Design legend Debbie Millman on branding, illustration and podcasting

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This is an intro, and, generally, intros should be kept short. In the case of someone like Debbie Millman, though, that becomes quite a challenge. As President of the Design Division and Chief Marketing Officer at Sterling Brands in New York for over 20 years, she worked with many of the world’s leading brands including Pepsi, Colgate and Burger King, as well as merchandising for Star Wars. In 2009, she founded the world’s first graduate programme in branding, with fellow design guru Steven Heller, at the School of Visual Arts in New York. And in 2005 she started one of the world’s first podcasts, Design Matters, where she has interviewed over 400 guests, including Alain de Botton, Marina Abramović, Seth Godin and Steven Pinker. Then there’s the fact that she’s President Emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Arts, author of six books, including Brand Bible: The Complete Guide to Building, Designing and Sustaining Brands, has had her own illustrations appear in The New York Times and New York Magazine, her artwork included in the Boston Biennale and Chicago Design Museum, and was described by Fast Company as ‘one of the most creative people in business’.

She also interviewed our own Kate Moross for D&AD in New York last year. There’s more, lots more, but hey, that’s what Google’s for. And, if you do nothing else, you should certainly toddle over to for many hours of insightful thinking.

Debbie was kind enough to talk to us about her thoughts on design, art and life.

First question is, how would you describe what you do?

I do a lot of different things, and I’ve always been this way! I am the Chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, I am the host of the podcast Design Matters, I am the author of six books (and working on a bunch more), I am also a designer, artist, curator and brand consultant.

Would you give yourself a job title?

Generally, I say that I am a designer and educator.

How did you find your way into the world of design and branding?

I started working in design primarily because it was the only marketable skill that I had. When I was in college (The State University at Albany, in Albany New York) I wrote for the student newspaper and I became the Arts and Feature editor in my senior year. As part of the role of editor you also had to lay out and design the paper. I found that to be something truly remarkable, like magical. I loved doing it and I loved doing it as much if not more than the editing, writing and assigning stories. There wasn’t much I could do with an English degree; I didn’t want to be an account executive in an ad agency. I had this skill of being able to do what is considered now old school layout drafting skills. My first jobs were working as a freelance designer paste-up artist. But the first 10 years of my career were experiments in rejection and failure. I didn’t get my job at Sterling Brands until 1995; a full twelve years after I graduated college.

Which came first for you – illustration or branding?

I started drawing when I was a very little girl. My mom taught me my first illustration skills. My work in branding didn’t begin until I was an adult and was result of taking a cold-call by a head hunter!

Where do you think the line lies between design and art?

Work in design and advertising generally has a client, a creative or marketing brief and very specific, measurable criteria for success. In my opinion, (good) art is an effort to express the human condition in some way.

Can work created for branding and advertising ever be considered as art?

Design and advertising can be artistic, but they are not art.

What has been the proudest achievement of your career?

Here are a few things that I am proud of: Creating a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, winning the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for my podcast Design Matters, working to create the No More campaign to help eradicate sexual abuse and domestic violence with Christine Mau and Mariska Hargitay, becoming President of AIGA (the professional association for design), having six books published, exhibiting my visual essays at the Chicago Design Museum.

Do you have any unfulfilled ambitions?

OMG YES! About a million of them. Maybe two million.

Did you anticipate Design Matters being such a success when you started?

I had no idea! I started Design Matters when I felt like I was in a bit of a creative slump. This was before I had started teaching at SVA, and at the time, all of my work had veered to the commercial. I felt my creative spirit was dying. I thought the opportunity to create a little internet radio show with Voice America, if nothing more, could be a fun, creative experience. It’s ended up profoundly changing my life.

I started Design Matters in 2005. I often say that the show 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 in the Empire State Building at Sterling Brands. The show was live and broadcast every week at 3pm Eastern Time and a recording of the show was rebroadcast in the middle of the night during the week.

After the first dozen episodes, people began to ask me how I began to distribute the episodes free on iTunes. I realized the opportunity to share the brilliance of my guests with an audience I never expected was the gift of a lifetime, not only because I had a built-in permission slip to ask some of the greatest designers in the world questions about how they became who they are, but also because I could freely offer this to others as well. Design Matters inadvertently became the first ever design podcast and is now one of the oldest podcasts on the internet.

As both podcasting and Design Matters grew in popularity, in 2009 I recognized that I needed to upgrade the sound quality of the show. After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to publish Design Matters on Design Observer by co-founder William Drenttel. I hired producer Curtis Fox and began recording the show at the specially built podcast studio in my Masters in Branding Program here at the School of Visual Arts.

The show has transitioned from a show about design to a show about how incredibly creative people design their lives. I’m still endlessly fascinated by the arc of a life, and I’ve interviewed nearly 400 designers, artists, writers, business leaders, musicians, poets, playwrights and more. Some of my favorite episodes include interviews with Chris Ware, Chip Kidd, the 12 interviews I’ve conducted with Steven Heller (we have an annual show, it’s become our ritual), Simon Sinek, Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Alexander, and so many more! In 2011, the show won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and after 11 years, iTunes designated it one of the top fifteen podcasts of 2015. We now have about five million downloads a year, which blows my mind.

What qualifies someone to be a guest on Design Matters?

My first guests were mostly friends. As those friends began to send the links of the early shows to their friends, word spread in the design community. By the time Voice America renewed the show and I wrote another check for the airtime, I began to invite designers beyond my circle of friends and, mercifully, most said yes. By the end of my second “season” of Design Matters, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Michael Bierut and Stefan Sagmeister had been guests on the show. Now, I reach out to almost anyone whose work I admire. The biggest qualification is that I really love their work.

Have any guests surprised you with their views?

They almost always surprise me with their honesty and their candor and their openness.

How has the digital age influenced branding, do you think?

The digital age has influenced branding in nearly every way. The speed in which we can create things, the speed to market and the speed to communicate and share has revolutionized the way we work, buy and feel about our brands.

Do you think that people still identify with brands in the same way today?

I think people identify with brands in even more profound ways than they ever have. Design and branding are inextricably linked to the way in which society, culture, the environment and business interact. At this particular moment in time in our world, I believe that the discipline of branding has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium. 

I also find the role of branding now incredibly, incredibly exciting. A lot of that has to do with the energy and intellect of the new generation of designers and makers. Movements such as Black Lives Matter is one of the most important instigators of change to enter our cultural discourse in a long time. As is the use of the Pink Pussy hat. Design has finally become democratized, and these efforts are not about anything commercial. These efforts have not been initiated for any financial benefit. They have been created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose design has: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. This is creating an environment wherein design and branding are not just tools of capitalism, rather they have become profound manifestations of the human spirit.

You travel a lot, do you find design transcends national borders, or are there differences?

Both. You still have local brands that reflect the inherent integrity of the local culture. But you also have global brands that behave the same way all over the world. For me, the sad thing is the homogenization of the retail environment. I’d challenge anyone to go into any international airport, and without looking at the signage, tell me where they are. There are almost always the same stores, restaurants and kiosks. While it makes for more convenience, you definitely lose the local flavor.

Who do you have lined up for future editions of Design Matters?

This year I have an incredible line-up of guests, including investigative journalist and author David Cay Johnston; guitarist and composer Kaki King, Nick Law, Vice Chairman and Global Chief Creative Officer, R/GA; artist Edel Rodriguez; Ghanaian British architect, Sir David Adjaye OBE RA; Steven Pinker, Johnstone Professor of Psychology, Harvard University and author of books on language, mind, & human nature; Lewis Lapham, writer and founder of Lapham’s Quarterly; billionaire philanthropist and sexual assault survivor Sukey Novogratz; theoretical astrophysicist and Princeton University professor David Spergel; illustrator Richard Haines; Anand Giridharadas, author and newspaper columnist; Simon Doonan, Creative Ambassador-at-Large for Barneys; designer, author, and artist Edwin Schlossberg. And that’s just a start! I am particularly excited about my interview with Steven Pinker; I think it is one of my best.

Finally, as an illustrator yourself, do you have any tips for someone just starting to make their way in the game?

Ten bits of advice:

  • Be fearless when asking people for business.
  • Find lots of clients. Because it’s impossible to know which of them will be good.
  • Work harder than anybody else that you know.
  • Never give up if it is something that you really want.
  • Don’t lie about what you know and what you’ve done.
  • Do not be afraid to want a lot.
  • Things take a long time; practice patience.
  • Avoid compulsively making things worse.
  • Finish what you start.
  • 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.

Images: Debbie Millman