Interview by Moxie Sozo

Debbie Millman
Design Matters & Beyond

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Debbie Millman might be the nicest person in the profession. That’s not just my opinion—that’s a fact. I’ve heard that sentiment from many people over the years, and I’ve experienced her generosity firsthand. But don’t let that fool you. She’s no pushover. She’s a vocal proponent of using design and branding to create awareness and action for social causes she believes in. She doesn’t just sit on the sidelines observing the world, Millman gets involved and incites action in others. She's a leader and a fighter.

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Whether she’s teaching branding in the graduate program at School of Visual Arts that she cofounded in 2009 with Steven Heller, or interviewing someone for her popular Design Matters podcast, or fulfilling her dual roles as creative director/editorial director at PRINT magazine, she is immersed in the design community, speaking at events all over the world, and serving as an active board member of several organizations. She has also written six books, with more in the works. Her work clearly fuels her soul.

Millman recently left Sterling Brands, where she served as president of the design division for 20 years, working for some of the world’s largest brands. Here we talk to her about her career in branding, the surprise success of her podcast, and what’s next for this adventurous lady.

As someone who’s been immersed in branding for more than 20 years, how have your perceptions changed over the years about brand expectations and limits?

I find the role of branding now incredibly, incredibly exciting. I think that the ultimate goal of the discipline of branding is to reflect the culture in which the brand or the product or the company participates, which evokes a unique composition of sensory perceptions, which in turn create brand tribes. The extension of any one of these sensory perceptions impacts the way we think and act—and the way we perceive the brand or the product or the company. When these perceptions change, people change. I also think movements such as Black Lives Matter, is one of the most important movements to enter our cultural discourse in a long time. Design has finally become democratized, and these efforts are not about anything commercial. They have not been created 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. As a result, I believe that the discipline of branding—and by extension, design—has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium.

Was it hard stepping away from Sterling?

Hell yeah! I worked at Sterling for nearly half my life. I started there in 1995 when the company had one office and less than 20 employees. Now the company has well over 120 employees and four offices. But it was time. Back in 2007, the year before Omnicom acquired Sterling, Steven Heller approached me to help him create the first ever Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC. At the time, I knew we were preparing for an eventual acquisition of Sterling AND it would take 2-3 years to put together the Masters program, so I thought both were doable. In the grand Venn diagram of my life, I thought the “time in-between” with two full-time jobs would be minimal and manageable. And it likely would have been for an in infinite amount of time if I also wasn’t hosting Design Matters and hadn’t become Editorial & Creative Director of Print Magazine, and hadn’t joined the boards of Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation and Performance Space 122, and didn’t want to write and design any more books.

So in 2014, two years after our successful earn out, I started to think about life after Sterling. JUST when I started to seriously consider it, CEO Simon Williams started thinking about transitioning into the role of Chairman and offered me the CEO job. It took me four months to ultimately decide not to take the position and it was probably one of the toughest decisions of my life. But I felt deep in my heart that there was more for me to do in my life and that it was important to take this leap. But it was very scary!
Several years ago, I conducted a panel discussion with a number of entrepreneurs about leadership and risk. One of the panelists was the former general manager of PUMA. She had recently left her position and started a specialty foods store in Boston. When I asked her how she made the decision to do this, she replied, “I just let go of the trapeze.” In that moment I saw myself with my elbows linked to five trapezes, stuck in the air. So I worked with Simon Williams to plan my exit. It was a slow departure; first I went down to three days a week, then to one. I handed in my employee badge at the end of October, but Sterling will always be part of my DNA. I know they are doing some amazingly exciting things now and bringing on some incredibly talented people, and I can’t wait to see where they go and what they do next.

Debbie and Abbott Miller, DM Live

I don’t think people understand how much research goes into good interviews. What’s the typical preparation process for a Design Matters interview?

I usually spend about 10 hours researching and preparing for every one hour of actual interviewing. But I LOVE researching my guests. I try to read anything public they’ve written (blog posts, books, etc), watch their online talks or lectures, and read every interview they’ve ever conducted, if possible. I usually cull about 20-25 pages of research from my findings, and then whittle the research down to about 5-7 pages of questions about numerous aspects of their lives. I want to be able to pivot if my guest takes the interview in a different direction than I expect or intend.

I often say that a good interview is like a good game of pool: you don’t try to shoot one ball in one hole. You want to shoot one ball in one hole, but also leave enough balls on the table in position to successfully shoot the next ball.

Your interview style is so relaxed, and you’re so prepared and calm. Have you always been like that or is this something you’ve worked on and honed over the years?

HA! Listen to the early shows from back in 2005, and you will get your answer. I find the early shows to be unlistenable. I think it took me about 100 episodes to find my “style.” I’ve done nearly 300 episodes to date, but it wasn’t until 2009 that the show won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, and after 11 years, iTunes designated it one of the top fifteen podcasts of 2015. But in the last two to three years, the show has shifted. While in the past, I primarily talked to designers about design, now I am talking to a wider range of creative people about how they design their lives. I am endlessly fascinated by the trajectory of a person’s life, the choices they make, how they overcome obstacles or handle success, and how they essentially become who they are.

Meeting and talking to the most interesting people in the industry (and beyond) has been the greatest gift of my life.

Are you surprised at the popularity of Design Matters?

YES. The show has about a million and a half downloads a year on iTunes alone, and I find this MIRACULOUS.

Have you ever done an interview where you were totally irked at the person? You don’t have to name names …/h4>
Very, very occasionally. I’ve had a few people on the show that were a bit squirrely about answering my questions, which is tough when it’s happening, especially if they are the ones that have asked ME to be on the show. I can’t help but wonder why they wanted to come on an interview-talk show if they didn’t want to talk! But, ultimately I try to be as gentle as possible when that happens, and gingerly keep trying to get through.

Best of Design Matters image

Best of Design Matters

What’s the hardest interview you’ve ever prepared for?

The interviews where I am in total and complete awe of the person are the toughest for me. I get very intimidated by uber-talent and get nervous and self-conscious.

Guests that I experienced this with include Chris Ware, Maira Kalman, Eileen Myles, Alison Bechdel and so many more!

What interview are you most proud of and why?

See my list above! The fact that I was able to get through the interviews without plotzing gives me a great deal of pride. Seriously though, I would say that my episode with Chris Ware is my best Design Matters interviews. In fact, a book has just come out titled Chris Ware: Conversations, and when the editor, Jean Braithwaite, contacted me about including my Design Matters episode with Chris in the book, I nearly fainted.

Self Portrait Mobius Award

Much of your art revolves around the written word—things you’ve written or quotes from people you admire. Do you approach writing and art the same, or are they completely different thought processes?

My body of work in visual storytelling combines the narrative text of a story with a variety of creative elements to (hopefully) augment and enhance the traditional storytelling process.

By design, it is a co-creative process wherein both disciplines—text and image—can’t overwhelm or dilute the impression of the other; both need to be fully integrated and crafted.

Each element of the work needs to be approached with equal care and dedication. However, it is also dependent on the observer—the witness to the story—as any participant interprets their worldview through the filter of their own perceptions.

Joyful Heart Foundation Logo

In addition to your roles at Print, your podcast, teaching, writing, and doing art, you’re also actively involved as a board member of the Joyful Heart Foundation. What is your role and why is this organization so important to you?

I first started working to help eradicate domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse when I helped to create the NO MORE movement, which was created by a consortium of organizations including Verizon, Avon, Kimberly Clark, and the Joyful Heart Foundation. During that experience I met the founder of JHF, Law & Order SVU star Mariska Hargitay and CEO Maile Zambuto. Maile subsequently invited me to help them with the branding and repositioning of the foundation. We launched that work last year with Vice President Joe Biden at the JHF annual gala at Lincoln Center. I also recently joined the JHF board, which, quite frankly, makes me feel like my whole life makes sense.

What’s the next big thing for Debbie Millman?

In addition to continuing my work with SVA, Print magazine, the How Design Live Conference and Design Matters, I have a couple of awesome projects on the horizon! I am curating an exhibit at the Museum of Design in Atlanta on typography and design in the fall; I am planning an exciting new book; I am about to begin work on an oral history of one of the best design firms in the world; and I will be traveling to Dubai mid-year to participate in a really cool design conference.


January 17, 2017

A Special Thanks To

Debbie Millman