Debbie Millman: Why Does Design Matter? For Debbie Millman, host of the podcast Design Matters, design is everywhere. She joins Manoush to explore ideas and curate talks about the role of design in our lives.
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Debbie Millman: Why Does Design Matter?

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Debbie Millman: Why Does Design Matter?

Debbie Millman: Why Does Design Matter?

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It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And let's start today's episode with a game. See if you recognize some of these sounds.


ZOMORODI: What do they make you think of?


ZOMORODI: Do you get hungry or thirsty?

AUTOMATED VOICE: Welcome to (unintelligible).


ZOMORODI: Do they make you feel nostalgic...


ZOMORODI: ...Or horrified?






ZOMORODI: And what about these sounds? What do they make you feel?


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter.

ZOMORODI: Jingles, chants and slogans - they are designed to be packed with meaning, meaning that makes you buy something or think about an idea or maybe even join a movement.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Black Lives Matter, Black Lives Matter.

DEBBIE MILLMAN: The power of brand has the power to influence how we think about the world, how we think about each other and allow us not only to create soft drinks and salty snacks and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals but to create a vision for the world and a roadmap for how we want to live every day that we're on this planet. That is our responsibility now.

ZOMORODI: This is Debbie Millman.

MILLMAN: And I am a designer. And I co-founded and run the world's first-ever masters in branding program at the School of Visual Arts. And I am host of the podcast "Design Matters."

ZOMORODI: Debbie's given two TED talks, written six books on design. And today on the show, she'll guide us through talks and ideas about why design does matter, how we humans shape ideas into logos and brands and how those logos and brands shape us. We'll hear about the talks that Debbie uses in her class to help her students design their own lives. But first, let's hear about Debbie's ideas because, for her, design is everywhere.

MILLMAN: Everything in our world is designed. Everything that we make as humans is designed. There is intention. There is a deliberation to that. And as a result, we are constructing our reality with visual artifacts, with brands, with communications and messaging every moment of our lives. We design our lives, whether consciously or unconsciously. And so I believe that the discipline of branding and the discipline of design are some of the most important disciplines today that we are all engaged in. Again, whether we know it or not, we are participating in the visual language and the vernacular of our times just by the sheer virtue of being in it.

ZOMORODI: It makes me think that you must see the world or experience the world very differently than many of us. Is going down the toothpaste aisle just, like...

MILLMAN: (Laughter).

ZOMORODI: ...Is your brain just on fire? You're like, hm, bad choice of font. Or, like, what's it like for you (laughter)?

MILLMAN: (Laughter) You should ask my wife that question because she witnesses it on a fairly regular basis. Yes, going into a supermarket for me is almost like going into a museum. I can look at everything and see the intention behind it. I mean, branding is manufactured meaning. Brands don't grow on trees. They don't pop up from soil in the earth. We make them. We create them. And as a result, we are constantly differentiating one product versus another through visual language. And that's endlessly fascinating to me...


MILLMAN: ...You know, what makes somebody think that one pair of sneakers is different from another pair or one car from another car. All of the decisions in making those things are very deliberate. And how we communicate that difference is very deliberate. And that is branding. Branding is a combination of a number of different disciplines. It is - it's a combination of behavioral psychology, cultural anthropology, economics, business strategy and creativity. Creativity is a huge part of branding because that's how we designate meaning through the visual language of a brand. But all of the other disciplines are what help build brands.

ZOMORODI: So let's get into the talk that you gave at TED Women in 2019. It's called How Symbols and Brands Shape Our Humanity.


MILLMAN: Thirteen-point-eight billion years ago, the universe as we know it began with a big bang, and everything that we know and are and are made of was created. Fifty thousand years ago, there was an explosion of stone tool making, more sophisticated weaponry and, 32,000 years ago, the creation of our first sophisticated mark-making on the cave walls of Lascaux. It's not a coincidence that we've gone from documenting our reality on the cave walls of Lascaux to the walls of Facebook. And in a very meta experience, you could now book a trip to see the walls of Lascaux on the walls of Facebook.


ZOMORODI: You start with one very well-known example of early human creativity, which is the caves of Lascaux. And these caves, of course, have drawings on their walls from tens of thousands of years ago, but they're not exactly what comes to my mind when I think of branding. So, Debbie, why start there?

MILLMAN: Yeah, I mean, I believe that those walls show how we were documenting our reality through symbols. I mean, it's just extraordinary that we started to be able to communicate with symbols in this manner. So not only was it a way to communicate at the time, but it was a way of preserving those experiences for us to be able to reexperience.

ZOMORODI: What are some other early examples of how humans communicated through symbols?

MILLMAN: Yeah. I mean, we started first with - believe it or not - using makeup. We started using makeup approximately 10,000 years ago. Men and women began to self-decorate, and we did this by using makeup. At the time, it wasn't for seductive purposes. This was inspired by religious convictions. We wanted to be more beautiful in the eyes of some entity that we believed had more power than us. And the more attractive we looked, the more kindly we'd be looked upon.

And there really is no culture in recorded history - recorded human history that we see has not practiced some form of organized worship, which we now call religion. And we started to create ways of telegraphically communicating to identify our affiliations. And these symbols helped to connect like-minded people and to be able to share an experience without even having to verbally communicate. And these affiliations allowed us to feel safer and more secure in groups, and we do that even today. This sharing created consensus around what these symbols represented, and you knew where you stood just by looking at that symbol.


MILLMAN: These symbols were created in what I consider to be a very bottom-up manner - they were made by people for people and then shared for free among people to honor the higher power that they ascribed to. What's ironic is that the higher power actually had nothing to do with this.


MILLMAN: These early affiliations, they often shared identical characteristics, which is rather baffling given how scattered we were all over the planet. We constructed similar rituals, practices and behaviors no matter where we were anywhere on the globe. We constructed rituals to create symbolic logos. We developed strict rules on how to engage with each other, with food, with hair, with birth, with death, with marriage and procreation. Some of the symbols have eerie commonalities. The hand of God shows up over and over and over again. It shows up as the Hamsa hand in Mesopotamia. It shows up as the hand of Fatima in Islam. It shows up as the hand of Miriam in Judaism.

ZOMORODI: You know, Debbie, when you talk about these symbols that show up over and over again in various different cultures, I mean, you'd think that it would bring people together, that we would see what we have in common. And yet it's not enough to keep us from thousands of years of conflict, of religious fighting, is it?

MILLMAN: Well, you know, what's really interesting about these early affiliations was how much commonality there was. For example, you talk about the Hamsa hand, and the Hamsa hand shows up over and over and over again despite how scattered we were all over the planet, and you know, that's one of the great mysteries (laughter).

We constructed similar rituals and practices and behaviors no matter where we were living, what religion we followed, whether it be worship, whether it be how to engage with food or with our hair, with our clothing, with our birth and with our death, with marriage, with procreation. So many of the rules that we've created around these specific behaviors have a lot of commonalities despite how far away we were on the planet and how differently we might have looked. We all behaved so similarly.

But what initially a lot of these symbols were also used for - not only were they used to signal our affiliations, define our beliefs, they also helped to protect us. And many of our first wars were religious and belief-oriented, so we created symbols to designate which side we belonged on. Because there were no mass-manufactured uniforms, we created symbols, we created flags, we created crests in an effort to understand which side we belonged on because there was no other way to differentiate.


ZOMORODI: More with designer Debbie Millman in just a moment, including the two TED Talks that she uses to help her students think through how they can design their own careers.

MILLMAN: I teach a class called A Brand Called You. It's really about being able to begin to understand who you are and then begin to understand how you can defend your ideas.

ZOMORODI: On the show today, the Role of Design in our Lives. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, the Role of Design in our Lives. And guiding us through this hour is designer Debbie Millman. She has a podcast called "Design Matters," and she gave a talk herself about how symbols and brands shape our humanity and our commerce.

You share, actually, a fact in your talk that brands were given legal recognition on January 1, 1876, and that the first trademarked brand was Bass Ale. What happened there?

MILLMAN: Well, there was a - from what I understand, not having been there...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: ...And not having too many actual accounts of what happened, but apparently, there was a very long line outside the trademarks registration building. Bass Ale folks were the first ones there, and they got the first trademark for a product. And I often joke about what that says about our humanity, that the first registered brand was an alcoholic beverage (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Yeah, seriously. But also, what does it say about the longevity of a symbol if it's done well? My sister was doing the crossword the other day. And it was like, what is the brand of a triangle alcoholic drink? And it was Bass Ale. That was the answer.


ZOMORODI: And so...

MILLMAN: Isn't that incredible?

ZOMORODI: It's incredible.

MILLMAN: It shows how consistency and quality can really help preserve a legacy. In many ways, the Bass Ale symbol was very much like the Campbell's soup can for Andy Warhol in being able to identify aspects of cultural relevance. Edouard Manet included it in his painting in 1882. There is a - what I consider to be the first case of branded product placement in his painting.


MILLMAN: Pablo Picasso also created a cubist painting using Bass Ale. It's quite interesting to see how our patterns signify a certain relationship that we have with products. And you can see the lineage between things like Bass Ale and Campbell's soup and the impact that they've had in our culture.

ZOMORODI: Do you feel as though a design has to be good to have longevity and have power? Have you ever seen poorly designed things actually be successful as well?

MILLMAN: Well, this is where I think that assimilation and taste is very much intertwined. Design is a very subjective discipline, as is art. The very same painting done by Jackson Pollock might have very polarized responses. Some people might understand what he was doing intellectually and conceptually. Other people might look at it and say, my kid could do that. It's on my refrigerator.


MILLMAN: It's very hard to prove that something is good unless you use the financial result as evidence. And we know that that isn't always the case. You know, the No. 1 best-selling book in the world might not also be the best written.


MILLMAN: This next logo is a logo that has a shared identity with wholly different meanings. As a Jewish person, I believe that this logo, this swastika is the most heinous logo of all time. But it actually has a rather surprising trajectory. The word swastika originally comes from the ancient Sanskrit word svastika, which actually means good fortune, luck and wellbeing.

In the early 1900s, before it was appropriated by Hitler, it was used by Coca-Cola on a good-luck bottle opener. The American Biscuit Company prominently registered the mark and put it on boxes of cookies. The U.S. Playing Card Company registered the mark in 1921 for fortune playing cards. The Boy Scouts used the mark on shoes in 1910. And the symbol was also featured on cigar labels, box tops, road signs and even poker chips. Even the Jain made use of the logo along with a hand of God many millennia ago. These marks were identical. But with use as a Nazi symbol, the impact became very, very different. The hand of God and the swastika - they all demonstrate how we've been manufacturing meaning with visual language over millennia.

ZOMORODI: The swastika symbolized German dominance. It was also the Nazi Party's brand. But what is the difference? Like, are symbols and brands the same thing essentially?

MILLMAN: They've become more similar over the years. So you could have a stop sign, and that shape and color gives you a sense that it is a stop sign even if you don't necessarily know what the word stop means in a different language. So that's a symbol of stopping. If the symbol becomes something that helps to sell an idea...


MILLMAN: ...It can become a brand. What's happening now - and what I'm so hopeful about - is that the tenets of branding that, for the most part, were really relegated and leveraged by corporations, because of the democratization that technology has given us in our ability to communicate, people - citizens (laughter) - are using the tenets of branding to create their own symbols that help to articulate, verbalize their own beliefs about what the future can be or what change they're demanding.

So we see that with Black Lives Matter. We see that with #MeToo. And so citizens are using that consistency - the use of color, the use of shape, the use of hashtags now - to be able to communicate ideas that become movements that people can literally buy into. And so it's not just about financial reward anymore. It's also very much about creating the kind of world we want to live in through those symbols and beliefs and behaviors.

ZOMORODI: You're leading me to ask, I think, a sad question a little bit, which is this idea about a decade ago that came up which, you know, seems completely normal now but at the time was a little radical - this idea of personal branding with the advent of Facebook and social media. And this idea - you know, people were no longer necessarily having stable jobs for corporations. They were having to be freelancers or gig economy or temporary part-time workers. And you needed to be on LinkedIn, and you needed to sell yourself. And I wonder, is that good or bad? I don't know. I have very mixed feelings about it.

MILLMAN: I don't. (Laughter). I actually have very strong feelings about it, and I don't believe a person should aspire to be a brand. You can have products that you create that are branded, but brands are manufactured. They don't have a soul or a consciousness; humans do. Humans are alive, and we're messy. And we're inconsistent, and we have a sense of right and wrong and good and bad. And we're constantly faced with making decisions about being right or wrong or good or bad.

What I believe that humans should maintain and grow and evolve is their character and their reputation. And so I feel very, very strongly that people should aspire to be better people. And people can work on developing brands and making brands, but they're very, very different things.

ZOMORODI: At this point, I want to turn to some of the talks that you wanted to share with us. These are talks that you usually show in your own design class. They are on your syllabus.

MILLMAN: Yeah. I teach an undergraduate class at the School of Visual Arts in the design and advertising department, and then I run my graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts. And I teach a class called A Brand Called You. And it's tongue-and-cheek because of, again, my point of view about personal branding.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: But it's really about being able to begin to understand who you are, your belief system, ideas about who you can be out in the world out of the classroom and then begin to understand how you can defend your ideas...


MILLMAN: ...To create a philosophy and defend your ideas.


ZOMORODI: Which is why you actually chose some really surprising talks, like one from psychologist Dan Gilbert - he's at Harvard and best-known for his studies on happiness. Why do you start there?

MILLMAN: The reason that I start with happiness and really understanding the motivation for happiness is that we're living in a time where happiness is very much associated with becoming wealthy...


MILLMAN: ...As if wealth is the primary gateway to happiness. And pursuing wealth so early in a career really removes any ability to take risks or to experiment, which, I believe, are really critical for any career requiring creativity and imagination. And Dan's talk allows us to begin to understand that using wealth as a carrot, it's really a replacement strategy for a strong sense of self-worth and can result in making bad decisions about what to do with your freedom.

And so much of the time, we're self-editing, deciding what's impossible before it's even possible. And so the talk is a talk that I play really right at the very beginning of both the undergrad and the graduate semester as a way to really understand what our motivations are so that we can try to make better decisions about who we want to be when we graduate.


DANIEL GILBERT: From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. In fact, a recent study - this almost floors me. A recent study showing how major life traumas affect people, suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

Why? Because happiness can be synthesized. Sir Thomas Browne wrote in 1642, I am the happiest man alive. I have that in me that can convert poverty to riches, adversity to prosperity. I am more invulnerable than Achilles. Fortune hath not one place to hit me.

What kind of remarkable machinery does this guy have in his head? Well, it turns out, it's precisely the same remarkable machinery that all of us have. Human beings have something that we might think of as a psychological immune system, a system of cognitive processes - largely nonconscious cognitive processes - that help them change their views of the world so that they can feel better about the worlds in which they find themselves. Like Sir Thomas, you have this machine. Unlike Sir Thomas, you seem not to know it.


ZOMORODI: OK, so we can synthesize, we can manufacture our own happiness. Hearing that makes me relieved, actually, considering the year we've had so far - 2020.


MILLMAN: I know.

ZOMORODI: When you play that to your students, do you - what goes through your mind?

MILLMAN: Manoush, when I talk to my students, I ask them the following question - what are you most afraid of if you don't achieve your dreams? And one of the most honest and heartbreaking responses I've heard was from one young man, one of my students, who declared that if he went after what he wanted and he didn't achieve it, he would die of heartbreak.

ZOMORODI: Goodness.

MILLMAN: So many students that I teach, that I meet and I teach, would rather not pursue their dreams at all in an effort to avoid the debilitating, life-threatening heartbreak (laughter) that might occur if they try something and fail. And you know what, Manoush? I felt the same way. I felt the same exact way.

And part of what I learned from Dan and his talk - and then my subsequent research into his work - is our human brain is also a regulation machine. When we're cold, we seek warmth. When we're hot, we seek to be cold. Or we fall madly in love, and we feel like we're never going to get enough of our beloved. How wonderous, you know? And then fast-forward 18 months later, and we find that we're shouting at them to stop chewing ice.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: So, you know, not that that's an example I would use in my own life - ha ha. You know, we - (laughter).

ZOMORODI: Not - yeah, not a personal issue. Yeah.

MILLMAN: We metabolize everything - love, hunger, body temperature and even heartbreak. We metabolize our heartbreak. So what seems unbearable at first might prove to be the best thing that ever happened to us, or so our brains will convince us - and that's the whole notion of this synthesized happiness.


GILBERT: Natural happiness is what we get when we get what we wanted, and synthetic happiness is what we make when we don't get what we wanted. And in our society, we have a strong belief that synthetic happiness is of an inferior kind. I want to suggest to you that synthetic happiness is every bit as real and enduring as the kind of happiness you stumble upon when you get exactly what you were aiming for. The lesson I want to leave you with from these data is that our longings and our worries are both, to some degree, overblown because we have within us the capacity to manufacture the very commodity we are constantly chasing when we choose experience.


ZOMORODI: So many things go through my mind when I hear that. Part of me is thinking, like, yeah, everybody wants to be like Steve Jobs, a genius, but the reality is that most of us fail, and then we try a different job, and maybe that goes pretty well, or maybe part of it doesn't. It is constant microsteps, iterations. And so I feel like as much as I do want natural happiness, I'm old enough to know that synthetic happiness is for us mere mortals (laughter).

MILLMAN: Well, most of the time when we synthesize happiness, we don't know the difference, and we don't even know necessarily that we're doing it. How many times have we looked at our past and said, oh, my God, if that terrible thing hadn't happened, then I wouldn't be here where I am today? We're pattern-seekers. And so we'll often look at some failure or rejection as the reason for our current state of happiness. If that relationship hadn't, you know, broken up, then I wouldn't have met this love of my life.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: And so we are constantly trying to make sense of our past by synthesizing our current happiness.

ZOMORODI: So in terms of how Dan's ideas relate to teaching branding and design, are you coaching your students to think about designing a life and rethink their goals and why they're there in the first place?

MILLMAN: Yes and no. I mean, the notion of a vocation has really changed over the last two centuries. You know, as recently as 150 years ago, most people didn't consider happiness or fulfilling their purpose when they were thinking about their work; most people were just happy to have paid work in the first place, and they were grateful that they could...


MILLMAN: ...Provide for their families. Now we're living in a day and age where people are hiring other people and paying them in order to sell more products, communicate ideas better, move things off the shelves, write code, invent, innovate. But when you work for someone - and this is really one of the things that I try to communicate really strongly to my students - when you're working for anyone, you're essentially asking him or her to give you money to do that thing. That thing might be something that you love or you went to school for or have a deep interest in. But the people that hire you, for the most part, are not interested in what you love or what your dreams are.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: So it's up to every individual to find that for themselves and not expect any person or product or opportunity to fill the sort of deep well of meaning-making inside each of us.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: We can't give our effort to discover our own purpose over to anyone or project it into any accomplishment. And Dan's talk, I do believe, really helps articulate that.


ZOMORODI: When we come back, the graphic designer who Debbie Millman most admires and the risks she took to build her career. On the show today, the role of design in our lives. It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. Stay with us.


ZOMORODI: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today, the role of design in our lives with designer Debbie Millman. And so far, we've heard from Debbie about the history of symbols and brands and why she wants all her students to hear Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert's talk on the surprising science of happiness. Now the other talk that Debbie always shares with her students. It's about making beautiful things and making a living. The talk is by Marian Bantjes.


MILLMAN: Marian Bantjes is a graphic artist. She started her career as a book typographer and then ran a design firm and then essentially gave it all up (laughter). She gave it all up to take a risk and start over as a graphic artist where she was making things that she felt mattered more. And she gave herself - I believe she gave herself a year, and then hit the big time and became more popular than, I think, she ever could have or would have imagined.


MILLMAN: And she did that really flying in the face of a lot of the criteria for being a successful designer. Her work, I believe, resonates with people because it's - it gives them a sense of hope. It gives them a sense of being able to create who we want to be on our best day. I know that sounds a little woo woo, but if there's anybody that has inspired people to do that through design, it's Marian.


MARIAN BANTJES: These days I call myself a graphic artist. So where my work as a graphic designer was to follow strategy, my work now follows my heart and my interests with the guidance of my ego to create work that is mutually beneficial to myself and the client. Now, this is heresy in the design world. The ego is not supposed to be involved in graphic design. But I find that for myself, without exception, the more I deal with the work as something of my own, as something that is personal, the more successful it is as something that's compelling, interesting and sustaining.

So I exist somewhat outside of the mainstream of design thinking. Where others might look at measurable results, I tend to be interested in more ethereal qualities, like, does it bring joy? Is there a sense of wonder? And does it invoke curiosity? And I'm slowly coming to understand that the appeal of what I do may be connected to why I do it.

ZOMORODI: I love that last sentence so much - that the appeal of what I do may be connected to why I do it. And then Marian goes on to show a few of her illustrations, including one that is just so beautiful, ones that are made with sugar. And she tells this kind of funny story about how it started on her kitchen table.


BANTJES: I've been eating cereal for breakfast all of my life. And for that same amount of time, I've been spilling sugar on the table and just kind of playing with it with my fingers. And eventually I used this technique to create a piece of artwork. And then I used it again...

ZOMORODI: And she describes tracing words and phrases in sugar, kind of like being on, like, a sand table, and they ended up being photographed for a book. Can you tell us about that project, Debbie?

MILLMAN: Yeah. She had an opportunity to partner with Stefan Sagmeister. And Stefan Sagmeister is one of the most remarkable designers working today who also infuses a lot of his work with a point of view. And in the case of the collaboration between Stefan and Marian, Stefan was working on a series of pieces called "Things I've Learned In My Life So Far". And so he was using statements to articulate those things. And so he partnered with Marian to have her visualize some of the statements, and she created several using sugar and very swirly, decorative type. So the combination of the sugar with this highly decorative, calligraphic script add to that - Stefan's really imaginative statements. And you are confronted with a remarkable piece of art.

What Marian did after that, though, was really, really meaningful to me. After spending all of that time, which must have been, I think, days to construct this highly intricate, decorative typography, she then jostled the table...

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: ...So that all of the sugar spilled all over each other. And you could still see some of the outlines of the type. And so the combination of both the beautifully photographed typographic sugar and then the aftermath of the jostling, I think, leaves you with this sense of the power of time and change.

ZOMORODI: Like a wave washing over a sandcastle that you worked on all day.

MILLMAN: Exactly.

ZOMORODI: So can we go back to that line that I just keep thinking about, and I don't think I've cracked it, so maybe you can help me. She said she was slowly coming to understand that the appeal of what she does is connected to why she does it.

MILLMAN: This is one of the underlying themes of the reason I even show this talk to my students. What I try to convey to them is that they must be able to communicate what is unique about what they do and why, and they have to do this in a really easy to understand way. And, ultimately, what Marian articulates there is her mission. You know, it's her mission statement.

And so every student that is in my classroom comes out of the classroom with a mission statement, one sentence, so that when somebody asks why do you do what you do, or what do you want to do next, or what do you want to do when you graduate, they are able to instantly answer with clarity - not only for the purposes of continuing a conversation with ever - who - with whoever is asking, but so they fundamentally understand their intention. What do they believe in? And they need to know what they believe in, whether or not it's popular. Martin Luther King didn't go around asking if the "I Have A Dream" speech would do well in market research.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

MILLMAN: You know, he believed it sincerely and passionately. And so, ultimately, I want my students to be able to understand their motivations and their intentions so thoroughly that it becomes part of their DNA. It's not something false. It's not something phony. It's not something that they're hoping will impress people. It's just an honest and authentic part of who they are and how they want to express what it is they do. So it's not so much the way that Marian is doing it that I want them to be able to emulate; it's the why that Marian is doing it that I want them to see as an example so they can craft their own philosophy and their own beliefs and, ultimately, their own mission.


BANTJES: To say I wonder is to say I question, I ask. And to experience wonder is to experience awe. The world is full of wonder, but the world of graphic design, for the most part, is not. I think that one of the things that religions got right was the use of visual wonder to deliver a message. I think this true marriage of art and information is woefully underused in adult literature, and I'm mystified as to why visual wealth is not more commonly used to enhance intellectual wealth. When we look at works like this, we tend to associate them with children's literature. There's an implication that ornamental graphics detract from the seriousness of the content. But I really hope to have the opportunity to change that perception.


ZOMORODI: So when she was saying that, she was showing a slide of an illustration or graphic art that she was doing as part of an adult book. And, I mean, I feel like that is such a good question - why don't books for adults have more illustrations? But then it made me think, well, maybe that's, like, why we're all on Instagram so much, that there - finally, the world's need to communicate visually has been granted, in some ways, by the Internet. It transcends all language. Is that where you feel like maybe we are (laughter) right now in terms of visual content?

MILLMAN: Yeah, I think that this is sort of a wonderful, symmetrical return to some of the earlier concepts that we were talking about in the show today with the notion of religious symbols or even logos being able to telegraph affiliations and signify beliefs. And I think that Instagram, for - in both good and bad ways, allows us to telegraph our experiences without having to work so hard at understanding what's happening. And in the same way that logos or religious symbols are able to telegraph volumes without any actual language associated with it, photographs have been able to start doing that as well in the last century. And Instagram allows us to project a world that we'd like to communicate that we're living in to others.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter) Right.

MILLMAN: And the notion of being able to curate our experiences is really no different (laughter) than what we were trying to do on the walls of Lascaux. But I think with Instagram, we're trying to impress people more than we were maybe doing back in the days of Lascaux.


BANTJES: I do spend a lot of time on my work. And one of the things that I've been thinking about recently is what is worthwhile. What is it that's worth spending my time on and my life on in this way? Working in the commercial world, this is something that I do have to struggle with at times. And, yes, sometimes I'm swayed by money. But, ultimately, I don't consider that a worthy goal. What makes something worthwhile for me is the people I work for or with, the conditions I work under and the audience that I'm able to reach. So I might ask, who is it for? What does it say? And what does it do?

It's very, very common for designers and people in the visual arts to feel that we're not contributing enough or worse, that all we're doing is contributing to landfill. Here I am - I'm showing you some pretty visuals and talking about aesthetics, but I've come to believe that truly imaginative visual work is extremely important in society. And I actually really feel that it's worthwhile to spend my valuable and limited time on this Earth in this way.


ZOMORODI: I mean, it is a really privileged place to be in to be able to decide what projects you want to take. And so I guess, you know, like, what do you recommend, Debbie, to people who are trying to do work that creatively fulfills them and make a living?

MILLMAN: Well, you have to master your craft, and mastering craft takes a long time. There's this notion of being able to do something just because you think you can do something. I think that anything worthwhile takes a long time to master. It takes training to get good at anything. And you need to spend enough time learning the craft before you master the craft. Marian spent 20 years doing that before she was able to get to a position where she had more choice in determining what she did and what she didn't do.

That's why I think that when you're first starting out, you do want to make the decisions that set you up to be able to be, 10 or 20 years down the road, in a position where you do have more say about what you do and don't do. And there are always people that are going to make it big time in their 20s. I have a suspicion that comes from talent and good parenting. Not everybody has that. So for those of us that takes a little bit longer, you want to try to set a path for yourself where you're able to ask yourself about what it is you want to do and make decisions based on what you think is possible, as opposed to editing yourself early on because you think it's impossible to get what you want.

You know, everything that you do contributes to your success at getting what you want. You have to take your training very, very seriously. Only the best athletes in the world make it to the Olympics. Only candidates who work the hardest at finding and winning a great job are successful. There's very little luck involved. Winning a great job is about hard work, stamina, grit, ingenuity, timing. And what might look like luck is simply hard work paying off. So I do think that the constant mastery of your craft and the crafting of a philosophy is key at being able to fulfill your goals and your meaning and your purpose.

ZOMORODI: I have loved listening to you coach your students in terms of how they should, essentially, design their life in design, in the world of design. Where are you in the process?

MILLMAN: Oh, I have spent pretty much my whole life trying to design a life that has meaning and purpose, and I'm still trying to figure all of that out. And at this point, I've become more patient with that process. So as I design this life, I've become increasingly more comfortable with the notion that it's taken me a long time. I am not in my 20s. I'm not in my 30s. I'm not in my 40s. I'm nearly 60, and I'm still working at finding my purpose and meaning. And probably for the very first time, I'm a little bit more comfortable with the pace that it's taken for me to get here, in that now I want to savor it and I don't want to peak until I'm close to the end.

ZOMORODI: That is very powerful for me. I've been - my motto for the last year has been, slow your roll.


ZOMORODI: And that is very helpful.

MILLMAN: And you know what, Manoush? I might be synthesizing my own happiness here...


MILLMAN: ...By trying to make sense of the fact that it's taken me a long time. And now that it's taken me a long time, I'm like, you know, I'm cool with that; forget the struggles that I had in my 20s.

ZOMORODI: Just as valid as, you know...

MILLMAN: Yeah, exactly. And I can tell you...


MILLMAN: ...It's just as satisfying (laughter). And, yeah, I can look back at that decade of rejection and failure. But, hey, you know what? It got me here. I'm cool with it.


ZOMORODI: That's Debbie Millman. She's the host of the podcast "Design Matters" and the chair of the masters in branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Thanks so much to Debbie for sharing her favorite talks and teaching us about design. You can see the talks that she mentioned at and hundreds more TED Talks at or in the TED app.

Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Sanaz Meshkinpour, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard, Katie Monteleone, Maria Paz Gutierrez, Christina Cala and Matthew Cloutier. Our intern is Farrah Safari (ph). And our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan and Michelle Quint. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. You've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


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