William Golden


1988 AIGA Medal

1911, New York, New York

William Golden applied new ideas, forms, and methods to the world of advertising and promotional graphics. The body of his work endures as a milestone in the history of graphic design. Providing a map of uncharted territory, Golden's program of promotional advertising and identity design for CBS was innovative and set a standard of excellence which has endured over the years. He was among a distinguished group of pioneers in the post-World War II era who gave shape to the emerging field of graphic design.

The primary responsibility of the designer is the communication of the client's message. Golden understood this goal and made it his first priority. He described the advertising designer as “part small businessman and part artist.” On another occasion, he asserted that the artist and the designer were “two completely different things.”

“I think that all the trouble in this field comes from someone's assumption that they are, maybe, the same person. I think the fine artist makes a personal statement about his world and his reactions to his world. He makes it to a limited audience or to a big audience—but it's all his. The advertising designer has a completely different function. He may be someone who thought he wanted to be a painter—but wasn't. If (the designer) is honest enough, he becomes a professional who can do something that is not his own. I think the trouble comes when he tries to make it a work of art, too. I think a lot of designers who are talented and intelligent don't find this very satisfying. But they're not going to find it more satisfying by pretending it's something it isn't.”

The youngest of 12 children, Golden was born on the lower east side of Manhattan on March 31, 1911. His formal schooling ended up on graduation from the Vocational School for Boys where he studied photoengraving and design. At 17, a tough and self-reliant young man, he left home to work in a lithography and photoengraving firm in Los Angeles. While there he also worked in the art department of the Los Angeles Examiner. Following his return to New York in the early 1930s, Golden worked as a promotional designer for Hearst's Journal-American. Within a few years, he had joined the staff of House and Garden, one of the Condé Nast magazines. He learned much during his years of apprenticeship under Dr. M.F. Agha, who, in Golden's words, “forced the people who worked for him to try constantly to surpass themselves.” Golden left Condé Nast in 1937 to join the promotion department at the Columbia Broadcasting System. He was promoted to art director three years later. In 1941 Golden took a leave of absence from CBS to work for the Office of War Information in Washington. Later he served in Europe as art director of army training manuals and was discharged in 1946 with the rank of captain.

When Golden returned to CBS, television was the medium of the hour. Golden became the chief architect for the bold new graphic identity program for CBS. He selected Didot Bodoni as the typeface to be used in all CBS corporate applications. The famous eye symbol was developed to provide special identification for CBS Television. Kurt Weihs, who was involved in the project, remembers that the eye had its beginnings in an article in Portfolio about the then relatively esoteric subject of Shaker design.

“Among the illustrations was an eye symbol. Golden picked it up and used it for a CBS sales portfolio. Then he felt there was more to it and used it in an ad. I redesigned the earlier versions, and it became the mark for CBS Television. We had done eyes before. Everybody had done eyes; but this one was something that really worked. I felt that the eye could have become the corporate symbol. We saw the eye as symbolizing CBS 'looking at the world.'”

The eye had its premiere on CBS television on November 19, 1951, overlaid on a photograph of cloud-filled sky. The symbol was quickly put to use in all aspects of identification for CBS Television. Its ubiquity caused Golden some second thoughts: “It is used so often that it sometimes seems like a Frankenstein's monster to me, but I am grateful it is such a versatile thing that there seems to be no end to the number of ways it can be used without losing its identity.” Years after Golden's death, Lou Dorfsman, his successor at CBS, offered this praise of this symbol and its creator.

“Today as we watch the most transforming medium of our time, there is a Golden graphic message seen daily by more people than have seen a single mark of modern man. It is that majestically simple CBS eye, as beautifully appropriate when he deigned it in 1951 as it is today. If I can interpret it in the special ironic way of Bill Golden, it is there to watch over our professional successes as well as spot our transgressions.”

Golden carried forward the work Agha and Brodovitch had done in demonstrating that the designer in a corporation must have a role not only in the communication of ideas but in the generation of ideas as well. He insisted on playing a part in corporate policy-making.

This was supported by his working relationship with Frank Stanton, president of CBS, which continued for 20 years. They were close friends who shared a drive for excellence and a belief in the efficacy of good visual form.

Under Golden's leadership, CBS Television was clearly in the forefront of graphic design in the early 1950s. The art department, recalls George Lois, was “an atelier; it was the place to be. All the design had to be perfect: the thinking, the concepts, the production. It was the only job in America? Bill protected the place. We did thousands of jobs—ads, trailers, letterhead, charts and folders. We did tons of work, and every job had to be perfect.”

Golden was at his best when he was able to evolve the précis and the concept for the advertising. He was a brilliant copywriter with, as Will Burtin put it, “a sense for the explosive impact of words.” Even though Golden was largely self-educated, his mind had scope. “Bill had read enormously, and his thinking was clear and bold,” recalled Ben Shahn. “The world of advertising and publicity exercised no tyranny over him.” Golden made enthusiastic use of European ideas in the areas of typography, photography, and layout. Golden brought the world's top artists in as free-lancers to tell the story of broadcasting at CBS in its advertisements and publications.

In developing, directing and sustaining the visual program at CBS, Golden set an entirely new standard for American design. All the trade ads, promotional materials, reports and other corporate design applications done at CBS during his tenure were of a consistently high aesthetic quality. That this level of excellence was taken for granted is especially impressive in view of Golden's insistence that the work was based on business and marketing objectives; in the visual problem-solving process, aesthetics were clearly secondary. It was a case of the corporation's and the designer's objectives being in harmony.

And finally, Golden himself had this to say of the nature of his work: “The kind of effort that goes into graphic expression is essentially lonely and intensive and produces, at its best, a simple logical design. It is sometimes frustrating to find that hardly anyone knows that it is a very complicated job to produce something that is very simple.”

Golden's very strengths proved, in one important sense, his greatest weakness. His drive for excellence and his natural introversion took their toll on his health. The heart attack which claimed his life at the age of forty-eight on October 23, 1959, was shock to his family and colleagues. He left a void in the field of graphic design.

One of Golden's colleagues John Cowden remembers those final years. “Simply because Bill cared so much, fought so hard and performed so well, he prevailed and was able to give CBS advertising a distinction and quality second to none. Part of the responsibility of being in advertising meant that the designer must have the courage of his or her convictions? a bulldog tenacity for the things he or she believed in? and the recognition that constant vigilance is the price of freedom.” Golden leaves this challenge of excellence as his legacy to those of us who follow.

Copyright 1989 by The American Institute of Graphic Arts.