The World’s Most Creative People With Debbie Millman – #337
Named as “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company, Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator, curator and host of the podcast Design Matters, one of the world’s first and longest running podcasts. In the 16 years since its inception, “Design Matters” has garnered a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, six Webby nominations, and an Apple Podcasts “best overall podcast” designation. In 2009 Debbie co-founded with Steven Heller the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Her writing and illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, New York Magazine, Print Magazine, Design Observer and Fast Company. She is the author of seven books, including her latest, Why Design Matters, a book she describes as ‘a love letter to creativity, a testament to the power of curiosity. It features nearly 60 interviews curated from her podcast show with guests including Brené Brown, Tim Ferriss, Anne Lamott, Seth Godin, Malcolm Gladwell, David Byrne and Maria Popova. These conversations explore what it means to design a creative life, the creative process, dealing with rejection, and the relationship between humanity and creativity. Welcome to the SuperCreativity Podcast Debbie Millman.
Artificial Intelligence Generated Transcript
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The World’s Most Creative People
Debbie Millman 1:22
you. Thank you so much. It’s such a wonderful honor to be here, James, I really appreciate it.
James Taylor 1:27
Now, your seventh book, this book, Why design matters is subtitled conversations with the world’s most creative people you’ve interviewed over 500 creative minds now. I think it’s for the show. Incredible. Have you spotted any commonalities amongst them in terms of the outlook on life, their motivations, their fears are what makes them the best in their respective fields?
Why Design Matters
Debbie Millman 1:48
Oh, such a good question. Well, I’ve noticed a few commonalities across the range of people that I’ve spoken to. And it’s a bit of a paradox, actually, on the one hand, there’s this deep insecurity about continuing to make great things being able to make great things can they continue to sort of hit the ball out of the park mentality. But then on the other hand, there’s also this deep need to share what they make. And so I’m really fascinated by the that space between those points of being insecure about doing it, but then when doing it, also wanting to share it. So that’s one. And then the other common denominator that I’m really interested in researching more and sort of finding more out about is the sense that, despite however many successes they have, there’s still a longing to do more. Not only because they want to keep making things, but also because the feeling of success and accomplishment is really fleeting. And those are, those are two points that I really do want to understand better in the coming work and research that I do.
James Taylor 3:15
I saw you doing an interview the other day, and you actually on that note, you mentioned a quote, you heard I think it was from Miss Eddie Van Halen, or one of the Van Halen fans in Italy, right? It’s a really real story from from Banila. And that’s what it perfectly sums up. Like that idea that you were speaking. So first of all, share that quote, because I think it’s a fantastic quote.
Debbie Millman 3:38
Yeah, he’s, he’s really quite something. I interviewed David Lee Roth before the pandemic, and he came into the studio, we had a really long, really circuitous conversation. And for anybody listening that doesn’t know who David Lee Roth is. He was the frontman of Van Halen, the major rock band, at Van Halen, and his brother, Alex and David all started this band. And in the 80s, particularly the mid 80s, they were one of the most popular bands on the planet, they had the number one album, the number one tour, the number one music video, they had it all. And when I met with him, we were not only talking about his past, but also what he’s currently doing. He has a business of, he’s designed and created all these wonderful inks for tattooing. And so we were talking about that, but of course, I couldn’t help but want to ask him about his past and his time with Van Halen. And I said, What did it feel like in the mid 80s, to sort of be the most popular dude on the planet? And he said, and he’s, he’s a real jester, I have to say he’s very funny. He’s very witty. He’s constantly making jokes and puns and making these really awesome connections between things. And he laughs a lot. And he’s a really big, really boisterous personality in all the best possible ways. But when I asked him that question, he got really quite somber and introspective and said, You have to be really careful when you get to the top of the tallest mountain on the planet. Because generally speaking there, it’s very cold, you’re often alone. And there’s only one direction to journey. And it really, it really has resonated with me all these years later, because I suddenly had this vision of my life and sort of trying so hard to race up the mountain to get somewhere and to get something. And it suddenly made me realize that perhaps it’s okay to take those slower steps up the mountain. So that maybe if you’re really, really lucky, you don’t peak until the day before you die. And that has just stayed with me ever since.
James Taylor 6:10
I’m talking about those slower steps. I’ve heard you speak before about you went through this 12 year period of basically rejection, starting out your career before kind of hit your stride. struggle. And I think that that will resonate with people, when they hear hear that’s your story as well with a lot of great tips. But when you’ve also interviewed all these other creative minds, what do they share? What it’s almost like, what keeps them going through that period? And keeps them searching keeps on finding which is there’s maybe some something they also about that latter stage when they’ve hit success that keeps them wanting to be hungry for it, what kept you going? And what do you think keeps some of your guests going through those initial periods in their career where they’re maybe not quite sure if what they’re doing is right, or if they’re going down the right, right avenues?
Debbie Millman 6:58
Well, for me, what kept me going was an attempt to Brene Brown about this, I’ve always felt like I’ve had one more notch hope than shame. And so even though I was getting rejected and have had these failures, and these moments of of utter desperation about how I was ever going to make something of myself, I think I always did have one more notch hope that at some point, someday, if I just kept at it long enough, it would happen.
James Taylor 7:34
One thing you are expert, artful in is the art of the interview, and asking questions. So I really get nervous with guests on the show. I think we’ve done about 250 episodes of this this show now. I really get nervous. But I was actually I said to my wife earlier, I’m actually a little bit nervous about speaking with Debbie, because she’s such a masterful interviewer. I know you the research you go into when you do your interviews, you have your go, there were like 70 pages of distilled of notes going into it, which is really is really beautiful. So I would love for anyone that’s listening to just now. And also I’m saying this to myself, anyone when it’s a podcaster was a journalist or maybe they have to go and attend an event where they’re going to be interviewing someone that’s going to be up on the stage. What advice would you give to them in terms of how to how to do good interview?
Debbie Millman 8:26
Well, the first thing that I would say is really listen, most people don’t listen, they talk. And then they stop talking and wait for the other person to who they’re talking with or to, to stop talking so that they can start talking again. So I think
James Taylor 8:48
the first the first bit of advice, I’m gonna cut you down, you’re just exactly I’m going to be a completely my fault as well, because I’ve actually heard you speak about the almost like, billions, I think was a phrase I’ve heard.
Debbie Millman 8:59
Yes. Vision is like a game of pool. Yeah, you are. With a great conversation. You want to keep the conversation going, and keep it inspiring. And for me, the questions that I asked aren’t about me, they’re about the person that I’m talking to. And so I want to keep building on them and on their narrative and on their story. And when you’re playing pool, it’s not a volley, it’s you want to keep getting the balls in the in the pocket so that you can continue playing. And so when I ask a question, I need to be prepared for wherever the billiard ball is going to land and be leave the balls on the table so that I can continue getting more balls and more pockets. And so when I have a conversation with someone I need to be prepared enough to be able to follow them wherever they go, you know, I’m the ball that’s following theirs. And I want to really ensure that I’m being able to forward the conversation that they want to have. Not necessarily that I want to have. But I need to know what it is they might be interested in talking about in order to be able to meet them fully in that conversation.
James Taylor 10:29
So you’re almost like a great, like a jazz music context where you have maybe a Tony Bennett with a Bill Evans, or Ralph Sharon, who is accompanying them, they’re listening, and they’re moving, and they’re giving space as well at the right time, and maybe maybe maybe taking them in directions they don’t necessarily expect they haven’t been before.
Debbie Millman 10:50
Oh, James, I love. I love that. That’s a wonderful description. It’s not anything I’ve ever heard before, or thought before. And that’s it. You’ve nailed it. Thank you. I mean, I wouldn’t really like to think I could be that good, like a jazz musician. But that’s what I’m seeking. That is absolutely right.
James Taylor 11:13
So on the note of jazz musician, and the reason I mentioned jazz musician, my wife is a jazz singer, my father’s jazz musician. And one of the things I remember, one of his first gigs he got when he was 15 years old, was as a musician on the QE to the ship that used to go from from Southampton to New York. And I remember him telling a story that he said that he used to go every night and go and listen to this other band that was playing on the ship, because there’s multiple bands on the ship. And he said, The reason I used to go into this ship, this other band here, this musician, this particular guitar in this band, is because I would go and listen. And he did so many things I didn’t want to do, it was almost like the antithesis of tasteful art for playing. And so I used to go and I used to listen to I used to listen to the perspective of like, okay, what is the opposite of that? Whatever he’s doing, what is the opposite? So let’s, if we imagine this like an interview, for example, what would be if it’s just a bad host of an interview? What would they be doing? And then we can kind of flip it around to like, what is what is the good version of that?
Debbie Millman 12:15
Oh, my gosh, what would they be doing? Not paying attention? Looking at their email while they’re talking? or Instagram or anything on online? Thinking about what they want to eat for dinner?
James Taylor 12:31
Not being present.
Debbie Millman 12:34
Yeah, not being present is really the, I think, kryptonite of an interview.
James Taylor 12:41
Now, I saw brand is magazine describes why design matters. This beautiful, beautiful coffee table book here as well, of which I I mean, I love the the articles, the actual interviews, and I actually love photography in it as well. Thank you. There’s, there’s a wonderful shot of one of the guests we’ve had on the show, Amanda Palmer. I’ve never seen a shot like this of Amanda before. And it’s a really great, so wonderful book. And branded magazine describes why design matters book as a salon, in book form. And with you as the kind of the Gertrude Stein, I guess, character. There’s hopefully I know, we were talking earlier, you heading on to Paris, and I’m really fascinated by that whole kind of 1920 sale on, you know, this kind of post pandemic gathering Casso Hemingway. I’m just reading another book just now which is great, which is I’d recommend anyone, which I’d never read poor people toy ideas
Debbie Millman 13:38
here. Yeah, my
James Taylor 13:41
guess is great. A couple people who recommended me this book The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas by Gertrude Stein, and I’ve never got it but in summertime, this version illustrations by Myra calendar, which I believe you might know, as well, great. And as I was reading it, and I was thinking and thinking about our conversation today, somebody who’s coming up very strong was this idea of, of creative peers, creative pairings, these two different but complementary people that kind of push each other forward. Now, in your career, it seems to me like you’ve had multiple creative pairings. You’ve had Milton Glaser, you’ve had Steven Heller, your wife, Roxane Gay, what do you look for, in great creative pairings?
Debbie Millman 14:28
Trust, trust, in order to really collaborate. You have to trust and respect whoever you’re collaborating with. There’s something wonderful about doing work on your own because you’re making your own decisions and you’re able to do essentially whatever you want. You know, one of the reasons I like making visual stories is that I can edit the copy and adjust the copy to the visual or just the visual to To copy in any way I want to. But when you’re collaborating with someone else, you have to trust that their point of view is as good as yours, or better. And maybe it’s even better to think that it’s better so that you’re more generous with the way that you listen to whatever input or sharing somebody has or contribution that somebody has. And so for example, one of my most successful partnerships was with Simon Williams, my former partner at Sterling brands, he was the CEO, I was the president. And the secret to our success was his trust in me to do what I felt like I needed to do in the division that I was running. And he gave me that runway and was there for what I needed. Feedback was there for when I needed advice or guidance, counsel, a sounding board a shoulder to cry on whatever, but he gave me a certain amount of freedom to be able to do what I thought was necessary to grow this division of sterling, which was the biggest division. And I think, truly, that’s why because he gave me that ability. He not only gave me the freedom, but he also gave me the sense that he believed in what I was doing. And so therefore, I wanted to deliver on that belief, as well. So I think one of the most successful partnerships of my career,
James Taylor 16:35
so this is this idea of trust. We had Dr. Amy Edmondson from Harvard University on a little while ago, sure about psychological safety by creating this, you as also as a leader, when you were at Sterling brands, you had maybe new members of the team coming on, how do you as a leader create that sense of that trust that sense of psychological safety in a, in a group that maybe hasn’t worked together? Before?
Debbie Millman 16:57
It’s a good question. It’s, I think, very hard to integrate senior people into an established company with an existing hierarchy and existing cliques and existing personalities. I think it’s one of the hardest things to do in a corporation is to bring in a senior person that you want to empower, because there’s so much of an existing pattern of behavior that I think makes for real difficulties for anybody new. I mean, you usually can tell pretty quickly whether somebody is going to be able to jump on that, right that that driving train, or is not. And that’s really what it’s like for a senior person coming into an organization, the train doesn’t stop and wait for them to get on, the train is speeding along, and that person literally has to jump on and move with it. And that’s really challenging. And so it is a matter of whoever that person is reporting to, to be able to get that trust, and that empowerment instantly, instantly, even if there’s nothing to base it on other than the hope and belief that it’s possible.
James Taylor 18:11
But there is a there is a kind of competitive challenging nature I would guess and much of the work that you have done in the past when you’re working with with groups in we’re I’m from Scotland, in Edinburgh, our version and during the enlightenment of the Cylons was the clubs. So every industry, every professional, their own clubs, the the farmers had their own clubs, the scientists had a club, the merchants, other club, the sex workers had their own club, everyone had their own clubs, where they kind of get together to debate and discuss and challenge each other’s ideas. And one of the phrases which is a Scottish phrase that we have is this phrase called fighting. The fighting basically means the ritual abuse of your opponent by means of verbal violence. So it’s where you challenge someone’s idea, you really push back on the idea, but it can only work as use it. When there’s that sense of trust and respect the other person you wouldn’t do it with someone you don’t know. But it’s because you’re you’re putting in your work. You had a really interesting experience where with a group called Speak up, they took umbrage at you judging a design competition. So I’m wondering, what role does criticism have in creative work? Can the critic be another type of creative peer, someone that can challenge and your ideas and make your ideas stronger?
Role Of Criticism in creative work
Debbie Millman 19:38
I think that the role of the critic is really important because they are able to help you understand where something fits into culture, but they can also be really damaging and that I was just talking to Richard Tuttle, one of the last living great New York painters from the New York School of Painting. He’s in his mid to late 80s A contemporary of Rothko and add Reinhart and Pollock. And his very we were talking about how his first show or his first piece at the Whitney in 1974 was eviscerated by Hilton Kramer in the New York Times, just completely destroyed him. Both his work and then ultimately it took them a long time to recover emotionally. So something like that is it can be really harmful for someone. It’s only decades later that the Wall Street Journal ended up saying that show that work that Richard Tuttle did for that show is one of the most important contributions in art in the 20th century. So I think there are times when it helps you understand where something belongs in culture. But there are other times where for whatever reason, a critic doesn’t understand what they’re looking at, especially if it’s something new, because people don’t always understand the new and and then tries to destroy it because of their lack of understanding. It might not be because they don’t like it, it’s maybe because they don’t understand what they’re seeing. You know, it’s sort of like the people that say, Oh, my kid could do a potluck, and it just looks like a bunch of splattered paint. Well, there’s a whole reason he did that in that way that they don’t understand. So they can disregard it as being something that’s easy, or their kid could do. But there’s so much intellectual heft behind it, there’s so much conceptual thinking behind it, that they don’t realize that they just then disregard it. So I think it’s the role of the critic is an interesting one in in our culture, because everybody’s a critic now to you know, we’re all critics on Instagram, and Twitter, and so forth. And so I think we have to understand that there’s a place for criticism, and then there’s also a place where you need to shut off the criticism in order to continue to believe in what you’re doing, especially if it’s critical.
James Taylor 22:05
Do you think of the people you’ve interviewed? Do you think that is something the struggle more than the general population with the act of being creative is that you have to maybe be more empathetic in the world more in touch more present more emotional, emotionally open, let’s say? Or is that just nonsense? Is it? You know, is how are the people you’ve interviewed? How do they respond to the critic, how does the site this is I’m gonna listen to this, I’m gonna take this and this other stuff, I’m just going to ignore him, I’m not going to use
Debbie Millman 22:36
that I don’t really know. But I do think what’s as important to think about and consider is what to do when all of the feedback is positive. Because then you run the risk of catering to your audience, and wanting to keep pleasing them and giving them what they want. So I think my answer to that would be to be aware of both the critical as well as the positive, because once you start working in a way that includes the concern about what people think you stop creating from your own soul and voice. And so once you start trying to accommodate both the critical or the positive, you run the risk of diluting your own ideas.
James Taylor 23:35
And how does the work of C design agencies or advertising agency sit in that because I obviously is a very challenging job, because you have the art, the artistic side of it, very creative. And then you have what feels to me like more that the commerce side, we have an audience and you have to listen to an audience and how do you what advice would you give to maybe designers or people that are working in that, that corporate crossover commerce art world in terms of how to compete with this?
Creativity And Curiosity
Debbie Millman 24:03
Well, in terms of art, I think it’s really having a single minded focus in terms of design where you actually do need to please an audience, especially in branding, you do want your zealots, your loyalists, your consumers to like what you’re doing, then you have to be really careful. I mean, you have somebody like Massimo Vignelli, who would show one design option, because he would feel that if my clients are coming to me for a solution, I’m like a doctor, I’m not going to give them five diagnoses. I’m going to tell them what they need to do in order to do this the best possible way that they can. So he would give one very few people have the audacity and the competence to do that and very few clients would be willing to accept that now. Paul Rand was the same way one design in terms of my concerns or advice now is if you have to listen to any One if the agency, the consultant needs to listen to anyone, I would say, err on the side of the consumer, because they’re the ones that are really engaging with the product, because they want to, once you start having to design by committee inside a corporation, you know, I would say that unless those specific people are diehard consumers as well, and even then I wouldn’t trust the purity of their opinion. I would say that it’s probably better to do some ethnographic research with really key members of your your community to be able to understand how they feel before you.
James Taylor 25:47
You’ve spoken before I think it was on I heard you on the Tim Ferriss show speaking about earlier in your life, your your one purpose really was to live in Manhattan, whatever was required to do whether to work different jobs to live in not great apartments, that so desire, I want to live in Manhattan, because you felt it was that was the place to be able to make those connections or to have a full of creative, creative life. New Yorker wonderful, say I Love New York. And it’s just one of those great creative cities of the world. And now I believe you’re splitting time between New York and Los Angeles. So the Romans had this phrase, the genius loci that places themselves can have their own creative genius. They can almost be like a, an inspiration or an actor in creativity. It obviously you have New York for that. And you’ve you’ve already got that. But have you discovered that in LA yet? Because I was nearly two weeks. And I’ve yet to find that soul and it but but I’m an outsider. So maybe you’re an insider, you can tell me you’ve discovered it?
Debbie Millman 26:52
Well, I don’t know that I’ve discovered exactly what you’re talking about in terms of the Spirit. But what I can tell you is that a lot of people ask me, which I like better, New York or LA. And as a city. I think I like New York better, probably because it’s my soul city. And I’ve lived here my entire life. And I am connected to it in a way that I probably don’t even fully understand. However, I like me better in LA, I’m less stressed. I’m less harried. I’m less I feel less obligated. I garden more I am much calmer. So I think there’s benefits to both right now. And thankfully I don’t have to choose at the moment.
James Taylor 27:54
So how do you keep your thinking fresh? I mean, you’re you have all these different avenues of your creative self, your, as mentioned a designer, you’re an artist. You We haven’t even gotten your guitar playing. So that’s something you’re getting back into as well. How do you keep your own creative thinking fresh? What influence Did you tried to surround yourself with?
Debbie Millman 28:14
Well, it tried to get enough sleep because that’s when we are our brains are rejuvenating, that’s when our cells are rejuvenating. And I don’t think you can do anything creative without that. So that’s the first thing I’m asleep aholic. I love sleeping and I do almost everything I can to get seven or eight or nine hours of sleep a night. And and that’s and I walk a lot and I while I’m walking I think gives me an opportunity to sort of freeform think without any specific deadline or objective. It’s just freeform. Not super important to me. So that I think those two things are really important to my creative energy.
James Taylor 29:03
Now a bit early at the start of the show that you’re you’ve been in this podcasting thing for a while you will kind of early on in the technology. Is there any technology that you feel kind of helps either augment the creative work you do or makes you more efficient in your creativity? I you can certainly get to tell me you’re now moving into doing design matters in the metaverse or what technology are you using day in day out at the moment?
Debbie Millman 29:29
Well, it’s the moment and talking to you right now for my little podcast studio at the School of Visual Arts. And I love this little room. It’s tiny. It’s about the size of a postage stamp, but it’s very intimate. And while I don’t really have guests coming here much anymore, because of COVID and now doing the podcast through zoom mostly. I am still really excited about the art of conversation with or without technology. To you know that you don’t really need technology to have a good conversation that helps it, it certainly provides a foundation to be able to have that. But you know, I’m, I have a wonderful producer. So I’m not really thinking about the microphones and the speakers and the headphones and all of that. My art, I still love to do almost everything by hand. But I also do a lot of digital art, with an Apple pencil on my iPad, which I also love. So there’s a lot of things that I still do old school and a lot of things that I still enjoy learning through new uses of technology. But I am not. I’m a bit of a Luddite. And so I depend on others to help me with technology, for example, I still have not mastered the remote on my television. And so it’s almost inevitable that I turn on the television, and I get a blue screen or a green screen or something that says that something’s not connected, right. So Roxanne is still endlessly perplexed by why that happens to me, and not her. But she’s a real technological whiz, she’s the first person to get the new iPhone to get the new iPad to get the new headphone. She loves technology. I’m still a little bit terrified by it. And so the less I need to depend on it, the happier I am.
James Taylor 31:29
And what’s next for Debbie Millman. What are your next projects you’re really excited about you’re working on at the moment?
Debbie Millman 31:35
Well, there are two things that I’m super excited about. And they’re both going to be launching around the same time. I’m working on a piece and installation for an opening for the new Broadway museum that’s opening in the fall. And so the Broadway Museum is going to feature installations and rooms in the museum that all are about different moments in Broadway history. So there’ll be a room about rent, and there’ll be room about Hamilton and there’ll be a room about any number of other moments in time in Broadway. But there’s also going to be more conceptual rooms. And there’s a room that I’m working on, which is going to be a room that is celebrating the many, many, many people that the Broadway community lost during the AIDS crisis. And so I’m creating two walls of names of people that that died during the AIDS crisis that were in the Broadway community. And so I’m working on that right now. It’s very intense to be doing something like that. And that’ll be out the museum is opening in October. And then I’m also working on something that I had been asked to do for years and years and years now. And it harkens all the way back to the work that I’ve done with Milton Glaser, which in the intensive that I took with him back in 2005. He asked us all to create a five year plan for our future lives. And I see you nodding and Yes, wonderful. So I had been asked over the years to write a book about it, which I didn’t want to do. But I was asked by chronicle to design a deck of cards. And the cards are a way for people to write their own 10 year plans. I extended the runway because it took me 13 years. I made it a 10 year plan. It’s called the remarkable life deck. And it’s a 10 year plan for realizing your dreams. And I created 30 times two, so 60 pieces of art for the cards, and then a journal and instruction booklet. And it’s in this beautiful jewel box of a box. And that’ll be out in October as well. And I’m really excited about what people can make with it.
James Taylor 34:15
I would love love. I know you’ve done some stuff with Creative Live in the past with Chase. And I would love a course on that. That was ever possible.
Debbie Millman 34:24
I think that’s a great idea. And I have to start thinking about how to help bring it to life for people. So thank you for that idea.
James Taylor 34:32
Well, then we move on. Thank you for the podcast. Wonderful, wonderful podcast, you’ve you’re it’s always a joy to listen to you because you you take this arc of a life with all your guests, and it’s just it’s so enlightening. So I go to listen to the podcast, not knowing who this person is and being thoroughly immersed in their story. And you helping them tell that story as well. And also thank you for the book putting it in old fashioned traditional book form. So as some of us Hello Luddites Can, can get into it as well. Where’s mostly people, people to go to learn about everything that you’re doing in the future? Where should they go and connect with
Debbie Millman 35:07
you to my website, Debbie millman.com It’s all there.
James Taylor 35:11
Debbie Millman thank you for even being a guest on the Super creativity podcast.
Debbie Millman 35:15
Thank you, James. It’s been an honor to be here with you. You can subscribe
James Taylor 35:19
to the super creativity podcast on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you get your podcasts while you’re there. Please leave us a review. I would really, really appreciate it. I’m James Taylor. I knew been listening to the super creativity podcast.