Debbie Millman found her branding voice and launched her career as a premiere interviewer through an unexpected opportunity. Just as podcasts were starting to happen in 2005, Debbie took to Internet radio, where she crafted her style—talking with design industry professionals, getting to know them through conversation, learning how people design their lives, and discovering how they became who they are.
(upbeat electronic music) - 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 co-founded 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 e-mail saying that you'd be willing to chat with us, I was thrilled, but I was also intimidated. - Oh please. - Because, no because this chair of yours that I'm sitting in as the interviewer, with Design Matters, you are the designer's interviewer.
- Oh. - You know, what are you, you're up to 226 interviews? - Something like that. - 10 years. - Yeah well into the 200's, yes. - Yeah, 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 a losing a bit of my soul.
I felt that everything that I was doing only had commercial value. That it 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 realize that what I had 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've 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 them 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 landline, 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's 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 airtime 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, I really liked it though. I loved having this ability to once I started going beyond my friends, having this portal to, 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 could we learn from their mistakes, how could 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. - Thank you. - I've heard a ton of them. - Some are better than others. - I think that the thing that 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 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, - Of life and of design, - it's been bootcamp, - of design, and everything. - It's been every possible education, everything can and will happen on the radio. You have to just 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 well have Helvetica, slap that together and 25 years later it's still the same type, or 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 have 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.
When I was doing the show ten years ago it was done over a telephone line, and now it's being done in a studio. And it's being edited which also wasn't when I first started you heard every blip. So I think, 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 way 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.
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.