Debbie Millman The design legend on our changing relationship with words

Cover Image - Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman has spent her life exploring the space where art meets design meets words – through her own art, her branding work and her hugely popular podcast Design Matters. Taking a break from installing her show at the Museum of Design AtlantaText Me: How We Live in Language – Debbie chatted about words, and how our relationship with them has changed. Illustrations by Jun Cen.

Debbie Millman: I took a summer intensive with Milton Glaser in 2005 at the School of Visual Arts; it was for mid-career designers that were looking for a reboot. He asked all of the students to write a plan – a vision for what their life could be five years in the future; a very specific essay about what we were doing, where we were living, who we were living with, what kind of work we were doing and I took it really really seriously.

Not only did I write the entire essay but I made a big, fat aspirational list of all these dreams that I had.

In Milton's class we weren't supposed to share this, any of the exercises. We were taking what Milton referred to as “The Fight Club pact.” We weren't allowed to tell anybody what we were doing in the class because it would ruin people's expectations.

I wrote on my list of things that I wanted to curate a show about graphic art. Things happen to me a little bit slower than others. Five years after doing the exercise I would say maybe 80% came true and then maybe after 10 years, it was 90% and now, with this show opening, I can say that 100% of my list came true.

Rob Alderson: Was that because you had written a list and you were then making certain decisions to follow it, or were you on some of those paths anyway do you think?

DM: No, no. I had not been teaching and I ended up not only teaching at SVA but running a graduate program. I was not part of the AIGA at the time; I ended up being on the board of the New York chapter, then became a national board member, then became president. I hadn't written any books; I've now written six books. These were big, fat hopes that I had for my life.

Milton warned that it was a very magical exercise, and for me it was transformative. And I don't know why or how this exercise works. I don't know if you declare something and acknowledge that you want it really badly, that this is something you then create. I don't know. But it’s happened to a lot of people besides me.

RA: Did you keep the list somewhere?

DM: It’s in a journal I was keeping at that time. I usually read it about once a year. The first time I re-read it, which was three or four years after I had written it, I was like, "Oh, my god. This is amazing.”

RA: Why do think doing a show like this was on your list?

DM: My love affair with typography and messaging and design and art goes back 30 years. Most of my artwork has always included some version of typography in it. Even in drawings that I made when I was a kid, there is often some textural element to that work.

Words have always been really important to me. I have so many pieces of art or design in my home that have text on them, that when the musician Amanda Palmer was there she called it “the house of words.”

RA: Do you think that very particular intersection – that combination of art and design and language and text – how much of that has to be with you being a New Yorker? That feels like it might be very relevant...

DM: I’ve lived in all the boroughs except the Bronx. I think that everything I see and do and make and inquire about has a New York-ness embedded in it, without a doubt. The only thing I've actually ever been 100% sure of in my life is that New York City is where I want to live.

RA: One of the aims of the show is “to look at how we live in language and how language now defines our lives." What do you mean by that?

DM: We’ve become really dependent on language. No-one could have predicted the popularity of texting. When it first started, nobody was talking about it as the landline killer. We seem to be more comfortable texting than we do talking on the telephone. But talking on the telephone is actually a lot easier, a lot quicker.

RA: Is that as simple as the technology changing the culture, or is that we were waiting for something to come along and free us from talking on the phone?

DM: I think the technology has changed culture, but then I think culture is changing technology as well. I often say we now are living in a 140 character culture because we need to be able to articulate our current view of reality on Twitter. We've become very good at distilling our ideas or our opinions or our assessments in this manner.

RA: Is that a good thing or a damaging thing?

DM: Both. I think it's extraordinary to consider the possibility of being able to communicate and broadcast something globally. Suddenly ,what might be a message to 453 friends could be a message that the entire world sees, or a good portion of the world.

The iPod first came out six weeks after 9/11. From 2001 until early 2005, if you look at the cultural commentary around the iPod, it was sort of predicting that civilization was doomed through this device – that we were using the iPod to depopulate social space. We were living in our devices and becoming this nation of isolated souls with whom we had no one that we could confide or connect with.

Here we had this technology that was impacting our culture. Well, humans are pre-wired to want, to need to connect. We are happiest – and neurologists have determined this– we are happiest when our brains are harmoniously resonating with others. That's when we feel most secure.

So then in 2005 a website came out that became the most visited site on the planet. And that was Myspace. That became our primary way of connecting, and that's only changed and grown volumetrically since then with Myspace being taken over by Facebook and so forth. We think we fell in love with our devices, but we didn’t really. We fell in love with the connection that we feel via the devices. But now, because we have this ability to connect so broadly, we're positioning ourselves and we're creating these personas via Instagram and via Facebook and via Twitter. And now the new generation of users, Generation Z, is being nicknamed Generation D, for depressed, because if they don't get enough likes, then they don't feel good about themselves.

We're using this way of communication to position ourselves in the world and articulate and describe who we want others to believe that we are, which is really difficult and really damaging.

RA: Do you think one of the ways that backlash might take shape is through the non-text platforms? You see the rise of Instagram and Snapchat and I think the same thing is playing out there, people reclaiming identities…

DM: Well, they're reclaiming identity but they're also putting up an identity that isn't always authentic. It's who they are on their best day, every day. You're not seeing people position themselves as hungover and stressed out and slothful. You don't see a lot of sloth on Instagram.

I do think reading is becoming more scarce but it's a response to the amount of attention that everything requires.
I do think reading is becoming more scarce but it's a response to the amount of attention that everything requires.

RA: (laughs) Not enough I don't think. But there is this concern that pops up in the media particularly – nobody reads anymore. That awful phase “pivot to video” that people keep using when they lay off their editorial staff. Do you have any concern that we’ve hit the high water mark for text, and now we are moving away from that?

DM: That's a really good point. Not only do they not want to read, but they also pretend that they've already read things. How many times do people opinionate on the headline of an article as opposed to the content?

And I think a lot of it has switched because we feel bombarded by imagery and by text and by messaging and advertising. I do think reading is becoming more scarce but it's a response to the amount of attention that everything requires.

RA: We can't talk about Twitter without talking about the current President. There's a feeling that words are losing their power, losing their meaning, because Trump and others in that circle misuse them. Do you think language is being undermined in that sense?

DM: Absolutely, without a doubt. There is this whole new body of terms like “alternative facts” that are being used now. I'm really worried. Language creates neuro-pathways in our brains allowing us to understand reality.

We use language to define and express how we live, what we live, why we live. The fact that we're using language in such a haphazard and messy and inaccurate way is opening a door to being able to create sub-realities that are not only harmful, but just wrong. That’s really frightening.

And the certainty that people have about their view of reality, this belief in things that are unproven, is really scary. In some ways I wish I had that kind of certainty.…

RA: There’s that quote about how, “Tyranny is the deliberate removal of nuance.” That's how it feels sometimes doesn't it? That kind of ironing out of any crinkle of complexity…

DM: We don't have any scientific proof about where the hydrogen and the helium came from that created the fuel for the big bang, that resulted in this universe. If we don't have the certainty as to where those chemical compounds came from, how can we be sure of anything?

RA: Let's move back to happier things. You talked about this long interest you've had in the relationship between text and design and art. I wonder if you can talk a little bit about how you see that relationship.

DM: Well, I think that we have used language to pass on knowledge, our beliefs, our values, our secrets, and we explain how things are with language, why they are, our role, our purpose. I think that language is the building block, it's the foundation of our memory and of our learning and it connects us with our humanness. It connects us with our past and our present and it connects us to our future by being able to understand the present.

I have always been really captivated by our sense of what reality is and how our personal realities coexist with others. This has been one of the constant threads throughout all my work, whether it be in branding or in the art that I make. It’s about expressing a specific view at a specific moment in time.

This is what I am trying to do with my podcast. I’m endlessly fascinated in understanding someone's trajectory, understanding how that person became who they are. That’s all done via the articulation of language and words.

RA: Did you ever have any trepidation of taking people who mainly worked in the visual realm and then doing an interview format that was completely oral?

DM: Well, you know the show is about creative people. It started very much as designers talking to me about design. Over the years I realized that I was much less interested in the finished pieces they created and more in the process they took in the creation of that piece and even more importantly, how they designed their life.

How did they make the decisions to become who they are? That to me is the most interesting question that I can ask someone. How did you become you? The idea of it being about design is really a Trojan horse now. It's just getting people into the conversation.

RA: That's a very intimate set-up of having them talk about it.

But it's also interesting because the act of creating language is an act of presentation, of self-presentation. So when you're interviewing – and when we're listening to it – there's are always two things going on. It’s what's this person is saying, and what I think they might be meaning by that. That's quite an interesting tension.

DM: Right. And I don't know if people realize this, but most of the questions that I ask people are about things they've said or written before. I'm very interested in taking conversations that they've already had, things they've already declared, and then going deeper.

RA: It happens a lot, when you interview people and they say, "I never really thought about it like that.” In the act of being asked a question and answering it, they find out something about themselves while talking. I think that's a fascinating thing…

DM: Yeah, absolutely. And getting back to Milton's five year plan, maybe it works because that act of declaring gives somebody a sense of who they are.