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A longstanding figure in the SVA community, Debbie Millman's achievements and contributions to the College and the industries it serves are many. A co-founder and current chair of the world's first graduate program in branding—MPS Branding—Millman also finds the time to maintain her National Design Award-winning podcast, Design Matters, which consists of interviews with a variety of noted creative professionals, including artist Barbara Kruger and SVA faculty member and Acting Chairman of the Board Milton Glaser.
Her achievements don't end there. Millman is the author of six books to date, including How to Think Like a Graphic Designer and Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, as well as an illustrator. Her works have appeared in The New York Times, New York, Print, Design Observer and Fast Company. And after working as the president of design and chief marketing officer at Sterling Brands for more than 20 years, Millman is currently president emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), the largest professional association for design.
Next month, Millman will be one of three recipients of the 2019 AIGA Medal, given in recognition of "exceptional achievements, services or other contributions to the field of design and visual communication." As an AIGA Medalist, she will join the ranks of fellow SVA faculty members Mark Randall, Ivan Chermayeff, Milton Glaser, Steven Heller, Paula Scher and Stefan Sagmeister, as well as SVA's late founder and chairman, Silas H. Rhodes.
In advance of the awards ceremony, which takes place Saturday, April 6, in Pasadena, California, Millman talked with us about her career, her plans for the future and how the design discipline is changing.
What initially sparked your interest in design? Was branding something you consciously thought about while growing up?
I started working in design primarily because it was the only marketable skill that I had. I went to the State University of New York at Albany, and majored in English literature with a minor in Russian literature. I often joke now that I got my college degree in reading! But I also wrote for the student newspaper and I became the arts and features editor in my senior year. In addition to editing, I was responsible for the design and layout of each issue. And that is when I discovered design. In fact, I loved doing it as much if not more than the editing, writing and assigning of the stories every week.
After I graduated I realized that I had excellent layout and paste-up drafting skills. My first job was in the design department of a cable magazine earning $6 per hour. My early career was punctuated by fits and starts, rejection and failure, and I didn't get my first job in branding until 1993; a decade after I graduated college.
All that being said, several years ago I came across a drawing that I did when I was about seven or eight years old. At that point in my life, I was living in Queens but had never visited Manhattan. In the drawing, I conjured a fully formed Manhattan street scene: A man is hailing a cab with a sign that says TAXI; there is a bus of people driving by, a young girl is walking with her mother, holding her hand; there are storefronts with signs that state DRY CLEANERS and BANK. There is also a truck that with the words POTATO CHIPS on it, but I drew the Lay's logo on it as well! So there it was, a drawing made by a little girl that is actually a blueprint of her future self—living in Manhattan, riding around in taxis and buses, going to dry cleaners and banks and…drawing logos for a living.
What have you seen change in the design field, whether over time or as of late?
I find the role of branding now incredibly, incredibly exciting and a lot of that has to do with the energy and intellect of the new generation of designers and makers. [Branding-savvy social] movements such as Black Lives Matter are some of the most important instigators of change to enter our cultural discourse in a long time. As is the use of the "pink pussy" hat. Design has finally become democratized, and these efforts are not about anything commercial. These efforts have not been initiated for any financial benefit. They have been created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose design has: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity. This is creating an environment wherein design and branding are not just tools of capitalism, rather they have become profound manifestations of the human spirit.
What does this recognition from the AIGA mean to you?
This recognition means pretty much everything to me. It is the result of a 36-year-career of trying to make meaningful work that matters, and it is something I am incredibly grateful for. I am honored and humbled and proud.
Is there a project or area that you haven't worked in before but would like to in the future? Either a dream venture or a new challenge?
Well, I actually never worked on Lay's potato chips, so that might be fun (joking).
I would like to create the branding for a presidential candidate who I admire and support. And I would like to make a third book of visual essays and poetry. Frankly, while this recognition is for my body of work, I truly feel that I am just getting started.
Do you have any advice for aspiring design students?
We are living in a culture where, when you graduate from college, you are expected to know exactly what you want to do, where you want to do it and what your life plan will be. And if you aren't successful right out of the gate, there must be something wrong with you. And this emotion builds into a palpable sense of hopelessness if you aren't able to achieve something quickly.
Something I share with my undergraduate design students is this: Anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a years-long process. If you are one of the few souls in the world that are actually able to hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you are going to be able to sustain that success over the long term. The pressure to keep succeeding over and over will mount and you will likely feel that you must only hit the home runs. This is impossible.
Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop. Use your 20s to experiment. This is a time when falling flat on your face is expected. Build something meaningful rather than fast. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain—and enjoy—it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.