Debbie Millman | Writer, Brand Consultant & Host of Design Matters

Debbie Millman is an American writer, educator, artist, and designer who is perhaps best known as the host of the Design Observer podcast ‘Design Matters’. She is ‘President of Design’ at Sterling Brands, based in New York City, working with brands such as Pepsi, Gillette, Colgate, Kimberly-Clark, Nestlé, and Campbells. She chairs the ‘Masters in Branding’ program at the School of Visual Arts, is a contributing editor to Print, a blogger for Fast Company, and the ‘President Emeritus’ of AIGA.


Debbie-Millman_P1My Definition Of Success | I don’t have a definition of success. I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness. It changes day to day but you know it when you feel it. I have yet to feel like a “success,” as I am always striving to be better than I am. This comes from a rather insidious lack of self-love, but I am working on that too! Don’t get me wrong: I know I am “good” at some things, but I don’t view those things as the “definition” of success. Ironically, the first fifteen years of my career were very much organized around avoiding failure, but any sense of inadequacy was self-constructed; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t do something; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t succeed. I convinced myself of this, and lived in my self-imposed reality. I think a lot of people do this. They self-sabotage and create all sorts of reasons for not doing things under the misguided assumption that, at some point, they might feel better about themselves and that will finally allow them to take that risk. I don’t think that ever happens. You have to push through it and do it as if you have no other choice—because you don’t. You just don’t. And if you do manage to take a stand for something you want, as I ultimately did, that little bit of confidence helps you reconsider what is possible—both for yourself and in the world.


I Am Driven By | The easy answer is a profound sense of unworthiness, and the sense that if I accomplish something it will make me feel more worthy of being alive and being a valuable person. Lately—perhaps in the last couple of years—I have come to realize that what also drives me is the sense that I don’t have an infinite amount of time left on this planet and I want to do so much! So very much! Now I am driven by the need to do things and experience things and experiment while I still have the chance.


My Highlights |
Highlights of my life: Surviving a tremendously abusive childhood, finding love at 50, becoming a pet parent to two amazing dogs, the day my magical niece Rebecca was born, meeting my best friend Susan Benjamin 30+ years ago and still being best friends today, meeting Steven Heller.


Highlights of my career: Creating a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts, winning the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award for my podcast Design Matters, becoming President of Sterling Brands, working to create the No More campaign to help eradicate sexual abuse and domestic violence with Christine Mau and Mariska Hargitay, becoming President of AIGA (the professional association for design), having six books published, exhibiting my visual essays at the Chicago Design Museum.


Debbie-Millman_P2A Key Talent | I think the biggest strength critical to my success is being able to stay creative and continually make new things. I think that kids lose creativity when they feel that the only way they can fit in is to conform. Creativity requires a personal belief that you have something meaningful to say or to contribute. If this belief gets squashed or hindered, it can fundamentally damage the brain’s neurological pathways responsible for creative connections and communication.
I do not think that creativity is part of a process of adapting to the world. I think that adapting to the world is a psychological process that involves good parenting, conditioning, societal constructs, education and pattern recognition. I do not believe that creativity is a “process.” In many ways, creativity is an anti-process! You may have a process for being creative, but I believe the actual act of creativity is organic and (nearly) involuntary: you have to do it—you have no choice—or a part of you dies.
Despite a lot of squashing, I got lucky: I have been able to use my creativity and imagination to break some really dysfunctional familial patterns and escape from a life of violence, anger and regret. While there were many times that I doubted my ability to make things or make a difference, I have really fought to follow my dreams and continue to make creative things: podcasts for Design Matters, business opportunities at Sterling, a graduate program at the School of Visual Arts and opportunities for my students, and I am always writing books and making art.


Principles I Live By |

  • Be loyal: kindness and generosity from others are gifts to be treasured and respected.
  • Be nice to almost everyone.
  • Empathy is more important than ANYTHING.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver.
  • Albert Einstein said that the definition of insanity was doing the same thing over and over expecting different results. I fundamentally disagree. I think that is the definition of However, you might want to try to be more creative the second or third time around.

Critical Skills I Develop | I have three skills that I think help me in every aspect of my life. The first is that I am a “finisher.” I almost always finish what I start. I am a firm believer that no matter how good or bad you think something is, there is a benefit to actually completing it. Not everything you make has to be perfect. You learn as much from the strikeouts as you do from the homeruns and it is important to understand WHY you struck out in order to really learn about the conditions that led you to striking out. This helps you improve your form and also takes some of the pressure off of experimenting.
Second, I don’t believe in “too busy.” I think that busy is a decision! We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is just shorthand for “not important enough” or “not a priority.” Busy is not a badge. You don’t “find” the time to make things, as Maria Popova says, “You make the time to do things.” If I want to do something, I don’t let busy stand in the way. I make the time to do it.
Finally, I have a hard time taking no for an answer. I often ask more than once for something, even if I’ve been turned down. I will ask a different way, or wait a bit of time before asking again or find a more creative way of manifesting a YES. Sometimes this can be annoying, but mostly I can’t help myself.


Debbie-Millman_P3Lessons I Have Learnt | In no particular order, the top five lessons I’ve learnt thus far:

  • Failure is not a defeat until you stop trying.
  • Common vocabulary does not always equate with common behavior: listen to what people
  • Courage is more important than confidence when it comes to taking a first step.
  • If you aren’t making mistakes, you are not taking enough risks.
  • Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.

The Best Advice I’ve Received | The best advice I’ve ever received came (believe it or not) from a fortune cookie: Avoid compulsively making things worse.


Advice On Building Wealth | The first thing I’d ask is “Why? Why do you need to grow rick and build wealth?” It’s a rather fleeting experience, this romantic attachment to wealth, and I find that if I’m not careful, the search for having more or better or best is a precarious journey into the infinite. When you depend on money or things to provide you with a long-term sense of self or love or pride or achievement, you start out on a path with no end. No object, no product, and amount of wealth can provide you with ultimate, infinite satisfaction. You also must be very careful about what psychologists call the “hedonistic treadmill” — if you’re always looking to validate yourself with the size of your bank account, then you are never going to be satisfied. You are always going to need more. As Dan Pink states, “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize things very quickly. I’m specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it’s a fool’s game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction.” Therefore, my advice would be as follows: Be careful you are not using wealth as a replacement strategy for a strong sense of self-worth. If you are, examine the underlying motivation for needing wealth in order to feel good about who you are, deep down.


The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | I would like to have created a body of work that educated and inspired people to better appreciate and understand design, and in doing so, live a more creative deeply felt life.