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Interview: Debbie Millman on the 3 skills that helped her succeed as a designer

Her thoughts on branding and culture, on creating an award-winning podcast, and how she got her start in design.

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Debbie Millman has conducted a lot of interviews. As the host of Design Matters, the longest-running podcast about design, she’s interviewed over 300 creatives, including writers, designers, entrepreneurs, and artists. So, for this next installment of our design/shine interview series about women working in the field of design, I asked Millman a few questions about her career path as a designer.

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Photo credit: Debbie Millman/John Madere

Millman’s broad definition of design reflects her own wide-reaching career: she’s the author of several books, an editorial & creative director at a magazine, and the chair of a masters program in branding. Her previous job titles have included president (of the professional design association AIGA, and of the design division at Sterling Brands), founder (of a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts in New York), and designer (of many notable things – Graphic Design USA called her “one of the most influential designers working today”).   

I spoke with Millman about how she got her start in design, creating her podcast, and what she’s most proud of in her career so far. She also shared the three skills that she credits her success to, and what advice she would give aspiring designers (you’ll want to take notes).

What do you do for work, and why do you do it? 

DM: In terms of what I do for a living – 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 Editorial and Creative Director at Print Magazine, 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.

Currently I am working to expand my knowledge in living whole-heartedly. I’m making a lot of changes in my life at the moment, and I hate change and I hate being vulnerable and I hate being out of control! But sometimes you’ve got to have a little bit of faith. That’s something else I’m working on trying to understand better. It’s unnerving, but it is also thrilling to be feeling this intensely again.

Where did you learn the most about design?

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.

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Image credit: ‘Seeing Duff’, Debbie Millman

What are some of the design & branding trends you’re paying attention to lately?

I now 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. 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 believe that the discipline of branding has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium.

What’s something you’re most proud of in your career so far? 

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, and exhibiting my visual essays at the Chicago Design Museum.

Design is, inherently, a very visual medium. How did that play into the creation of your podcast, Design Matters – since podcasting is an audio-only art form? 

In 2005, I started my Design Matters podcast. I often say that Design Matters 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 at Sterling Brands. After the first dozen episodes, I began to distribute the episodes free on iTunes, making it the first ever design podcast to be distributed in this manner. I realized the opportunity to share the brilliance of my guests with an audience I never expected was the gift of a lifetime, but as the show grew in popularity, I recognized that I needed to upgrade both the sound quality and the distribution.

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A few books written by Millman.

After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to publish Design Matters on Design Observer by the late, great Bill Drenttel. Design Matters became the anchor show on Design Observer’s media channel, and the show is produced at the specially built podcast studio located at my Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I’ve done nearly 300 episodes to date and after 11 years, iTunes designated it one of the top fifteen podcasts of 2015.

What are your go-to tools for collaboration, design work, and productivity? 

I have three skills that I think help me in every aspect of my life. The first is that I am a “finisher.” I almost always finish what I start. I am a firm believer that no matter how good or bad you think something is, there is a benefit to actually completing it. Not everything you make has to be perfect. You learn as much from the strikeouts as you do from the home runs and it is important to understand WHY you struck out in order to really learn about the conditions that led you to striking out. This helps you improve your form and also takes some of the pressure off of experimenting.

“Busy is not a badge.”

Second, I don’t believe in “too busy.” I think that 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.

Finally, I have a hard time taking no for an answer. I often ask more than once for something, even if I’ve been turned down. I will ask a different way, or wait a bit of time before asking again or find a more creative way of manifesting a YES. Sometimes this can be annoying, but mostly I can’t help myself.

If you had to give an aspiring designer one piece of advice, what would it be?

I was interviewing the great writer Dani Shapiro and we were talking about the role of confidence in success. She stated that she felt that confidence wasn’t as important as courage, and that the action to DO something was much more critical to success than the idea that you feel confident about doing it. The notion that courage is more important than confidence has stayed with me ever since.

Design/shine is an interview series based on the concept of shine theory, the idea that women can raise each other up by highlighting each other’s accomplishments. At the end of this interview, we asked Debbie to tell us about another woman in design who she admires. Stay tuned for that interview next! 


About the Author Brittany Jezouit

Brittany is the editor of the Envato blog. You can follow her on Twitter @brittanyjezouit.