The Other End of Print: David Carson, Graphic Design, and the Aesthetics of Media
by Matthew G. Kirschenbaum

This is a talk about printed media. I suppose I should begin by explaining myself. The conference, after all, is called media in transition, not media in regression. So let me say first that I do a good deal of critical writing about digital culture and new media. I also do applied research in humanities computing and informatics. I consider myself an early adopter and enthusiastic proponent of new media tools and technologies. Nonetheless I am interested in print, but from a critical rather than a celebratory or nostalgic point of view. Print, as well all know, is increasingly regarded as culturally irrelevant, at least with respect to the global media matrices fostered by advanced information technologies. Michael Joyce, writing with his characteristic poise, puts it this way: "What we whiff is not the smell of ink but, rather the smell of loss: of burning towers or menís cigars in the drawing room. Hurry up, please--itís time. We are in the late age of print; the time of the book has passed. The book is an obscure pleasure like the opera or cigarettes. The book is dead--long live the book" (176). Joyce and many others of the digerati have in turn provoked pundits like Sven Birkerts, whose so-called Gutenberg elegies are thinly disguised jeremiads passed off as thoughtful reflection on the status of the written word on the eve of the electronic millennium. The end result is, it seems to me, a lot of messy thinking about print in the present moment, by which I mean print as both a medium of production and a site of cultural consumption. Print, I want to argue, does not exist separate and apart from other contemporary media phenomena. Rather, I see print--and the publishing industry, broadly construed -- as an integral part of the contemporary media ecology. Therefore, I want to suggest that without an adequate critical understanding of print--by which I mean a fully historicized and relational understanding--we have failed in our responsibilities as students of media. This talk today seeks to illustrate some of those assertions by way of the graphic design presented in a number of contemporary magazines, and in particular the work of a designer named David Carson. Among much else, Carsonís design practices furnish us--in print--with premeditated and highly aestheticized representations of such entities as "information" and "media."

That there is a distinctive visual aesthetic associated with information is plain to see. It is reflected in its most bastardized and least interesting form in Wiredís teflon sheen, but its visible spectrum extends from Wired to the grunge fonts and multilayered letter-forms which have emerged as the signature styles of the graphic design programs at such places Detroitís Cranbrook Academy of Arts and CalArts in Valencia. Since 1984, the same year as the mass-market release of Appleís Macintosh, much of this design work has been associated with Emigre magazine, founded by Rudy VanderLans and Zuzana Licko to showcase the Mac-generated fonts created at their digital type foundry in Berkeley. Influential designers such as Edward Fella, Neville Brody, Anne Burdick, Steve Tomasula, Susan LaPorte, and Michael Worthington, many of whom have Cranbrook or CalArts affiliations, all gained early exposure through Emigre, which offers itself as an alternative to the more mainstream trade journals EYE and Print.[1] Since the early nineties, the best-known practitioner of innovative visual and graphic design-- whose work is often described as the new typography, deconstructive typography, or digital typography -- has been David Carson. A former surf-celebrity with little formal design training, Carson has attracted an international following for the layouts and experimental fonts which first appeared in the six-issue run of a magazine called Beach Culture; in 1992 Carson became the art director at the music magazine Ray Gun, founded by publisher Marvin Jarrett as an underground competitor to Rolling Stone, Creem, and Spin. Today Carson commutes to art-school workshops and seminars around the globe, while designing dissonance for the likes of Coca-Cola, Swatch, and Hardees. Carson, as the most closely watched designer of the decade, has done as much as Template Gothic to consolidate the look of the nineties.[2]

In his forward to a hardbound Ray Gun retrospective--a coffee-table book-- entitled Out of Control, William Gibson describes the work collected there, much of which belongs to Carson, as: "The event horizon of futurity, as close as any windshield, its textures mapped in channel-zap and the sequential decay of images faxed and refaxed into illegibility . . . brave new worlds abraded onto the concrete of the now. . . . This is design pushing back against the onslaught of an unthinkable present" (13). In what follows, I want to suggest that this aesthetic--which is sometimes called a post-alphabetic aesthetic -- is one that appears precisely at the point of print mediaís imperative to formalize a representation of its own putative demise.[3] That is, it is an aesthetic that is intensely self-reflexive in its attempt to depict, and at some level iconify, the material conditions of printís communicative exhaustion[4]. The body of graphic design work associated with Carson, Ray Gun, Emigre, Cranbrook and CalArts therefore bears close scrutiny by students of the new medias, for it dramatizes that aspect of the relationship between print and electronic textualities driven by the need of the former to assimilate and contain the ruptures of the latter.

"The Other End of Print," my title for todayís paper, is a reference to a second compendium of Carsonís work entitled The End of Print (this same tag-line often appeared on the covers of Ray Gun). The "end of print" is also, of course, a phrase routinely invoked in the context of electronic media and media in transition. It repays our attention here because, beyond occasional references to Wiredís skewed pages, the import of contemporary graphic design is rarely considered in discussions of being digital. Yet even a cursory glance through the pages of Ray Gun or Emigre leaves little doubt that Carson, VanderLans and Licko, and the many designers associated with them either by style or by patronage are engaged in as rigorous and profound an investigation of alphabetic consciousness in the face of radical technological upheaval as, say, the growing circle of critics and writers who have devoted themselves to interactive fiction. This other end of print, the end of print manifested in the discourses and practices of graphic design--"abraded onto the concrete of the now" -- therefore furnishes us with limit cases of what Jerome McGann has called the "textual condition."

A few words of additional context. There has been relatively little work on graphic design from the perspectives of cultural studies and media studies; instead, most commentary on graphic design originates from within the more cloistered recesses of applied design curricula. That graphic design at large has been under-explored by those not engaged in its practice for their professional livelihood is perhaps not surprising, for the field would seem to vacillate continually between form and function, art and industry, expression and vocation. This is reflected, as design critic Andrew Blauvelt notes, "in the shifting terminology of the academy as educational programs have changed titles from Ď commercial and applied artí to Ďvisual communicationí and eventually Ďgraphic designí" (207). But there are also some additional grounds for the lack of attention from scholars engaged in more traditional literary and artistic pursuits. Johanna Drucker, one of the few art historians to give extended consideration to graphic design, has argued that, "There is perhaps no more perverse (and successful) transformation of the formal radicality of early modernism into the seamless instrument of corporate capitalist enterprise than this progression from radical graphic aesthetics into Swiss-style modern design" (238). Drucker is referring here to the cancellation (for it was essentially that) of the typographic experiments of such figures as Marinetti, Apollinaire, and Tzara-- artists conspicuous for their intensive engagement with the graphical technologies of their own day -- by the subsequent streamlined elegance of Jan Tschicholdís New Typography and by Bauhaus. Graphic design, Drucker goes on to suggest, is "not only the sign par excellence of [capitalist] surplus, but is the very site in which it comes into being and is itself consumed as spectacle through the formal mechanics of display" (242).

If we accept this view of mainstream graphic design as an instrument devoted to conspicuously displaying the consumption of the cultural capital invested in print as a medium, then the aesthetics of the other end of print becomes a crucial site at which to engage with emerging digital economies, propelled as they are by the commodification of information. Perhaps nothing illustrates this last thesis so well as a casual inspection of the advertising in a magazine such as Wired or, for that matter, PC World. Weíd find, for example, an ad for Microsoft Windows NT, which adopts the graphical format of the softwareís sliding menu trays to explicate its features, while the accompanying text marks off words for emphasis by coloring and underlining them in the now-familiar manner of HTML links. Or else weíd find a full-page ad for the investment banking firm of Hambrecht and Quist that is presented using the faux visual metaphor of a Netscape browser (the monolithic "N" anchors the top right-hand corner of the layout as though it were not itself an icon of an active corporate interest). In the browserís main window the firmís high-tech clients are listed, several dozen of them, with names that include Technomatrix Technologies Ltd., Ac/net Inc., and, inscrutably, PostModern Computing. At the very bottom of the page is a line of copy that reads "Financing the New Economy." These are, of course, classic examples of what Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin have lately taught us to call remediations. But remediation alone does not, I think, do justice to the complexity of these visual transactions. That the graphical signatures of the Webís predomiant MicroScape interface have been so effortlessly assimilated by the advertising regime of the post-industrial global economy underscores the extent to which we can expect to see graphic design take up its position as the preeminent agency for commodifying and consolidating the visual spectacle of the information age. [5]

So with this in mind, I now turn toward David Carsonís design work, particularly the material he produced during his two-and-a-half year tenure as Art Director for Ray Gun. This was the venue where his style and approach first gained broad recognition outside of the design community, and where he has done some of his most significant work. The most lucid discussion of Ray Gun I have found comes from EYEís editor Rick Poynor. His brief essay "Alternative by Design?" appears at the close of the Out of Control volume. (Ray Gunís first issue included a tripartite manifesto from editorial director Neil Feineman who had previously worked with Carson on Beach Culture: "Raw by choice. Immediate by necessity. Alternative by design.") Poynor begins by dispelling the notion that Ray Gun was an isolated phenomenon, pointing not only to precursors such as designer Neville Brodyís deconstructive style at The Face, but most tellingly to the influence of MTVís ascend ancy during the eighties (the music television channel went on the air in 1981 with a pop jingle by the Buggles that is itself a condensed lesson in comparative media: "Video Killed the Radio Star"). Poynor sees Carsonís style as essentially the "transportation of a televisual atmosphere to the static medium of print," and goes on to note that Ray Gun is also the quintessential Avant-Pop artifact, pointing out that many of the formal features of Avant Pop as observed by Larry McCaffery -- collage, improvisation, high-impact visuals, a kinetic look and feel -- have long been stapleís of Ray Gunís design (233-4). Poynor is skeptical of assigning any de facto progressive agency to such traits, noting the ease with which they have been co-opted by Madison Avenue and the corporate mainstream (his piece opens with a description of a Ray Gunesque ad used by the British armyís recruitment office). Poynor further maintains that even in the magazineís own pages the graphic design in Ray Gun "was never used . . .as an instrument of opposition or critique" (234). (Carson, for his part, will readily concede that, "There certainly have been pages in Ray Gun that have no deep meaning, that are simply fun. But I think rock and roll should be fun" [VanderLans 17].) [6]

Such debates about the progressive or conservative orientation of Carsonís style, while important, seem to me to occlude certain key aspects of post-alphabetic texts as media phenomena. Most significantly, I would contend that the primary significance of Carsonís work in Ray Gun and elsewhere does not lie simply in its aesthetic friction. To mistake Ray Gunís visual field for this, to see the magazine as solely an experiment in mixed media -- hot live-wire content grafted to the static halftone pages of a newsstand magazine -- is to fail to see that the "deconstructive" graphics are trading not on printís receding communicative horizon, but rather on the multi-channel high-bandwidth mass-media spectacle of printís endangered commodity status. To put this distinction another way, to the extent that it is shocking, controversial, and disruptive, Ray Gun shocks and disrupts not merely or even mainly because it recapitulates the tenuous state of printed mediaís hold on the cultural imagination; rather, Ray Gun shocks and disrupts because it is drawing on the massive reserves of economic power and material attraction still vested in print as a medium -- a messy apotheosis rather than anything so tidy as an end of print. In short, Ray Gun is the most powerful demonstration I know of printís capacity not only to emulate certain stylistic aspects of digital media, but to consolidate and disseminate a particular aesthetic identity for digital media across a variety of cultural channels and representational surfaces.

I want to say a few more words about the idea of "communication" because communication forms the central valance for discussions of Carsonís work. Dubbed "the master of non-communication" by detractors such as Massimo Vignelli, Carson has repeatedly countered charges of "you cannot communicate" with the statement "you cannot not communicate" or "donít mistake legibility for communication." Especially in the earliest issues of Ray Gun, it can be difficult to tell the difference between planned design elements and random production mistakes. In the magazineís first issue, for example, a photograph of Evan Dando from the Lemonheads was cropped incorrectly, resulting in a his black boot obscuring a large block of text. Typos are commonplace in Ray Gun. Carson used no page numbers. Titles and headings and pull-quotes have occasionally been left off of or out of articles. It didnít take much of this, Carson notes, before writers would become upset if the layout of their piece proved unexceptional: "They were concerned that a plain layout indicated that we somehow didnít think their article was that great" (24). In the same interview, Carson continues: "I donít think you can be neutral. You cannot not communicate. If you say nothing, that says something. If you donít respond, thatís your response. If you donít have a religion, thatís your religion." (25).

No profound sociological insight that, to be sure, but this passage illustrates that despite his millennial identification with the end of print, Carsonís own conception of his work is fundamentally conservative. He frequently points out just how few places there are in Ray Gun or Beach Culture that are genuinely illegible, for example, and thus seems unable or unwilling to conceive of design practices that operate beyond the traditional expectations. This point is important because, as Marilyn Crafton Smith has argued in what is one of the more suggestive articles to date on critical theory and graphic design, theoretical approaches to visual communication have traditionally aligned themselves with surprisingly simplistic sender-receiver models of message transmission:

"Often when designers and theorists speak of communication, what they refer to is a mechanistic transmission model of communication and attendant concerns about audience that are based on a long line of mass media audience research. My concern is that a reductionist model will unquestioningly be reproduced when communication is defined solely in terms of imparting, sending, transmitting, or giving information to others; perhaps more problematic is the fact that central to the mission of transmitting messages is the purpose of control." (300)

To close, then, Iíd like to offer a few thoughts about the relationship between the kinds of images I have been showing today and the communal fantasies of the information age: fantasies of absolute access, total recall, and remote control. My basic contention is that information has now assumed visible and material form as a definable and even datable set of aesthetic practices; a visible spectrum of tropes, icons, and graphic conventions that collectively convey the notion of "information" to the eye of the beholder. At stake is not whether any such conventions for representing information are accurate or correct to the formal ontology of information in an absolute sense, but rather the important fact that Western consumer culture has evolved sophisticated and compelling conceits for depicting information as an essence sufficient unto itself, or more properly, information as a synthetic, at times even haptic, commodity. Predictable though these latest permutations of the culture industry might be, understanding information as a token of aesthetic artifice carries with it implications that can be pursued across a broad array of contemporary artistic, social, and technological

Developments--from new media artists who appropriate the look and feel of information to conduct their own kind of inquiries into the phenomenology of digital culture, to advertising and graphic design where the visible signs of information are consolidated and set in circulation through a variety of different media forms (printed matter not the least of them), to scientific research centers investigating new techniques in information design and visualization. There information itself often becomes the explicit subject of representational technologies, as in attempts to "map" electronic data structures or the nodes and paths of computer networks. So in conclusion I want to say these things:
  • information, circa 1999, is much more than just a binary token of messages sent and received;
  • Carsonís work, and post-alphabetic design more generally, refashions information as an aesthetic event;
  • at this moment, print is a powerful conductor of those events;
  • and print is a part of understanding media.


[1] For Emigre's early history, see VanderLans's and Licko's Emigre (the book): Graphic Design into the Digital Realm (New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1993); for more on the activity at Cranbrook, see Hugh Aldersey-Williams, et al., Cranbrook Design: The New Discourse (New York: Rizzoli, 1990). return

[2] Even academic publishers have experimented with the new design trends. Two of the more conspicuous examples are Mark C. Taylor and Esa Saarinen's Imagologies (Routledge) and Avital Ronell's Telephone Book (University of Nebraska Press). Both use unconventional layouts and type settings to synthesize what might be called a post-humanistic aura, and more importantly, to offer a visual counterpoint to the discursive progression of their texts -- indeed, in Ronell's volume designer Richard Eckersley and compositor Michael Jensen share co-credit with Ronell as the book's primary textual operators. return

[3] The term post-alphabetic appears to have been first used by hypertext theorists such as Michael Joyce and Don Byrd to describe the marked visual dimension of electronic writing spaces. return

[4] Shawn Wolfe, in the Fall 1997 issue of Emigre, opens his review of the Wired compilation Mind Grenades by quoting the prescient remarks of one Israeli Solo from Ray Gun 28: The First World customer will discover new uses for the printed page . . . and these may or may not have anything to do with the conveyance of messages. In fact, the value of printed matter may come to be measured solely by its uselessness, or its obsolescence: that is, by its status as Perpetual Novelty Item. That's why print will gladly undergo the painfully slow, terminally stylish and irrelevant Presentation Of Its Own Demise. A presentation of remains that are unburdened by content or meaning. In this I would take issue only with Solo's explicit divorce of content and meaning from the spectacle he describes; by contrast, I argue that the post-alphabetic codes of the new typography offer highly-effective means of sustaining both. return

[5] For one of the sharpest critiques of Wired I have read, see Keith White's The Killer App: Wired Magazine, the Voice of the Corporate Revolution, available online: <>. return

[6] In his interview with Lewis Blackwell in The End of Print, Carson states, A Graphic wil save the owrld right after rock and roll does. return