An exclusive interview with Debbie Millman, author, brand strategist, and educator. Learn about Debbie's approach to branding; her award-winning podcast, Design Matters; and the inspiration behind her books.
(mellow electronic music) - [Voiceover] Named one of the most influential designers working today by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is a designer, podcaster, author, educator, and brand strategist. For the past 20 years, Debbie has been president of Sterling Brands and in 2014 was named Chief Marketing Officer of the firm.
At Sterling, she has worked on the redesign of over 200 global brands including Pepsi, Kraft, and Nestle. She's also the founder and host of Design Matters, the world's first podcast about design, which received a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. Millman is the editorial and creative director of Print Magazine and the author of six books on design and branding. In 2009 with Steven Heller, she cofounded the world's first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
Millman is president emeritus of AIGA. - We're here in New Orleans at the AIGA conference and I have the distinct pleasure of chatting with Debbie Millman. Debbie, thank you so much for being here today. - Oh my pleasure, thank you. - I have to say that when we got your email saying that you'd be willing to chat with us, I was thrilled, but I was also intimidated because-- - Oh please. - No, because this chair of yours that I'm sitting in as the interviewer with Design Matters, you are the designer's interviewer.
You know, what are you, you're up to 226 interviews. - Something like that, yeah well into the 200's, yes. - Yeahs so you're an extremely busy person. What made you want to do that originally? - Oh well it was a very pivotal moment in my life actually. At that point, I was about 20 years out of school. The first 10 years of my career I describe as experiments in rejection and failure.
But the second 10 I started to find my branding voice and really began a career that has had quite a lot of meaning to me. However, at about the end of that 10 year point, in an effort to succeed at my career in branding, I had given up quite a lot of the hands-on creative endeavors that I had undertaken. It had been about 10 years at that point since I did any illustrating, any painting, any writing creatively and I felt that I was losing a bit of my soul.
I felt that everything that I was doing only had commercial value, that I was only measured by the return on the investment or the increase in market share and it was a tough moment for me because I realized that what I set out to make of my life was only partially accomplished in that the real purpose or true nature of what I wanted to express was only being partially expressed and that I was missing a real purpose to the rest of what I wanted to do and I was very serendipitously cold called one day by a man who was trying to sell slots on a very new Internet radio network and he called me and at first I thought he wanted to hire me to do this and I was getting really excited about the possibility of having this other opportunity and a potential other revenue source and whatever else.
I was very flattered as well. But then I quickly realized that they were actually wanting me to pay them for the air time on this Internet radio network, which was just blossoming. At the time, this was 2004, YouTube was about a year old and there were no podcasts. There was no such thing as a podcast and so this was the way people were starting to increase the nature of terrestrial radio and so I thought it sounded really intriguing.
I'd had a bit of money saved. I don't have kids, I wasn't paying a big mortgage, I was making good money from this branding gig and I thought why not invest some of it in myself? Why not take a chance and do this? Why not experiment for the first time in a really, really long time? And so I did. I signed a contract with him for 13 episodes. I was doing the show at that time on a telephone line, through a telephone line. So essentially if I had my guests face-to-face, I was on a handset and they were on a handset and I don't know if when you were a kid you ever picked up the phone, a land line, when somebody else was on the line in your house, but there's that sort of strange echo.
I conducted all of the shows doing that with that echo and there were these funky commercials, sort of in-house commercials that they made and I did the 13 episodes and I asked John Fulbrook who was a friend of mine who was on the New York chapter of AIGA at the time to be my first guest. I figured as a good friend, he would be there if I somehow, it was live so if I had somehow clammed up or was choking in some way he could take over.
He's also a big talker. So I knew that if I got him going, he'd keep that air time filled. And then those first 13 were friends. They were all friends and they were all doing this for me as a favor and I was very nervous. My first shows are absolutely horrendous and I really liked it though. I loved having this ability to, once I started going beyond my friends, having this portal or this permission to ask people that I really admired anything I wanted because it was allowed, because I was doing a real professional interview and so it was this way in to understanding the design process, people, humanity, culture, and over the years now it's gone more in the direction, well less in the direction of design only and more very deliberately, first accidentally and now deliberately, in the direction of really understanding how people design their lives.
So I'm not just talking to people about their design work, which is sort of what I was doing at the beginning, but really now how did they become who they are, why did they make the choices that they did, what can we learn from their mistakes, how can we be inspired by their successes and really getting to know the person that I'm talking to in a really intimate, really magnificent way. I try, that's what I try to do. - And are there any of these conversations that you've had, they're all wonderful, I've heard a ton of them-- - Some are better than others.
- I think that the thing you bring to them is such an incredible warmth and also your knowledge. So you have this ability to cherry pick into your knowledge bank of designers and history and conversations that you've had with other people that make them so rich. But are there any that you left? That you felt you'd walked away, closed the door, said goodbye and are like oh my god, that one was special. - I think the very best interview I've ever conducted on Design Matters is with Chris Ware.
First of all, I was very nervous. I had never met Chris before. Chip Kidd made the introduction, they're very good friends. And I tried to buy every single book that Chris Ware has designed and written, which was quite a lot, but I fell madly in love with his work and I went into a Chris Ware wormhole. I don't know that I've actually ever come out, but being really deeply entrenched in his work moved me to such a degree that I felt like I was witnessing genius and I was and just watching his work evolve over the decades, seeing how he understands human nature in graphic novels and in comics, it gives you a sense that you're experiencing genesis and to be in a room with him and talk to him for the hour that I did about how he creates, how he works, how he thinks was one of the greatest privileges of my life.
So I would say Chris, Chris Ware. - And it sounds like this has been kind of an MFA for you in a way-- - Oh it's been an MFA, it's been boot camp, it's been every possible education. Everything can and will happen on the radio. You have to sort of be ready for anything. It's humbled me, it's inspired me, it's scared me, it's thrilled me. It's every emotion all at the same time and this is the greatest privilege of my life to be able to engage with people, feel like they trust me, feel like they know that I respect what they're doing and have a conversation in a way that really not only celebrates what they do, but also deconstructs it in a way that other people can really, truly experience it.
- The thing that I love about it is that you're able to extract these gems of information that would never make it into a design history. You know, for example your conversation about the first Pottery Barn logo and how that was just this happenstance. Like hey we have to design this logo for the client. What do we have for press type? Oh we have Helvetica, slap that together and 25 years later it's still the same logo.
You know, that would go missing. So when you started this in 2005, as you were saying this was just the beginning of podcasts and so much has changed technologically, social media has exploded. How has that changed what you're doing on the show or has it not? - Well everything inspires the show to go into different directions. As I said, there weren't even any podcasts when I first started.
Once podcasts came onto iTunes, I started to upload the show and then podcasts started and it became a podcast. I think that the next likely step is going to be creating an app. My producer Curtis Fox is really interested in doing that. So I think that will be an easy way for people to listen to the show. The show is impacted by new technology in a way that allows it to travel faster and I mean when I was doing the show 10 years ago it was done over a telephone line and now it's being done in a studio and it's being edited, which it also wasn't when I first started.
You heard every blip. So I think it'll be an interesting place for it to wander through technology as technology expands to see what the possibilities are. For me it's just about a really, really good conversation and almost no amount of technology can change whether it's a good conversation or not. So while there might be additional ways to expand it, to have people be able to listen to it, the reach expands and so forth, the show will only ever be as good as the conversations and the type of questions and the type of rapport that I'm able to have with my guests.
So I don't necessarily see technology changing that aspect of it so much. - Let's change directions a little bit, branding. So you work for Sterling Brands, you're the president, have been for more than 20 years. - Well I have been the president for nearly 20 years. I celebrated my 20th anniversary at Sterling a few months ago, but I've recently been promoted to Chief Marketing Officer. - Oh congratulations. - Thank you, so rather than just look after the design business, I'm now looking at marketing the entire business, which includes design, strategy, and innovation.
So that's a really new and exciting development for me. It also gives me the opportunity to continue to do a lot more of my self-generated projects, which I'm doing more and more and more and more of. - And you've worked on more that 200 rebranding projects with huge clients like Kraft, Nestle, Procter , Gamble, to name a few, Pepsi. So when one of these massive clients comes to you and says we want to reimagine our brand or freshen it up, where do you even begin? - The first thing I generally ask is why.
Why do you want to do this? There are times where an organization wants to do something because somebody new has come in and it's a signal of some new leadership. That's often not the best of ideas unless there's a fundamental change in philosophy. There's also the opportunity to redo something because it's not doing well, but again the same question, why? Because if it's not doing well, chances are the branding isn't really going to make it do any better. All it might do is temporarily increase some trial, but it's not going to create any long-term sustained growth.
So the first question always has to be why because you need to understand what the issues are that you're trying to address via the identity redesign or the package redesign and ultimately the redesign or any design is only going to be as good as what the product delivers. People will very quickly forget how pretty something is if it smells bad and so you really need to figure out what the motivation is and what the criteria for success is and then begin a project.
I define branding as deliberate differentiation. Every brand wants to be different from each other. Every person wants to be different from each other. But this is a way of very specifically creating intention about how to do that. How do we want this brand to be different from this? What is the reason that this brand exists? What is its essence? What is its purpose? What is its DNA? What is the soul of this brand and how does it connect with other people? - Are there times that after that conversation, the client says you know what you're right, let's just not do anything? - Occasionally it happens.
I mean, if there's an intention to do something, there's usually a reason why it needs to be done. That doesn't necessarily mean that that's the right specific thing to do. So a lot of being a brand consultant is also being a psychologist, behavioral psychologist and a cultural anthropologist and an economist and a designer. Paula Scher once said something I thought was brilliant. People that ask us to design the big identities and the big packaging redesigns aren't paying the big bucks because of the size of the brand, they're paying us the big bucks to navigate through the big-time politics (laughs) and I think that's very true.
- So is there any part of the brand design process that you enjoy more than another part? - I enjoy the analysis. If I really had to pick what part of branding I like best, it's the psychology. I am endlessly fascinated by why people choose the things that they do, why they want things in their lives. People aren't really interested now in a different flavor or a different form or a different structure.
What they're really interested in now, and this is what makes this discipline particularly exciting at this time in our culture, is that they're interested in what kind of difference is this going to make in my life. That's pretty profound. I think that branding in many ways is a manifestation of the human condition and I think the condition of branding reflects the condition of our culture. I think we use branding to help understand construct, to understand intention, to understand motivation, to understand people, and I think it's a language that we rely on now to signal our affiliations, to telegraph our whims, and to on its worst day project ideas about who we are, who we want other people to think we are and on its best day it helps us connect with like-minded people, with like-minded vision and like-minded values to feel part of something bigger than we are on our own.
- So what are the biggest changes you've seen in branding during your career? - The biggest changes is the way we connect with technology. I would say that if you look at the advent of modern branding, so from the Trade Mark Registrations Act of 1876 till now, I really see five major waves of brand evolution. The first was very much about consistency, very much about safety. The first drugs safety act, food and drug safety act, the FDA, came out to really guarantee that consumers have products that didn't kill them or make them sick.
You were legally entitled to products that were safe. And so that's probably from 1876 to I would say about right before the Great Depression and then you went into a period of what I call brand anthropomorphization where you saw lots of me too brands and this is the big, great gold rush of branding from 1876 to around 1920, '29. Then you saw all the copycats. So you saw a lot of brands that really couldn't differentiate from each other because the products were essentially the same or very close to being the same.
So they differentiated through character and metaphor. So you see the little salt, the Morton Salt girl or Tony the Tiger or all these characters that were really creating the first consumer engagement, the first personality, and then we move into the more modern sort of '50s time and then it was very much about an experience. You saw lots and lots of brands that were talking about experience and you're talking about a transformation and then now we're talking about brands that are helping us connect and we're doing that through what I call limbic brands and the limbic brands are brands that help facilitate human connection.
I don't think that people are really in love with the brands per se that help them connect. What they're in love with is the feeling that they get in that connection through the brands that they're using. So we're seeing a lot of that via social media, social networking, through technology, but we're also seeing that in farmer's markets and really sort of going back to a lot of wave one branding where it was much more about what the product was and that connection to the owner.
You know, all those original brands, the Kellogg's and the Johnson , Johnson, all of those were created by real people. Their companies were based on the values that they brought to the marketplace and so we're seeing a lot of that again now. TOMS is a wonderful example of a brand that's being created with purpose and meaning that's inspired by the owner. So you're seeing a lot of cyclical trends that are happening as well now too. - And what in branding hasn't changed and is probably not gonna change? Those enduring qualities that are branding DNA? - (sighs) This is a really interesting, interesting question.
What hasn't changed is the bit of dopamine that we get in our brains when we get something new, when we experience something new for the first time, which gives us that buzz that we always want over and over and over again. So we end up often being on a hedonistic treadmill that we're looking for more and more and more and more to fulfill an otherwise fragile center.
That's where that slippery slope is with branding. As Dan Pink has said, if your idea of happiness is a flat screen TV, you're playing a fool's game because there's always gonna be a bigger, flatter screen and so it's really about how can these augment your life as opposed to fulfill your life. - You say that we live in 140 character culture? - I do say that. We do live in a 140 character culture. - [Interviewer] And how does that affect the work you do? - I think it affects the work everybody does because everybody has become very impatient, very impatient with success, very impatient with craft.
I think anything worthwhile takes a long time, almost all the time. A lot of my students see the very young success of some really, really exceptional, special people and then they feel that somehow there's something wrong with them if they aren't able to achieve that success by 30. Those are the rare exceptions. The more common success comes after 10 or 15 or 20 years of doing something and practicing the craft and really, really getting good at it.
So I'm concerned about this instant gratification that we all require now, that dopamine hit. The dopamine hit, we get that same hit when we're looking at our cell phones hoping for an Instagram like or another email or a Facebook like or a retweet and that's what's dangerous about this. We're now moving into a new generation. We're going from the millennials to what's being called Generation Z. But people are also calling Generation Z Generation D, D for depressed because this generation is basing their sense of self on what others think and how they engage and so because we are so carefully curating our own positioning in this media, people are ending up feeling really lacking in comparison and so it's a very interesting time in our culture and it'll be interesting to see where this takes us.
I'm hoping there will be a backlash to that and that we'll be able to figure out 'cause there always is, that pendulum goes back and forth, back and forth and right now we're looking at very outer-centric, external ways of validating sense of self. So it'll be interesting to see where it goes next. The brand that is able to come up with that, how do I really create an internal sense of self worth, even if it's just a dopamine hit that isn't externally driven, that will likely be the next big success.
- Are there people out there who are looking to do branding and are looking to just say how can we give those people that dopamine hit regardless of whether or not it's honest or not? - There are always are, there always are. There always will be in every business, there are always, there charlatans. The good thing about that is that, again in this 140 character culture, we find out really quickly, we find out really quickly. The power right now is all with the consumer, with the audience, with the people.
You can't spray marketing on people and get them to believe it for very long because there are plenty of people that are willing to tell the truth and willing to expose the charlatans. So that's a really, really positive thing. The consumer, the audience, the people are holding brands to a much higher standard than they've ever been held before in our history. That's amazing. - Right, with social media now, brands have to be more honest because when they're not, they get called out quickly in public. - Instantly, instantly and then it's over.
Happens with politicians, it happens with brands, it happens with everything. - In your interview with Massimo, he talked about the difference between clients coming in who often could articulate their wants, but they didn't often know what their needs were. - Yeah, I mean I think it's a really interesting conundrum. I think it was Henry Ford who said if he had asked consumers what they wanted at the turn of the century, the last century, in terms of transportation, they would have answered a faster horse and Steve Jobs also talked about not giving people what they want, giving people what they need, but in order to be able to do that you have to understand fundamental human behavior, you have to understand what needs aren't being met in order to create the need for something new and that's not easy, that's not an easy thing to do.
That's why you don't see that many groundbreaking, game changing, world changing brands. They're mostly iterations and that's also a good thing because things build. All the greatness stands on the shoulders of the giants behind them. But every now and then you do get that spectacular breakthrough and that's what makes everything exciting. - Is education a big part of what you do for your clients? - I think education is a big part of everything.
I think education is a critical aspect of anything in that you really need to know what you're talking about. You know? (laughs) Life is very difficult when you don't know what you're talking about and you get into a lot of trouble when you don't know what you're talking about and you pretend that you know what you're talking about in an effort to persuade somebody to do something that you want. That's manipulation. That's not branding, that's manipulation. - Right, but I guess my question more is helping them understand what their needs are, teaching them, bringing them to that place.
- Oh I think the best clients want that. The worst clients want to tell you what you need to know and want to educate you. But the best clients are the ones that want to collaborate and they want cross pollination and cross teaching and that's when something really exciting happens. That's when great branding happens. - So you started the MFA in branding at SVA-- - It's the Masters in Professional Studies in Branding. First ever.
- With Steven Heller. - Yes, that was six years ago now. We're in our sixth year. - [Interviewer] Wow. - I know. - And so what brought you guys to do that? What was the original impetus? - Steve's idea completely, I will take no credit for it. He sent me an email that said "Want to have lunch?" as he often does, we have lunch regularly and we just catch up and talk about design. In this particular case he said "Listen, I have this idea. "Would you be at all interested in starting "a master's program in branding at SVA?" and I think my food fell out of my mouth and he's like "You don't have to answer right away," and I'm like beep, beep, beep, yes and we never looked back.
It's been a remarkable ride. I call my studio at SVA my happy place. I have the most extraordinary students. I still teach my undergrad class so it's also taught there in the studio and we're really trying to create an environment where we are able to create methodologies and meaning around branding that is a whole new way for the world to connect.
- And on the website it talks about how the students will learn, among many other things, how to master the intellectual link between leadership and creativity. - Yes. - [Interviewer] Can you talk about that? - Well mastering the intellectual link between leadership and creativity is about finding courage and so we spend a lot of time working on really understanding what we bring to leadership, what we bring to creating powerful ideas and so a big part of the class is learning through participation, through debate, through challenge, through experimentation to really understand what it is you bring to the process of creation and leadership and branding and so it's very much a psychological undertaking as much as it is a branding undertaking or a creative undertaking.
Who am I? What do I bring to this process? How do I create compelling ideas in a way that people not only understand, but want to be a part of? How do I create mutuality with people? How do I create like-minded ideas? How do I create the best possible scenarios for sustaining great knowledge? And so there's a very philosophical, very psychological aspect to the program as well, but I think that's what makes it so different, that's what makes it so special and I think that's what people like about it the most.
- You're grooming these guys to go out into a really competitive landscape today. - Yes. - What are the things that you hope that they're leading with, the most important qualities or aspects that they need to survive and thrive? - The most important aspects that I think they leave with are having a philosophy. Who you are and what you represent is as important as your work. Your ideas are as important as your work. So what is that philosophy? That anything worthwhile takes a long time, that busy is a decision, that we decide what we want to do and what we don't want to do and we lie about what we don't want to do.
When we say that we're too busy, it just means it's not a priority. That to consider courage over confidence. I think that Danny Shapira talks about confidence being overrated and I agree. I think that the more important ability in one's life is to walk courageously into the unknown, which is really, really, really hard, and that the only brands worth working on are brands that further our humanity, not denigrate it.
- You gave a commencement address at San Jose State University based on a piece that you wrote called Fail Safe. - [Debbie] Yes. - And in the piece you said, and I quote, "I dreamed of being a successful artist, "but in as much as I knew what I wanted "I felt compelled to consider what was reasonable "in order to ensure my economic security. "Even though I wanted what my best friend "once referred to as the whole wide world, "I thought it was prudent to compromise.
"I told myself it was more sensible "to aspire for success that was realistically attainable, "perhaps even failure proof. "It never once occurred to me "that I could succeed at what I dreamed of." If you had the opportunity to do it again, would you do anything differently? - I don't know that I would necessarily do my career any differently because I feel so grateful for where I am now. I don't think I'd worry as much.
I'd tell my younger self not to worry as much. I'd tell my younger self be really, really careful about who you love. It's easy for you to love, Deb, but it's not easy to pick the right people to love. I would tell myself that anything I really want, I will fight for. So if I'm unsure about fighting, it means I don't really want it.
I spent a lot of time agonizing over whether or not I should have done this or I should have done that. I think if you do it, you want to do it. If you don't do it, you might be too scared to do it, but at the end of the day, you don't want it more than you are willing to be scared. I think that what I've learned over the last 10 years in particular is that so much of what we are able to do comes from good parenting, good guidance, good encouragement.
I unfortunately came from really unintentional family conditions. It wasn't something that was I think intentional, but I didn't have a lot of guidance and I didn't have a lot of confidence, I didn't have any courage and I didn't have any self-esteem and so all of those decisions, those early decisions, were born out of a profound need to take care of myself, which I've been able to do.
If I hadn't had that extraordinary need, I don't know that I would have set up my life in this way to be able to do self-generated projects with such a freedom and such abandon because I was able to support myself with a good, solid, stable job. I almost don't want to look back and say woulda, coulda, shoulda only because there's so much more I want to do now and I feel open to new things in a way that I haven't in a really, really long time, which is both terrifying and exciting.
I think that uncertainty is both a gift and a terrible, terrible fear, but I'm willing to live with the fear to get the benefit of the possibilities. - So you wrote a book and designed it and illustrated called Self Portrait as Your Traitor. - Yes. - And Paula Scher described it as a 21st century illuminated manuscript. - Oh god, Paula. (laughs) - It's beautiful.
It is a beautiful book and it's hand lettered. - Yes, the whole thing. The entire thing is made by hand. The only thing in this book that's type set are the folios and the copyright information. Everything else, the entire book is made by hand. - Felt. - Felt, glue, metallic type, craft paper, vellum, pencil, pastel, oil pastel, you name it, it's in there. - Very personal project.
- [Debbie] Yes. - And what brought you to this place and what did you get out of it? - Well in many ways it was a sequel to Look Both Ways, which is the first illustrated book of essays that I did in 2009, which really came straight out of the class that I took with Milton Glaser in 2005. In that class, I took a summer intensive with him at SVA and in the class he asked people to envision a future that wasn't curtailed by fear and what did we want? What did we wish for? What did we imagine we could have if we weren't afraid of failure? And so I made this list, I wrote this essay and made this list and one of the things on the list was a book of illustrated essays.
Now mind you, I hadn't been doing any illustrated essays or any kind of painting at all for over 10 years. I had just started Design Matters as a result of that, but I still wasn't making anything with my hands and so I had this list and I wanted to, even though it wasn't something that you had to check in with Milton about, I guess I was really motivated to get his approval in some way (laughs) and so I set about trying to make these things happen and one of the things that I did was I sent a query to the acquisitions editor at F W Media.
I had recently been featured in HOW Magazine and one of the editors of the magazine was also the acquisitions editor in the book department and I sent her a little query about what I could do. I included an illustrated essay, which I look back on now in horror about and I didn't hear back. I didn't hear back for about six weeks, but I didn't hear no. So I decided I'm just gonna write her again and ask her if she ever got that email. Worst she could say is yes and sorry we're not interested.
But she didn't say that, she said "No, we never got it" and I'm not surprised 'cause it was this gigantic attachment but I never got a mailer daemon so I didn't think she didn't get it. I immediately sent it again. She confirmed when she received it. She wrote back and she said, "It seems like an intriguing book, "but it's not really the kind of book we do, "but I'll present it to the editorial board. "You never know." Couple of weeks later she wrote me back and said "We've accepted the book, we'd like to publish the book" and I wrote her back and said, "That's a miracle," and she wrote back "Yes Debbie, it really is," and that became my first book of illustrated essays.
But what was so profound an experience for me was the trajectory of doing the work. So the early essays were nowhere as near as good in my mind as the later essays. I thought the later essays were so much better that when I actually finished the book I went back and started redoing the essays because I wanted the early essays to be as good. - Rewriting or redesigning? - Redesigning, remaking the art to a point where F W finally had to cut me off. They're like sorry, you can't redo another one.
This is it, you're done. At that point, I felt that I was really getting my chops, you know, the muscle was starting to show and I didn't want to stop. So I asked Print if I could do a monthly essay on their website and they said yes and I have to tell you I was dogmatic about it. I did that, you'd think that the weight of the world was on my shoulders. Like if I didn't do this essay, something horrible was gonna happen. I was obsessed and I did one a month for three years and then one of the editors, a very, very dear man named Michael Silverberg, asked me if I would be interested in doing some type of PDF to help promote their illustration competition and I said sure I'd love to do that and so we started to make this PDF and then Gary Lynch, the publisher, said this is not a PDF, this is a coffee table book and so I set about making another book and making some new essays and that's how that happened.
It's really, it was a bit of a leap of faith to send the original email to Megan. It was a real leap of loyalty to give me the second opportunity as Gary has and now I just have to make them. It's part of my DNA now. - So you're continuing to do more? - I continue to do more. I haven't published anything new yet, but I can't go very long without making something new and creating something with my hands.
- Years ago, I saw Paula Scher talk about her own work and she was saying here is my jazz poster that has type going in all different directions and here's an aerial view of Manhattan and I'm very inspired by my city and I'm a New Yorker and I don't like white space, which I love, and you're a New York girl, grew up in Staten Island, moved there after the bridge I hear. - I moved there after the bridge. I was born in Brooklyn and then we moved to Queens and then Staten Island, the bridge had just been built and now I live in Manhattan.
I lived in all the burbs except the Bronx, but there's still time so who knows. So I'm very much a New Yorker, yes. - Does New York influence your work in any way? Do you see it creeping into your work personally or professionally? - I think New York is in my soul. My best friend Sue, the same person who said that who I talked to about wanting the whole wide world once said to me that I don't feel comfortable unless I have concrete under my shoes. When I was a little girl I drew a picture that I found fairly recently that I realized predicted my whole life.
I think I was living either in Queens or Staten Island at the time so I wasn't making a lot of trips to Manhattan, but I drew a city scene, a Manhattan city scene, buses going by labeled bus, taxis going by labeled taxi, cleaner labeled cleaner, bank labeled bank and then there's this big delivery truck right in the center that says potato chips, but then I drew the Lay's logo on the truck. So there I was walking in the city, all of the bustle around me, drawing Lay's potato chips logos at eight years old.
So yeah, I think it's intrinsically part of who I am. When I die, I want to be cremated and then just spread all over the city. (laughs) - Do you have any people that you look back to as being specific mentors? - Steve Heller. Steve Heller, the man who changed my life. Steve Heller got me my first book deal, he recommended me to a publisher and he helped me with, he founded the idea of the Masters in Branding program.
So Steve Heller first and foremost, my fairy godfather. My life would not be the life I have without Steve Heller. And then of course there's all the extraordinary women designers that I've been inspired by, Emily Oberman, Paula Scher, Carin Goldberg, Marian Bantjes. I mean, every single day these extraordinary women inspire me. Christine Mau, Susan Benjamin. I mean, my friends, my family. Yeah. - So just a few last questions.
What design books do you suggest to your students? - I suggest more than just design books. First of all, if anybody is interested in a list of books that I really recommend, whether it be design or branding, I have a link on my website debbiemillman.com that says Reading because I get a lot of questions about that. But I recommend that people read even more than design books. Read anything by Malcolm Gladwell, read anything by Seth Godin, read anything by Wally Olins and Wallace Stevens also the poet. (laughs) Read anything by Virginia Postrel.
Understanding culture is so important to design. Understanding the state of the world, the state of humanity. If you can understand the state of what is happening in our world right now, it will make you a better designer. So those are the books that I recommend that you read in addition to anything and everything by Steven Heller and anything and everything by Rick Poynor or Kenneth Fitzgerald. I mean all of these writers are so, so important. Just always read, always be reading.
- And when you get into a rut and you're on deadline and you have to get out, how do you break out of that creative rut? - I watch reruns of Law , Order: SVU and because I've seen every episode of Law , Order: SVU about three or 400 times, I always want to be doing something else when I'm watching Law , Order: SVU and so it inspires me to sort of be not taking myself so seriously when I experiment because I know I'm also watching and I get a little bit looser and it helps me unwind.
- Debbie, thank you so much for being here. It's been so much fun. - Thank you so much. (laughs) It's been so great to be with you.
In this exclusive interview from the 2015 AIGA Design Conference, our own Kristin Ellison sits down with Debbie for a discussion of her award-winning podcast, Design Matters, her approach to rebranding (which starts with the "why"), and the attitude toward branding in the social media age. They also talk about truth telling in branding and the power of education, which led Debbie to cofound the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts with Steven Heller. Debbie also reveals advice to her younger self; talks about the inspiration for her books, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design and Self Portrait as Your Traitor; and her deep connection to New York City.