAMPAIGN CRAFT: PROFILE; How David Carson’s radical bent made him a star

Jim Davies examines how Ray Gun’s former designer moved into ad production

Jim Davies examines how Ray Gun’s former designer moved into ad


He’s produced high-profile press and poster work for Nike, Pepsi and

Levi’s but, without a doubt, David Carson’s most effective advertising

campaign so far has been for himself. Ray Gun, the Santa Monica-based

‘bible of music and style’ that he art directed for 30-odd issues was,

in effect, a monthly, 80-page ad for his own precocious talent. If you’d

bothered to sit down and read any of the articles - not an easy task

given the designer’s propensity for overlaying and distorting type -

you’d have been disappointed. Ray Gun was truly a triumph of Carson over


It is, perhaps, curious to describe a 39-year-old as precocious. But

then Carson only discovered graphic design when he was 30, having

previously been a champion pro-surfer and later a sociology teacher. He

has little formal training or respect for established design practices,

and his radical, post-modern aesthetic has spurred furious debate and

pale imitations in equal measure.

Carson began to make his mark at Beach Culture, a modest surf, skate and

street-wear title, which amassed an amazing 160 US design awards. Stints

on the magazines Surfer and Transworld Skateboarding followed, though he

cemented his international reputation with Ray Gun.

Ray Gun, with a 150,000 circulation, flew in the face of convention by

not using a traditional grid system or page numbers. Instead, Carson

developed a loose, intuitive, almost sculptural approach that was

inspired by the music of the featured artists. ‘Sometimes I think I’m

just painting with type as images or shapes,’ he once said.

With its type stretched, mutilated, doodled over or running at strange

angles across the page, Ray Gun pushed magazine design to the limit. The

influential British designer, Neville Brody, went so far as to say that

it heralded ‘the end of print’.

But it was inevitable that, sooner or later, it would all end in tears.

A disagreement over a front cover - Carson wanted to feature David

Bowie’s neck but the pub- lisher/editor, Marvin Jarrett, insisted on

using his entire face - led to a mutual parting. This left Carson free

to pursue an already burgeoning career in advertising.

He insists his starting point is exactly the same in both disciplines:

‘I’m trying to interpret the message and hit a specific audience.’

So far, he’s worked on international projects for Nike through Wieden

and Kennedy Amsterdam, for which he produced more than 30 different

press executions in 12 different languages, US campaigns for blue-chip

clients such as Sony, Levi’s, Pepsi and Converse, as well as Kentucky

Fried Chicken, Scripto Pens and the Magic Johnson Aids Foundation

through Foote Cone and Belding.

‘The advertising has been out there long enough to generate interest in

its own right, and some of the people who were cautious about me because

of Ray Gun now see that I can do different things for different products

and different clients,’ Carson claims.

Is there any area of advertising he feels naturally drawn to? ‘There’s

really not much I would rule out at the moment,’ he says.

His company, David Carson Design, now has two offices, one in San Diego,

the other in Manhattan - to tap into the New York advertising network

and because it is handier for Europe, where he is increasingly active.

Cyclops Productions, through which Carson directs commercials, is also

based in New York and boasts the photographer, Albert Watson, among its

exclusive roster of directors. The number of commercials on Carson’s

reel is now keeping pace with his print portfolio. And it’s an area he’s

keen to exploit further.

The hyperactive Carson is also gearing up for the February launch of

Speak, which will see him reunited with the former editor of Beach

Culture. Speak will tackle ‘design issues, social issues and some music.

It will have a bit more substance than Ray Gun had, and certainly much

better writing,’ Carson says.

So does he have absolutely no regrets about the Ray Gun bust-up? ‘I’m

busier than I’ve ever been,’ he says. And then, after a pause for

thought: ‘I guess the only thing I regret is not getting that Bowie

cover through.’

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