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Creator Spotlight with Designer Debbie Millman

Creator Spotlight with Designer Debbie Millman by Copyright Alliance

April 19, 2018

Debbie Millman is an American writereducatorartistcurator and designer who is best known as the host of the podcast Design Matters. She has authored six books, is the current President Emeritus of AIGA, chair and co-founder of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and Editorial and Creative Director of Print magazine.

What was the inspiration behind becoming a designer? What do you enjoy most about the creative process?

I started working in design primarily because it was the only marketable skill that I had. When I was in college (The State University at Albany, in Albany New York), I wrote for the student newspaper and I became the Arts and Feature editor in my senior year. As part of the role of editor you also had to lay out and design the paper. I found that to be something truly remarkable, like magical. I loved doing it as much, if not more, than editing, writing and assigning stories. There wasn’t much I could do with an English degree; I didn’t want to be an account executive at an ad agency. I had this skill of being able to do what is now considered old school layout drafting skills. My first jobs were working as a freelance designer paste-up artist. But the first 10 years of my career were experiments in rejection and failure. I didn’t get my job at Sterling Brands until 1995; a full twelve years after I graduated college.

You have to work hard to discover what it is you are passionate about. You have to experiment and take risks. It takes work to get the job you love. There is no other way.

What I love most about being creative is the ability to make something from nothing. I am happiest when I’m making things. I could be making a podcast, I could be making a lesson plan, I could be making a book, a piece of art. Whatever it is, if I’m making it, I’m happy.

Can you take us through your process? How long does it take? Does everything you produce make money?

I am very suspicious of anybody who says they have a creative process. That’s mostly because I don’t think you can make creativity routine. People are always looking for this sort of methodology. There is no process. Just show up and do the work every day. As for how long something takes, there is no one answer. The same type of challenge might be solved in one hour or it might take one year! Creativity is a very elusive and mysterious endeavor and I truly do not know how to codify it in any way.

No, not everything I do makes money, nor would I want it to.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about your line of work?

Creative people in all disciplines need to be polymaths now; in addition to their marketable skill, they need to be able to write, draw, code, design and market, position, brand and sell themselves. The business world is so much more competitive than ever, and employers and clients want to work with creative people that can create way more than one thing. In many ways, I think being great at your specific discipline is now table stakes for any career in that discipline. In addition, there is no space between the categories of online, on social media, out of home advertising. You must be present in and on as many platforms as possible with arresting imagery, a strong, strategic message and a distinct and engaging personality.

When did you first become aware of copyright and why?

I became aware of copyright back in the early 1990s when the firm I was working at designed a logo that looked, entirely by accident, exactly like another logo that was, unbeknownst to us, already in the market. So, you can say I had a crash course in copyright law and infringement. We had to immediately cease using a logo it took us several months to make and had to redo everything.

Have you experienced copyright infringement and if so, how has it affected you personally and financially?

I have. All of my books have been uploaded to the internet and made available on a number of sites for free. I’ll never know how this has impacted me financially, but I can tell you it is personally devastating.

What is the best piece of advice that you would give other creators in your field about copyright and how to protect themselves?

MAKE SURE YOU HAVE A GREAT COPYRIGHT LAWYER! Always have a contract for your work! Never start the work without a signed contract! ALWAYS copyright your work! I can’t say this strongly enough.


In recognition of the 2018 World IP Day theme established by WIPO – Powering Change: Women in Innovation and Creativity – we are honored to feature and support female creators during the month of April.

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