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The Creative Integrity of William Golden

William Golden

Recently I revisited The Visual Craft of William Golden, a book published in the early-Sixties about the legendary CBS creative director. There is an essay in the book by CBS exec John Cowden that sheds light on Golden’s artistic integrity, and helps to explain why the advertising work created under his guidance remains to this day the strongest body of advertising ever created for a TV network.

Golden’s world revolved around graphic design, illustration and advertising, but I find his experiences to be relevant to creative people working in any commercial field, and especially animation. For example, Cowden recounted how Golden was offered a promotion from creative director to an upper management position. Golden flatly turned down the offer, Cowden wrote:

Many years ago, when he was offered the title of Vice President in charge of Advertising and Sales Promotion, he said no thanks. His reasons were significant–and characteristic. He said the stripes would be bars…that they would force him to become a “company man”…to take the so-called “broad view” at the expense of principle.

Bill preferred to keep his independence and to preserve his inalienable right to shout–when the occasion demanded–that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes. In any case, he said he didn’t want to go to meetings, or be snowed under by administrative duties. I mention this because it reveals how Bill was willing to sacrifice anything–including his own advancement–if he felt it stood in the way of better design and advertising.

The story, incidentally, has an ironic but delightful ending. In scorning the conventional status symbols, Bill won far more. By turning down a vice presidency, he eventually gained a respect and status that outranked any vice president in the company.

Contrast Golden’s unwavering integrity to all of the animation artists in recent years who have moved into high-profile executive and management positions. In every case–with the notable exception of John Lasseter–these artists have unwittingly weakened their creative influence and become part of the problem by entrenching themselves within broken production systems.

Golden, who refused to become a part of upper management, also had his own ways of dealing with clueless business people. Again, from Cowden’s essay:

This integrity and pride in craft were also apparent in his willingness to lay his job on the line if anyone tried to invade his special area of responsibility. I remember a layout for a rate card he once submitted to his superior–the President of the Division. It came back by messenger with a note saying “I don’t like it very much. Let’s discuss.” Bill’s answer was simply to scotchtape a drawing pencil to the corner of a large layout pad and send it back with this message scribbled across the top sheet: “Let’s not. Why don’t you make a better one.” There was no reply. The rate card was produced as originally designed.

Here’s another example of how he dealt with the endless stream of unqualified individuals who tried to encroach on his domain:

Bill flatly refused to submit art for approval to anyone. On another occasion, he commissioned the artist Rene Bouché to do a drawing of a certain television star for a newspaper ad. When the star saw the sketch in the paper he exploded. He demanded that only authorized photographs be used in all future ads. I was one of many who urged Bill not to make an issue of the matter but to go along with the request. Instead, Bill immediately commissioned Bouché to do another drawing of the same performer and again refused to show it to the star. Eventually the new sketch appeared in another ad and became the famous trademark–on the air and off–of America’s all-time favorite comedian: Jack Benny.

Bill Golden demanded the best, and didn’t accept excuses from artists:

Nothing upset [Golden] more than someone who alibied his samples on the ground that his particular client would not let him do good work. Bill maintained–and proved it at CBS–that there are no good or bad clients, there are only good or bad advertising men.

Unlike so many blockheads in positions of power within the contemporary animation industry, Golden could identify skill and talent with his trained eye. This is evidenced by the group of people who worked for him, which is a who’s who of mid-century illustration and design giants: David Stone Martin, Feliks Topolski, Leo Lionni, Joe Kaufman, George Lois, Ludwig Bemelmans, Ben Shahn, Miguel Covarrubias, and Jan Balet, to name but a few. Cowden’s memories of Golden are a reminder that great commercial work, whether it’s a piece of print design or an animated film, doesn’t happen by accident. It happens because of this:

[Golden] accepted the fact that part of the responsibility of being an advertising man and a designer was to have the courage of one’s convictions…a bulldog tenacity…a willingness to do daily battle for the things one believed in…and the recognition that constant vigilance is the price of freedom.

  • Great piece. Two things:

    Golden reminds me of stories our Calarts design teacher(only a latter-day skylark for him, having already had decades of a successful design career) Bob Winquist told-in fact, Bob’s stories could have been Bill Golden’s, their experiences with clients were so similar. And so were their reactions. They probably knew each other. That response to the “Let’s discuss”-! Classic–and something precious few could get away with. One has to earn those cojones, job by job.

    The other thing: the great story about Bouche’s illustration had me seeing immediately in my mnd’s eye that iconic portrait of Jack Benny-it was that famous as I was growing up (it’s here for anyone who’d like to see it, as well as others he did for CBS/Golden). I feel I should add that that kind of attitude was very uncharacteristic of Benny, who was by all accounts a truly gentle man–never a diva–who hated scenes and star attitude…but I have to believe it really happened. Looking at the Bouche of Benny it is just possible to imagine why: the aging star disliking the artistically edgy drawing-one that to his mind might have rendered him unrecognizable to his audience. Of course, Benny was wrong–and he must have been happy to admit it in afteryears as he used it for the rest of his life. But thank God Golden stuck to his guns.

    Thanks again for focusing on a great individual(and book). His like won’t come around again…at least, not in television.

  • Interesting you mention George Lois because although Golden is often credited with designing the CBS “Eye” logo, George will be the first one to correct that legend. There was an artist (and for the life of me I can’t remember his name now. . .) that worked at George’s firm, that was the actual designer. I’ll see if I can get his name. . .
    Amid – you should do a book on Lou Dorfsman !

  • What was Golden’s relation to Lou Dorfsman, who I’ve always been told by the folks from the Sixties was the vision behind CBS’ graphic edge?

  • Here is a note from George Lois (and posted with his permission)

    Dear J.J.,

    Kurt Weihs was a Jewish-Austrian survivor of the holocaust who became Bill Golden’s right hand man in Golden’s “corporate image” design department. In 1951, when Bill (and Dr. Frank Stanton) decided they needed a new logo, Bill and Kurt experimented with different ideas. Bill saw a Shaker “eye of God” design in Portfolio magazine (designed by Alexey Brodovich) and gave it to Kurt to play with. It was sort of the CBS eye as we know it, but not geometrically perfect. Kurt sat down and in an hour, with his handy drafting compass, designed the CBS eye in a perfect mechanical line drawing, then made a stat and filled in the black.

    So Bill Golden “created” the CBS eye, but Kurt Weihs “designed” it.

  • Golden ended up having a second drawing done after the flak from Jack Benny over the first one. I’ll score this encounter for Benny.

  • I was still a student at Art Center College of Design back in those days. I remember Golden’s work fondly.

    Some years later I would spend time hanging out at CBS over on Fairfax. Mr. Benny was still around in those days, and never a diva. However, I believe the Bouché story as well. I still remember when I first saw that drawing. Amazing!

  • Paul Spector

    I’m a bit confused: did Golden/CBS have his/it’s own creative in-house advertising staff? My own father has dozens of commercial advertising creds from the fifties and the sixties. However, those were always created by him as a freelancer, or through an independent Madison Ave. company which would farm out work to him.

    I believe in the spirit of this post, but how are times so different? I’m not really qualified to speak about now, but I can speak about then:
    In the early sixites (and into the seventies) — in my own witnessed experience — and I’ve been through plenty of animation houses during those “off seasons”, when TV had replaced theatrical animation — the studios were a ghost town. The only “creatives” to be found were those who had moved up into managerial production positions, or secretaries. The remainder of the creative staff, such as animators, writers, layout, what-have-you, were jockeying for position on the unemployment line, grumpy and stressed about lack of work.

    Golden’s reasons are wonderful, but if he had his own staff of creatives then he must have occupied a unique position. Philosophically that’s terrific, in practicality I’m wondering if it’s all that much different in this day and age.

  • Wasn’t that other art director a CBS designer named, Georg Olden?

  • stavner

    Part of being a good manager is knowing when to tell other managers to back off.

  • Inspiring post, with a timeless theme. I’m reading from an advertising perspective. Cojones, indeed– there are no bad clients, but not once was I trained in techniques to counter and withstand the arrogance of the Chiefs. My focus was the work; too bad I never understood the true task was the politics of power.

    Trained in the seventies, I was in awe of CBS’ elegant home-run average. Never knew about Golden tho– I was told the stories about Lou Dorfsman, and that famous cafeteria wall. Similar story to Golden’s, about CBS culture then–

    “Stanton and Paley did what was right.” –Dorfsman

    IMO, that is why Golden could function as he did.

  • Jack Benny made a career out of being ridiculed so there must have been something far out about that first sketch.

    I hope someone can dig that up.

  • zavkram

    I loved the anecdote about Golden when he sent over the blank drawing pad and pencil… all I can say is, the man had a solid brass pair as well as integrity!

  • Dennis Goldberg

    Bill Golden was my great uncle.
    His name was “Goldberg” before he changed it.
    When he started out he was told, “Goldberg” was too ethnic.
    Although “Golden” is not that different?
    I was told this by my grandfather, Bill’s brother.