Failure matters – Interview with Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman designed her first magazine in her early childhood. For the college newspaper she encouraged writers to pen the longest articles they could – simply to have more pages to design.

Since then, she encountered many dead ends and disappointments in her career about which she spoke at QVED 2016 in a stirring lecture. I think, I have never heard somebody speak so deeply and honestly about the failures in their career.

Eventually, she found her way to founding and hosting the popular podcast Design Matters. In this context, she has interviewed more than 250 designers during the past 10 years. After being president of Sterling Brands and AIGA, she recently became the editorial and creative director of ‘Print’ magazine.

Debbie, your talk at QVED 2016 inspired us to choose the subject ‘failure’ for this online magazine, so we are glad you found time to answer our questions. What was the message of your lecture at QVED?

My talk was titled, ‘On Rejection: A Cautionary Tale of Dreams, Hopes and Rejection’. I shared my journey out of the heartbreak and offered my perspective on how the worst moments in your life can actually become the most profound and life affirming.

The presentation begins in early 2003 when a good friend sent me an email with a subject line that read: ‘Begin drinking heavily before opening’. The email contained a link leading to a ‘blog’, the first-ever online forum about graphic design and branding. Suddenly, I found myself reading an article that disparaged my entire career. This experience – in tandem with a number of historical rejections and setbacks – sent me into a deep depression, and I seriously considered leaving the design profession altogether.

Why is it so difficult for people to share their stories of ‘failure’?

I’d assume mostly because they think they are the only ones who feel this way or maybe they are embarrassed or ashamed.

Then why do you do it?

Almost all of my mistakes have led to some type of learning and self-knowledge, and I fundamentally consider that in and of itself to be a success. I don’t know if this makes me a pessimist, but I expect things to be hard. I expect things to take a long time and for things to be messy. That’s the way most creative endeavors unfurl. I don’t know how anyone can think or hope that any effort could ever be mistake-free, universally loved or perfect the first time around. When you are learning, you are growing. And you can’t ever learn without making mistakes. I think these are important things to share.

Is there anything that you are afraid of?

I am afraid of dying. I am also afraid of aging and being irrelevant or having my best work or years behind me.

How do you define ‘failure’?

Giving up with regrets.

How would you describe ‘success’ to children?

I think success is a practice, sort of like love or happiness. It changes day to day but you know it when you feel it. I have yet to feel like a ‘success’, as I am always striving to be better than I am. This comes from a rather insidious lack of self-love, but I am working on that, too! Don’t get me wrong: I know I am ‘good’ at some things, but I don’t view those things as the ‘definition’ of success.

Ironically, the first fifteen years of my career were very much organized around avoiding failure, but any sense of inadequacy was self-constructed; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t do something; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t succeed. I convinced myself of this, and lived in my self-imposed reality.

I think a lot of people do this. They self-sabotage and create all sorts of reasons for not doing things under the misguided assumption that, at some point, they might feel better about themselves and that will finally allow them to take that risk. I don’t think that ever happens. You have to push through it and do it as if you have no other choice – because you don’t. You just don’t. And if you do manage to take a stand for something you want, as I ultimately did, that little bit of confidence helps you reconsider what is possible – both for yourself and in the world.

What comes to your mind when you think about 2017?

I am worried about the political situation in the United States. I am hopeful I can use my skills in branding and design to help communicate, advocate and mobilize for a peaceful, safe, meaningful 2017 for as many people as possible.

Fingers crossed. Thanks for the interview and all the best for you!