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Meet Debbie Millman, founder, and a host of the radio show Design Matters on Design Observer, the world’s first podcast about design and creative culture. With more than 30 years of experience working within the world of design, Debbie can also add writer, educator, artist and brand consultant to her impressive resume. We sat down for a talk about why design matters, her great passion for brands, storytelling, and New York City, how social media have affected the visual culture in the United States and the rapid development of independent publishing.
Hello, Debbie! Thank you for taking the time to talk with us. For more than 30 years you have worked in the field of design – Could you walk us through the journey of becoming you from the beginning till today?
Oh, please get comfortable!
My love affair with brands began when I was in the 7th grade. I looked around, and everyone in school was wearing cool pants with a little red tag on the back pocket and polo shirts with little crocodiles on the right front section over your heart. Levi’s and Lacoste. But they were expensive, and my mother didn’t understand why we had to pay more money for the little red tag and the crocodile when clothing without them was the same quality, only cheaper. Furthermore, she was a seamstress and her compromise to me was an offer to make me the very same clothes and stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants and glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto the front of a perfectly good polo shirt from Modell’s. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter or, at least, voted the best-dressed girl at Elwood junior high, I eagerly pored through the racks of Lee Wards desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there were none. Nothing even close. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that wasn’t the brand look I was going for.
I rode my bike home from Lee Wards dejected and mopey, and when mom found out I wasn’t successful, I could see she felt sorry for me. She then took the matter into her own hands. The Lacoste shirts were too expensive, but there were indeed some Levi’s on sale at the Walt Whitman mall, and she bought me a pair. The problem was she didn’t get me the denim kind like everyone else was wearing; she found me a pair that must have been from the triple mark-down racks and they were a pair of lime green corduroy bell-bottom Levi’s. It was with a mixture of horror and pride that I paraded in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, ever-so-slightly sticking my butt out so that I could be sure the little red tag would show. So what, I was wearing lime green corduroy! They were Levi’s. I was cool. My reign of logo worship had begun.
Logos and brands are not the only things I love. From the time I was a child, I loved to make things. I made my own coloring books, I made my own paper dolls, dioramas, and I even tried to make my own perfume by crushing rose petals into a 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 called the magazine Debutante. We were very proud of it.
I went to the State University at Albany in New York. I had an incredible education, despite the lack of fancy pedigree. I knew I wanted to do something creative but thought I was going to be a painter. I studied painting and took some design classes because I needed the credits. But my major was in English literature. After I graduated, I quickly realized I was not going to be able to pay my rent as a painter. I also realized that the only marketable skill I had was the design bit that I had briefly studied. That, and I had been the editor of the arts section of our school newspaper. I went to school in Albany, and the Albany Student Press had the largest circulation of any student newspaper in the country, so it was a pretty big deal, and also one of the reasons people went to school in Albany. I went just because my best friend did, and, at the time, it was the best state school that I could afford. So off I went to Albany and got involved in the school newspaper. But, as it turned out, I didn’t like the editing part of it. What I *loved* was creating the design of the paper. I came out of college with this fantastic portfolio because it was a large format paper. I had a 12-page section that I did every week. I had these little magazines that I designed entirely by myself. I would give my friends articles to write, and I wouldn’t edit them. I’d publish them. There was this guy that was the campus clown. More like the campus soapbox guy. He was the political guy that would get up on his soapbox and talk about whatever political issue he thought. He was my favorite writer. I’d say, Hubert, write me an article on women’s choice and he’d come back with 15 pages. I’d print the entire thing.
After I graduated and started looking for a job, I saw an ad in the New York Times for a magazine job at a publication called Cable View. The ad specifically stated “no visitors.” Resumes only. I decided to go in person anyway figuring ‘what would they do, throw me out’? I figured I would just deliver the resume. They hired me that morning, on the spot, and I started right away. But they didn’t know what to make of me because I had this unusual English/Arts 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 Cable View I´ve 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 believe in. I quit after a year and started working at RockBill magazine, again doing both editing, writing and design. Shortly after that, the creative director and I decided to start our own design firm. The year was in 1987, and I had been working professionally for about four years at the time. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any clients. We didn’t have any contacts. But we did it anyway, and all of a sudden we had this business. All of a sudden we had a company, and then we had 20 people working for us. It was incredibly exciting. But ultimately, I realized that I was never going to be able to do something that I was proud of in that particular business. Over the four years we were together, we made a lot of money. So, once again, I decided I don’t want to do it anymore.
At the time, I didn’t know what I want to do in general, and I was very disillusioned. I had just turned 30. So, once again, I quit. 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 traveled, 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 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 me 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 excellent 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 very insecure and thus, feel that I have to prove constantly myself every second of every day.
Currently, my day job is at Sterling Brands, where I am Chief Marketing Officer. I have been there for 20 years and helped grow the firm to the size it is now. I am also the Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts and the Editor and Creative Director of Print Magazine.
In 2005, I started my Design Matters podcast. I often say that Design Matters began 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 fee—yes, I had to pay them—I decided that interviewing designers who I revered would be an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about them. I started broadcasting Design Matters live from a telephone modem in my office at Sterling Brands. 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. Design Matters is now the anchor show on Design Observer’s media channel, and we produce the show in the specially built podcast studio located at my Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I’ve done nearly 300 episodes to date.
Born, raised and currently living in New York, a true native by heart – What does the city mean to you personally but also professionally?
Yes; I am a native New Yorker and a resident of every borough except the Bronx. I’ve lived in Manhattan now for the last 33 years. The only thing I can tell you that I’ve ever felt 100% certain about is that I always wanted to live in Manhattan. I have a great, big love affair going on with this city. I love almost everything about New York City. I love the intensity of the pace, the diversity of the people, the street signs, even the noise.
When I first moved to Manhattan, I was in my twenties. I’d spend endless hours sitting in the windows of cafes on Hudson Street, listening to blues at Dan’s on Second Avenue and trying to pick up boys at 2 am on the rooftop of Danceteria. I always went home by myself, but as I walked across the 8th street to my apartment in Chelsea, I strutted and sashayed and imagined I was street smart and savvy and somebody. I feel at home here; I feel like I belong; this is my safe place. I was born here, and I’ll probably die here.
With a great love of art and language used to create compelling narratives, you are the author of six books and the Editorial and Creative Director of Print Magazine, the oldest magazine about design in the United States. When did your love/passion for storytelling begin and have you always wanted to become a published author?
My love and passion for storytelling probably began when I was 12 years old. As I’ve mentioned, my best friend was also named Debbie and she, like me, loved magazines and fashion. The summer before we went into sixth grade, we spent the entire break creating a magazine, which—because we were both named Debbie—we titled Debutante. We spent endless hours writing every “article” in longhand and illustrating numerous pictures. We became consumed with the creation of this publication. We interviewed people we knew for “tell-all” articles; we initiated our own surveys about boys, clothes, and even kissing—though I doubt either of us by that age had ever kissed anyone, at least not romantically. We went through all of our existing magazines and books for ideas, and we were deliriously and passionately obsessed with our creation. We loved making all our own decisions about what to include and what to exclude, and what we deemed culturally important—and not—in that summer of 1973. The only argument we had during that time concerned who was going to keep the original copy. It was one of the most perfect summers I ever had.
Thirty-two years after being rejected for a job at Vanity Fair by a HR person at Conde Nast, I recently became the Editorial and Creative Director at Print Magazine, which is truly a dream come true. I am working with editor-in-chief Zachary Petit to rethink the magazine. It is an amazing opportunity that puts all of my skills to use.
As far as becoming a published author, yes—most emphatically—I wanted to become a published author. I got lucky, after wanting and more wanting (longing really), my mentor Steven Heller referred me to a publisher who had invited him to write a book that he passed on. So he suggested that the publisher contacts me. That contact turned out to be Tad Crawford, then the editor of Allworth Publications. He reached out to me, and the rest is history: a year later, my first book “How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer” was published. The book is a collection of interviews that extend the ethos and editorial vision of my podcast Design Matters to the printed page.
How would you define great visual storytelling?
Visual storytelling—the art of using language and images to convey a narrative account of real or imagined events—is something that fascinates me. Historically, humans have used this sharing of experience to pass on knowledge, beliefs, values, secrets and information. Through stories, we explain how things are, why they are, and our role and purpose. Stories are the building blocks of knowledge and the foundation of memory and learning.
Visual storytelling combines the narrative text of a story with creative elements to augment and enhance the traditional storytelling process. By design, it is a co-creative process resulting in an intimate, interpretive expressive technique. Visual storytelling utilizes both language and art to pass on the essence of who we. Today, the visualization of our personal stories is an integral and essential part of the human experience.
I have been exploring the art of telling a story through a unique combination of images and words. In my body of work, I have tried to investigate—and honor—the ability stories have to honor the diversity and commonality of our collective human experience.
What piece of advice would you give a young person starting out in design and visual storytelling?
This is the advice I would give anyone, anytime, anywhere:
- If you are not making mistakes, you’re not taking enough risks
- Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time
- Work very, very hard
- Ask for opportunities
- Finish what you start
- Say yes to almost everything
- Busy is a decision
- Don’t censor your dreams before you dream
- To strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide you want one
- It is only a failure if you accept defeat
All around the world artists are working with independent publishing in different formats and languages – What do you think about this rapid development within getting yourself and your work noticed on your own terms?
An unfortunate ramification of modern-day technology is that we expect things to happen at light speed. We live in what I now call a “140 character culture.” We’ve gone from writing letters to making phone calls, to sending faxes and emails, to typing out one line about this vast experience we call life. We can download whatever we want pretty much immediately, and we get frustrated if the Wi-Fi connection is slow. Our culture is characterized by instantaneous global conversations, immediate poll results and 15-minute viral sensations online. Having been conditioned to immediacy, we now want the instant gratification of our hopes and dreams. Accomplishment and mastery—in business, art, and everything else—take time and reflection. You can’t become a great manager without first leading small groups, learning how to inspire different personalities, and making a newbie’s mistakes. A master filmmaker takes years to learn all the elements of good moviemaking: the way acting, writing, lighting, cinematography, editing, and sound combine to capture a compelling story. A chef needs extensive training in world cuisines, ingredients, and cooking methods to make that perfect dish. And a writer needs to learn about life AND master the art and skill of actually writing. The only “formula” for success is time and hard work.
In which way do you think the Internet and use of social media have affected the visual culture in the United States?
Visual culture is fueled by design, but the design isn’t about design anymore—or technology. There isn’t a “mass market” in which to target a message or a book or product or a company anymore; there is no one demographic picture of the planet. Cultural anthropologist, Grant McCracken spoke at a conference and talked about how lifestyle typologies have expanded to first 3, then 6, then 9 and then 12 typologies, now there is too much variation. We have reached categorical exhaustion. To get any attention at all (online or off), we must holistically balance four distinct but related disciplines: cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, commerce, and creativity and express this visually. The balance includes cultural anthropology because what we do in our culture—whether it is an obsession with social networks or politics or the cult of celebrity, these all have a major impact on the way we understand and interpret the world and our place in it. It includes psychology because if we don’t fundamentally understand the brain circuitry of our audience and know what they are thinking—(and why they are thinking it!)—we will not be able to solicit any audience imagination. And of course, it includes a fundamental understanding of commerce. Understanding the marketplace and the messaging impacts and influences perception. And of course, it involves creativity because if we don’t create an engaging identity, then consumers won’t even see it.
Please make a top 5 of your favorite publications (books and magazines)
My top 5 favorite publications are the following:
To The Lighthouse
Love In The Time of Cholera
The Old Man and the Sea
Debbie – Thank you so much for doing the interview!
Photo credit Debbie Millman & Nebojsa Babic
To learn more about Debbie Millman and all of her amazing work visit debbiemillman.com
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