David Carson at Design Week Portland

Design legend David Carson spoke for Design Week Portland’s kickoff event at Weiden + Kennedy on Monday.  Carson’s talk, called “Never Snap2Guides”, advocated turning off the titular guides and allowing the designer’s eye to do the work.   His presentation also showed off many of his recent projects, as well as some past successes.  In between slides of his work he snuck in personal pictures and anecdotes of his life and art.  Before his design career took off, he was a pro surfer, and his passion for the sport, and the culture surrounding it, crept into many of his slides and stories (including one gnarly picture of a coral-inflicted wound).

A friendly and enthusiastic audience sold out the Monday evening event.  If unfamiliar with Carson, all one needed to do was listen to the people waiting in to hear him; he was (and still is) their design hero.  Many mentioned looking up to him while they were learning their craft in school.

The self-taught Carson describes his style as intuitive, which parallels his rejection of Snap2Guides well.  Turning them off and starting with a blank canvas allows the designer to utilize their own eye to tell them if what they have on the screen works or not, says Carson.  When we let the computers make the decisions about where image or copy belongs on the page, we insult our designer’s eye.  It is the artist’s instinct and inspiration that should dictate choices, not a machine.  Carson says, “Make those decisions yourself.  That’s why you’re a designer.”

Carson cautions “legibility alone doesn’t guarantee communication.”  Many of his designs feature text that is out of order or piled on top of each other.  While the conservative client may shy away from such design choices, others will see the message and intent that defines it.  The point is to have someone see the design and decide it deserves further exploration.  Whether that means picking up a magazine because of the cover or moving the cursor over the text looking for links, the design must inspire curiosity.

He noted several times during his presentation that the designer’s own background and life experiences are the most important things the designer brings to the table.  Carson’s own background as a surfer has clearly influenced much of his work.  When designing for a popular surf culture magazine, he finds himself discontented with the overused idyllic beach scene.  Instead, he asks himself questions like “Why can’t there be seven or eight barcodes on that?”

In light of Carson’s fearless design style, we may take a cue from him with our own designs.  We’re all familiar with the “don’t judge a book by its cover” saying, but judge them we do as we walk up and down the isles of bookstores.  If the covers of our own books grab the reader’s attention enough to pick it up and investigate further, then we have accomplished our goal.

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