Harry’s Design with Pride

rainbow animationPortrait of Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman

Chair, Masters in Branding at the School of Visual Arts; Host of the podcast Design Matters

Preferred Pronouns: She/Her

What does Pride mean to you?

To me, pride means feeling proud of who I am, as is. It means being comfortable in my own skin as a gay woman, artist, writer and educator. It means being happy to be who I am, in totality.

Describe a moment when being both a designer and a part of this community has helped you through a difficult time, or helped you find a way forward.

I didn’t come out until I was 50 years old. When I did, I was really scared that I would be seen differently, mostly because of my own internal homophobia. That didn’t happen at all—I felt tremendous support from the design and branding community, and that has only grown as I have become more of an activist and advocate for LGBTQ visibility in design.

Are there any LGBTQ artists/designers that you’re currently a fan of?

SO MANY! I love the artists Lisa Congdon, Deborah Kass, Patricia Cronin, Chip Kidd, Adam J. Kurtz, Jonathan Adler, the writers Carmen Maria Machado, Grace Bonney, Maria Popova, Tea Uglow, Thomas Page McBee, Elissa Altman, Simon Doonon, musicians Kaki King, Erin McKweon, Lucy Wainwright Roche, writer and chef Julia Turshen, writer and astrologers Chani Nicholas and Christopher Renstrom and so many more!

You have been a podcaster for a long time. How do you think the medium has changed with increased popularity, for better or worse?

The year 2005 was a unique time on the Internet; a bit like the gold rush, new enterprises and platforms were popping up everywhere. Adam Curry (former MTV video jockey and radio broadcaster) and software developer Dave Winer created the first ever podcast in 2004 when they wrote a program they called iPodder. The program allowed Curry and Winer to download automatically Internet radio broadcasts to their iPods. They could then take their iPods, along with their broadcasts, anywhere. The actual term “podcasting” appeared shortly thereafter in the 2004 article by Ben Hammersley that was published in The Guardian. While much of the early podcasting software wasn’t user-friendly, the first commercially successful Software was created by August Trometer and Ray Slakinski. First called iPodderX, Trometer and Slakinski later changed the name to Transistr, and an industry was born. In June 2005, Apple added podcasting to the iTunes 4.9 software and built a directory of podcasts in iTunes. Here listeners could both subscribe and listen to podcasts. As soon as I read about this new technology, I decided to upload my brand new recorded Design Matters files to iTunes, inadvertently making Design Matters the first-ever design podcast to be distributed in this manner. The ultimate democratic endeavor, podcasting is (at least for now) free from government regulation. Podcasters don’t need a license to broadcast programming (radio stations do) and they aren’t required to conform to the United States Federal Communication Commission decency regulations. Anything and everything is allowed in podcasting, and this leniency is leveraged all over the Internet. In the last ten years the technology has changed, as has the landscape of podcasting. Once a frantic free-for-all, podcasting is now a worldwide phenomenon. I started planning Design Matters in 2004 and launched it online in 2005. Since that time, Design Matters has evolved from a show about designers talking about design to a show about how the worlds most creative people design their lives.

Branding is often overlooked or ignored by the general public, but is such a crucial part of our world. How do you help people to understand what goes into good branding and how it shapes our thinking?

Walter Landor, the great grandfather of branding stated, “Products are made in the factory, but brands are created in the mind.” In the same way a sign needs to be interpreted in order for it to be considered a sign, a brand does not exist until it is identified as such. It needs an audience of minds to create it. Only then, can it gather and move audiences, followers, or believers. Business sees branding as the purview of business. And it’s easy to fall into this mode of thinking. Agencies, marketing departments, public relations, and media are all businesses themselves, caught up in an echo chamber of brands. Brands promote other brands, partner with other brands, buy other brands, and have appropriated the symbolism of other brands. Branding is now inextricably linked to the way in which society, culture, the environment, and business interact. At this particular moment in our world, the discipline of branding has more impact on our culture than any other creative medium.

What’s the next big trend happening in branding and design that you’d like to see?

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. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo 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 advice do you have for young people in the LGBTQ community who want to pursue a creative career?

I would give young people in the LGBTQ community the same advice as straight people in regards to pursuing a creative career. We are living in a culture that leads us to believe that 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. I believe that anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process of years. 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 twenties to experiment. This is a time when falling flat on your face is expected. Build something meaningful rather than build something 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.

What is your motto (or words you live by)?

My personal motto is this: Busy is a decision. Of the many, many excuses people use to rationalize why they can’t do something, the excuse “I am too busy” is not only the most inauthentic, it is also the laziest. I don’t believe in “too busy.” I think that busy is a decision. We do the things we want to do, period. If we say we are too busy, it is shorthand for “not important enough.” It means you would rather be doing something else that you consider more important. That “thing” could be sleep, it could be sex, or it could be watching 90 Day Fiance. If we use busy as an excuse for not doing something what we are really, really saying is that it’s not a priority. Simply put: you don’t find the time to do something; you make the time to do things. We are now living in a society that sees busy as a badge. It has become cultural cache to use the excuse “I am too busy,” as a reason for not doing anything we don’t feel like doing. The problem is this: if you let yourself off the hook for not doing something for ANY reason, you won’t ever do it. If you want to do something, you can’t let being busy stand in the way, even if you are busy. Make the time to do the things you want to do and then do them.

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