Seven Questions for Debbie Millman

It’s been a great year for Debbie Millman. The AIGA president emeritus recently celebrated the publication of her fourth book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (Allworth Press), and a few days later picked up the 2011 People’s Design Award for her pioneering podcast, Design Matters on Design Observer. Born in 2005 as a weekly radio program, the show has become a kind of Charlie Rose of the creative world, tackling topics ranging from graphic design and branding to cultural anthropology and art with guests such as Milton Glaser, Barbara Kruger, and Nobel laureate Eric Kandel. Here Millman dishes on Design Matters outtakes, recounts a fateful encounter that involved a Sausage McMuffin, and shares her graphic design pet peeve.

1. Congrats on winning the 2011 People’s Design Award for Design Matters on Design Observer. How did you celebrate?
The week after the award ceremony I turned 50, and I also hosted the launch party for Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits. Between all three events, I did a lot of celebrating. Aside from feeling old, I am still walking on air.

2. What led you to create Design Matters? Did you have a particular audience in mind at the time?
I often say that Design Matters began in February 2005 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 in New York City. 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. After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to publish Design Matters on Design Observer by co-founder Bill Drenttel. Design Matters is now 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.

3. Any dream guests you are eager to snag for the show?
You! Also, a few others I hope to interview in the coming year or so…Jen Bekman, Maria Popova, Guy Kawasaki, Zaha Hadid, Eva Zeisel, Karen Kilimnik, Miranda July, Anne Carson, Tod Lippy, Michael Vanderbyl, Jonathan Ive, Jenny Holzer, Bob Lefsetz, and so many more…

4. Having hosted Design Matters since 2005, you must have had some outtakes in the course of taping. Any particularly unexpected, funny, or strange occurrences you’d like to share with us?
There have been quite a few. In no particular order:

  • Losing my connection (on air) to Nicholas Blechman while talking about The New York Times (he warned me we shouldn’t, but he brought it up anyway, and then BOOM—no connection). Conspiracy, anyone?
  • Having a caller ask Rick Valicenti out on a date on the air.
  • Doing a show in Tuscany in a house with only one landline, and having Bryony Gomez Palacio pass scribbled notes she took from my producer via her cell phone (which would only work in one specific place in the front yard) to Armin Vit who passed them to Mark Kingsley who passed them to Marian Bantjes who finally handed them to me. It was awesome.
  • David Carson emailing me to let me know he couldn’t be on the show, right before we were supposed to be on air.
  • At his insistence, interviewing the amazing Shephard Fairey from his hospital bed.
  • Paula Scher telling me she was doing our interview naked (while we were on a commercial break during a remote broadcast).
    And so many more…

    5. Your latest book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, is a series of interviews with everyone from Brian Collins to Karim Rashid. Were you surprised by the diversity of opinions about branding? Or how often people mentioned Steve Jobs and Apple?
    I was not surprised by how often people mentioned Steve Jobs and Apple, nor was I surprised by the diversity of opinions about branding (everyone has at least one), but what floored me was the sheer quantity of definitions of the word brand! I interviewed 22 brand masters for this book, and I think it may contain 22 different definitions! I found this so fascinating I even documented it on the Brand Thinking website. Here is just a sample.

    6. What has been your best or most memorable design-related encounter?
    My most memorable design-related encounter was also one of my most life changing. I met Joyce Rutter Kaye, Print‘s editor-in-chief from 1998-2008. It was at 6 a.m. on a cross-country flight from New York to Vancouver for the 2003 National AIGA conference. I was running late and left for the airport without make-up or coffee. I wasn’t sure if there would be food on the flight, and I made a last-minute dash to purchase breakfast from McDonald’s to take on the plane. I boarded the plane huffing and puffing and realized I had a dreaded middle seat. I jealously glanced over at the person in the window seat and saw an elegant women with a beautiful blonde bob and a posh handbag and then looked down at my sloppy sweatpants, super-sized fast food satchel and overall bedraggled demeanor and tried to delicately squeeze into my seat without disturbing her.

    After I settled in and unwrapped my sausage McMuffin, I couldn’t help myself: I looked at my chic and breezy neighbor and blurted out an apology for my overall slovenly, McDonald-laden self. She laughed and immediately put me at ease. We started chatting. It didn’t occur to me that she was also traveling to the conference until Paula Scher passed by our aisle and they waved. When I asked her what she did, she replied that she worked at Print magazine. I couldn’t help but gush. Though I had been avidly reading the magazine for decades, I never had met anyone employed there, and I was simultaneously awed and intimidated. She seemed so nice! I figured she must be a stringer of sorts. When we finally landed in Vancouver, we agreed to try to get together over the course of the conference. She pressed her business card into my hand and we said goodbye. As she walked away, I looked at the card and saw her title: Editor-In-Chief. She was the editor-in-chief!

    We bumped into each other again several times over the next few days, and she asked to see some of my writing. Several months later, I was assigned my first piece for Print, and I have contributed to nearly every issue since that fateful day. She also introduced me to Steve Heller, who is my fairy godfather. After my first piece was published in Print, I asked Joyce to join me for dinner to celebrate. She agreed with one caveat: no McDonald’s.

    7. What is your greatest graphic design pet peeve?
    My greatest graphic design pet peeve is when anyone uses primes (also know as straight or dumb quotes) instead of curly apostrophes or quote marks. Irks me every time!

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