#Designer Spotlight: David Carson – Screw Graphic Design Degree, You’re Good On Your Own!

I love graphic design and I have no degree in it. So what?

I’ve come across several people, my own family, in fact, taunting me and questioning me – “why don’t you do your Bachelors or Masters in Graphic Design?” At the time, I had no answer ready to throw back at them and win the debate. However, now I have.

Bring it on!

For your information, David Carson, the famous graphic designer known for his ‘Grunge’ style typography doesn’t have a full-fledged degree in design. He’s done Bachelors in sociology.

The moment I discovered this fact, I was truly inspired.

Aren’t you?

David Carson – Man With Guts

You need to be a brave heart to live your passion. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. All you need to do is find “Will”, and he ain’t coming without you finding him. I need to find Will. Definitely.

Once Will is with you, all you need is to trust yourself and learn along the way. There are countless websites, blogs and graphic design books to educate you and inspire you. You can do short courses in visual communication as Carson did. He attended a 2-week course at the University of Arizona in. Later, he enrolled in a 3-week design course in Switzerland.

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By the way, I also did a 6-month course in graphic design. Although I’m not a celebrity (as yet), I know a decent amount of skills ranging from photo manipulation to product illustration.

But this is not enough!

Forget Classroom, Get Aesthetic Sense

You need an ‘aesthetic sense’. No one wants to give you their project, wait days for you to complete it and find out you suck at making things look cool or pretty.

“It’s not about knowing all the gimmicks and photo tricks. If you haven’t got the eye, no program will give it to you.”

– David Carson

Unlike designers who focus on mathematical equations to create a layout, Carson relies on his eyes and his sense of aesthetics. Train your eyes. Here are ways you can achieve this:

  • Look at others design. Explore the works of famous graphic designers, as well as artists. You will actually enjoy this rather tedious journey. See the way designers have used perspective, direction, color combinations, background and foreground, typography with illustrations and images.

Graphic designers, you can explore, include Paul Rand, Alex Trochut, John Maeda, and Louise Fili etc.

  • To understand what exactly you are looking for in a logo design, brand identity design or advertisement – take the help of a graphic design glossary. Don’t simply read and memorize what the words say, instead spot where the technique has been used.

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Wait a minute, not so fast.

After technical skills and good design sense, you need experience.

Say No To Text Books, And Yes To Experience

Do you think, simply because Carson realized he has a knack for graphic design, he became popular? Noway hosay. You need to show people you’re awesome. You’ve got to prove your mettle. You can do this by

  • Doing unpaid internships at design firms

After attending Oregon College of Commercial Art for a few months, Carson did an unpaid internship at a skateboarding magazine, Action Now. So you see, instead of constantly posting social media posts on “should graphic designer work for free or not”, know that at an early stage for an untrained graphic designer this step is crucial.

Yes, no one is paying you but your internship is letting you practice, make mistake, rise again and leave an impression. It is not always about money, I believe. As a newbie designer, you should focus on developing an awe-inspiring portfolio.

  • Working freelance with companies

Who says you can do one thing at a time? Carson worked freelance for the Gibbes Museum of Art as a Creative Director. This was in 2004, much later in his design career. The same year he designed commercials for American Airlines, Lucent Technologies, and Xerox.

But you need to realize that in the 1980s and 1990s, freelancing was not a popular choice. Now it is. Many designers are working from home with several firms at once, or they are grabbing projects from crowdsourcing companies like Logo Design Guru.

  • Getting a full-time job

Carson worked for Ray Gun magazine for a while before opening his own pseudonym graphic design studio in 1995. While at this publishing house, he garnered admirers for his contribution to the Grunge style typography.

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So work with a company that

  1. Caters to your interest. Carson loves sports, particularly surfing. Most of his designs reflect his hobby.
  2. Don’t be your boss’s pet. Have an opinion and don’t be shy to express it. Just make sure you have legible material to prove your point.
  3. Don’t be afraid to try something new. Explore possibilities in design and printing techniques. See if the digital world could use your wits.

Focus On Experimentation

Like a scientist in a lab, Carson is constantly experimenting with graphic design elements such as line, texture, color and typography.

Using different techniques is not the only way to experiment in design.

Know More Than Design

When I visited design schools in London, for inspiration, I learned a graphic designer should be aware of his /her surroundings. You should know more subjects than just this one.

Never restrict yourself. The more you know the better. Do you know Carson’s degree in sociology partially influences his design approach? His educational background has an impact on the way he visually communicates with the society. It helps him to research on the kind of people he is designing for and evaluate the response his work generates.

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I have a degree in Mass Communication and Media Studies, and it helps me when I design anything. Did you study math? Know that you need to play a lot with numbers and units of measurement as a designer.

Have A Hobby

Having a hobby is good and fruitful for your design career if you know how to use it cleverly in your creations. For example, Carson is fond of surfing and he is professionally trained for it. Much of his work includes the oceanic waves, surfboards, and working for surfing magazines or brands. Apart from his experimental typography, people know him as a surfer.

Have A Hobby
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Figure out what else you like and try to incorporate it in your work.

So, this is how you become a self-made graphic designer.

Do You Think You’re Good On Your Own?

Blog Update

To get more insight on what others think, I posted a discussion on a LinkedIn group: Graphic Design. If you’re not a member, you can join.

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Graphic designers, from around the world, responded with enthusiasm. Many had great points worth noting. I liked a few answers, which are educating and supported with a good argument.

Marco Echevarria

The owner and creative director at Burn Creative highlights that time has changed. The graphic design industry is over saturated and getting to the level of David Carson is next to impossible.

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Jean-Paul Lacey

A creative graphic designer at University of Surrey, United Kingdom. In response to Echevarria, I like what Lacey says. He agrees that Carson is an exception and not a rule, but with “perseverance, hard work and talent” anyone can become a successful graphic designer.

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Patricia Clawges

Clawges is a creative professional with a wide range of visual expertise. She highlights the unfortunate truth of the design industry. No matter how awesome you are in graphic design, many companies prioritize your formal education certificate. I’ve experienced this scenario [sad].

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Also Explore: Graphic Designers and Their Stories of Passion

Sorin Jurcut

A User Interface Designer at Frontier Silicon. Unlike others who had time to share credible knowledge with others on this discussion, Jurcut posed a question “Why does stuff like this end up linkedin?” I suppose you should ask the platform [smile].

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Despite the fact that he considered the article is “toxic”, Jurcut had more to say. I acknowledge he came back to add more to his one-liner.

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Read the full comment in the discussion. Well, Jurcut as long as the design works for the company and the designer, everything is thumbs up.

Tim Carvalho

A Creative Director and Design Professor, Carvalho maintained an equilibrium. According to him, a person can become a self-made graphic designer but having a degree has its own perks.

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Dennis Dickerson

An owner and designer at Respond Grafiks. Wow, love what he said. Dickerson describes his journey of becoming a graphic designer on his own. A true inspiration for all those who don’t have a degree in design.

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Marnus Venter

A Graphic designer at Webfluential, South Africa. Venter shares that a graphic designer without a degree can work with a creative drive and mindset. However, a degree will enhance your knowledge about design and its software.

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Sue Tomaszycki

A graphic designer in the medical field, Tomaszycki is someone to look up to. If you can’t do a degree, you’ve got design blogs and platforms like Lynda.com to self-study.

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Ryan Milewicz

A UX and Product Designer, Milewicz acknowledges that graphic design skills can be learnt without a degree. Nevertheless, you need “talent and portfolio to back it up”.

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Wendy Meyer

Owner of In You Wendo Design, Meyer is a self-taught designer who gained inspiration and knowledge from How Design, Print and other top-notch blogs.

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A visual design blogger passionate about interactive, experiential and captivating techniques designers, marketers and brands use to accentuate messages, tell stories, and spread awareness. I’m a visual addict like Alice, who finds books (or anything) without pictures boring! My writings focus on graphic and web design, branding, and visual marketing. My hobbies are to write poems, draw zentangles, read, and watch YouTube videos.

3 thoughts on “#Designer Spotlight: David Carson – Screw Graphic Design Degree, You’re Good On Your Own!

  1. Great article! A product of those times and reader and fan of Raygun and that whole aesthetic, I too was impressed to learn that David Carson was a Sociology major like myself…

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