“When you’re an editorial illustrator, the kind of work that you get reflects the times that you live in, and the subject of my illustrations should speak to that,” says graphic designer, art director, and GIF whizz Erik Carter. Therefore those loose, deliberately hand-made lines, or the mid-century colors and shapes that pervade much contemporary illustration are entirely absent from Carter’s portfolio. Instead, you’ve got moving collage, clunky 3D renderings, and a large dose of hypnotic gradients, which he’s designed for clients like The New Yorker, the New York Times, Lucky Peach, and Buzzfeed.
Carter is interested in the timely. He was responsible for that recent alluring New York Times Magazine cover for instance—the type-heavy, flickering “Netflix Destroyed the Way We Watch TV” that was released to much Twitter praise this summer. You’ll probably recognize his raucous animations from his time as senior designer at MTV the most, where Carter was righthand man to Richard Turley. This “invaluable” mentor pushed the young designer into “weirder places” and encouraged him to experiment with wilder animation techniques, which now feature dominantly in Carter’s output as an independent designer.
“I ended up leaving MTV because I wanted a new challenge,” Carter says. It’s been nearly a year since he set up his independent studio in New York. “I wanted to be completely on my own and without the support of a larger organization. I’ve always been of the belief that the key to happiness is to live outside the system, and that’s exactly what I wanted my life to be.” So it comes as no surprise that he doesn’t miss the safety of an in-house design department, because “of course graphic design doesn’t exist within a vacuum.” He believes that every project that he takes on, from enigmatic book cover designs for Roberto Bolano novels to editorial illustrations for Lucky Peach, benefits from the input of an art director, client, or a collaborating fellow designer.
Carter began a recent lecture at New York’s Type Directors Club with a quote by architect Robert Venturi that speaks to his own approach:
“Modernism is about space. Postmodernism is about communication. You should do what turns you on.”
“I try to achieve both things with my work,” continues Carter. “By trying to explore beauty and communicate some sort of message, abstraction becomes one of those tools that I use to implement this philosophy. I sometimes try to add hidden meaning with abstraction, though try not to be too obvious with say, a ‘minimalist movie poster.’” His book covers are an especially good example of this; stripped-back and visually punchy, they communicate a singular meaning but also contain unexpected flourishes. A cover for Reiner Stach’s Is That Kafka? jumps between minimalism and stark aesthetics as you remove a simple cover sleeve to reveal a colorful, psychedelic portrait.
Ultimately, Carter states that with all his work he’s simply trying to “design harder” (as he wrote in a recent blog post for LitHub about why book covers get rejected). This means never stopping at the first idea and always pushing it further. “There is so much awful graphic design going on right now, little hand doodlers, modernism fetishes,” he says. “The only way to defeat the terror of bad design that pervades our culture is to rise above the madness and design harder. That’s what drives me.”