Debbie Millman is deeply personal in this interview where she reflects on her career and the things she’s learned along the way. When Steven Heller suggested she co-found a MFA program in branding at the School of Visual Arts with him, she bit and never looked back. Encouraging new designers to see the world through their personal philosophies, leadership, and creativity, Millman has blazed a path for herself and for others, merging education and creativity with humanity. Her latest book is a personal work of art that is "Debbie Millman unleashed."
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- 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? (laughing) - Yeah. - 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 to 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 - Six years ago. - We're in our sixth year. - 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 Masters program in Branding at SVA?" And, I think, you know, my food feel out of my mouth.
He's like, "You don't have to answer right away," and I'm like, beat, beat, beat, "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. - Can you talk about that? - Well, mastering the intellectual link between leadership and creativity is about finding courage. And so we spent 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. 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, it's a very philosophical, very psychological aspect to the program as well.
But I think that's what makes it 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- - Right. - today. - Yes. - What are the things that you hope that they're leaving 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, what you represent is as important as your work.
Your ideas are as important as your work. So, what is that philosophy? That anything worth while 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 Dani Shapiro 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. - 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. Its easy for you to love, Deb, but it's not easy to pick the right people to love. I would tell myself that 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've done this or I should've 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'd been able to do.
If I hadn't had that extrodianary need, I don't know that I would've 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 (giggles). - It's beautiful, it is a beautiful book. - Paula, Paula, Paula. And it's hand-lettered. - Yes, the whole thing. The entire thing is made by hand. The only thing in this book that's typeset 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. - 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, you know, wanted to, even though it wasn't something you had to check in with Milton about, I guess I was really motivated to get his approval in some way (giggles).
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 at the, 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." Worse, 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 because 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." A 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." (laughing) And that became my first book of illustrated essays.
But what was, what was so profound an experience, for me, was the trajectory of doing the work. So the early essays were no where near as good, in my mind, as the later essays. I thought the later essays were so much better that I, 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 were like, "Sorry, you can't, you can't redo another one, this is it, you're done." At that point, I felt that I was really gettin' my chops, you know, I was, 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, 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 going to 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 coffee table book." And so, I went about, set about making another book, making some new essays, and, 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 Sher 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, (giggles) 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 has just been built. And now I live in Manhattan. I've lived in all the boroughs 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, taxi's going by labeled Taxi, cleaner labeled Cleaner, bank labeled Bank, and 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 logo's at eight years old. So, yeah, I think it's intrinsically part of who I am. - The writing was on the wall. - When I die, I want to be cremated, and then just spread all over the city. (giggles) - 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 book first, 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 extrodianary women designers that I've been inspired by. Emily Oberman, Paula Scher, Carin Goldberg, Marian Bantjes. I mean, every single day, these extrodianary women inspire me. Christine Mau, Susan Benjamin. I mean, these, my friends, my family. Yeah. - So, just a few last questions. - Sure.
- 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.
(giggling) 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 a deadline, and you have to get out, how do you break out of that creative funk? - I watch reruns of Law & Order: SVU. 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. - (giggling) Thank you so much. 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.