Carlson designed projects for Chicago-based C.F. Murphy Associates, which later became Murphy/Jahn Architects. He worked on the original $35-million, 320,000-sq-ft McCormick Place that opened in 1960 but burned down in 1967. He also served as architectural production chief during the early 1970s on all terminals, gates and operational facilities for the 13 original airlines at O'Hare International Airport.
Carlson later worked for Martin B. Schaffer & Associates, redoing the top four floors of the 40-story art deco Jewelers Building at 35 E. Wacker Dr., including its iconic dome. In 1969, under another firm, he helped design the original headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., for fast-food giant McDonald's Corp.
Carlson launched, in 1971, his own firm, Donald R. Carlson & Associates Ltd., whose clients included McDonald's and Chicago-based JMB Realty.
Architect John Schoenberger, who worked with Carlson on the O'Hare project, said Carlson was "very detail-oriented and left no stone unturned in his designs," according to The Chicago Tribune. Schoenberger added that the architect excelled at "leading construction document production efforts, getting ready for construction and then executing the projects at a very high level."