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What drew you to the design field? I started working in design primarily because it was the only marketable skill that I had. I went to the State University of New York at Albany, Albany, New York, and majored in English literature with a minor in Russian literature. I often joke now that I got my college degree in reading! But while there, I also wrote for the student newspaper, and I became the arts and features editor in my senior year. In addition to editing the section, I was responsible for the design and layout of each issue. And that is when I discovered design. I found creating the look and tone of each issue to be truly remarkable. In fact, I loved doing it as much if not more than the editing, writing and assigning of the stories every week.

After I graduated, I realized that I had excellent layout and paste-up drafting skills, and I worked my first job in the design department of a cable magazine, earning $6 per hour. My early career was punctuated by fits and starts, rejection and failure, and I didn’t get my first job in branding until 1993—a decade after I graduated college.

You wear many hats, including author, illustrator, brand consultant and host of the podcast Design Matters. How do you juggle all these identities? I have always been—and likely always will be—someone who likes to do a lot of different things at once. I was like this as a kid (in art, music and fashion), I was like this in high school (in art, music, drama, journalism, track and field, basketball, and even Mathletes), and I was like this in college (while I was editor of the arts and features section of the newspaper, I was also editor-in-chief of the student magazine at the same time!) So it is not a surprise that I’m still like this as an adult. Everything I do now—whether podcasting, working on Print magazine, developing a lesson plan for my students at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), writing a book or creating a visual essay—influences something else that I am doing. For me, everything blurs together. I don’t think that I would be able to do the things I do if the inspiration I get from one particular thing didn’t seep into everything else.

What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you first started Design Matters? How long it would take me to get good at it! I don’t think I became a decent interviewer until about eight years in. Also, I wish I knew how important sound quality was when I first started out; I listen to early episodes with a mixture of humiliation and horror.

Is there anyone who you would love to interview on the podcast? So many people! Here are a few: Michelle Obama, Kara Swisher, Simone Biles, Kamala Harris, Kara Walker, Jenny Holzer, Ed Ruscha, Joni Mitchell, Vanessa Redgrave and Lin-Manuel Miranda—and the list goes on and on.

What’s one conversation you’ve had on Design Matters that has stayed with you? After an interview with the writer Dani Shapiro, we started to talk about the role of confidence in success. She went on to state that she felt confidence was highly overrated. Instantly, I was intrigued. Dani explained that she felt most overly confident people were annoying and usually arrogant; overexuding that amount of confidence was a sure sign that a person was compensating for some type of internal psychological deficit.

Instead, Dani declared that courage was more important than confidence. When you are operating out of courage, you are saying that no matter how you feel about yourself, your opportunities or the outcome, you’re going to take a risk and step towards what you want. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive.

I think that the act of being courageous—taking that first step—is much more critical to a successful outcome than the notion of feeling confident while engaged in the process. Courage requires faith in your ability before you experience any repeated success. Courage is the birthplace of authentic confidence.

In an interview, you one said, “We live in what I now call a ‘140-character culture.’” How do you think social media has influenced visual storytelling? I’m excited by technology and the speed of innovation, but there is a downside to this magic. An unfortunate ramification of modern-day technology is that we expect things to happen at light speed. 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 immediately, and we get frustrated if the Wi-Fi connection is slow. Our culture is characterized by instantaneous global conversations, immediate poll results and fifteen-minute viral sensations online. Having been conditioned to immediacy, we now want instant gratification of our hopes and dreams. Yet, accomplishment and mastery in visual storytelling—or in business, art and everything else—takes time and reflection. You can’t become a great manager without first leading small groups, learning how to inspire different personalties and making novice mistakes. A master filmmaker takes years to learn all the elements of good moviemaking: the way that acting, writing, lighting, cinematography, editing and sound work together to convey 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 as well as master the art and skill of actual writing. The only “formula” for success is time and hard work.

What are some specific things you did in order to create enough time in your schedule to write your book Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People? I don’t believe in “too busy.” Busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is just shorthand for “not important enough” or “not a priority.” Busy is not a badge. You don’t “find” the time to make things: you make the time to do things. If I want to do something, I don’t let busy stand in the way. I make the time to do it.

All that being said, as I’ve been getting older, I have become increasingly concerned with time. I used to feel that my life was infinite; I never worried about having enough time to do all the things I wanted to do. Now, I feel the passage of time in ways that I never imagined. So my creative energy is fueled by the notion that there is so much I want to do, and I never, ever want to waste time. So whenever I am worried about doing something, I find myself asking this question: If not now, when? It puts things into perspective every time!

As cofounder and chair of the graduate program in branding at SVA, how has being an educator influenced your work and vice-versa? I’ve learned so many things: Contrary to popular belief, millennials can—and do—work hard. Just when you think you can’t work hard enough, you can actually work harder. No matter how old you are or how educated, it is an extraordinary gift to be able to continue to learn and grow. Observing students learn is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. And there is always time to reinvent yourself through education and art.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic changed the way you approach design education? Prior to the pandemic, I didn’t think the quality of online learning was even remotely comparable to in-person learning. But after I got over the technological hurdles, I came to understand how online learning democratizes the classroom environment and equalizes space. It also creates a more intimate and, in some cases, safer environment for expression. I ultimately liked it so much that I’m creating an online option for the SVA masters in branding program for the 2022 academic year.

What’s one piece of advice you’d like to impart to young designers? Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can. Imagine immensities. Don’t compromise. Don’t waste time. In order to strive for a remarkable life, you have to decide that you want one.

Named “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company and “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is also an author of six books, educator at the School of Visual Arts (SVA), curator, editorial director of Print magazine and host of the podcast Design Matters, one of the world’s first and longest running podcasts. As host and founder, Millman has interviewed nearly 500 artists, designers and cultural commentators over the past sixteen years, garnering a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2011, nominations for six Webby Awards and a designation from Apple as one of the best overall podcasts on iTunes; the podcast has also been listed on more than 100 “Best Podcasts” lists, including those by Business Insider and Vanity Fair. Previously the president of Sterling Brands—one of the world’s leading branding consultancies—for 20 years, Millman cofounded the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City in 2010, which has gone on to achieve international acclaim. She is also president emeritus of AIGA, one of five women to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history and was awarded a lifetime achievement award from the organization in 2019.


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