Seeing The Negative In Everything: Charles Goslin
While I loved my art school teachers, they were all very different. There were some who taught technique. They were masters at drawing, design and type and their tips and tricks were valuable to a successful career, but some of my favorite teachers were the ones who taught creative thinking.
I recently reconnected with a teacher from my first class in art school. He was at the top of the field and I took his class more to meet him and hope I would cozy up enough to him so I could work for him. He was young, cool and, without a doubt, the leader in his field of design. He was world class. At the end of the semester, he gave me a new magazine he was art directing and signed, “it was a pleasure having you in my class and watching you totally miss the point.”
He was right. It took me years to put aside my pre-conceived notions on creative thought and understand what he was trying to place into my thick head. I had several teachers like that and I have thanked them for what they taught me and their patience and maturity in allowing me to be foolish on my journey to become a successful creative. They are happy for me and another lesson they have taught me, many years later, is to be patient with students to whom I speak and mentor. “The circle,” as Darth Vader exclaimed to Obiwan Kenobi, “is complete. Now I am the master.”
“Only the master of evil,” some other teachers might add!
There are teachers who are gone, too long for me to thank them. It’s a bad feeling that they had hope for me and may have lived to see me on my way, but they deserved a “thank you.”
Sometimes we learn from people in front of us and sometimes we learn from examples of those we don’t personally know. I can only pass on examples of the late Charles Goslin. Charles was the master of negative space. While others saw the glass as half full, Charles saw the glass as full – we just couldn’t see the air that filled the other half.
The Man, the Myth, the Legend
Charles Laforest Goslin (February 23, 1932 – May 16, 2007) was an American graphic designer and professor of graphic design and illustration at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York (1966–2007). He also taught at the School of Visual Arts (SVA) in New York City (1975–1985). Charles was educated at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) graduating in 1954. For most of his career, he worked as a one-person studio out of his home in Park Slope, Brooklyn (not far from my apartment), favoring independence over “filtering my work through another artist.” He was also a popular professor known for his candid criticism and unique assignments.
His clients included IBM, Price Waterhouse, Pfizer Inc., Merck & Co., and Harper & Row. His work has been published in Graphis, Idea, Print, CA Art Direction, Step-by-Step, and Dictionary of Graphic Images. He has won numerous awards and recognition from the Society of Illustrators, AIGA and Art Directors Club. He was also awarded the Distinguished Teacher Award 2003–04 at Pratt Institute. His work is in the collections of several museums. A pretty impressive résumé!
His work was genius. It was bold, simple, explored shape, color and impact. He used negative space as a balance in his design work. The negative space, almost became more powerful than the elements he used.
Charles was able to see the big message in small things. He was one of those people who would walk the street and see things in everyday objects. We see horses and dragons in clouds and stains on a napkin. Goslin saw design solutions.
As a professor, Goslin taught graphic design and illustration by assigning news clippings with real but unusual stories. The student would interpret the story or problem through a round of sketches, then produce the final work in the assigned medium (which sometimes would be left to the student. Charles stressed the importance of exploring different ways to communicate including media like performance art or video.) He never repeated an article or story and wrote “about a thousand projects.” He used news clippings because it was something he would enjoy himself. “I liked things that are specific… to work on myself… and the best place to find them was any newspaper.”
Occasionally, Goslin would “write a ringer” and assign the clipping unbeknownst to his students, including one example about the Roman Coliseum becoming Rome’s first shopping mall.
He has inspired literally thousands of designers. His favorite projects are handing out news clippings based on strange but real stories. There’s one from the New York Times about an automotive product called “Nuance” which gives interiors that “new car smell:” Design an advertisement for this pump spray invention. Or the article in the Daily News about an animal chiropractor—what would the brochure’s cover for this odd practice look like? The student’s job is to sketch, conceptualize and interpret, but above all, the student must communicate.
He playfully likened himself to a simple shoe cobbler — as close as possible to his work. “To get down into it, to push things around with my hands, crafting a design; that’s what I like best.”
“I felt the same way the day before I got the award as I did the day after. And I shouldn’t feel any different. Otherwise, it’s a conceit trip. But it is nice. When I make an image of my own, it’s very concrete. It’s there. I can see it. I can enjoy it. But when I teach, it’s very abstract, so for someone to pat you on the head and say, ‘You’re alright, cousin. You’re not bad.’ That’s very nice. That’s concrete.”
—Charles Goslin, May 2003
In all of the examples of his work, and surprisingly, there are few available on the internet despite the wealth of his work, it was the ability Charles had to see what WASN’T there… but to SEE it there. I wish I could explain it but I just don’t have the mind that Charles had. It’s like idiot savants who can multiply huge numbers instantly in their head. Charles, a normal, intelligent and humble man, just had the gift.
Although the following examples are done by other designers, one of his former students created a site of logos (from which these images were gleened) he refers to as, “following the Goslin gestalt.” He imparts, “these logos are examples of the Goslin philosophy and design strategy. I knew him from my art school days. He was a tenured professor at Pratt in the late 1980s. Goslin was a great inspiration to us all.”
I wish I could list the names of the designers who created these logos (many can be found on Logopond, I’m told). If they see these or someone who knows the person who created any of these logos, please list the name in the comments section and, if listed by the designer, please relate if or how Goslin inspired you. Perhaps you are a former student?
I learned a few lessons when the original article published was called out as having these examples that are NOT the work of Goslin. Foolishly, I trusted how images were labeled and appeared on Google searches. As we know, an individual can place anything on the internet and the false can easily become the truth, such as it were.
The best lesson, which is what this article is all about, and I hope it still comes through to the readers, is the ability to think and see not just the elements of design but the space, the negative space, that holds them on a page or the screen. Goslin did great things, not only for design and for those he taught but also for those who felt his influence… those who can do designs such as the ones included in this article. Those who see the negative in everything.
During a speech at Pratt’s 2003 Commencement, Goslin said, “that small child with the scissors and colored paper, sitting in the middle of the parental living room rug, making shapes out of beautiful colors, for his or her own joy, not for money, not for critical acclaim, that child is you.”
“You have the opportunity to create what never was. Forget about revolutionizing the world. Work for the joy of working, and without intending to, you will help to change your corner of the world.”