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Episode 32
Debbie Millman - Branding Guru, Artist, Podcaster and Author of "Why Design Matters"

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Episode Description

01:01 - Author, artist, podcaster and branding guru Debbie Millman discusses her new book “Why Design Matters”, which reflects on the seventeen years of conversations that have made up her podcast “Design Matters”, including notables in the fields of art, design and those that pursue excellence in every aspect of their life.

30:28 - The week's top art headlines.


Craig: [00:00:09] This is Art Sense, a podcast focused on educating and informing listeners about the past, present and future of art. I'm Craig Gould. On today's episode, I speak with author, artist, podcaster and branding guru Debbie Millman. Millman's new book, "Why Design Matters", reflects on the 17 years of conversations that have made up her podcast "Design Matters", including notables in the field of art design and those that pursue excellence in every aspect of their life. At the end of the episode, I'll be taking a look at some of the week's top art headlines. But first up, why design matters with Debbie Millman.

Craig: [00:01:00] Debbie Millman, thank you so much for joining me this week on the Art Saints podcast to talk about you and your work and your new book, "Why Design Matters." You know, if somebody doesn't know who Debbie Millman is, you know, how would you describe the work you do and how it's kind of manifested itself eventually in this particular book?

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Debbie: [00:01:24] I am a designer, brand designer and brand strategist, and I'm an educator. I co-founded the Master's in Branding Graduate Program at the School of Visual Arts 12 years ago, and I run that program today and I'm an author. I have published six books with a seventh about to be born. And I am host of a long running podcast 17 years now called "Design Matters."

Craig: [00:01:56] You know, it's funny when when I saw that 17 years, I honestly had to go to Google and try to figure out when did the iPod come out and when did podcasting really start? Because I mean, that's really close to the genesis of podcasting, right?

Debbie: [00:02:12] Yeah, it was within, I think, the first year or year and a half of podcasting. I think the first podcast came out in 2003 or 2004. I started planning the show in November of 2004 and launched February 4th, 2005.

Craig: [00:02:33] You have a long history of working in advertising and branding. In 2004, what motivated you to take on something else, particularly these conversations? Like what was the germ of an idea that kind of motivated you to start it?

Debbie: [00:02:48] Well, there really wasn't any internal motivation. I got a cold call from a salesperson at a fledgling internet radio network called Voice America, and they were cold calling me to ask me if I'd be interested in hosting a radio show on their business network, and I actually thought they were offering me a job. But what they were really doing was offering me an opportunity to pay them to produce a podcast or really to produce a radio show that would then appear on Voice America once a week. And at the time, I had been working in branding for many, many, many years and had really dedicated myself to that work. It was really the first time in my professional career that something kind of clicked and branding was something that I enjoyed and also was able to make a living doing. And in that dedication to that work, I really stopped doing a lot of the side projects or hobbies that I loved doing writing, painting, crafts, music, and after quite a few years of doing the commercial design work and the branding work. I kind of felt like my creative soul was being significantly hampered. And when this opportunity came up, I thought, "Well, this could be a fun, creative thing to do." That's also a little bit associated with work. So it's not like I'm slacking. And so I signed on. I paid them to do 13 episodes and "Design Matters" was born.

Craig: [00:04:26] You are now what 17 years over what is it now, 440 guests?

Debbie: [00:04:34] Something like that. I don't really... because I do also run reruns. I've done somewhere between 400 and 500 original episodes, and so I've lost count.

Craig: [00:04:46] When you first got into it, you really didn't have like any radio experience or anything, right? Where were you kind of taking cues from from other folks like, you know, like Terry Gross or whoever?

Debbie: [00:04:59] Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, I had no training whatsoever. Everything I've learned, I've learned by doing it on the job and by making lots of mistakes and wanting to do things differently. It was not something that was in any way intentional. And yes, I've learned a lot from listening to a lot of different masters at work, whether it be Terry Gross or Krista Tippett or Tim Ferriss or Ira Glass or Dax Shepard. Lots and lots of really great interviewers that all have their own style and technique and have something to teach me.

Craig: [00:05:38] In your words, what would you say is the thing that all of these interviews have in common? Because I feel like it started specific to design and specific to your niche of the business world, but I feel like it's expanded. What is the common denominator now that you kind of look back over these four hundred episodes?

Debbie: [00:06:00] Well, the show started out as a show that was very indicative of the name "Design Matters." So designers talking about design and essentially the very inside baseball kind of. The very inside baseball kind of podcast, it wasn't... I wasn't imagining when I started it that I'd still be doing it nearly two decades later, so it was Debbie calling up her friends and talking about things they were interested in in the design community. And most of my friends were on it that first couple of seasons and then over the years, as I grew and developed and evolved, I think I took my work as an interviewer much, obviously, initially when I was doing the show, the first hundred episodes I did on Voice America. That I spent a lot of time and energy writing. And there were sort of musings on the world and what was happening in various experiences that I was having. Both as a designer and a business executive and then as I evolved and grew and started really thinking about the purpose of the show, I decided that the monologues really needed to go. They were a bit hokey.

Debbie: [00:07:26] They weren't really serving any purpose in the actual interview itself. It was taking time away from the dedication that I could have towards my research. So when I moved over to design observer, which I left was America in 2009 and moved over to design observer, I decided at that point after one episode doing it in the existing format. You get to change the format and then not include any any monologues and really just spend all of my energy focused on my guests. And I would say for another three or four years, that was the format, and then I started to get opportunities, whether by people reaching out to me or my meeting them to interview people that weren't just designers, they were all types of creative people. And so I started interviewing musicians and writers and artists and performers. And now I would say that the show is about how the world's most creative and interesting people design the arc of their life and their career. What obstacles do they overcome? What challenges do they face, all in an effort to understand how something makes something glorious out of nothing?

Craig: [00:08:49] As I was reading your new book and reviewing some past episodes, it reminded me of this Seth Godin book I read like 10 years ago, called "Linchpin." And he talks about how art is an intentional act of using your humanity to create change in others, and that art doesn't have to be just painting. Art can be how you are an accountant, your conversations. Whatever your job is, you can do it with artistry, you know, would you agree that it's really about kind of living your life as an artist in whatever form that is?

Debbie: [00:09:30] Yeah, I mean, it's really about what the path that particular person has taken to be who they are and what is their origin story. How did they train to do what they do? Their path to being right here right now, what does that entail? The good, the bad, the hard, the easy, the frustrating, the exhilarating, you know, all of it. And so we take a real deep dive into a person's life trying to thread together an interview that is really a storytelling vehicle for that person's life and that and the person's life's work.

Craig: [00:10:13] So, taking that many deep dives into so many interesting people. What have you gleaned? What what have what have you taken away? What can you tell us about these most interesting creative people that might be helpful to us?

Debbie: [00:10:31] Well, I think that there's a couple of things. One is that just because you're successful doesn't mean you're not insecure and worried about what you're going to make next and are concerned that if you are successful, that you need to continue to be successful in order to be taken seriously and not have your best work behind you. And so there are very few people I've met in the interview that are just sort of OK, as is their yearning, they're still hungry for ways in which to think about their practice, their output, their meaning, anything that has anything to do with the validity of their work. And and there's something kind of comforting knowing that even the world's greatest artists or writers or musicians are still trying to figure it out. There are no...there's not one way of doing anything that one way of achieving anything other than maybe applying yourself and really, really, really working hard. There's no one that I've interviewed that's really genuinely, uniquely, originally creative that hasn't really busted their ass to get there.

Craig: [00:11:48] Are there any disciplines that any of these folks exercise that you've been able to learn about that might help someone become more creative?

Debbie: [00:11:57] I think one of the most poignant and powerful bits of advice or insight I've gotten is from David Lee Roth. I believe it or not, the former lead singer of Van Halen, who when I interviewed him, we were talking about his current business. He runs, he owns a tattoo business, tattoo, ink business, and we were talking about his creativity and his path. He was also an EMT at one point. And of course, we talked about Van Halen and what it was like to be one of the most popular bands on the planet in the 80s. And in fact, in 1984, they had one of the best selling albums tour's most watched videos. I mean, it seemed like Van Halen had it all. And I asked David what it felt like. What did it feel like to be one of the most popular dudes on the planet? His response was was really poignant, he said when you get to the tippy top of the tallest mountain that there is, you're often alone, it's always cold and there's only one direction to continue your journey. And that has really stayed with me, and I think there's something to be said. And I can say this now as a woman in my in middle age as opposed to a young gun, that there's something to be said for taking a slow walk up the mountain that you know, I'm on my best day. I'd like to think that I don't peak until the day before I die so that I always can have work that I'm making to look forward to.

Craig: [00:13:33] So have you thought about what your peak would look like?

Debbie: [00:13:37] No, I don't. I don't. I mean, I just I do strive for a lot. I think a lot of that comes from wanting to prove my value and my worth and my meaning and my purpose. But I think every time I do achieve something that I've longed for and hoped for, then I sort of move on to the next thing, which is something I kind of loathe about myself. I'd like to appreciate things a little bit more and not just think, OK, I've done that now. What else can I do to prove myself?

Craig: [00:14:09] You know, if you're headed towards the peak, you're no longer alone, right? And so does your wife, Roxane Gay, who's very well respected in her field as well, does she keep you grounded? Does she remind you to to take it a day at a time and slow down?

Debbie: [00:14:26] Oh yes, she's the one that pointed it out to me that as soon as I achieve something that I've been working hard to to manifest that I then go right on to the next without really spending any significant amount of time just feeling good about that particular thing. So that that made me very, very aware of it. I think that I do have an aversion to being idle. And that's a psychological term, idle adverse. That is because, you know that stillness can can provoke some terrifying feelings. But I am at least aware of it now, so I am thinking about that too.

Craig: [00:15:04] Do you look back and see specific points in the road where there was a fork and you went this way and was all for for the benefit of good?

Debbie: [00:15:13] Well, I think some things were better than others. I think I made some somewhat dubious romantic choices over the years, especially since I didn't come out until I was 50. So I wish I'd done that a little bit sooner. I think that most of my career has happened in a very serendipitous manner. Probably for the first I graduated college in 1983, I would say it wasn't until my early to mid forties that I really began to get a sense of what I wanted, what I could do. Prior to that, I was very much sort of flying in the wind, going this way, going that way. Whichever way the wind took me, you know, whichever way it flew, I would, I would tend to follow. I wasn't really living intentionally, mostly because I didn't think that I was capable of achieving all that much. And so whatever opportunity came up, I figured it was just the opportunity. So the last opportunity for employment do I have my last opportunity for love or the last opportunity for any number of things. I remember being in Israel a little bit after I turned 30, probably thirty two years old, and I recently left a job and wasn't sure what kind of job I was going to get in the future, but I had taken some, some time off to travel.

Debbie: [00:16:29] And I remember being at the Wailing Wall, crying not because of the sadness of the Wailing Wall so much, although, of course, that inspired it and provoked it. But then it sort of turning into a general overall cry about the state of my life and feeling terrified that at 32, I was unemployable and could never support myself again. And that's a palpable moment. And I use that as an as an example of thinking about myself in a way that isn't realistic. And that's a good example because obviously I wasn't able to get any job since then, but it felt so real and it felt so. Foreboding and terrifying that it didn't feel like it could be anything but the most real thing in the world, and it's a good example of, I think, how I could talk myself into feeling a certain way that might not be accurate.

Craig: [00:17:26] Humans have a hard time, really hard time predicting the future that we, you know, there was a study they were asking these people, Do you think at your age now? I think there were 30 year olds, you know, do you think you have it figured out? And like, yes, I have it figured out. Five years ago, I was a mess, but I have self-actualized and I've got it all figured out. And then they followed up five years later. Do you have a things to figured out? Like, Yes, I was totally wrong. I had nothing. And this goes on and on like, we can't ...we feel... It's something comforting about trying to convince ourselves that we have reached a state of stasis. It's too scary not to know what the future is.

Debbie: [00:18:10] Yeah, absolutely. It's very rare for people to think of a future where if you make a change in your current that you're not going to somehow have less in the future, we don't tend to think about things that haven't yet manifested as possible. And as a result, it puts us in a state of paralysis about making any change because we don't want to lose anything, we just want to gain things. And so that can actually be really detrimental to making any kind of evolution or pivot or to try to reinvent yourself in any way. It's like, what will I lose instead of what will I potentially gain? Because there is no certainty to the gaming, there's only certainty to the losing.

Craig: [00:18:54] I want to ask you your opinion about the power of words. I look at your art and design, and it's very much tied to to text and the written word. You know, when I hear you tell your story of how and why you met Roxanne, it kind of pivots on you reading her words and really feeling touched. Tell me about the power of words.

Debbie: [00:19:24] Well, I think words help us define and construct our reality. I think that I mean, I happen to have a love affair with words and love writing them. I love reading them. I love seeing them, being entertained by them and being surrounded by them. Literally, my my whole house is, I call it the House of Type because so much is written on on whatever it is that I have. I love to to just see words. But I think that they're symbols that can communicate what is what we want it to be. Future scenarios, pass scenarios, alternative scenarios. I think that imagination is brought to life through words. And anything is possible in the construction of those words.

Craig: [00:20:18] I read that you said that you fell in love with Roxanne while you were reading hunger. I read that you said,  "so I sort of fell in love with Roxanne while I was reading hunger, and it was mostly because I felt like she was writing my own story. In so many ways, I felt that somehow she'd gotten into my head without even knowing me and described my soul."

Debbie: [00:20:40] Yes, it is true. That is exactly true.

Craig: [00:20:44] You know, I was listening to the interview that you and Roxanne did with Brené Brown, the story of how you pursued Roxanne. It's it's really amazing. I guess, you know, folks on the podcast can go find that episode if they want the long version. But I thought it was really funny in that story that there winds up being like this branding parable. You figured out right off the bat that this was somebody you felt like you needed to know, but your ability to get that first date with Roxanne really hinged on your mutual friend Ashley's recommendation. Right?

Debbie: [00:21:23] Yeah. Ashley Ford. Yes.

Craig: [00:21:25] So much so that I mean, Roxanne showed up to your first date having not even done any research based purely on Ashley's endorsement. Right?

Debbie: [00:21:35] Yes. She didn't google me at all. She didn't even know what I looked like.

Craig: [00:21:38] So it feels like there's like some key business concepts there about how consumers make choices, right? I mean, it kind of goes back to branding like it was all about, you know, Roxanne's understanding and trust in Ashley's opinion, right?

Debbie: [00:21:54] Yeah, yeah. So she was giving me an endorsement.

Craig: [00:22:00] So, so you got five stars and so you got married during COVID. Right?

Debbie: [00:22:07] Yes. Yes, we. We had planned to have a beautiful big wedding, Gloria Steinem, and agreed to marry us, so we're going to get married on October 10th, 2020, which was a beautiful date, you know, 10 - 10 - 20 - 20 and then COVID hit. And we all went and locked on lockdown in March of 2020. And we realized probably by April or May, that there was just no way that wedding was going to happen. We had not sent out save the date cards yet, so we didn't have to retract anything. But, you know, we lost a lot of deposits that we weren't able to get back just because of the times. So we weren't sure exactly what we were going to do. We initially thought we would postpone it for a year, but that didn't turn out to be an idea. That was good either. But back in June of 2020, I have cousins that live in California and I was with Roxanne in California at her house and my cousins were coming for the weekend. They were driving from Santa Cruz to Los Angeles, and the morning after they got here, Roxanne and I were just relaxing, hanging out, living room. Kenny and Eileen were taking a walk and she just looked at me and said, Hey, why don't we get married this afternoon? You know, since I live in Canvia here, you know, that would be at least we'd have some family.

Debbie: [00:23:33] And then we quickly called one of my best friends, Dee Dee Gordon and her husband, Moses Brooks and the photographer they came to. We were really lucky. We had a photographer. And then we faced our families. We give them any notice because we didn't plan on this. So I literally called both my brothers. I texted them and one wrote back. We're in the middle of something. Can we call you back in an hour? And I was like, No. And then my other brother didn't respond to me at all. So I texted his son, my nephew, who was 12 at the time, and I said, Can you tell your dad to answer his phone? And he's like, Oh, dad, he's taking a nap? Oh my God. Wake him up. And so, yeah, we pulled everybody together really fast and got married at a place called Instant Marriage L.A.. We went to like a little strip mall and an office building and got hitched.

Craig: [00:24:30] That's wonderful. Well, my wife and I, we decided to have a small wedding and, you know, a short engagement. And it was, you know, it was lovely. I remember the whole time we were thinking, you know, it's really it's really not about, I mean, you want that day to be special and we wanted it to be with family. And if we didn't want to be with family, we would have totally eloped. But at the end we were like, You know, it's not about this one day it's about our future, right? And like we, we just wanted the future to start as soon as possible. You know?

Debbie: [00:25:03] Yeah. Oh, that's beautiful.

Craig: [00:25:05] Yeah. So can we talk about art for a second?

Debbie: [00:25:08] Please?

Craig: [00:25:10] Here, I understand that you love art and that you and Roxanne are building a really nice collection. And so I have come across some names that you have collected Jenny Holzer, Julie Mehretu, Jenny Saville, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Minter, Tracey Emin. These these are great names.

Debbie: [00:25:37] I've been collecting for 30 years. Oh, wow. Roxanne just got the the bug after meeting me and has built a really remarkable collection in a very short period of time. I took a slightly different approach in that I started 30 years ago and just started one piece at a time.

Craig: [00:25:57] Sure.

Debbie: [00:25:58] And and have been continuing in that way ever since.

Craig: [00:26:02] What attracts you to a particular piece of art? How does it speak to you? What are you looking for?

Debbie: [00:26:07] I really love conceptual art, and so initially a lot of my collection was built on collecting pieces by Lawrence Weiner, Robert Barry, Douglas Hubler, Jenny Holzer. As you've mentioned, Barbara Kruger, Ed Ruscha. Anybody that was making art with words, right? And I still do that, too. To a great degree, I have a gorgeous I have a small oil sculpture by Deborah Kass, and I really am attracted to things that have a message embedded in them in some way.

Craig: [00:26:45] Sure, I was. I was just about to say like, I'm just like visualizing the art as you're calling out the names, I'm like, There's so many words. It's it's beautiful. At least you're consistent, right?

Debbie: [00:26:59] One would hope when we don't

Craig: [00:27:01] Have you always dealt specifically with a gallery or have you had the ability to get to know the artists and build relationships on that side.

Debbie: [00:27:11] Oh, no, I don't I don't I mean, I have a few relationships with artists now just because of friends introducing me to friends. And so. Debra Katz and her wife, Patricia Cronin. And we are very good friends. That is what inspired me to buy the piece by did. But I would have likely bought it anyway recently become friendly with Marilyn Minter, but I would hardly say she's my friend. I'd love to be more friends, I understand. But we're definitely friendly and I really, really like and respect her. A great deal. But no, mostly mostly. I buy art at auction or occasionally through a place like art space. I like Artspace very much, but but primarily auction.

Craig: [00:27:58] I know we're we're getting short on time, just like off the top of your head. Is there is there one specific conversation over the course of these years that really you kind of carry with you? Was it that David Lee Roth conversation or was there another one that really kind of touched you?

Debbie: [00:28:19] I think I would say it would have to be David's. Well, that and also Dani Shapiro's comment to me, but it was off air. We weren't talking about this in our interview, but her notion that confidence was overrated and that really piqued my interest because I was always up until that point thinking that confidence was the holy grail. And instead, she felt that it was overrated. In what was much more important was the confidence to step into the uncertainty that you needed to be able to handle in order to do something brand new and somewhat terrifying. And that that is something that I've also held very close to me.

Craig: [00:29:04] So instead of hubris, you know, facing challenges head on,

Debbie: [00:29:10] Well, really just stepping into the unknown, having the courage to step into the unknown. And I I've since come to believe that courage is the birthplace of confidence, and confidence is really created by the successful repetition of any endeavor. And that beginning that endeavor is is what sets you on that path?

Craig: [00:29:30] Absolutely. Well, Debbie, I know we're we're just about out of time. I I really appreciate you taking time to talk to me today. I got through the majority of the book It's wine design matters, and it's it's beautifully designed inside. It's a real testament to your 17 years of hard work with with your podcast, and I really encourage anyone listening to to check it out. And so I really appreciate your time today.

Debbie: [00:30:03] Thank you, Craig. It's been really wonderful talking to you. It's an honor to be on your podcast and thank you so much for your generosity.

Craig: [00:30:20] And now the news.

Craig: [00:30:27] The NFT marketplace OpenSea caused an uproar this week when out of the blue, it placed limits on the number of NFTs and no comment in a given month. This is a course reversal for the platform, popular for those eager to create NFT projects that result in the minting of thousands of NFTs. There was no explanation given other than stating that the decision came after community feedback about its creator tools. The decision comes many users off guard and unprepared. The blowback was so substantial that OpenSea decided to reverse course, and only after this course reversal did the company attribute the decision to theft prevention, which seemed a little like a copout to the user community. There are better ways to make sure that works aren't being plagiarized. Some speculate that OpenSea is actually experiencing growing pains. The site has been crashing more frequently, and community members have been complaining about the lack of responsiveness from support. So it's possible the move was intended to turn down the fire hose while the company uses its three hundred million dollar VC war chest to create the infrastructure and hire the human resources necessary to handle demand. In episode one of the podcasts, I spoke to artist Beau Bartlett about his life and work in that conversation. Beau described his mentors as Ben Long, Andrew Wyeth and Nelson Shanks. Bartlett had learned finger painting by painting alongside Shanks at his studio in Philadelphia. Well, Shanks was in the news this past week when a study he completed for a large portrait of Princess Diana far exceeded its auction estimate. The small study, comprised of just the head and shoulders, was estimated to sell for twenty thousand dollars, but instead sold for two hundred thousand. In nineteen ninety four.

Craig: [00:32:26] Diana had spent more than thirty five hours sitting for the portrait and developed a friendship with Shanks and his wife. The larger portrait now hangs in her ancestral home in Althorp in Northamptonshire. Shanks was the most noteworthy portrait artist of his generation, whose commissions included popes and presidents. He passed away in twenty fifteen age seventy seven after a battle with prostate cancer. Museums in some part of the world are still experiencing extended COVID shutdowns. This includes the Netherlands, where cultural institutions are still shuttered. However, the government has recently relaxed restrictions to allow certain retail venues to open back up, including salons, gyms and brothels. The fact that salons, gyms and brothels are open while museums remain closed hasn't sat well with the cultural elite in the Netherlands as a humorous means of protest. All the museums in the country opened for one day last week as nail salons and yoga studios admission was free for those who attended while the museum paid the professionals for their time. Luckily, no museum chose to reopen with professionals from the third. That's all the time we have for this week. You've been listening to art since you can find the show on Apple Podcasts, iTunes, Google Play, Stitcher Radio, Spotify or your favorite podcast app. If you've enjoyed this podcast, be sure to subscribe. And while you're there, please rate the show and leave a quick review. Your feedback is the key to other folks finding us. If you'd like to see images related to the conversation, read a transcript and find other bonus features. You can go to Canvia Art. And click on the Podcast tab. If you'd like to reach out to me, you can email me at, thanks for listening.

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