Debbie Millman Takes Center Stage: Make/Think: AIGA Design Conference

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While officially AIGA President since summer, Make/Think: AIGA Design Conference in Memphis will be the moment when the spotlight truly falls on Debbie Millman of New York City and Sterling Brands.

Certainly, for several thousand visitors will get to know Debbie for the first time. We are sure they will be drawn into her orbit. Dynamic, empathetic, intelligent and charming, Debbie Millman always informs, inspires and delights. Here is our interview with her. Debbie can say more in three words than most people can say in 200. So instead of 20 questions for this design industry leader, we will ask just a few. In it we discuss her plans and hopes for her two year tenure as President of AIGA:

Topic 1: Overcoming Obstacles

Debbie, you are well known for your strong voice, one amplified by your program Design Matters (go to DESIGNOBSERVER.COM for the entire archive of past broadcasts). So, if you don’t get your agenda through the Byzantine tangle of AIGA constituencies, are you going to take them to the woodshed during your broadcasts?

Debbie Millman
Honestly, I can’t imagine not being able to get my goals through! My entry into the AIGA was not an easy one — in fact, I almost gave up hope that I would ever be accepted, let alone, welcomed!

After being championed to join both AIGA and the AIGA Brand Experience board by former board member Cheryl Swanson, I was voted off of that board by the new, incoming group president, who had already ousted the previous President Pamela Decesare. I was crushed.

AIGA Executive Director Ric Grefe subsequently invited me to judge one category of the Annual 365 competition as a kind and conciliatory gesture of inclusivity, And to try to prevent my getting too discouraged by the turn of events. But on the day of the judging, I nearly got into a fistfight with one of the other package design judges. She was quite well known, and she was so dismissive of my opinions and I was so reluctant to give in to hers, that after an entire day of assessing over 700 entries, we would only agree on seven winners to include in the Annual. I remember walking back to my office in the dark winter evening expecting (once and for all) to be banished by the organization.

Once again, Ric reached out to me and asked me to try and be patient and remain tough. He knew that I had recently received an email invite to become an AIGA Mentor at the high school of Art & Design in New York City, and he thought this would be a good fit for me. I joined the program and felt relief that the kids didn’t reject me.

Then I got lucky: after going to a NYC Dept of Education Mentoring meeting I met Caroline Kennedy and when I was introduced to her, she casually thanked me for donating my time to such a worthy cause. Her compliment buoyed my spirit and in a moment of courage, I asked her if she would be interested in helping the AIGA Mentorship effort. She agreed and subsequently was our keynote speaker at our upcoming launch event at the Museum of Art and Design.

After that, things got surreal. Emily Oberman invited me to join the New York Chapter and I served on that amazing board for two years. At the end of my term, AIGA Board President Sean Adams asked me to run for a seat on the National Board, which I did. Long story short: I am used to rejection and I am used to having to work hard. I can’t imagine that this experience will be *that* much different. Though I am fully prepared to do everything necessary to make a difference!

Topic 2: Overcoming Inertia

OK. So, say you take a less confrontational route and you decide not to bludgeon opponents as a talk show host. If you cannot effect real change, “sea change” as the recent national leadership conference was dubbed, then at what point do you decide to give in or give up?

Debbie Millman
Anyone that knows me well knows that I have a very, very hard time taking “No” for an answer. Ask Malcolm Gladwell and Milton Glaser. I bother them all the time for help. I am bound and determined to help create and support a sea change. The only thing I am comfortable giving up on is dieting.

Topic 3: NYC Woman in Charge

You are first AIGA president from New York City since Michael Beirut served in that role. You are the first woman since Lucille Tenazas of San Francisco (and by my fact checking on the second ever, not including the ex-executive director who Ric replaced). What weight does being a resident of New York and woman bring to this role? What advantages and disadvantages, if any?

Debbie Millman
Actually I am the third woman. Nancye Green was the first. Lucille was the second. The weight of being a resident of New York and a woman have identical advantages and disadvantages: I’m a fast talker with a Brooklynese accent, I can’t stand waiting in lines, I wear higher heels than the boys who have had this role before me, and I have absolutely no issue kicking someone’s butt if I don’t get my way.

Topic 4: Youth Movement

Reading the comments about your remarks on the AIGA page, I noticed two smart young people, Matthew White and Josh Peters, up in arms about what they perceive as the exclusion of young voices in AIGA governance. We would like to nominate Matthew White for AIGA Student/Under 30 Council President and Josh Peters for Secretary. Or vice versa.

Debbie Millman
They are articulate and they have excellent points. I agree for the need to keep students and young designers at the fore. I also feel people need to earn respect and leadership positions. Being young, talented and handsome are not qualifications for respect and leadership. Experience and excellence OVER TIME are.

Well…how about a Student Council or Youth Council at the Board level?

Debbie Millman
There are nearly 9,000 student members within AIGA, and we take our responsibility to them very, very seriously, and will continue to do so during my service. As an educator and a student mentor, I believe that the intellectual, philosophical, technological and creative contributions of students and people under 30 are crucial to our success. I am working on putting together a group of AIGA students in hopes of having an advisory board of sorts. I’ll keep you posted on my efforts!

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    Rachel said:

    Everytime I get the chance to hear Debbie I get excited! Thanks for posting this interesting article on her AIGA views.

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    I am glad to have found this blog. The interview format is especially fun to read. Of course it was fun reading about Debbie and learning about her journey…fantastic!