An Interview with Designer, Artist, and Educator Mitch Goldstein

In the summer of 2018 while working on a special Hackathon zine project which became a limited edition Risograph zine dubbed Process, I had the opportunity to interview designer, artist, and educator Mitch Goldstein whose work I’ve followed for some time. Until now, our conversation has only existed in printed form.

Tell me a little bit about yourself

I am a designer, artist, and educator based in Upstate New York. I spend my time doing a few different things: I teach full-time at Rochester Institute of Technology in the School of Design, where I teach art and graphic design. I collaborate on graphic design projects—primarily book cover and publication design—in collaboration with my wife and design partner Anne Jordan. I also have a fine art practice focusing on wet darkroom photography.

Describe what you do in five words or less

I instigate curious visual accidents.

When did you know you wanted to be a designer?

I started building with Lincoln Logs when I was a little kid—7 or 8. Ever since then I wanted to be an architect. I attended architecture school, but quickly learned it was not for me, and left long before getting a degree. After spending time floating around, working jobby jobs to pay the bills, I became interested in designing for the web, and around 2000 I helped start a small media design company with a few friends. That was when I discovered my love for graphic design, which led me to enroll in the BFA program at RISD, which eventually led me to where I am now.

What drives you to create?

The broad answer is that creating things feels better than not creating things. I definitely have ups and downs—times where I make a lot, and times where I make almost nothing, but I always feel much better about myself and the world when I am making stuff. The more specific answer is that I work in a very imprecise, unpredictable, chaotic way, and within that there are moments when something interesting clicks into place—and that feeling is incredibly satisfying.

What’s something you wish more people knew about your design practice?

That I confidently don’t know what I am doing. And, that the not knowing is what makes it interesting and worth spending time on.

What does your daily routine look like?

It varies, but nothing unusual. The two constants are generally that I have some form of bagel and coffee every morning, and almost always cook dinner every night for Anne and I. Other than that it depends on a lot on what is happening between teaching, client work, and my own creative practice. Most days I spend some time reading, making work (client or otherwise), spending time with Anne and my 2 dogs Lazslo and Oskar, and other typical stuff.

You collaborate a fair bit with your wife—what does that process look like? How have those collaborations influenced your work?

Anne and I are both good at different things, so we tend to come together, and then separate to get stuff done, and them meet up to see how we are both progressing. Anne is incredibly meticulous, detail-oriented, and fastidious; I am much more gestural, quick-acting, and off-the-cuff, so we compliment each other nicely. The work has developed far beyond what either of us could do alone.

What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received (and who said it)?

Our friends and mentors Nancy Skolos & Tom Wedell told us early on to “serve the work, not your ego,” and that has helped us a lot when it comes to collaborating on projects together. We do not care about who’s idea it was, or who put in more hours, etc… we only care that the work itself is as good as possible.

Photogram by Mitch Goldstein
Original photogram by Mitch Goldstein
Photogram by Mitch Goldstein
Original photogram by Mitch Goldstein
Tell me about your experimental photographic work.

My work in the darkroom is focused on photograms. This is a very simple process where I take an unexposed piece of photo paper under a safelight, then I put objects and materials on or just above the paper, and the flash a light to expose the paper. I then develop the resulting composition using typical black & white darkroom chemistry. This simple, camera-less photographic process results in some very unexpected results.

Does serendipity play into how those turn out? How much is planned?

Completely—my work is based entirely on chance and unpredictability. I have little to no plan, only the vaguest, most abstract idea of what kind of stuff I might want to try when I go into the darkroom, but I have no idea what will actually happen. More than anything I will have a set of tools or materials I want to explore, and what I actually get will emerge directly from those objects.

What’s the best thing technology has done for design? What’s the worst?

It has made the creation of design accessible for everyone—the tools that are used at the highest professional level are the exact same tools available to a junior high school student, or a hobbyist, or a grandmother. The point of entry is wide open. I am not sure about the worst thing, but I do think we have lost some of our patience and tenacity—technology has made practically everything available RIGHT NOW and we want our creative work to behave the same way. So often better work comes from taking time and being patient with the process.

How do you see process and rigor playing into design as things like AI start to meaningfully factor into what we might today consider the role of a graphic designer?

No matter what form design takes, process and rigor will always and forever be important. There is always a need to examine process, and the rigor of that process will always add value to the design. The parameters of that process can (and will) change, but approaching that process seriously—no matter how outrageous or alien it might seem—will never stop being important.

You tweet a lot about things design students should know or think about—how do you think the overall state of design education is doing today? Where are the biggest gaps and what are some things that could be done to close those?

Design education varies wildly depending on what school you happen to be talking about. I have been to many, many design schools, and I can confi- dently say that none of them have it figured out. I can also say that is the way it should be—design is an incredibly complex, wide field, and no school is going to give you everything you need, no matter how good it is. What design school can (and should) do is teach a student to be actively curious. The biggest gaps in design education happen when schools try to teach to the deliverable, to the final outcome. The final outcome in 2018 is not going to be the same in 2028 or 2088. That is why I teach to the process, to the inquiry, to the curiosity. The tools will change, the materials will change, the outcomes will change, almost everything will change. What will not change is the value and importance of active curiosity.

If you could pass on a single piece of advice based on your practice/experience to practicing designers today, what would that be and why?

Shut up and make something. That does not mean be ignorant, that does not mean don’t think, that does not mean hide your work away and don’t share or talk to anyone. It means that real inspiration comes from making stuff, not from surfing Pinterest. It means that sometimes you need to stop rationalizing, planning, pre-visualizing, and just make some stuff. It means that you need to do things, instead of talking about doing things.

What does the design world need most right now? What do you think it will need in the next five to ten years?

I have no idea. I can only tell you what I am trying to do with my own world of design: I am constantly trying to find my own voice, and develop my own creative practice that is not intentionally derivative of trends, an imitation of my design heroes, or based on what people tell me design is supposed to be.

Portrait of Mitch Goldstein

Mitch Goldstein is a designer, artist, and educator based in Rochester, New York where he teaches in the School of Design at RISD. You can find him at @mgoldst on Instagram and Twitter.