We’ve been insanely lucky to surround ourselves with so many powerhouse creative people (one of the blessings of running this art biz for eleven years!), but even amid seriously impressive company, design doyenne Debbie Millman stands out. You may know her as the founder and host of Design Matters, one of the earliest and most widely acclaimed podcasts in the game, and the very first podcast about design. Millman celebrated the 14th anniversary of the podcast just last month, and it’s pretty astounding to consider the jaw-dropping array of esteemed artists, designers, critics, and other amazing minds she’s sat down with so far. (We’re talking Marina Abramovic, Brene Brown, Shepard Fairey, Carmen Maria Machado, Malcolm Gladwell … and so many more.) If you’re into this, keep reading, ‘cause she shares all kinds of juicy backstory about her award-winning ‘cast in our In the Studio Q+A.
When she’s not recording what Business Insider deemed one of the best podcasts in the world (did we mention it won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award?), Millman is a brilliant brand consultant, designer, and artist, whose work has appeared in some very off-the-radar, low-key publications and art institutions … like The New York Times, Fast Company, and the Chicago Design Museum. She is President Emeritus of AIGA and—if you ask just about anyone in the know—a formative mind in the world of modern graphic design. She’s also an author six times over (with a new project in the works for 2020!), and her excellent spread of books spans everything from branding to graphic design to illustrated essays and poems. And did we mention Millman also created this limited-edition print for 20x200? Highly suggest you snag yours while it’s still available.
Millman is an aquifer of inspiration, but despite her tremendous talents she’s also a genuinely warm, humble, radiant being who’s the best to be around—just ask our founder, Jen Bekman. Give our In the Studio a read for a good sense of Millman's memorable glow and a sampling of her special genius. The self-described night owl also shares pics of the work space she carved out in her Chelsea brownstone, gives us the scoop on her colored pencil collection and her studio playlist stacked with jazz classics, and tells us about her transformative round-the-world expedition. Sneak a peek below then pop over to the blog for more. — Team 20x200
Where's your studio?
My studio is on the top floor of my brownstone in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
What's your favorite tool in the studio?
I have an incredible collection of colored pencils. I started collecting them decades ago. A couple of years ago I had a monthly subscription to Takashimaya pencils that I adore and I am always on the lookout for interesting and unusual pencil brands.
What do you wear when working in the studio?
I have a pair of pants that I paint in—old-style army pants. They are covered in paint splotches but they are as soft as butter. I also have myriad tee shirts I paint (and sleep) in.
What's on your in-studio playlist?
Jazz and more jazz: Ben Webster, Chet Baker, Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Django Reinhardt, and when I’m in a tough spot, a little Art Ensemble of Chicago to match the mood.
What's the first thing you do when you arrive at your studio?
What's your work style? Late nights? Intense creative bursts? Slow and steady wins the race?
I am a night owl. I love staying up until the wee hours of the morning.
You just got back from what looked like a life-changing, round-the-world expedition. We followed along on your Insta feed, where you made such cool photo + text posts documenting parts of the journey! Tell us about that experience, and about those beautiful posts you put together.
Thank you! I just completed a 25-day National Geographic expedition through Peru, Chile, Samoa, Australia, Cambodia, Nepal, Tibet, India, Tanzania, Jordan and Marrakech. I went by myself and it was one of the hardest, most physically challenging things I’ve ever experienced. I climbed up Machu-Picchu and the Potala Palace and the mountains of the ancient city of Petra. There were days I walked nearly 20,000 steps. I drew nearly every day very intentionally as I challenged myself to draw a story in every city I visited. I woke up daily before dawn and often went to sleep before 9pm, exhausted. I ate a lot of weird things. I got really, really sick. I wore jeans every single day. I stopped wearing makeup and jewelry after day five. I tried to scuba dive and failed but snorkeled instead. I learned so much and truly had a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Your award-winning podcast Design Matters has been breaking ground and raking in the accolades for over a decade now. How has your relationship to the project changed after all these years, and how would you describe podcasting’s role in the modern media world?
In late 2004 I inadvertently answered a cold call from a salesman of a new online radio station inquiring if I’d be interested in hosting a show about anything I was interested in. Immediately skeptical, my first response was to wonder what the catch was. Surely inviting a person lacking any radio experience and with negligible broad-based expertise was hardly a slam-dunk. Brian, the salesman, was quick to assuage my doubts with the clarification that I was only being offered a 13-episode “try-out,” and the network, Voice America, was indeed interested in niche topics from people they would be happy to “train”.
Given my branding background and my then job as President of Design at Sterling Brands, Brian was interested in my hosting a show about branding. But this offer coincided with a tricky phase in my career: while successful beyond what I could have imagined financially, I had begun to feel that I had lost my creative soul. The opportunity to create a show about branding was the last thing I was interested in. I countered with the concept of developing a show about graphic design. They agreed, but informed me that in order to be on the network I would have to pay for my airtime. When I weighed the excitement I felt at doing this new endeavor and the notion that my current success could fund an initiative for my soul, I decided the fee was worth it. On February 4, 2005 my Internet radio show Design Matters was born.
I often say that Design Matters began with a dream and a telephone line. I started broadcasting the show every Friday afternoon, live from a telephone modem in my office at Sterling Brands in the Empire State Building, face to face with my guests, each of us holding a telephone handset. The sound we experienced was not dissimilar to the effect that occurs when two people on a landline are on same call in the same location, on different phones. Additionally, the Voice America producers were on the line from a remote location in Arizona, often giving me the sense we were recording an episode of Wayne’s World. But endlessly excited by the content and the opportunity, I soldered on, learning along the journey.
My first guests were mostly designer friends. As those friends began to send links of the early shows to their friends, word spread in the design community. After the first few episodes, I began to upload each show to iTunes. By the time Voice America renewed the show and I wrote another check for the airtime, I began to invite designers beyond my circle of friends and, mercifully, most said yes. By the end of my second year of Design Matters, Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Michael Bierut and Stefan Sagmeister had been guests on the show.
As both podcasting and Design Matters grew in popularity, by 2009 I recognized that I needed to upgrade the sound quality of the show. After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to bring Design Matters to Design Observer by founder William Drenttel. At that time, I hired producer Curtis Fox and began recording the show at the specially built podcast studio in my Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in NYC.
The show has evolved to a singular interview format, and over the course of each episode I seek to reveal the arc of a creative life. I believe that the arc of a career is a circuitous one. I am fascinated by how people become who they are and how the decisions in their lives impact their work. I have interviewed some of the greatest creative people in the 20th and 21st century including designers Massimo Vignelli, Bill Moggridge, Harmut Esslinger and Maira Kalman. I have also interviewed artists including Lawrence Weiner, Barbara Kruger and Shephard Fairey; cartoonists including Chris Ware, Alison Bechdel and Roz Chast; musicians including Amanda Palmer, John Flansburgh and Nico Muhly; and writers including Dave Eggers, Dani Shapiro and Malcolm Gladwell. Design Matters is now a show exploring the depth and breadth of creative minds.
As far as the role podcasts are now playing in the modern media world, I believe that podcasting is now as viable a media entity as television, radio, film and cable, if not more. Anyone and everyone can make a podcast fairly easily and very cheaply, and the democratization of this medium means that more can be explored, invented, experimented with and made.
What's your favorite way to procrastinate in the studio?
Watching marathon re-runs of Law & Order SVU.
Whens, Hows & Whys
When did you first realize you wanted to become a designer and how’d you get there?
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 and 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. But the first 10 years of my career were experiments in rejection and failure. I didn’t get my job at Sterling Brands until 1995; a full twelve years after I graduated college.
How do you get over creative blocks?
See attached. : )
What do you like best about 20x200?
The range of wonderful artists and the prices! It’s incredible!
Which artists' 20x200 collections do you most covet (and why)?
I own quite a few pieces of art from 20x200, pieces by Lawrence Weiner, Lisa Congdon, William Wegman, Cecily Brown and Marian Bantjes. Now I have my eyes on a piece by Mike + Doug Starn!
Why do you think it's important to have a dedicated work space for your art? What advice would you give to artists looking to build a creative work space?
No matter what, I think it is critical for any artist or designer to have a space to create--it can be tent, a desk, a studio or a bed—anything that you can work on or in. (I worked for a very, very long time on my bed—it was the biggest, flattest space I had aside from the floor.)
My advice to other artists or designers that are interested in creating their own space is to carve out a small, private area in your home or office to make things in or on first. It took a long time for me to have a proper studio, and it is something I cherish with every fiber of my being. But you don’t need a big, fancy studio. You just need the desire to make things and the motivation to make your ideas real.
The 411 on Debbie Millman
Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator and strategist. She is the host of the award-winning podcast “Design Matters,” Chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts, President Emeritus of AIGA, and a contributing editor at Print Magazine. She is the author of two books of illustrated essays: Look Both Ways and Self-Portrait As Your Traitor; the later of which has been awarded a Gold Mobius, a Print Typography Award, and a medal from the Art Directors Club. Her artwork has been exhibited at the Boston Biennale, Chicago Design Museum, Anderson University, School... of Visual Arts, Long Island University, The Wolfsonion Museum and the Czong Institute for Contemporary Art. She has been artist-in-residence at Cranbrook University, Old Dominion University and Notre Dame University, and has conducted visual storytelling workshops at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, the University of Utah, Hartford University, Albuquerque Academy and the High School of Art and Design in New York. She has designed campaign buttons for Hillary Clinton, wrapping paper and beach towels for One Kings Lane, greeting cards for Mohawk, MOO and Card-To-Art, playing cards for DeckStarter, notebooks for Shutterstock and Baron Fig, and T-shirts for Within The Fold.