I was managing editor at SURFER in 1989 when David Carson was brought in to design a new magazine called Beach Culture. David and Neil Fineman, the editor, powered away in a windowless office space back in the warehouse, completely apart from us SURFER folk. I don’t recall what their mandate was exactly. Had to be kind of surfy (Carson was and remains an excellent surfer), but really anything even remotely beach-related was fair game. The result, anyway, was shocking. Look at the side-by-side image photo below: those two issues came out of our building at roughly the same time.
I wanted to like Beach Culture, because the cool kids liked it, but my design taste was kind of prissy and formal. Squared-off and clean, Futura and Times Roman, that was my style. Anyway, Beach Culture got axed, suddenly and viciously as I recall, after just six issues. Too radical? Money loser? Both, probably. I bailed Orange County at the end of 1990, and was surprised to hear that Carson, a couple months later, was hired to redesign SURFER top to bottom. Again, shock. And again, I wasn’t a fan, although this time it hit closer to home: I was still doing articles for SURFER, and Carson was taking the text and fucking with it any number of ways. Not the words themselves, but the way they appeared on the page. Text was a design element now. Everything was. Page numbers, captions, pull-quotes—for Carson, it was all in play, there to be exploded, cut up, frayed, stressed, colorized, repositioned. It got back to me that SURFER founder John Severson was horrified at what Carson had done to the magazine, which seemed to justify how I felt.
Years passed, and I grew to like Carson’s work. Some of it. I was awed, certainly, at how fast, far and wide his influence spread. For sure I came to see just how staid and bogged-down surf media design had been before him—not all of it, but the vast majority; SURFER in particular. When I come across the issues I worked on in 1989 and 1990, my eyelids droop and the sighs come one after the other, and I give a quick word of quiet thanks that David Carson came along and zapped things back to life.
I posted Carson’s EOS page this morning, and yesterday we had a nice back-and-forth email exchange.
EOS: In the surf-media world, photographers get all the adoration and attention. But really it’s been the designers, way more than the photographers, who have done the best work. Or at least gone on to do great work outside of surfing. Yourself, John van Hamersveld, Mike Salisbury, to name three. Anything in particular about surfing that might make it a fertile place for a young designer?
DC: I’d have to agree with you. No question, there have been some amazing surf photographers over the years, but very few have managed to jump out of the small pond they’re working in. And these days, just about anyone can get an expensive camera and hold their finger down the entire ride, and with auto focus and eight-zillion shots per second, they’re going to get SOMETHING. And thats probably why it’s so refreshing to those screwed-up, weird-exposure, weird-cropped photos that Dane Reynolds put up. “Good” photography is like design, its all about the “eye.” You either have it or you don’t, and if not I don’t think it can be taught. I know I helped launch some photo careers by my unusual cropping, which made the photos more compelling.
My schooling was TransWorld Skateboarding mag, then TransWorld Snowboarding, and eventually SURFER—where I was a very difficult hire, as I think they were scared to death after seeing what we’d done with Beach Culture. Surfers are a surpassingly conservative group, especially out of the water. A surprising number of rednecks, even. The same people who appreciate those taking the most chances in their surfing, trying new things, experimenting , well, these people for the most part do not appreciate the same kind of attitude in anything else—like graphic design.
But it’s funny, how things go from radical to acceptable. There was a ton of hate mail when I redesigned SURFER, but within a few months all the ads started copying the editorial, and from there the whole thing, the whole look that we’d worked on, became no big deal pretty quickly.
What was driving you at that time? What was the thought behind the design?
I always thought, as a designer, if your representing a sport like surfing, or skating or WHATEVER, you need to show the emotion of that thing. It needs to FEEL like the subject matter. Even if this goes against what was I was just saying about surfers being conservative, the sport has always been perceived as rebellious, and anti-whatever, which to me made it a perfect vehicle to experiment and try new things in the design. It felt like I was being true to the sport. Or true to the sport when it was at its very best. This is what I hated about SURFER before I took over: you could switch out the photos with about any other sport or subject, and it would still have worked. There was nothing unique about it. It was the same as everything else out there; organized, easy to read, boring and forgettable. I recall a study at MIT, which made the point that people remember things better if they have to spend a little more time reading it. USA Today picked up on that study, and said of my work, “it might actually get young people reading again, because they find it visually interesting.”
I spent a lot of time looking at your SURFER stuff this morning, and noticed that your covers seemed to have the least-radical design work. Was that your choice, or did word come down from on high to not mess around too much with the cover?
I think they were radical in a different way. My challenge there was to make them compelling and memorable, in a simpler way. So, severe cropping, all lowercase lettering—those two things alone were a big deal for SURFER at the time.
But yeah, a committee was used to make the final pick, and an older woman who worked there, who didn’t surf and who didn’t come from a design background, had FINAL say. This was the same person who pulled the plug on Beach Culture, by the way. For almost every one of the 25 or so SURFER covers I did, there were better versions presented, bolder, more attention-grabbing versions, but they almost always played it safe. I did manage to sneak by a few good ones, though. One of Tom Curren, sort of a nothing little photo, he’s cruising on a small frothy wave, just ahead of the curl—that never would never have been considered for a cover, but it ended up being a favorite. The one where I put the logo OVER the first shot of a three-shot Maverick’s sequence, that came out well. Those were both little victories that I savored.
John Severson reportedly hated the SURFER redesign, which I think is funny, given that what he did to the magazine in 1969 was just as radical—or more so. Did it bother your that Severson didn’t like the direction you took the mag?
I never heard that. At least not from John. After I quit SURFER, and bought my house on Kane Garden Point, I contacted John and sent him pictures of the layout and point, and he did a whole group of paintings for me. I was stoked, and so proud to have some of his work, especially the little sketches he sent me beforehand, which I had framed. John and I became good email friends, thought to this day I’ve never met him in person.
John was probably considered a groundbreaker in his day, and why people like that , when they get old, don’t appreciate other groundbreakers, is something I’ve never quite understood. You don’t have to like the aesthetic, but it seems the attitude of experimentation, or doing thing differently, would be appreciated.
No, actually, I take it back. I think I might have been a little disappointed if John DID like the redesign of SURFER. It was a new era, a new world, the whole mix was different. I suppose if I were to go just a bit negative, John has always played it pretty safe in his art, at least in the past few decades, doing what he knows, with rarely a surprise or a change of direction. It’s like when I taught high school sociology in Del Mar, and a teacher would retire, and people would say,’ Wow he taught for 40 years.’ And the often-heard response was , Well, did he teach 40 years, or did he teach one year 40 times?
Design-wise, how does the surf world stack up against snowboarding and skating?
Skateboarding has always been more progressive design-wise, followed by snowboarding, with surfing a distant third. I remember when I very first got started someone asked me to do a poster for a low budget surf film; they wanted palm trees, a perfect wave, offshores, and pretty girl in small bikini. Preferably airbrushed. So now let’s skip ahead 40 years and look at the 2013 “Triple Crown of Surfing” poster. Same exact thing. It’s embarrassing. It’s pathetic. And it’s not just this one: go back and look at ANY Triple Crown poster; they’re all shockingly dated and cliche, just locked in some weird time warp. But I’m guessing that 97% of surfers who see it won’t give it a second thought.
Surfing should be a great place for new designers to dive in and experiment; to blur the lines between fine art and design. And to be fair, sometimes it is. The last Quiksilver Pro France poster was brilliant. I wish I’d done it!
Another thing I realized the last couple of days is just how amazingly productive you’ve been these past 25 or so years. Is your work ethic as committed as your design sense?
I’ve never thought of myself as having a strong work ethic. I’m not organized or particularly good at deadlines. But I love what I do and can can easily spend all day and night designing and experimenting with new layouts or whatever.
I designed a book of Marshall McLuhan quotes, and one of the quotes was something like, “When you’re totally involved, in anything, it is no longer work, it is play or leisure.” I like that. If you’re bored with what you’re doing, it’s because you’re just halfway into it, watching the clock, whatever. There are only two times in my day-to-day living when I can truly say I’m completely in the moment. When I’m surfing, and when I’m deep into a design project, music on, totally absorbed. I wish I could figure out how to “be here now” more often. I’m working on it!