Success Tips from Master Graphic Designer, Carin Goldberg


Success Secrets from Carin Goldberg:

  • Never work alone. It’s essential to be in some sort of collaboration or partnership with someone. Cultivating a creative environment is essential.
  • Become facile with technology and don’t make that a secondary thing. When you’re young and you’re a student you can learn fast, so get as much under your belt as possible.
  • Be honest, generous, loyal, curious, organized, inclusive, accessible, confident, humble, dedicated, brave, well informed and nice.

Early Beginnings:

I studied at Cooper Union in the early 1970’s, with the intention of studying fine art, although by then Cooper had been known as a school that fostered the talents of graphic designers like Milton Glaser, Herb Lubalin, Lou Dorfsman and Seymour Chwast. During my 4 years at Cooper, the graphic design department was somewhat diminished and marginalized.

During my last year of school I took a few design courses with two prestigious visiting instructors, Herb Lubalin and Seymour Chwast. But, for the most part, my formal graphic design training at Cooper was superficial at best.

It was not until the early 80’s that the department was re-establishing itself. Rudy DeHarak and George Sadek were responsible for fortifying the department.

As a young art school graduate in the 70’s the opportunity to learn on the job was easier. There were fewer graphic designers in general and certainly far fewer graphic design graduates. Expectations, competition and technology were all completely different. The global economy didn’t exist as it does today and graphic design was not as visible a profession as it is today.

I wasn’t a genius or a prodigy going in.  I was just a determined, curious, hard worker who paid attention and asked questions. I was lucky enough to get my first big break at CBS Television because Lou Dorfsman was a loyal Cooper alumnus and he gave me a chance.

I was naïve and ill equipped, but eager. On my first day Lou handed me a yellow ledger pad filled with sketches (drawn in red pen) for logos for the newly established Museum of Broadcasting. He stuck me in the corner of an empty workspace and told me to “work them up.” I was damn lucky to be within a few yards of a freelance designer/letterer who clearly felt sorry for me and happened to be the nicest, most generous guy in the world. He taught me how to hold and “master” the ruling pen. He taught me how to white things out, lig type (create ligatures) and draw curves and straights.  He taught me how to scratch and cut and ink.

It took about two weeks, working day and night, to finish the 25 logotypes. I tentatively walked into Lou’s office at the end of this grueling week and handed him a stack of logos. He said, “OK, good work, now come with me.”

Lou escorted me to the 27th floor.  Elevator doors opened and there emerged a huge and impressive art department that I had no idea even existed because I had been sequestered on the floor below for days with no human contact other than my “guardian angel of hand lettering.” From that moment and for the next year or so I worked in the bullpen “designing“ TV Guide ads. Lou was a fanatic about rags and kerning and he oversaw every detail of everything that left the department, large or small. It is there that I learned about typography.

I begged for better projects, little projects here and there that allowed me to flex my design skills. I was very lucky. The people that worked there were amazing. They were all dyed-in-the-wool designers and production people who were very generous to me and let me look over their shoulders.  I learned on-the-job from the best in the business.

Moving On In Her Career:

Once I was settled at CBS, I was able see what else was happening in the building.  I always really wanted to design record covers, and discovered that there was an entire other department, a music-packaging department, on a lower floor that was run by creative director, John Berg and senior art directors, Paula Scher and Henrietta Condak.

I worked in the music advertising department (just down the hall) first. Coincidentally, that was Paula’s first job before she became art director in the packaging department.  I didn’t know Paula at the time. We have a funny history together where I always had her early jobs; CBS Advertising, Atlantic Records, Time, Inc. Custom Publishing…. pure happenstance. We are dear friends now and share a great deal of history, baggage and lore/gossip!

I was fortunate enough to work with photographers like Duane Michaels, Richard Avedon and Art Kane, a priceless learning experience.  But, I became bored with art direction fairly quickly. I lost patience with the hours sitting around photo shoots feeling useless once I gave direction. I discovered I was much more interested in the craft of design and wanted make things rather than direct.

I was more interested in typography and form. With advertising it was more about the picture than it was about the type.

Before my time at CBS Records, I spent a year at Atlantic Records designing covers. I returned to CBS where I worked for the brilliant Henrietta Condak, designing classical albums, under her direction, for the CBS Masterworks label. Henrietta was a mentor to all of us in the department.

I really cut my teeth on record packaging with Henrietta.  I was lucky enough to be able to straddle that job with projects from Paula’s department where I could design pop and jazz covers.

Starting Her Studio:

It wasn’t long before I realized that I didn’t want to work for a corporation. Working at CBS Records was both utopian and dysfunctional. Creatively, it was really an amazing place and unquestionably THE place to be at that time.

But, it was the late 70’s and the tenor of the industry (and the times in general) was one of excess and, well, “sex, drugs and rock and roll.” I got impatient with most of that and left to work at Mademoiselle magazine during its heyday (when Alexander Lieberman was still editorial director at Condé Nast). It was a wonderful collaborative experience. Paula Greif, our creative director, gave us all a great amount of freedom and inspiration.  Roughly a year or so later I left to start my own studio.

Getting New Business:

As an independent designer I continued to do record covers. Warner Bros. called me to design Madonna’s first album cover, and I also had a fruitful working relationship with the J. Geils Band at the time. Shortly thereafter, I designed much of Nonesuch Records’ roster of releases.

I wasn’t making a killing, but had enough contacts to continue doing record covers on a regular basis. However, (the natural segue into) book jackets really became the lion’s share of my business for many years to come.

I managed to maintain a thriving business primarily consisting of book jacket design, with other things here and there. I didn’t have to reach out beyond that because I had so much work to keep me going non-stop.  I’ve done hundreds and hundreds of covers over the years enabling me to build a solid body of work.

New Business Development Today:

For all those years, I relied on the consistency of the publishing industry, and I didn’t really have to cultivate strong relationships within the business sector.  In most ways, it was fortuitous because it really allowed me to focus on the work. Most of the art directors that hired then me were very supportive of my work and enabled me to experiment and try new things. Book jacket design was not as “sexy” or as visible then as it has become. Art directors at that time had more control. There were fewer, if any, marketing meetings or other sorts of group decision making that often dilute the creative process. It was an easier, more rewarding time to be designing covers.

Art directors came to me for my style and my thinking and that made it possible for my practice to be more about the work and less about cultivating business relationships. To some degree I’m probably paying for that now. Cultivating relationships in the business sector is a totally different endeavor and takes a very different kind of attention and energy. But, I have few regrets. The trajectory of my career has allowed me to learn and to produce work within an environment that made me pretty happy.

Favorite Accomplishments:

Overall, I’m very thankful and proud that I’ve hung in this long.  (Laughter.) I’m very proud of the work that I’ve done. However, I can’t say I get pleasure (in, fact, its painful) from revisiting my work. Once it’s done, its done. I only look forward to the next project.

I also had a baby in the interim.  I ran a business that was demanding. I had at least 45 or 50 books that I was designing with one assistant during a six-week deadline 3 or 4 times yearly.  The demand to read reams of pages of manuscripts, to consistently come up with inventive solutions and then to run home everyday and be a mother (and a nice attentive wife) was a nearly impossible challenge. The “nice wife” part was definitely lost in the battle on occasion.

I’ve also taught design for 25 years and I’ve gained the respect of my peers in the interim. I take that quite seriously.

So all in all, I’ve done OK but I am very hungry for the experience of making new work and I’m anything but finished or satisfied with my accomplishments.

I’m now moving into a new phase. At my age, I’ve got a lot wisdom to share and apply, most of it pretty good, and I have decent reputation. But I am always aware that I have to be willing to re-invent. The business has changed, there’s no question about it, and I need to understand how I fit into the scheme of things.

Toughest Challenge:

Like any living, breathing person you get through stuff. Whether it’s losing someone close to you, financial woes… you get through it.

I certainly won’t use these pages to list personal tragedies or specific challenges, but I will say that I am a very lucky person. I have a very supportive family and equally supportive friends and colleagues. And so far, I have my health and a few active brain cells left to work with. Plus, I’m a big advocate for therapy, marriage counseling, ice cream and mind-numbing TV.

Tips for People Just Starting out:

Never work alone. It’s essential to be in some sort of collaboration or partnership with someone. It’s really stifling and lonely to think that you can sit in your pajamas at home and work efficiently and fluidly. Design is inherently collaborative.

Also, although I wouldn’t have said this a long time ago, it’s important to become facile with technology (or have a staff with current and confident skills). When you’re young and you’re a student you can learn fast, so try to get as much under your belt as possible. The computer became a new and essential tool in the middle of my career. It was a difficult transition. It changed my work in ways I am thankful for, but sometimes I admit I am nostalgic for the times when I had control over my medium.  I often feel less empowered because of my lack of computer prowess. My assistants help me through this with great skill and enthusiasm.

About Carin Goldberg, Principal, Carin Goldberg Design:

Carin was born in New York City and studied at the Cooper Union School of Art. She began her career as a staff designer at CBS Television, CBS Records and Atlantic Records before establishing her own firm, Carin Goldberg Design, in 1982.

Over the following two decades Carin designed hundreds of book jackets for all the major American publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster, Random House, Alfred A. Knopf, Farrar Straus & Giroux, Harper Collins, Doubleday and Hyperion, and dozens of album covers for record labels such as Warner Bros., Motown, Nonesuch, Interscope and EMI. The breadth of her work covers artists as diverse as Kurt Vonnegut and Susan Sontag, Dvorák and Madonna. Her book jacket for the 1986 reissue of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” has become an icon of postmodern design.

In recent years her image making has expanded to publication design and brand consulting for clients including The Gap, Sterling Brands and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. From 2002 to 2004 she was Creative Director at Time Inc. Custom Publishing, where she designed and consulted on numerous publications for several clients such as the New York Stock Exchange, Microsoft, Citigroup and Gallup.

She has taught typography and design at the School of Visual Arts for 25 years. Carin was the president of AIGA/NY from 2006-2008 and is a member of Alliance Graphique International. Carin was most recently awarded the first Art Director’s Club, Grand Masters Award for Excellence in Education.

Interview by Will Sherwood, MA, MSP
CEO/Chief Creative Officer
The Sherwood Group, Graphic Design / Web Design

2767 Zenith Way
Myrtle Beach, SC 29577

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Let us know if you liked this article in the comments below:


  • By MODE 02 Dec 2008

    Quite a good interview.

  • By jodyb 02 Dec 2008

    Will, this is a great blog. I am glad I read it this morning because of the reminder of the importance on working collaboratively.I do so much alone, however my creativity comes after a time of great connection with people. As Samuel Johnson said, “We need to be reminded more than we need to be instructed.”

  • By A girl named Fred 03 Dec 2008

    These and more words of wisdom come from one of my favourite designers, Carin Goldberg. She did the Against Happiness book cover in a previous post.)

  • By limeblender 03 Dec 2008

    great blog! i read the interview with carin goldberg. excellent and inspiring. i like the format and the book version should be a valuable tool, as you note on the ‘about’ page. i’ll be back to visit for more pearls of wisdom.

  • By victry 03 Dec 2008

    Fantastic opportunity to get inside a great designer’s mind. Thanks for posting and for all the images. Biographies and interviews are great in that they inspire and allow us to learn.

    What is so fascinating about this designer is that she obviously influenced people like David Carson. I’m also impressed that she began in early TV, which is my own background, beginning at The Weather Channel in ’82. Unfortunately, the 80’s and 90’s were rife with engineer based 3D chrome and not much abstraction or interesting typography was being used at the time on major networks. I remember initiating some smallish text at a design house for an early CNN open, only to be told that it wasn’t appropriate and was too print oriented.
    The industry has come a long way, and as a whole has opened up through wonderful designers like Goldberg.

    However, as a painter, the axiom to ‘never work alone’ doesn’t quite fit.

  • By Chicken Soup 04 Dec 2008

    I was browsing Design Observer (I read other blogs but Design Observer is just so good!), I came across this interview with designer, Carin Goldberg, from Success Secrets of the Graphic Design Superstars, a blog whose namesake pretty much sums up its content. Goldberg is one of my favorite designers.

  • By Emily Babb 17 Dec 2008

    Who wouldn’t want a gift from her? I hear coffee Wise words from designer Carin Goldberg.

  • By steff Geissbuhler 31 May 2009

    Carin Goldberg’s work is very strong and versatile. She is one of the most influential designers of the time and also happens to be a very good friend. Obviously all her experiences have all contributed to her great repertoire and professional standing.

    Book and record covers are the closest media to the classic poster. The designer has to summarize, deduce and distill a single image and message which will seduce people into buying the product. Carin is one of the most talented designers in my book. I’m often jealous of her solutions.

    After 45 years being in business myself, I know what it takes to keep being ceative, interesting and fresh.

  • By PatM64 02 Jun 2009

    Great blog. I was very fortunate to have Carin as a typography teacher for a semester (she had to take a break mid-year—too much work) a long time ago. She was, and no doubt still is, one of the best teachers I’ve ever had in any subject. She was excellent at articulating her opinion on why a design worked or didn’t work and effectively pushed students to a better solution. An excellent teacher and of course, an excellent designer.

  • By iskraj 03 Jun 2009

    It is great to learn more about this amazing designer’s background and inspiration. Her work is flawlessly elegant, and I have always admired it. Point taken on “working with others” — this has become increasingly difficult to do in an age when more and more designers work at home or in their own little cells, far from the creative mayhem of a collaborative design studio. I also see a trend towards designers often doing everything themselves, from type to illustration to photography, partly because with new technologies they can, and partly due to the pressure of low budgets. In the hands of a true wizard like Carin this can result in fine work. But it also removes the symphonic element of producing a piece in which numerous specialists are brought together, each to contribute what they do best.


  • By notaFISH 15 Sep 2010

    I took her class years ago. At that time I could not fully comprehend the things that she was trying to teach. Now that Im working in the field, often I think about her. All I can say is that she is such a great designer and teacher of our time.


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    some great ideas here…

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