Conversations that Matter: Interview with Debbie Millman

Roshanak Keyghobadi | 2015 | New York

 “And remember, we can talk about making a difference,
we can make a difference,
or we can do both.” Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman[i] has been named one of the most influential designers working today.[ii] She is a brand consultant and the President, Chief Marketing Officer at the Sterling Brand[iii] design firm in New York City. She has co-founded the first graduate program in Branding at the School of Visual Arts[iv] with Steven Heller[v] in 2009 and is the Editorial and Creative Director of Print Magazine[vi]. Debbie has written six books[vii] on creative process, design and brands. Her essays have appeared in the New York Times[viii], and Design Observer[ix] and her artworks have been displayed in Chicago Design Museum[x] and The Wolfsonion Museum[xi].

Debbie is also the host of the radio show Design Matters[xii] which is the world’s first podcast about design and creative culture. In 2011, Design Matters was awarded the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award[xiii] and this year the show is celebrating its 10th year anniversary with more than 200 episodes. During the years Debbie has interviewed most fascinating and influential creative people. Her impressive knowledge, clever questions, upbeat attitude, and mesmerizing voice are all the right elements for a unique listening experience and access into the world of many innovative minds. What ties all of Debbie’s many roles (brand consultant, educator, writer, artist, radio show host) is her ability for creating, discovering, connecting and telling stories whether they are about a product, her guests’ experiences or her own life.

I met Debbie at her office at the School of Visual Arts in New York City to have a conversation about Design Matters.

Roshanak Keyghobadi. Debbie you have said: “I decided that interviewing designers who I revered would be an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about them.” Why is it important for you to interview designers and artists?
Debbie Millman: Well, it is a great question. I started out interviewing designers and artists because it was the closest thing to what I did professionally and what I was personally interested in. Over the years that is what I have become known for but in the last year or so I tried to broaden it to not just visual artists but also musical artists and writers. Mostly I am interested now in people that create things. It could be music it could be books it could be design, ideas. How do people go about constructing their lives. I am obsessed with the idea of an arc of a life and how people create their own journeys and paths, how they get over their obstacles and how they combat their own inner demons, how they make sense of the world. That’s what I am really fascinated by

RK: Was this solely a personal interest or you had a bigger plan?
DM: There was no long-term plan. I was cold called by a producer from Voice of America business network[xiv] which was then a fledgling internet radio network. They were interested in the possibility of me hosting a show. But I was required to pay for the airtime and their production abilities. So I was paying to make the show and at the time I felt that everything that I was doing professionally was very commercial and very much geared to profit and I wanted something that was as far from commercial as possible, that had no financial value or measurement. If anybody had told me in 2005 when I started the show that I still would be doing it in 2015, I don’t know if I would have believed them. So it was really essentially season to season, those first 100 episodes. The show taking off from the notion of people listening, part of me feels that it was mostly because there was nothing else out there. Wasn’t that the show was any good because it wasn’t it was really badly produced. The sound was dreadful, there were these horrendous ads every 15 minutes or so and I had no idea what I was doing! I’ve grown as the show has evolved and I think also maybe people have enjoyed watching that as well because I was so terrible at the beginning but still had so much passion for doing it.

RK: Why do you think it is critical to have a more personal dialogue with creative people?
DM: Because everything creative is personal, comes from a personal point of view, comes from a unique way of seeing the world. Even commercial art need to have a personality to it, a reason for being. And I think that anything that is creative has a point of view, a reason for being. I am interested in finding out what that is.

RK: You have said: “I choose guests one way: I want to talk to them. What are their hopes, dreams what do they want to do next. Questions that otherwise I would have not have the opportunity to ask them…it is about design, truth and beauty…and I love that.” Beside designers you have a variety of guests on Design Matters such a Actors, Architects, Cartoonists, Chefs, Comedians, Educators, Historians, Poets, Musician…How do you choose your guests? What is it that you see in one person and you want to invite her/him for your show?
DM: An open heart. Somebody that I think is really interesting for any number of reasons. It doesn’t even matter what it is that they do if they are doing something with their whole heart and doing something with the bigness of the world embedded in the smallness of whatever it is that they are doing. And I find that a privilege. People would actually answer questions about why they do the things they do and reveal their secrets, or their fears, or their insecurities. I think one of the biggest contributions to the creative community that I hope my interviews (whether the written interviews or the podcasts) have made is the notion that even the most extraordinary creative people have doubts and fears and question their abilities. So I think if anyone struggling to make something that hasn’t made it yet or made it big reads or listens to that point of view they might be able to have more courage to do what they want to do. So it gives them a sense of camaraderie of not being alone in that effort.

RK: How do you think interviewing designers, artists and creative personalities have affected you, them and your listeners/viewers?
DM: Well I don’t know what it is necessarily doing to the interviewee but for me and for my listeners in many ways I think it is doing the same thing. It is enriching people’s lives. It is nourishing their inspiration or their need for inspiration. I have to be completely present when I am interviewing someone. I can’t think about anything else there is nothing else in the world except me and that person in that hour. And I have to listen really really carefully because I don’t only want to ask questions that I want to know, I want to ask questions that I think other people want to know the answers to. I have to know when to move on, when things might get tedious for them, how to keep them engaged and open and wanting to answer questions, to keep them from closing down or feeling too revealed. You know there is that line where you want to be really respectful to who they are but also get them to say as much as they feel comfortable saying without being uncomfortable. So it is sort of a game of pool. I want to be able to ask a question that takes the ball to a place where I can also have other questions. So that is part of why I do so much research because whatever they say I want to know what else I can say from that that I already know that make it a better interview. So it is not just somebody talking about what they do and I am hearing it for the first time. It’s somebody talking about what they do in a way that allows me to make connections knowing their body of work, their history, their education, their point of view that allows me to ask questions that are more interesting than just “how come?” or “can you elaborate?” or whatever else. I still will ask those questions sometimes but I want to be able to ask questions that further the conversation and the dialogue not just adds another question.

RK: How do you prepare for an interview? What is the structure and process of your interview? How do you plan it?
DM: Well, the guests have no plan. They have to do nothing. They just show up. And a lot of people ask me: “What do I need to do?” and I say: “Nothing, just show up.” Very very occasionally I won’t be able to find out something about their history that I need to know so I’ll ask that ahead of time. But most of the time I’ll be able to find what I need to. So I like to read everything that they have written, look at every bit of work that they have created and have put out there. I do a lot of really intense research. I want to know about how they grew up, where they grew up, where they went to school, what was the influence of their parents on them, how they made the decision to study what they studied, why they went to school if they went to school, what was it like to get their first jobs. I need to know the complete trajectory of that person’s life so that then I can deconstruct it and ask them questions about each step along the way. So I always start with some history. I try to break the ice with something funny, something that I discovered about them that they can laugh at or smile at and then recognize that it is not an interrogation. This is a celebration of who they are. It is not a “got you” kind of an interview. Let’s basically talk about how amazing you are and why you are who you are and how you are who you are. I used to get accused of fawning over my guests so I tried to pull that back a little bit and now I have a producer so he probably edits some of the fawning out. I still get really excited by talking to people that make things, that make things that I think are amazing. How can you not

RK: One of your guests that have appeared on Design Matters several times from its start in 2005 is Steven Heller. What makes you invite him to the show every year?
DM: Well, he is one of my favorite people in the whole world. We have the best conversations ever. You would think doing the show with him every year people would listen to that show less, people listen to that show more. It is amazing how many people listen to those episodes. Steve is the smartest man in design. Why wouldn’t I want to talk to him every year? It has become a ritual. It was a ritual before the show was “big”. Steve changed my life in the most profound way. He got me my first book deal, he got me this job at SVA. It is a privilege to talk to him.

RK: If you could go back in time, whom would you like to interview from the past?
DM: I had an opportunity last year to interview Michael Graves[xv] and we couldn’t get the scheduling to work and he died and I am crushed. I’ll never get over that. I can’t believe that I had so close of an opportunity to interview him and he died. I would have loved to interview Tibor Kalman[xvi]. I feel really fortunate that I got to interview Massimo Vignelli[xvii], Hillman Curtis[xviii], Bill Moggridge[xix]. To think that those conversations will hopefully last forever or as long as we last is a great gift. To know that if somebody wants to hear Bill Moggridge’s voice have a conversation about his life they can listen to the show, same thing with Massimo. I think I interviewed Massimo two or three times. Tibor died in 1999 and I didn’t start the show until 2005 so that’s unfortunate. Who else? All the great masters, Paul Rand[xx] and Saul Bass[xxi] any of those people I would have loved to interviewed.

RK: What is the most mentioned interview on Design Matters which people tell you about? Why do you think people remember that? Why did it stand out?
DM: Seth Godin[xxii] (my interview with Seth Godin is a really popular one), Milton Glaser[xxiii], Chris Ware[xxiv], Alina Wheeler[xxv]. I think the shows where people are being educated while they are also being entertained are crowed pleasers. Because they are learning something or being inspired and they are also being entertained by how interesting that person is. I get a lot of mail (e-mails and snail mail) people writing me about the show and about different episodes. And then I also get a lot of Tweets where people Tweet to me about a specific show saying I just listened to the show, I loved it. That makes me really happy.

RK: What is the role of Podcasting and Internet in production of Design Matters? What does a Podcast offer your listeners?
DM: I started doing Design Matters before there were podcasts. Design Matters was the first design podcast mostly by accident. It was like oh, we can post it online on iTunes, how awesome, and we started to do that and then podcasting took off and it was a big thing for a little bit and then it stopped being a big thing but I kept doing it and now it is back to being a big thing, and I am still doing it. I’ve gotten a lot of different offers to be part of networks and groups of show that are all selling and I still want to keep it as non commercial as possible. I am really lucky that the School of Visual Arts supports the show. I don’t need to get advertisers. I would like to increase the awareness and that would be a fun thing to be able to do through any kind of network but nobody really wants you to be part of a network if you are not selling ad space or airtime and I don’t want to do that. Up until last year I didn’t even have a logo for the show and the only reason why I ended up creating one and Armin Vit[xxvi] designed it for me with an illustration by Christoph Niemann[xxvii] was because I wanted to have a more interesting square on iTunes and SoundCloud. When I interviewed Aaron Draplin[xxviii] I talked about the fact that I didn’t have a logo and he designed a logo for me as a gift but at that point I still didn’t want a logo. I really want to make this an endeavor that is pure and it is ironic given that I teach logos for a living and make logos for a living and yet I am so resistant to turning this into any type of commercial endeavor. It’s really a labor of love.

RK: Currently there are 224 episodes of Design Matters available for listening and you have received the People’s Choice Cooper Hewitt National Design Award[xxix] for your show. What is the future of Design Matters?
DM: More episodes. I was thinking recently that it would be great to get to 300. I’ve done a lot of live shows too and if I have to put the number out there it is probably at this point closer to 250 but 224 on iTunes. It was exciting to get to 200, it is exciting to get to 10 years and celebrating 10 years. I am just happy to be doing it. I just love doing it as long as people want to listen I’ll do it. I’ll probably do it even people don’t want to listen but it won’t be quite as much fun if nobody cared but hopefully that won’t happen.

RK: Debbie, is there anything that you would like to add to our conversation today that you think is important?
DM: Well, I do think that people get very frustrated in their lives and I see this whether they be my students or different people that I meet in my travels. They feel stuck. You don’t need to wait for somebody to “unstick” you. You can get unstuck by self generating a way out. You don’t need a client to give you a great job. You don’t need to wait for anybody. You can make something if you want to make it. And that’s really where Design Matters came from, from an opportunity to do something that was noncommercial, to do something that was non soul crushing. To do something that no client was saying: “No, you can’t do that.” or “Do it that way.” or “I don’t like this.” or “I’ll love it when I see it.” This was an opportunity to do something that was utterly pure and it fundamentally changed my life. It saved my life too. And I think that’s important for people to know that the very things that you do to save your life can change your life in the process. So if you are feeling frustrated by your day job, your obligations and so forth, consider a way to feed your own soul that might end up feeding the world.



[i] Debbie Millman is a native New Yorker. She was born in Brooklyn and now works and lives in Manhattan.

[ii] Graphic Design USA, 2013.





[vii] Debbie Millman’s books are: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (2007), The Essential Principles Of Graphic Design (2008), Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design (2009), Brand Bible: The Complete Guide to Building, Designing, and Sustaining Brand (2012), Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (2013) and Self Portrait as Your Traitor (2013).
























© Roshanak Keyghobadi, 2016. This essay cannot be reproduced, quoted, translated or published in part or as a whole in any format without Roshanak Keyghobadi’s permission.

* This article was originally published in NESHAN magazine #35 | Winter & Spring 2016