TheeBlog Q&A Sessions: Debbie Millman

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Today is a very special day for THEE BLOG, this is our ‘500th POST’! and to celebrate this special achievement I am extremely happy and proud to share a celebratory and inspiring interview with one of my favorite Design icons and good friend, the one and only Debbie Millman. It’s been a long and arduous road so far, full of joy, inspiration, hard work and sacrifice but well, well worth it. Thanks to your love and support, this site has grown beyond my wildest expectations and to show my appreciation to you, I invited a true Design and Branding icon for a great interview I am sure you will enjoy and learn from. Thank You!

Debbie Millman is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant and host of the iconic radio show Design Matters. Debbie has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She was also President Emeritus of the National AIGA, a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Debbie is also the author of four amazing books: How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer, Essential Principles of Graphic Design, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design, and her latest gem, Brand Thinking and other Noble Pursuits.

Oh! and as if this wasn’t enough, Debbie’s iconic radio show Design Matters recently won the People’s Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum – Congrats Debbie!

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Debbie Millman has been a tremendous source of constant learning and inspiration for me. I can honestly say I have grown and improved professionally inspired by her work, achievements, books and involvement in our design community. I’ve been following her work and adventures since I first read/heard her opinions on Speak Up and later fell in love with her vision, writing and yes, her amazing radio show! Her guests included Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, James Victore, Michael Bierut, Hilman Curtis, Stefan Sagmeister, Neville Brody, Paula Scher and more. Need I say more? (believe you me, one show and you’ll be hooked for life)

I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Debbie back in 2010 at a Design Conference in New York City. I did not know she would be present, but as soon as she was up on stage, introducing one of the guest speakers (after all, I’ve heard that voice hundreds of times before) I made it my goal to meet her that day! At first I was a bit hesitant because truth is, you never know how someone you admire and look up to might react to your fan approach (after all, we’ve all had our awkward encounters with rude celebrities right?) but Debbie’s amazingly sweet, humble and friendly personality made it seem like we were great old College friends! And so, my admiration for this talented woman grew even stronger :)

Since that day, we’ve had a few chats or message exchanges through Facebook, Twitter, email and even a drive to the Airport :) and I made it my goal to interview Debbie and have her as a guest here at THEE BLOG (which as many of you might know by now, has been heavily inspired and influenced by her addictive Design Matters monologues). Needless to say, Debbie was a sweetheart and accepted my invitation and here we are… So , without further ado, I am honored to share with you this great interview. Enjoy!

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Welcome Debbie! Let me begin by thanking you again for accepting my invitation and for being such a great guest. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting/interviewing amazingly creative artists and friends, but I must say it is a treat and honor to have you here as a special guest today. I’ve been planning this interview for quite some time and now that it is finally here, I am sure everyone reading it will learn from it and enjoy it as much as I did. So, let’s do this!

In your own words, how would you describe yourself, your background and EVERYTHING you do?
HA! Hard opening question! Whenever people ask me to describe myself, I don’t really know what to say: should I talk about my role at Sterling? At SVA? With Design Matters? Inevitably I stumble around trying to muster up something pithy and articulate. It got so murky that I resorted to this description on Twitter: Debbie Millman is a girl. But I will try to do a better job here: I would describe myself as one of the luckiest people on the planet. After a particularly gruesome childhood, I emerged victoriously intact, and still an eager beaver. Once I started my career, it took a LONG time to figure out what I wanted to do and how on earth to do it. This should be comforting to anyone in their 20s still confused about their future—it took me until I was in my 30s to begin to get it right.

Once you realized design was your ‘calling’ and that you wanted to do it professionally, how easy or difficult was it to get your first official job? How did you ‘grow up’ professionally?
After I graduated college I furiously started looking for a job. I was desperate to start my “career” and sent out resumes by the bucketful (snail mail was all that was available in prehistoric NYC). I saw an ad in the New York Times for a magazine job at a publication called CableView. The ad specifically stated “no visitors.” Resumes only. I decided to go in person anyway simply to hand deliver the resume, but I ended up getting an interview and getting hired on the spot. But they didn’t really know what to make of me because I had this bizarre English/Art degree. They put me in trafficking, and I ended up working in both the editorial and design departments concurrently. I did a little bit of design and a little bit of editing. It ended up being the perfect job. I could do everything I wanted to do and I loved it. I thought it was fantastic, but I couldn’t live on the money. A year later I got offered a job at an advertising agency doing design, and I took it. It was real estate advertising, and all I did was design brochures for tasteless non-descript buildings. I knew the day that I quit CableVIew I had made a terrible mistake because I cried for 48 hours. And it turned out that I did indeed make a mistake, as the work was dreadful, and I found that I hated doing work I didn’t really believe in. I quit after a year and started working at RockBill magazine, again doing both editing, writing and design. Shortly thereafter, the creative director and I decided to start our own design firm. This was in 1987, and I had been working professionally for about four years at the time. Looking back on it, I don’t know where I got the courage to start my own company! I think that I had more balls than I’ve probably ever had on any day of my life since or before. I had no idea how we were going to do it! We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any clients. We didn’t have really any contacts. All of a sudden we had a company; then we had 20 people working for us. It was incredibly exciting. But ultimately, I didn’t like the kind of work we were doing and as I was about to turn the ripe old age of 30 found myself questioning how I was ever going to be able to do the kind of work I wanted to do and make the kind of difference I wanted to make. So I left and went back to the drawing board.

I took a year off and I freelanced for Planned Parenthood and worked on their new identity. I did a brochure for a law firm and I travelled, and I thought about what I wanted to do. I decided that I wanted to work for the best design firm in the country (at the time), Frankfurt Balkind. Through a friend, I got an interview, and I showed Aubrey Balkind my portfolio. He said he’d hire me, but NOT as a designer–he didn’t think my work was good enough. And this was all the work I had created in my entire career thus far! But I really wanted to work there, so I took the job he offered me: a job in marketing. About a year later, I got a call from a headhunter and he spoke to me about a job at a branding consultancy called The Schechter Group. I’d never done “formal” brand identity in my life. But it was incredibly compelling to me. When I gave Aubrey my notice, despite my not having been the world’s greatest Marketing Director (and not having the smoothest of relationships with him) he looked me in the eye and told me that I was going to be very good in package design. He was right. For the first time in my life, I found my niche. I have been working in branding ever since and am blissfully happy all of the time. Joking! I am actually very insecure and thus feel that I have to constantly prove myself every second of every day.

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From all your different titles and roles, which one is the one you feel most comfortable or the one you prefer? Why?
It is hard to determine which one I prefer; that would be like asking me to decide which of my dogs was my favorite. As for the one I feel most comfortable in, it is my role at Sterling Brands. I have been at Sterling for over 16 years and have been working with many of my colleagues there for well over a decade. There is an enormous amount of comfort and trust between us at this point, and though it can sometimes be back-breakingly hard work, I really do love it. Some of my other (newer) roles still regularly scare me and I still worry about living up to my goals in all of my roles, but I think that is a good thing.

You’ve been in this business for over 25 years already! Based on your experience, do you think Graphic Design has improved or evolved over time? How?
It has both improved and evolved, which is a very good thing. Clearly technology has had the biggest impact, but I also think we are living in a time where communication and all the communication arts are more important than they have ever been in our history on this planet. When I was interviewing Malcolm Gladwell for Brand Thinking, he said something that I can’t stop thinking about: “Never before have we had the kinds of communications technologies in the hands of those who have the greatest desire to communicate.” And the people with the greatest desire to communicate are, in my opinion, graphic designers.

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A lot has happened in the Design world over 25 years. Trends have come and gone, technology has become a necessity, clients still ask for bigger logos, etc. What would you change or do differently if you had the chance?
Top Ten things I would try to change if I could go back in time:
1) I would try to prevent Verizon from choosing the logo that they currently have
2) I would NOT have worried incessantly about becoming unemployable when I took off for 9 months between jobs to freelance and try to find myself
3) I would have encouraged Patrick Ewing to take Hakem Olajuwon more seriously
4) I would have done everything I could to prevent 9/11
5) I would have been there when my Grandmother passed away
6) I would have stopped Stephanie Nielsen from getting on that plane
7) I would not have agonized so much about my weight in High School
8) I would have prevented reality television
9) I would have considered becoming a scientist
10) I would have worried less, studied more, been more fearless, worn less makeup, and not been so damn hard on myself

Let’s go back in time. I remember you mentioned during one of your podcasts that as a child you loved ‘making your own things’ like coloring books, perfume and dioramas and that you had a healthy creative childhood. Did you always know you would be involved in the visual/graphic field or was this something that happened later on in life?
You are right: for as far back as I can remember, I loved to make things. I made my own coloring books, I made my own paper dolls, I made dioramas, and I even tried to make my own perfume by crushing rose petals into baby oil. I made barrette boxes out of Popsicle sticks, key chains out of lanyards, ashtrays out of clay and Halloween costumes out of construction paper and old sheets. I even handmade an entire magazine when I was 12 with my best friend. Her name was Debbie also and we named the magazine Debutante. We were very proud of it. I never considered NOT doing something creative with my life but I didn’t plan on becoming a graphic designer. I certainly had no idea I would have a career in branding (when I was little I didn’t even know these vocations existed). Mostly I wanted a life that was special. I wanted a life that was remarkable. And all that I considered remarkable was creative and artistic and beautiful.

Did you have any mentors or designers you admired while growing up?
I did not know about graphic design or graphic designers until after I graduated college. As soon as I began to research the big bad world of graphic design, I became profoundly and irrevocably influenced, impacted and inspired by Tibor Kalman. He changed everything for me.

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This next question combines two important career milestones. Your time as a contributor author and member of the team of design blog pioneers at Speak Up and your time as President of AIGA (2009-2011). Tell us about these experiences, how they curiously connected and how they affected your personal life and career?
One of most significant and defining days of my life occurred on May 2, 2003. Unbeknownst to me, illustrator and designer Felix Sockwell posted a discussion on a then new design weblog that read as follows:

Dear AIGA:
For some odd reason I get a free copy of Graphic Design USA (GDUSA). If you’re familiar with it, you know what it is: the equivalent of a high school yearbook packed with photos of designers and bulky paper ads.

LOTS of ads. It’s shameful. I weep openly.

Another reason to cry is that Debbie Millman (Sterling Brands, NY), your AIGA juror this year, says she’s “been in the business 20 yrs and GDUSA has always been the magazine (she) turns to for cultural relevance and design intelligence”. (Letters to the editor page, March 2003) Perhaps she is lying simply to see her name in print, or maybe she’s actually telling the truth, either way we’re doomed!

Year by year, the AIGA gets suckered into deals with these corporate clowns. And it really betrays the trust I have in my profession (and you).
–Felix Sockwell

A heated conversation ensued and a long list of design luminaries, fired up by the questions Felix posed, piled on. In an attempt to make sense of the conundrum, John Bielenberg offered the possibility that I wasn’t really invited to judge the competition, but instead was a last minute substitution for someone else who had cancelled. Tan Le proceeded to get into a fight with Felix for what he considered to be illogical assumptions, but referred to me as a she-devil in the process. Not content with level of discourse, Speak Up founder Armin Vit called two of the logos designed by my firm (Burger King and Star Wars) “a pair of turds.” Even Emily Oberman, a designer I had admired from afar for over a decade, and someone I considered both a hero and role model, weighed in on the discussion; mercifully, she only weighed in on the role of AIGA. I discovered this online conversation on May 17, 2003. I was mortified, embarrassed, humiliated and I patently considered leaving the design business for good. I remember I cried. And I questioned where this forum came from, who the bullies were that created it, and I wondered whether I would ever be able to hold my head up in the design community again.

What no one contributing to the conversation had any way of knowing was this: Contrary to Felix’s opinion, I was not in cahoots with the AIGA. Not by a long short. In fact, after being championed to join both AIGA and the AIGA Brand Experience board by former board member Cheryl Swanson, I was voted off of that board by the new, incoming group president. AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefe subsequently invited me to judge one category of the Annual 365 competition as a kind and conciliatory gesture of inclusivity, and to try to prevent my getting too discouraged by the turn of events. But on the day of the judging, I nearly got into a fistfight with one of the other package design judges. She was quite well known, and she was so dismissive of my opinions and I was so reluctant to give in to hers, that after an entire day of assessing over 700 entries, we would only agree on seven winners to include in the Annual. I remember walking back to my office in the dark winter evening expecting (once and for all) to be banished by the organization.

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Ric Grefe reached out to me again and asked me to try and persevere. He knew that I had recently received an email invite to become an AIGA Mentor at the high school of Art & Design in New York City, and he thought this would be a good fit for me. I joined the program and felt relief that the kids didn’t reject me. And then I got lucky: after going to a NYC Dept of Education Mentoring meeting I met Caroline Kennedy and when I was introduced to her, she casually thanked me for donating my time to such a worthy cause. Her compliment buoyed my spirit and in a moment of courage, I asked her if she would be interested in helping the AIGA Mentorship effort. She agreed and subsequently was our keynote speaker at our upcoming launch event at the Museum of Art and Design. After that, things got surreal. Armin Vit asked me to become an author on Speak Up. Emily Oberman invited me to join the New York Chapter of AIGA and I served on that amazing board for two years. At the end of my term, AIGA Board President Sean Adams asked me to run for a seat on the National Board, which I did. The student I mentored graduated and went on to get a scholarship at the School of Visual Arts. And on July 1st, 2009 I became President of the organization.

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We all know how passionate designers are when it comes to our field, organizations and issues that might pop up every now and then – OK, I’ll say it, we could be very bitchy and protective! How easy or difficult was it to work with all the different AIGA chapters around the Country?
Actually, working with the local chapters was the easiest, most fulfilling, life affirming experiences I have had in AIGA. There was an occasional drama, but it was easily overcome. Truly.

How often does the National AIGA check or control these chapters? I ask you this because I was a member of the Tampa Bay Chapter for an entire year a while back, and to be honest, the experience was beyond terrible. (For the record, this was before you were President) There was a scary lack of interest, organization and support that disappointed many of us.
That really upsets me. I know a lot of the Florida Chapter folks and I have felt that with as many chapters in the state as Texas and California, it is a vibrant and spirited community. But this, like any organization or experience, can be cyclical. I had tough times of my own as President with gathering alignment on controversial issues and there were times I wondered why I pushed so hard. But at the end of day, I couldn’t help myself: I think the organization is magnificent and it continues to be one of the noblest experiences in my life.

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I don’t want to get too much into this subject, but this question always comes up during design chats, conferences and online forums so I have to ask. What is AIGA’s position when it comes to spec work and some of the fiascos we’ve seen lately including GAP, JCPenney, Moleskine and all those annoying cheap logo sites out there?
AIGA’s spec position can be found HERE

The only thing I want to say about AIGA’s position on spec work is that I think it should be stronger. My stance is very clear, and very consistent: I am personally vigorously, passionately and fundamentally AGAINST designers being asked to do work on spec and neither I nor my firm will ever participate in speculative work. I have said it before and I will say it again: Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our souls.

I know you are a supporter of No!Spec and I thank you for that. What do you think about this constant spec work debate?
I think it is egregious. I think it is criminal. I think it is an abuse of power, it preys on young and inexperienced designers and it should not ever be asked for or provided.

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Your client roster is impressive, enviable and the result of many years of admirable work and professionalism. Are there any secrets to signing clients? Do you have any advice when pitching and wooing clients?
1) Be fearless when asking people for business.
2) Find lots of clients. Because it’s impossible to know which of them will be good.
3) Work harder than anybody else that you know.
4) Never give up if it is something that you really want.
5) Don’t lie about what you know and what you’ve done.

Tell us about your new baby, “Brand Thinking and other Noble Pursuits”. How is this book different from the rest and what can we expect from it?
This isn’t a book about selling ideas or processes or ideologies. And it really isn’t a book strictly about branding or design. It is a book about the perspectives of some very, very smart people who have been thinking about branding and/or design for most of their lives. I think you know that I believe that the condition of brands reflects the condition of our culture. By extension—branding reflects the condition of our species. In writing this book, I was seeking to examine why we brand, and why we are compelled to mark and make things. My goal was to present various voices providing individual perspectives about why we do the things that we do with brands. This book is for anyone who is interested in why, as humans, we seem to be universally compelled to make, mark, organize and acquire things. Humans have been using a variety of emblems for millennia—religious icons, flags, shields, clothing, cars, etc—to telegraph who we are as a species. I believe that “brand thinking” helps to reveal and make sense of the cultural, economic and spiritual implications of our behavior.

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Debbie’s new book would be a great treat for the Holidays and it is available at Amazon. Get it HERE.

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And last but DEFINITELY not least, let’s talk about Design Matters! What inspired you to create this inspiring and iconic radio show? How did it all start?
Design Matters began in February of 2005 with an idea and a telephone line. After an offer from the Voice America Business Network to create an online radio show in exchange for a small fee (yes, I had to pay them) I decided that interviewing designers who I admired would be an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about their lives and careers. I started broadcasting Design Matters live from a modem in my then office at Sterling Brands in New York City. After the first dozen episodes, I began to distribute the episodes free on iTunes, making it the first ever design podcast to be distributed in this manner.

I realized the opportunity to share the brilliance of my guests with an audience I never expected was the gift of a lifetime, but as the show grew in popularity, I recognized that I needed to upgrade both the sound quality and the distribution. After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to publish Design Matters on Design Observer by co-founder Bill Drenttel. Design Matters is now the anchor show on Design Observer’s media channel, and the show is produced at the specially built podcast studio located at my Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.

You might hate me for asking this but who has been your favorite guest? Why?
No fair! Trick question! I refuse to answer on the grounds it might incriminate me. : )

Design Matters recently won the People’s Design Award from the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum. Congratulations Debbie, it is a well-deserved honor! How does this make you feel? Knowing that thousands of Designers out there love what you do and support your ideas and work?
Thank you; I am chuffed. CHUFFED! But like I stated earlier, I feel like the luckiest person on the planet. I am grateful every single day.

Are there any immediate plans for Design Matters? Do you plan on continuing doing the show forever :)?
I will continue doing the show as long as there is someone willing to listen to it. Forever and ever, I hope.

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What inspires Debbie Millman? Are there any current designers or artists you admire, follow or would recommend checking?
Designers who inspire me are Carin Goldberg, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Marian Bantjes, Jessica Hische, Jessica Helfand, Paul Sahre, Brian Rea, James Victore, Artists who inspire me are Ed Ruscha, Richard Tuttle, Lawrence Weiner, Jenny Holzer, Sue Martin, Mike Kelley and the list goes on and on. I get infinite inspiration from my dogs. My bed inspires me.

Are there any designers that inspired and influenced you throughout your career?
Bill Drenttel helped me when I was very young and also again recently. Emily Oberman and Marian Bantjes have been incredibly generous to me. Joyce Rutter Kaye, the former editor of Print Magazine, has been a huge influence. And of course, my life would not be this life had it not been for the selfless generosity of Steve Heller. He is my fairy godfather. He recommended me to the publisher that printed How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer and Brand Thinking AND he asked me to co-found the Masters in Branding program at School of Visual Arts.

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List 5 things you could not live without…
1. My loved ones, which include my uber-beloved, amazingly delicious dogs
2. My work
3. The Internets
4. Sharp pencils with great erasers
5. Books, the paper kind

Any final advice you would like to share with all those cool designers reading this blog?
1. Do not be afraid to want a lot.
2. Things take a long time; practice patience.
3. Avoid compulsively making things worse.
4. Finish what you start.
5. Often people start out by thinking about all the things that they can’t do. Once you take that path, it’s very hard to get off of it. Shoot high and shoot often.

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THANK YOU again Debbie for allowing me to bombard you with questions (this is the second condensed list!) and for accepting my invitation. Meeting you and getting to know you is definitely a highlight in my short, yet exciting career. Thank you for all your hard work, passion and the constant inspiration. Keep up the amazing work and I look forward to catching up with you very soon! (And I promise to take the longer route to the Airport next time)
THANK YOU! xxxx’s

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You can find all of Debbie’s books at Amazon. Get one today, I strongly recommend them. Visit Debbie’s Amazon page.

In need of inspiration or curious about what inspires your favorite designers? Check out Design Matters today! I promise you’ll be hooked after the first podcast.
You can find them over at DESIGN OBSERVER or Download the Podcasts on iTunes

Check out DebbieMillman.com and follow her on Twitter @debbiemillman.

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8 comments
  1. Great interview! I was not aware of all her different roles but now I know. Thanx.

  2. Debbie is the best!!! She is not only a talented woman, but a beautiful person and that makes her even more special :P

  3. Great work Diego. A really interesting and insightful interview!

  4. I am in LOVE with this interview; I now have a new source for inspiration and innovation – thank you Diego and, of course, thank you Debbie!

    The questions were great, the answers were level and grounded and of course completely inspiring. Debbie’s ability to speak plainly and openly about design truly illuminates to her individuality as a person and a designer – girl crush!

    Thank you again!

  5. this interview helped me alot with my Graphics work i really like her work but there hasnt been much info i can find but all round this helped me out alot.

  6. Hi Debbie,
    I think you may remember me as we worked at Cableview together. I was the Creative Director who worked on the Viacom San Fran premier. We both got screwed out of our credits after putting in about a hundred hours during that final week of production.
    I ended up switching careers after Cableview and now
    work as a VP of Operations for an independent pharmacy chain in Manhattan and Brooklyn. I’m am also taking my painting more seriously and went back to get a BFA in studio arts a few years ago.I have exhibited at some galleries and done some mural work. Absolutely love it!
    I came across your name on a Face book post and caught up with what you have been up to.
    Had to say congrats and hello!

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