Debbie Millman Remembers Carin Goldberg

Posted inDesigner Interviews

The world lost a legend on January 19, 2023, and I lost an old friend. I’ve interviewed the great Carin Goldberg numerous times, but my favorite discussion is included in my book How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer back in 2007. As part of our remembrance of Carin, I wanted to share this interview today.

Carin Goldberg’s PRINT Magazine cover, July/August 1994

It was the summer of 1983. David Bowie, The Police, and Evelyn “Champagne” King filled the airwaves. When a little-known artist burst onto the scene, the way our culture viewed celebrity and the cult of visual reinvention was changed forever.

I am, of course, alluding to Madonna. The moment I saw her first album, I knew something was forever different. I am not, however, referring to the singer herself. I am describing the profound impact of the album cover. Unapologetically in-your-face, the cover was charismatically smart and sassy. But here’s the kicker: The cover conveyed an attitude that was distinctly Madonna long before the singer had cultivated her characteristic bravado. And that cover (and the necklace that graced Madonna in the photograph) was created by Carin Goldberg.

Carin has been working in the field of graphic design for over 30 years, completing design and 

advertising commissions for major publishing, music, and TV corporations. She’s headed her own firm, Carin Goldberg Design, since 1982. She designed and authored her first book, titled catalog, in 2001, and has been working on Home, a second collection.

Carin and I talked over lunch at a Manhattan eatery and lingered until the restaurant began to serve dinner. We discussed career relevance and longevity, her dispute with Tibor Kalman, the importance of taking risks, her longtime friendship with Paula Scher, and, of course, fishing for flounder.

A collection of book jackets for Kurt Vonnegut

DM: What do you love most about design?

CG: There is something very gratifying when you’re involved in your work—once you’ve hit that point of focus and you’re really in it. That’s what we all look for. We all wait for that moment when we’re in it, and we love the making of the piece.

What don’t you like?

The schtick.

The schtick?

A lot of design has become about schtick. people might take me to task for this, but you know what it reminds me of? It’s like this: someone starts off in life very beautiful. then there’s someone else who’s not so beautiful. But in the end, both people get wrinkled and old. We’re all on the same planet, and it really doesn’t matter. The real dilemma is this: should we just grab the schtick while we can and use it? Because when we hit our fifties or sixties, we’ll all be in the same boat.

It’s really hard nowadays to maintain a career in graphics, particularly in the field of graphic design. It’s a youth-oriented business. I often wonder about whether I’m relevant or not. But that’s not how I was brought up. It’s not what I saw. When I was growing up, designers were anonymous. They weren’t celebrities. They did not write books. They didn’t do schtick. Not one of them.

It became clear to me at a certain point in my career that being publicly clever might be the only thing that could give my career any kind of longevity. It has been a rough thing to come to grips with. I’m certainly not a shrinking violet, but I don’t get great enjoyment out of getting up there publicly and doing that kind of thing. I’d rather do the work. I also think that a lot of people find that when the schtick really works, they’re on planes half the time doing the schtick.

I wonder when they have the time to do the work, and I’m also suspicious as to whether they actually have “the work.”

Poster about Niklaus Troxler 

You’ve had a long and illustrious career. How would you describe it?

I’ll tell you a story. When I was little, I used to go fishing with my father. He was an outdoorsman and we used to go out to the long island sound in a little boat. We’d put our rods out, and we would hope that we would hit big pockets of flounder.  And sometimes you would hit them, and sometimes you wouldn’t. But sometimes if we hit that hole, we could fill two giant galvanized cans with flounder, and we would bring all of the flounder home to the neighbors. everyone would wait for us to come back, and then they knew they’d be eating flounder for the entire winter.

And that’s how I think of my career. I hit some flounder holes. I hit the record business at a time when flounders were there for me. I hit the book business at a time when flounders were there for me. My colleagues and I were under the radar, spinning up these flounders, and I remember thinking, “Is anybody watching this, why aren’t they with us getting the flounders, too?” We could not believe we were alone in this great discovery.

That was what it was like for me. I was very lucky to find these flounder holes, these moments of utter fertility. I was lucky. Lucky to be there, while it was all happening. But after the luck, there was all the hard work. That’s the part that makes me just absolutely livid, when I hear men talking about women and their careers. In my own career, I had to be as tenacious as a dog with a bone.

I made sure I was observing and watching and looking over the shoulders of the right people and learning from them and killing myself to learn everything I could. My career has been about luck and hard work.

Madonna’s first album cover, designed by Carin Goldberg, 1983. Chain necklace worn by Madonna was Carin’s.

Having projects come your way might be luck but doing a good job with them is much more than that. Let’s talk about security. How important has security been to you?

I remember the moment in 1983 when I knew I would never be a painter. It was because I would never survive. I’ve given lectures on this. I open it up by saying, “I’m a graphic designer because I like nice sheets and towels.” And I realize too that I don’t like to be alone. Occasionally I do, but often I don’t. There is a small part of me that loves being solitary. As a kid, I used to run away to be by myself and draw. That’s how it all started. As a graphic designer, I like collaboration. I don’t want to be in a cold garret somewhere smoking unfiltered Camels all by myself with paint all over my body—because I like sheets too much.

Speaking of compromise, I remember for my first job at CBS records, I hired Milton Glaser to do an illustration for a Carole King ad. As I was dialing his phone number, I was shaking in my boots. It was like calling the pope. I remember I rang him up, and I asked him to do an illustration for a full-page ad for Carole King. He sent me an illustration that was—well, let’s say it wasn’t his best. I knew it. Even at that age, I knew it, even though I thought of him as God’s gift to the universe. I called his rep and told him we were hoping he’d give us something different. Milton absolutely refused. he just said, “Sorry, what you see is what you get.” And I went home and cried and didn’t sleep for a week because I thought I had offended Milton Glaser. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized that he had done the right thing by standing up for what he thought was right. If you don’t, people will take everything you have. You may risk losing a job, but in the grand scheme of things, I believe that by standing up for yourself, you’re doing the graphic design business a service.

I used to get angry with friends of mine who were also doing book jacket design as freelancers. They wouldn’t charge for messenger bills, and they wouldn’t charge for mechanicals, and I’d say, “You know, you’re fucking it up for the rest of us.” And they’d say, “I’m afraid I won’t get called again.” And it just drove me crazy. I’m a big believer in the bungee jump. I think you have to do the right thing and the fair thing even if you’re afraid.

When I stopped designing book jackets, it was a huge bungee jump. I knew I could have been shooting myself in the foot. But I couldn’t get up in the morning anymore and go to my desk; I could not deal with the people I was dealing with anymore. It was over. And I think you have to take those risks. It takes a while to recover, but in the end, you end up ahead of the game. Morally and emotionally, you’ve evolved.

New York Times Special Real Estate section, 2008
Cover of Ulysses by James Joyce, designed by Carin Goldberg

Back in 1989, Tibor Kalman said that you and Paula Scher and Louise Fili were pillaging design history. Why do you think he felt that way?

In some ways, what he said was valid. In retrospect, I can’t really fault him for what he was saying. It was a time when we were changing things. Changing the way design was being done. If you look at what I was doing, what Paula Scher was doing, and what Louise Fili was doing, it had to happen. Design was evolving. If you look at the architecture of that time, if you look at photography, it was all happening at once. There was a discovery of something that we had previously not known about. It was inexplicable. You can call it postmodernism, for lack of a better description. My husband, Jim Biber, went through it in architecture. It’s the nature of the way these movements occur. All of a sudden, there were books around that hadn’t been there before. suddenly, we didn’t want to be art directors anymore. We didn’t want to shoot a picture of somebody and stick a name on the cover. We wanted to design things.

So how did that make you a pillager of design history rather than, say, a catalyst for change?

Paula got crucified for her Swatch Watch campaign because it was an homage to Herbert Bayer. My book cover for James Joyce’s Ulysses got killed because it was an homage to modernist posters.  I was asked to do something that was purely typographic because the famous 1960s cover by E. Mcknight Kauffer was a big U. The publishers didn’t want to lose that tradition, and they wanted me to do yet another big U, so I did 12 big U’s, and it just so happened that the U they ended up with was influenced by a Swiss design I had seen while doing my research.

Now, if you think about it, there is no content in a U. The publishers did not want content. I wanted content. They did not want me to read Ulysses and then come up with a content-oriented cover. today, if you don’t have content in some way embedded in your jacket design, you are considered to not be doing your job.

The same thing happened to me while designing the Oliver Sacks book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. the publishers, in no uncertain terms, didn’t want me to do anything that was intellectual. I wanted to do something very surrealistic, very Magritte; I wanted to go crazy. but I couldn’t. Now I’ve got this cover out there, and once it’s out there, it becomes fodder for people who are in a position to denounce what you’re doing, by criticizing you as part of a group or as an individual.

If you’re doing a cover for the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke, you are essentially dealing with work that can’t change. the poetry itself is a work of art. you investigate it as a work of art coming out of a particular time. you ask: Who was Rilke? What did the work look like then? How do you make it relevant? It’s not like the “new and improved” Rilke. It’s still Rilke. How can you visually educate your public? The publishers are reissuing this Rilke, it’s not being rewritten. It’s not like Dave Eggers is rewriting Rilke.

So what do you do? Do you do some modern, weird, wacky thing? No, you go to the source, because you want to maintain the work’s integrity. At that time, in the 1980s, the general public was not aware of the Wienericht, and no one knew what the Bauhaus was. But 20 years later, this style has become ubiquitous. At the time, we were unearthing what had not yet been verbalized as a visual style.

Voices and Vision Poster designed by Carin Goldberg

Do you ever want to do anything besides graphic design?

Yes. I wanted to be a painter. I still would like to find a way that I can make my own work, perhaps painting or drawing. I still have a lot of ideas; I still feel like there’s a side of me that would like to segue into this. I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. I think this is because I’m still fundamentally excited about being a graphic designer.

Cover design for Fast Company Magazine, 2011

Do you ever look back on your work and say, “Damn, that was a good cover design”?

It depends on the day. I might be proud of the fact I did it. I would likely be bored by it. I’d be bored because I would like another 15 years to do it all over. I did those book covers when I was pretty wet behind the ears. Now I feel I would have done some of it very differently. So I usually think, “Ugh, I would have done that differently…” I rarely think, “Oh, I was lucky I could do that, and that was kind of cool.” Every once in a while there are days when I might look at something and think, “Hmm, maybe that was a little ahead of the curve…” But it’s up and down; it primarily has to do with wishing I did not have to care about the body of work. I’m more interested in my next phase. Like anything you do in life, I’m proud of the fact that I’ve gotten better and that I have wisdom. I’m proud that I can impart that wisdom to my students, and that I can help myself grow and move on with that wisdom. That is very exciting to me. I can look back and say, “Wow, I’ve really learned a lot.” But I’m not done yet.

How do you know when something you’ve designed is really good?

When you’re having fun. “Fun” is a tricky word. People think that if you’re having “fun,” you’re ignoring content, or you’re ignoring the importance of the piece. But that’s not true. I try to create visual imagery that is fun and funny and warm and artful, without being superficial, and work that has a point. I’ve always thought of myself—I mean, this is a dirty word, maybe there’s a better word for it—but I have thought of myself as a populist on the one hand, and a complete elitist on the other hand.

There is a part of me that wants to speak a common language, and there is a part of me that wants to scramble the language.

I do have a consciousness about that. I don’t have a manifesto that I’ve written about this, but I think that I have two very distinct takes on what my job is. I feel like I straddle the fence of the Abbott miller, “what is the manifesto?” approach with Michael Bierut’s “dog food” approach.

I don’t think either can exist on its own. I think we must always try to elevate. It’s the job we’re supposed to be doing. We have to try to get people to feel comfortable—but not too comfort-able. I don’t like talking above people or making them feel that they have to work too hard to understand the design that’s in front of them. I do want them to work, but I don’t want to bore myself to death and make something uncomfortable either.

There’s no question that I want there to be a voice in my work. Whether it’s a conceit of some-thing very simplistic or a conceit of ambiguity. I’m very clear about what I want to say. People have said—and sometimes they say it nicely and sometimes they say it with an agenda—that they see my work as being beautiful. For me, that has always been a prerequisite. I want my work to be beautiful. I want it to be smart, but I also want it to be beautiful. I don’t have a lot of patience for “just smart,” and sometimes I see work that is just smart—and it’s not beautiful. Sometimes the typography isn’t beautiful, and the craft isn’t there. That drives me nuts. I think typography should be beautiful; otherwise, you should just be a writer.

I feel like there’s so much more to be explored, but at the same time, I’m quite proud of what I have done. I get very emotional about the lucky trajectory of my career and the fact that I’ve been around such inspiring people. I could not have been more nourished. With all of its ups and downs, and strangeness, and shifts in expectations, and whatever it is that we all go through, I don’t think I would have wanted to do anything any differently. I’m really proud of what I’ve done.

New Years Day party invitation designed by Carin Goldberg, 2003