Overnight success is rare, and often comes at the expense of valuable learnings. From early-career false starts to her sleeper hit podcast Design Matters, Debbie Millman isn’t afraid to be frank about the incredible patience that good work requires.
Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator and brand strategist. She is the host of the award-winning podcast ‘Design Matters’, the world’s first podcast on design; Chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts; the editorial and creative director of Print Magazine and President Emeritus of AIGA. She is the author of six books on design and branding.
I’m Debbie Millman and I started a podcast quite by accident in 2005. And for those in the audience that might have heard the show, you know, that I have become incredibly curious about how people become who they are. What are the decisions that people make as they are becoming the people that they are? And I’ve found that not only do I like to ask my guests this question, but I also like to ask just about anybody that I meet. I love to know what people wanted to be when they were younger.
And so, I find now that when I ask young people, I get a really unusual answer. It’s an answer that surprises me and I get it over and over and over again, so I think there’s sort of an interesting trend developing. When I ask young people what they want to be when they grow up they say “famous.” And, I find that a little bit concerning. But, I recently asked someone what she wanted to be when she got older. She was already a teenager. And she has the best answer of anyone that I have ever asked. When I asked her what she wanted to be when she got older she looked at me without missing a beat and said “everything.” And I love that. I love that! The idea that somebody can be whatever they want to be. I, when growing up, did not think that. I actually, in many ways, thought the opposite. I went to school at the State University of New York at Albany. I went for two reasons: one because it was a state school and that was all I could afford, and the second, and most important reason, was that my best friend Tammy was going as well and I wouldn’t be lonely. [LAUGHTER] I graduated with a degree in English Literature with a minor in Russian Literature and so I often say now that I have a college degree in reading. [LAUGHTER]
I had no idea that I could be a designer, that I would be a designer. I had no idea that I would be going into branding. I grew up in a family where my mom and dad both worked. My mom was a seamstress and also an artist and she taught me how to draw. My father was a pharmacist and I spent many weekends and college summers working in his pharmacy. So, I had this interest in products and in understanding why people would buy certain things or why they would choose to put something in a basket, but I never really had any sense that this could even be a career. My mother recently moved from Florida – from New York, from Queens to Florida. And in doing so she significantly downsized and she ended up giving me a box of things that she had kept in her basement that I never knew existed. And when I got the box, I went through everything and found book reports and report cards and I found drawings that I had done when I was a kid. And I came across a drawing that I did when I was eight years old that upon looking at it and examining it, I realized that at eight years old I had predicted my whole life. So, I’m going to show it to you. This is the drawing.
So, I’m a native New Yorker. I was born in Brooklyn, then we moved to Queens. then we moved to Staten Island. Then my parents got divorced. My mom took me and my brother to Long Island and my dad stayed in Staten Island, and when I was a bit older, moved to Manhattan. So, I hadn’t really spent any time in Manhattan when I drew this. I sort of had a vision of what it could be from movies and television. So here I am walking with my mom on the streets of Manhattan. This little girl, I think, is me and the woman in orange is wearing a very popular Barbie outfit at the time: tangerine dream. [LAUGHTER] And then, I did, I labeled things. So, Paul talked about liking timelines. I think I liked labels. So, I had the bus saying ‘bus’ and the taxi saying ‘taxi’ and the bank and the cleaners saying ‘bank’ and ‘cleaners’ and then you see that green truck up there? So, I labeled that ‘potato chips’. [LAUGHTER] But, I did something else. I drew the logo. I drew the logo at eight years old. So, fast forward twenty years and I’m living in Manhattan, going to banks, going to cleaners, riding busses and cabs, and I’m drawing logos for a living. [LAUGHTER] Had I known that this was going to be my vision for my life it would have really helped me circumvent quite a lot of problems. I ended up graduating with this degree in reading, and spent ten years from the time I was twenty-one until the time I was thirty-two experimenting in rejection and failure, going from one bad job to another, having one boss after another that hated me or as I preferred to think about it at the time, just didn’t understand me. [LAUGHTER] And then, quite by accident, in moment of desperation, I took a cold call from a head hunter that was looking for someone to be a salesperson at a branding agency. And because I hated my current job so much, I ended up taking that job with zero experience in branding.
And I ended up doing this when I was thirty-three years old. Thirty-three years old. That was more than twenty years ago. And I found, suddenly, in this moment where I had made this change that I was pretty good at branding. Because I had had this early experience I think working at my dad’s store, I had this sort of natural affinity for products. And so, I started working on some of the biggest brands in the world. And these are some of the brands that I’ve designed. The logo for Burger King, the global packaging for 7Up, the global packaging for Hershey’s, the global packaging Twizzlers with my typography there that says totally twisted. The packaging for Haagen-Dazs, and of course Tropicana, which is probably one of the things that I’m most known for.
About ten or so years into my doing this from 1995, when I first got the job at Sterling, until 2005. In as much as I felt really good about the success that I was experiencing, and that drawing which I didn’t even know existed was coming true, the person that drew the drawing, the person that did the illustration was kind of dying. Because all that I did was commercial work. I had all but stopped doing my private, personal work: my paintings, my writing. I had stopped all of it in an effort to try to make a success of myself in this career. And in 2003, I had started writing, which is a whole other talk for a blog called Speak Up. And, in doing that I felt this sort of ignition of my creativity beginning to come back. And, in 2004 about a year after I started writing, an article that I had written with a man named Mark Kingsley, went viral. It was the first time I had ever experienced anything go viral. It went so viral that a friend of mine sent it to me and said “Oh you’d like this article!” not realizing that I had actually written it. [LAUGHTER] And it was all about the election graphics of 2004.
So, then I get another cold call. One of the I think side bar recommendations of this presentation is: always take the cold calls. It’s hard to make them, but it’s not that hard to take them. So, I got a cold call from a fledgling internet radio network called Voice America. And Voice America was offering me an opportunity to be a radio host on the internet and they wanted me to do a show about branding. And, I thought it sounded really interesting, but the idea of doing something else with branding really felt to me like further loss of my soul. And so, I re-pitched them the idea. I said, “Well I’d like to do this show. How about if I do a show on design?” And they were like “What’s design? You mean like fashion?” And I’m like “No, no like graphics.” And they really wanted me to do this thing on branding. And I had just, just, just redesigned one of the Pepsi products called Pepsi Edge and it was going to be featured as a redesign on the then very popular show The Apprentice. And so, I pitched it to them that well, I can sort of talk about branding but sort of, sort of sneak it in there, but I really want to talk about design and I could interview people like the design director at Pepsi. And they said “Okay, you can do that.” And just when I thought “Wow this is going to be awesome! I’m going to have like another job and another paycheck and everything else!” I realized, I have to pay them for the airtime. I have to pay them to produce the show. And I thought “you know what, I don’t do that much for myself anymore. I’m on the road all the time, selling. I’m working on all these big brands and making decent money. I don’t have kids. I’m going to invest a little bit of money in myself and I’m going to do this radio show.”
And so, on February 4th 2005 my show, Design Matters, was born. I created a little tag line for myself. It was something that I had written on Speak Up that Dawn Hancock from Firebelly had created a poster for. I had talked about, we can talk about making a difference, or we can make a difference. And I thought, “Let’s just add a little bit to that. We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.” And that became my little tag line. And Design Matters was born.
And I asked friends, and friends of friends to be on the show in those first episodes, my first thirteen episodes, that I paid for, and then I paid for another thirteen episodes. And these are some of the people that I interviewed. On July 2nd 2005, on my website, somebody wrote a comment because I would post my shows, and said “Will there ever be an archive of your show? With the new PodCasting (look at the spelling!) [LAUGHTER] with the new PodCasting feature on iTunes, this would be a great opportunity for those of us who can’t catch the show every Friday (because it was a live show) to take it with us and listen to it when we have the time to do so.” And I thought “Good idea!” Michael Holdren, you changed my life. [LAUGHTER]
And so I put the show up on iTunes. There was no podcasting section. I just uploaded it to iTunes. I didn’t have a logo. I just had a really nice, young picture of myself. And there it was. There it is on the first iPhone that I had. The first Design Matters on the iPhone. And because there were only like 100 podcasts on the internet [LAUGHTER] you know, I was like 82 which means I was like really losing, but you know, it looked nice and I clipped it out and sent it to my dad.
But there was a big problem with the show, there was a really, really big problem with the show. The problem with the show was this. First of all it didn’t really cost that much in the grand scheme of radio to do this show and there was a reason for that. It was because I was essentially working with a bunch of guys in a basement in Arizona, who were essentially Wayne and Garth. [LAUGHTER] And the sound was horrendous. There were times, we had commercial breaks at the time, where I was absolutely convinced that the guys that were producing my show were doing bong hits while we were doing commercial breaks. So, it was really, really difficult. I’m going to play you now, and this is going to take me into a shame spiral. But I’m going to warn you in advance, that it’s really, really bad. I’m going to show you – I’m going to take you back in time to what the show sounded like. So, this is really what upset me. So, “Great content. Lousy audio.” This was a review on iTunes. I think my first review on iTunes. “I love the content and the look inside the mind of so many brilliant people but what’s with the audio? It’s terrible.” My audio used to be me sitting across from my guests. We both were holding handsets. Remember landlines? We both would be holding hand sets and I don’t know if anybody’s every been on a landline here, but if you were ever on a landline with someone else in your house, you know how you’d have that echo? Every single one of my shows had that from my perspective, that echo as I was doing my talking. So, now I’m going to play you just a little teeny bit. Hold your ears. [AUDIO CLIP] The bottom line in business talk: Voice America business. [DEBBIE MILMAN ASIDE] I’m going to go hide behind the curtain. [LAUGHTER] [AUDIO CLIP] Welcome to Design Matters with Debbie Millman. [DEBBIE MILMAN ASIDE] The bong guy. [AUDIO CLIP] The show that takes you inside the provocative and stimulating world of design and branding as it intersects with contemporary culture. Here’s your host at Design Matters, Debbie Millman. Imagine a world where nothing is as you expected it to be. You take a drive in your car… [END OF AUDIO CLIP] It’s horrible I can’t even listen. Sorry. [LAUGHTER]
So after four years and 100 episodes on Voice America, I decided to take the show elsewhere. I had been invited by the late great Bill Drenttel to bring the show to Design Observer, with the proviso that I improve the sound quality. So, he introduced me to a producer, a guy that had been producing podcasts for the New Yorker and for Poetry Foundation and I met Curtis Fox who has been my producer ever since. I had recently gotten a job also at the School of Visual Arts and they had a little podcast studio that they’d built, and so I started doing my show there. This tiny little studio, but it’s really special. It’s my happy place. And in 2009, I launched the show on Design Observer. Look at how young I was. Look at that great logo.
So, the thing about it is that I didn’t have a logo. I didn’t have a logo and I didn’t have a logo on purpose. I didn’t have a logo because I didn’t want to do any branding for my show. I wanted it to be pure. I didn’t want to have advertising. I didn’t want to have a brand. I just wanted to be this thing that I provided, put out in the world, and did because I loved it. So, this was years, five and six and seven, some of the guests that I had. We still were doing well on iTunes. We got better reviews, for the sound quality. [LAUGHTER] And I started doing some live shows so Adobe was one of my first supporters and I took the show on the road and I did some episodes in San Francisco and Adobe made bags and notebooks. Adobe really knows how to throw a party right? And I started doing video taped shows, I did one with Milton, I did two with Milton. One with Massimo Vignelli, one with Malcolm Gladwell. And I found that people were starting to do really fun things with the show. They would create notes and they would have notebooks and all sorts of things. This is something that Aaron Draplin did when I interviewed Brian Collins at the HOW Conference. Then, in 2011, the show won a People’s Choice Award at the Cooper Hewitt. So, the Cooper Hewitt National Design Awards, it was a People’s Choice Award, which was really quite astounding to me because my show was pitted against the High Line to win the People’s Choice Award. And so there was like no chance that I thought I would win, and then because of designers, people like you that are here, the show won the award. And so, I got to go to the White House and this is what my friends now call my Michelle Obama smile. This is my normal smile. And this is my Michelle Obama smile. [LAUGHTER]
So, I didn’t have this logo. This is what 2009 looked like, 2011, 2012 this is what 2013 and 2014 and then Aaron Draplin came onto the show and he was really appalled by the fact that I didn’t have a logo. So he decided to make me some logos which he presented to me when we were on the air. And here were some others. He really did a full range. And others. And ultimately I didn’t feel like they were really me. This is the one that he was really pushing for, which is very Aaron, but really not very me. And, ultimately, I decided to take this little illustration that Christoph Neimann had designed for me. And I turned that – actually Armin Vit, the proprietor of Speak Up – has helped me with all of my graphics now, since and he created this new little identity for me and the website.
The show is now morphed. It’s been twelve years and it’s not a show about designers on design anymore. It’s still a show very much about creativity, but it’s really about, now, how creative people design their lives. And as I said, I’m endlessly fascinated by why and how people make the decisions to do the things that they do. And I still do a lot of live shows. Here I am with Abbott Miller, Seth Godin, Ed Benguiat, Chip Kid. And I do special series from time to time. I do something – designers and books, which felt like my whole like had come in sort of this full circle about doing something with books. And then also, last year, we did a special series with Adobe on young designers.
So, twelve years and 300 plus episodes later a couple of really fun things have happened. Mattel made a Design Matters Barbie [LAUGHTER] and LEGO made a Design Matters Lego. [LAUGHTER] The show has done well in different charts. And at the end of 2015, after ten years on the air, iTunes recognized it as one of the best podcasts on the internet. Ten years. It sort of make Malcolm Gladwell’s ten years to get great at something really seem true. And then after I was on the Tim Ferriss show, the show for the first time ever, made it to number one in the design section on iTunes. So, I’ve learned a lot in doing this. And I’ve learned a lot about the generosity of people and about how almost all the creative people I’ve ever spoken to are insecure, and afraid. The only two people I’ve ever interviewed that were like, “I’m just cool the way I am” were two people over 80 [LAUGHTER] Milton Glazer and Massimo Vignelli. They’re the only ones that are like, “I’m just good the way I am”. Everybody else has issues. So I’m like okay, you know, by the time you’re 80…[LAUGHTER]
People make art as they’re listening to the show and so a lot of the things that I feel like I’ve learned and talked about on the show, people have immortalized with art. I want to share just a few of those with you. We are living in what I now call the 140-character culture. The speed in which we expect things to happen for ourselves is unrealistic. Just because we can Tweet about how we feel and potentially have the whole world see it, it doesn’t mean that we could make something that fast and have it have the same kind of meaning that we want it to. And what I’ve found as I’m getting older and older now, that anything worthwhile takes time. Anything worthwhile takes a long time. And if we look at our lives, and our creativity, and our experiences as a journey, that we can build upon, I think it will give us an opportunity to see that we can make what we want happen. It just might not take as short a time as we would want. But I do truly, truly believe that the longer something takes, the longer it will last. And in some ways, the people that make it really big when they’re in their twenties have the burden of having to keep that benchmark as high as it is for the rest of their lives. Whereas if you start the way I did, kind of with rejection and failure as your foundation, there’s really only one way to go. [LAUGHTER] Truly!
So, the other thing I want to talk about is self-generated work. Design Matters was something that I was doing that I invested in myself. If you aren’t able to do the kind of work that you want to do at your day job, consider creating something of your own and if you think you’re too busy, I want to suggest that you’re using that business as an excuse. Busy is a decision. We learn and think and grow if we want to learn and think and grow. And if you don’t think you have time to do something, sort of what Paul was talking about, maybe you don’t really want to do it. But if you’re not happy doing what you’re doing in the job where somebody’s giving you money, then maybe think about taking some of that money that somebody’s giving you and invest in something that you can do for yourself to make a difference in your own life.
And if you don’t feel confident, what I’m going to tell you is that I think as Dani Shapiro does, and this is something she shared with me on the show, the writer Dani Shapiro: “Confidence is overrated.” Most people that are overly confident or sort of ooze confidence, are kind of jerky. [LAUGHTER] They’re not really people I like hanging around with. What’s more important than confidence is courage. Confidence comes from the repeated endeavor, the successful repeated endeavor of any activity. You have confidence driving a car because you’ve been driving a car for a long time. You have car confidence. When you start something new, how can you expect to have confidence in something you don’t know how to do? So, what’s more important than confidence is courage. To take that first step into doing something. Listen to all my early shows. They’re so bad, they’re unlistenable. I grew up as a podcaster in public. So what? I embarrassed myself. As I said, if you start here you can grow. You can develop. You can become great because you want to. I think, in order to strive for something remarkable, you have to decide that you want to be remarkable. You have to decide that whatever you are doing, you want to make the best it could possibly be. And what better way to do that than in your own personal self-generated work? So, don’t be afraid to want a lot. I always had this tremendous longing even through those years of rejection and failure. I wanted something more. I expected to be able to get it through earning it and through being rewarded with it. Ultimately, what I found is I had to make it. I had to make it myself. So, as I end each episode: we can talk about making a difference in our lives, we can make a difference, or we can do both. Thank you.