DEBBIE MILLMAN has been called “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA. She is the founder and host of Design Matters, the world’s first and longest-running podcast about design, where she’s interviewed nearly 300 design luminaries and cultural commentators including Massimo Vignelli and Milton Glaser. Her artwork has been exhibited around the world. She’s designed everything from wrapping paper to beach towels, greeting cards to playing cards, notebooks to T-shirts, and Star Wars merchandise to global Burger King rebrands. Debbie is the President Emeritus of AIGA (one of only five women to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history), the editorial and creative director of Print magazine, and the author of six books. In 2009, Debbie co-founded (with Steven Heller) the world’s first master’s program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, which has received international acclaim.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift, and why? Or what are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?
A book that has influenced my life and one that I keep going back to over and over is the anthology The Voice That Is Great Within Us: American Poetry of the 20th Century. Gorgeously, thoughtfully, and carefully edited by Hayden Carruth, it was required reading in a summer college class I attended back in the early 1980s. This funny-looking book introduced me to my most treasured, deeply felt poem, “Maximus to Himself,” by Charles Olson, which has since become the blueprint of my life, as well as the poetry of Denise Levertov, Adrienne Rich, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and so many more. I still have my original copy and though the cover has come off and the spine is cracked in numerous places, I will never replace it.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months (or in recent memory)?
The purchase that has influenced me over the last six months is the Apple Pencil. I do soooo much of my artwork by hand, and now there is a device that draws and feels like a “real” pencil that I can use electronically. It has changed the way I work.
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favorite failure” of yours?
In early 2003, a good friend sent me an email with a subject line that read: “Begin drinking heavily before opening.” The email contained a link leading to a blog titled Speak Up, the first-ever online forum about graphic design and branding in the world. Suddenly, sprawled before my eyes, I found myself reading an article that disparaged my entire career. This incident, in tandem with a number of historical rejections and setbacks, sent me into a deep depression, and I seriously considered leaving the design profession altogether. However, in the 14 years since this occurred—this takedown of everything I’d done to date (and everything I thought was a complete and total failure for a long time)— transformed into the foundation of everything I’ve done since. Everything I am doing now contains seeds of origin from that time. Turns out, the worst professional experience I’ve faced became the most important, defining experience of my life.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, what would it say and why?
My billboard would say this: “Busy is a decision.” Here’s why: Of the many, many excuses people use to rationalize why they can’t do something, the excuse “I am too busy” is not only the most inauthentic, it is also the laziest. I don’t believe in “too busy.” Like I said, busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is shorthand for “not important enough.” It means you would rather be doing something else that you consider more important. That “thing” could be sleep, it could be sex, or it could be watching Game of Thrones. If we use busy as an excuse for not doing something what we are really, really saying is that it’s not a priority.
Simply put: You don’t find the time to do something; you make the time to do things.
We are now living in a society that sees busy as a badge. It has become cultural cachet to use the excuse “I am too busy,” as a reason for not doing anything we don’t feel like doing. The problem is this: if you let yourself off the hook for not doing something for any reason, you won’t ever do it. If you want to do something, you can’t let being busy stand in the way, even if you are busy. Make the time to do the things you want to do and then do them.
What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you’ve ever made?
The best investment I’ve ever made was in psychotherapy. When I first started, I was in my early 30s, and the bills practically killed me. But I knew I needed to deeply understand all the destructive things I was doing in order to try to live a remarkable life, and I wanted this more than anything. Over the years I still sometimes smart at the monthly invoices, but I’ve never doubted that this investment has profoundly shaped who I have become. Although I still think I have work to do, it changed and then saved my life in every imaginable way.
I’m in psychoanalytic psychotherapy (put another way: psychoanalysis with an emphasis on “Self-Psychology”). For me, talk therapy is the only thing that I’ve really ever felt drawn to. Things like EMDR and behavior modification seem too voodoo for me.
Some things that I think are important to consider, strictly from my perspective:
Once-a-week therapy does not work well. Twice or more gives you continuity and an opportunity to germinate in a way that once a week doesn’t. Also, once a week almost feels like “catch-up.”
Therapy takes time. It takes dedication, stamina, resilience, persistence, and courage. It’s not a quick fix, but it saved my life.
Tell your therapist everything. If you edit who you are or pretend to be something you are not, or project who or how you want to be seen, it will take that much longer. Just be yourself. If you are afraid your therapist will judge you, tell them. All of these things are important to talk about.
There is no shame in feeling shame. Almost everyone does, and therapy will help you understand it. There is nothing like understanding your motivations and insecurities to help you integrate those feelings into your psyche in the most healthy and authentic way.
I would not recommend going to a therapist that one of your friends also goes to. (Most good therapists abide by this rule now.) Things get very blurry and boundaries get weird.
Yes, it will be expensive. But what is more valuable than better understanding who you are, breaking intrinsic bad habits, getting over much of your shit (or at least understanding why you do it in the first place), and generally living a happier, more contented, more peaceful life?
My advice to anyone looking for a therapist is to make sure they are “trained” (PhD or MD, plus post-doctoral training).
What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?
I have been told that because I like to make up silly songs and then sing them in all sorts of absurd situations and occurrences, I am trying to turn my life into a Hollywood musical. I probably wouldn’t disagree.
In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?
After a Design Matters interview with the great writer Dani Shapiro, we started to talk about the role of confidence in success. She went on to state that she felt that confidence was highly overrated. I was instantly intrigued. She explained that she felt that most overly confident people were really annoying. And the most confident people were usually arrogant. She felt that 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 or your opportunities or the outcome, you are going to take a risk and take a step toward what you want. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive. I now believe that confidence is achieved through repeated success at any endeavor. The more you practice doing something, the better you will get at it, and your confidence will grow over time.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven college student about to enter the “real world”? What advice should they ignore? Since I teach, I have a lot of opinions on what advice to give college students. I think one of the most important is about job hunting. Like everything else meaningful in life, it takes training to get good at job hunting. You don’t just find and get a great job. You find and win a great job against a pool of very competitive candidates who may want that job as much, if not more, than you do. Finding and winning a great job is a competitive sport that requires as much career athleticism and perseverance as making it to the Olympics. You must be in the finest career shape possible in order to win.
There is very little luck involved. Winning your great job is about hard work, stamina, grit, ingenuity, and timing. What might look like luck to you is simply hard work paying off. These are questions I tell my students to ask themselves as they set out on their path in the “real” world:
Am I spending enough time on looking for, finding, and working toward winning a great job?
Am I constantly refining and improving my skills? What can I continue to get better and more competitive at?
Do I believe that I am working harder than everyone else? If not, what else can I be doing?
What are the people who are competing with me doing that I am not doing? Am I doing everything I can—every single day—to stay in “career shape”? If not, what else should I be doing?
One piece of advice I think they should ignore is the value of being a “people person.” No one cares if you are a people person. Have a point of view, and share it meaningfully, thoughtfully, and with conviction.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
I do not believe in work-life balance. I believe that if you view your work as a calling, it is a labor of love rather than laborious. When your work is a calling, you are not approaching the amount of hours you are working with a sense of dread or counting the minutes until the weekend. Your calling can become a life- affirming engagement that can provide its own balance and spiritual nourishment. Ironically, it takes hard work to achieve this.
When you are in your 20s and 30s and want to have a remarkable, fulfilling career, you must work hard. If you don’t work harder than everyone else, you will not get ahead. Further, if you are looking for work-life balance in your 20s or 30s, you are likely in the wrong career. If you are doing something you love, you don’t want work-life balance.
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?
As a loudmouthed native New Yorker, I have often regretted acting impulsively when I am feeling angry or frustrated. Now, when I feel that familiar urge to respond defensively or say things I don’t really mean or bang out a wounded response via email or text, I wait. I force myself to breathe, take a step back, and wait to respond. Just an hour or two or an overnight retreat makes a world of difference. And if all else fails, I try to obey this message I got in a Chinese fortune cookie (which I have since taped to my laptop): “Avoid compulsively making things worse.”