Last month, Debbie Millman came to Bucharest to talk about the art of designing one’s life during an event organized by The Power of Storytelling and Visual Playground. I had the amazing opportunity to meet and talk to the lovely Debbie Millman: author, artist, designer and beautiful human being.
”Debbie Millman has done it all”, as they say:
From designing Star Wars merchandise, and Hillary Clinton campaign buttons, to writing six books, to interviewing designers and other creative masterminds, to working with the world’s largest brands and having her artwork exhibited around the world, Debbie Millman has really done it all. Even though it may seem that her path to success was smooth, she didn’t always have it all figured out. After graduating from college, she didn’t feel confident enough to pursue her dream of becoming an artist or a writer, and often had to do commercial work in order to support herself. She now talks openly about those years of rejection, disappointment and struggle before finding her niche.
*Questions (said to be ones of the best Debbie received by Debbie herself!) dispatched from me and the other three journalists that were there. Thank you, Debbie, for inspiring me to choose the creative path, and not necessarily the secure or safe one. And thank you for being amazed by my age and for making me feel brave, curious and excited again.
Why do you think there’s so little emphasis on visual education, in an age in which we’re constantly flooded by imagery? You clearly took a step forward when you co-founded Design Matters.
I don’t know, that’s a very good question, actually. I clearly felt a real need for it, that’s why I teach it; why there isn’t so much attention given to it, I don’t know. I would imagine that it is because people don’t understand the power of images as much.
Why do you think that that is? Images could easily be used to manipulate an uneducated public.
A combination of factors, I think. There is no such thing as an evil corporation: there are evil people. Any evil that exists in this world because of branding comes from the people behind it. There are many people that are outspoken about the negative effects of branding, from the adbusters to the ’no logo’ campaigns. It’s a notion that gets trickled down when adults teach this to their own children. But I do think we’re reaching a time of the democratization of branding.
That’s why I think the 2005 Dove campaign was so powerful; because consumers saw, for the very first time, how much airbrushing and manipulation were pushed onto people.
It’s hard to teach children about something that they have to be taught about first, y’know. (laughs)
How can we avoid the negative effect of branding?
The negative effect? I don’t know, but what I would have liked to know when I was younger was that brands were not doing for me what they said they would. I wanted somebody to say ”No, it’s not going to work like that.”
When did you realize you can design your life, was there a moment?
I’m still working on that. I think if I did fully design my life, I might rely too much on decision. I think that part of the experience in life is to be open; it’s hard for me to say I’m doing this and that and this – even saying that I’m a writer or an artist…Once you say you are one thing you are stuck doing that thing forever. For me, there’s a combination of worrying that I’m not that or becoming that and turning into a fraud and then I’m stuck with that despair. Despite my education on branding I have a really hard time labelling myself. There s a difference between seeing people as brands and perceiving brands as brands. People are people. Brands don’t have a soul, brands don’t have a sense of consciousness, brands can’t make decisions. We manufacture meaning into brands. I would hate to think that we manufacture meaning into people.
I can say I’m an educator or a designer. But I would have a hard time saying I’m designing my life in a certain way. I try to have a life of meaning, of purpose, but beyond that I can’t say that I’m designing a life. This way, it does leave a lot of room for the unexpected.
There are many artists that say they live with a constant fear of being ‘found out’, with the possibility of being a ‘fraud’. Are you ever afraid of being phony?
I worry more about not being good, both literally and figuratively, than I do of being a phony. I’ve been making things since I was a little girl: I’ve made fake perfume with baby oil and crushed rose petals. I made my own magazine when I was in 6th grade. I never questioned that I was a person that made things; I’ve been doing it for fifty years. Whether the things I do are valuable, meaningful… I know I’m a maker…if what I’m making is of value…that’s a constant struggle.
In 2014, you said you aspired for greatness, but never achieved it. Do you still feel the same?
Has anything changed?
No, I wish it had. I’m amazed with the people who have this confidence, this sense of ‘I’m good, I’m doing good’. The only thing I can tell you that I’m good at (which I’m not sure it’s meaningful in the scheme of my life) is understanding brands; I’ve been doing it all my life. Everything else, I just hope I’m good at.
It’s not preventing me from doing things, as it used to. I talk about this in various podcasts, in interviews, about this notion of confidence. Once I was interviewing Dani Shapiro and she said that confidence was overrated. I was surprised because I had been always searching for confidence. She thought that courage was more important.
I thought about it a lot…what is confidence, really? It is the successful repeated attempt to do something. Because the first time you do something, you have never done it before. How can you know if you’ll be successful? That’s where faith comes in. If I did it one time, I can do it again. I always think of it like driving. When you’re learning how to drive, you don’t have confidence. You’re terrified you’re going to kill yourself or someone else, you’re nervous. But, as the years pass, each time you get in a car you stop thinking ”I hope I don’t kill somebody.” That’s driving confidence. You can’t have confidence when you start something unless you are delusional. Confidence is built; courage is the birthplace of that: a successful repeated attempt of doing something.
The longer you do something, the longer it lasts, as you said in an interview. How do you find this to be fitting in this culture of gratification that we live in now?
It doesn’t fit in. People want instant greatness, instant success. That’s why people put confidence on such a high pedestal.
I think there’s this really misleading notion, that you need confidence to do something. I saw Barbra Streisand last summer in New York, in Brooklyn. I went by myself. I love her! And one of the things I read about her in the New Yorker is that her manager said that her greatest talent wasn’t singing or directing, but it was doing all of those things with stage fright. She didn’t tour for decades because she was nervous she would forget her lyrics, as she did this once. And there I am: watching her. At some point, I look up, for some reason. We were in a huge theatre, with a gigantic ceiling. And at the very top, I see a teleprompter tucked between the lights, with all the lyrics of all of her songs. She’s been doing this for 60 years and she still needed to know the lyrics. I mean, I know her lyrics! It was so incredibly heart warming to see that she still needs to have a backup. And she’s still doing it! And she’s one of the most important artists out there.
Why are we always amazed by this?
Because people manufacture their own work in an entire different way. What are the Kardashians really known for doing? They make it seem as if it’s easy; that all you need to break through it sort of just existing; living every moment or every day without making something meaningful.
And how do you teach this patience?
I don’t think you can. I think you can show what it does. It’s a matter of really understanding. I mostly teach my students sustainable ideas and how to turn those ideas into something concrete. If they can take something from that process and then apply it to their lives, then I did my job. I try to rewire their minds, to make them let go of self-imposed limits. I try to reveal to them what’s inside their minds.
Was there anyone that did that to you?
What has teaching taught you?
You become very clear about what you do know and what you don’t know, which is very important.
You’re very vocal about your political views on social media. Are you ever afraid to express your beliefs, as this could turn people away from your art?
No, never. (laughs) I don’t care. I know I lose fans. And I don’t want them as fans. I don’t want people that think Trump is a good president to be my fans. He’s a dangerous, evil criminal who shouldn’t be our president. A supporter of his would not get or like my work.
This year has been one of political turmoil and more and more artists have started stepping up and expressing their political views, but many received backlash from people that considered that artists should not get involved in politics. What is your position?
Why not? What is the role of an artist? Anyone that says that doesn’t understand the role of art, of the artist. An artist is a true maker, a true expresser. If an artist can’t express their views, then what is the point, what are they expressing? I believe that it is critical that we live in a world that is equal and fair to all people, no matter what their religion, race, sexual orientation, belief is. These things are critical to a peaceful planet. I don’t believe that we should have leaders that don’t believe in climate change, in reproductive freedom, in equal marriage, people that don’t treat people with respect shouldn’t be in an office. An artist’s role is to expose that. If you don’t like it, don’t follow me. That’s the beauty of democracy.
Are you worried for the future?
Very, very. I am hopeful that the tenancy of democracy will prevail, though. That’s why I’m so politically active. I have to feel that I can roll the lines further to the freedom that we are all entitled to. I’m really angry and fearful and scared and obsessed with what is happening. A lot of people are like “I’m not reading it, it’s too much.” How can you not? You’re basically saying you can’t deal with the world. I’m the opposite. I’m watching everything, reading it all. I’m afraid.
How did your interviewing style evolve? You’re posing great, great questions!
My early shows are horrific! I am doing all my research now, as in the past, somebody else was doing it for me. I take the existent questions that other people have asked, read their answers and ask more. Rather than “Where did you go to school?”, I say “I know you went to this school, why did you go there, what did you learn? Etc.” It is a way of trying to go deeper into what they’ve already shared.
Did the podcast teach you that you can do other things?
It taught me that you have the time to do what you want to do. You make it. You choose to spend the time that you have doing what you want to do.
It also made me ask myself: do you want to spend time making things or watching other people make things? Sometimes you do the second too, because you get inspired.
What does inspire you?
Travelling. I didn’t like to travel when I was younger, then I travelled for business. Now I mostly travel for events like these. (Power of Storytelling). I love meeting people from other cultures, experiencing things. I’m also inspired by music, theatre. I love theatre, I love live performances (music or theatre) I love watching people make things right in front of myself.
Was there a certain time in your career when you said ‘I’m self-sufficient now’?
Not exactly. Security would be a better word for it. But security is what you don’t have, which no amount of money can give you. The feeling that you’re okay, that you can take care of yourself.
Did you reach that point?
I’m close. I know where the worry comes from. But you always have to try to choose a path that not only provides security but also creativity.
Thank you for saying that you can “choose the creative path, not necessarily the secure or safe one”, and for pointing out that one does not exclude the other. As I’ve just finished high school, I had to make “the choice”, and my heart breaks because most of my friends seemed to go for the secure path. As you’ve completely rebooted your life when you were 29, do you have any advice that I could share with them?
Try not to live in the future.
The question I ask myself is if not now, then when? Everything is easier when you’re young. You have everything at your fingertips. If you edit what is possible before it’s even possible, it becomes impossible. We self-impose our own fears on our futures. Very few people, once they become adults, are being told: you can’t do that. WE tell ourselves that. My mother or my father were not saying you can’t do that, I was the one saying it. So, I mean, it’s not something that I can tell people to stop doing, but I can suggest that if they do that, what are the alternatives? We will sooner die of regret than heartbreak. What would you rather?
What are you afraid of now?
I’m 55. How much time do I have? I remember 40 years ago as if it was yesterday. What if I don’t do everything I want to do?
Do you have a bucket list?
No, I only have a bucket list of places I want to travel to. I have to make a new plan, a new 3 year plan. Almost everything came true from my last plan: things that seemed impossible. Which is amazing, because it limits what you think is impossible.
How do you find a purpose and how do you keep going, even when everything seems meaningless?
Just this desire to have a meaningful life, to have a life that meant something. To feel like I was worthy of being born. But I still want to do so much more, to feel so much more.
Don’t we all, Debbie. We thank you.