Audacious graphic designer from Southern California, best known in the surf world for his jarring but innovative 1991 redesign of Surfer magazine. Carson was born (1956) in Corpus Christi, Texas, began surfing after moving with his family in 1965 to Cocoa Beach, Florida. In 1973, four years after relocating to Rolling Hills, California, Carson was a top-rated competitor in the Western Surfing Association's prestigious AAAA division, and in 1976 he appeared in the surf film Playgrounds in Paradise. He was invited to the Smirnoff Pro-Am surf contest in the early '70s, and for a time Infinity Surfboards sold a "David Carson" model board. Carson earned a B.A. in sociology from San Diego State University in 1977; in the early '80s he enrolled in a series of graphic design workshops.
Carson then became the art director for a series of magazines, including TransWorld Skateboarding (1983–87), Musician (1988), Beach Culture (1989–91), Surfer (1991–92), and Ray Gun (1992). By the time he arrived at Surfer his dark-palette, industrial meltdown style—featuring compressed text; mismatched font size; chopped, scratched, cut, and mixed type; and radically cropped photos—was fully developed. Some Surfer readers liked Carson's redesign right off the bat, but a majority felt, as one Pasadena subscriber put it, that the new look was "jumbled, ugly, chaotic and hard to read."
Carson co-founded Blue, an outdoor sports magazine, in 1998. From his Del Mar, California, design studio (and later from his studios in New York and Tortola), he also did work for Pepsi, Nike, MCI, and Sega, and the Carson style has been widely copied since the '90s. In 2004 Carson was named the Creative Director of the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston, South Carolina. Bose, the luxury speaker company, named him Creative Director in 2010. Through the years, Carson has maintained his ties to the surf world. He put together the "Explorations" issue of Surfing magazine in 2004. He also served as a designer for the Quiksilver Pro events in France and in New York in 2011.
Carson and his work have been the subject of a handful of books: The End of Print: The Graphic Design of David Carson (1996), David Carson, 2nd Sight: Grafik Design after the End of Print (1997), and Fotograficks: David Carson (1999). Carson designed the Laguna Art Museum-commisioned Surf Culture: The Art History of Surfing, was published in 2002. Carson put together a compilation of his own work, Trek in 2003. "Design and Discovery," Carson's 2003 TED Talk, has been viewed nearly a half-million times.
In 2014, Carson was inducted to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame in 2014, and received the American Institute of Graphic Arts Gold Medal for Contribution to the Field of Design. The following year, Complex.com had Carson at #18 on it's "30 Most Influential Designers of All Time" list.