Ep. 27: Debbie Millman

Brand strategist, OG podcaster and all-around badass, Debbie Millman, traces the genesis of her branding talent back to the Stayfree packaging at her father’s pharmacy, shares the poignant details of how a pair of lime green Levi’s helped her cope with a painful childhood and just generally oozes wisdom and deep thoughts with every word. Plus, she offers a revelatory distinction between courage and confidence and has an enduring fondness for potato chips.

Photo by John Medere

Photo by John Medere

What is your earliest memory?

My earliest memory is waking up in the hospital after a hernia operation. I was four years old. My parents were looking down on me; I was in some sort of crib. I was in tremendous pain, but as I saw the look of worry on their faces, I asked “Is the operation over?” I thought if I pretended I didn’t know the operation had even happened, they wouldn’t know what kind of pain I was in and wouldn’t worry about me.

How do you feel about democratic design?

I feel that it is the most profound manifestation of the human spirit we’ve seen in a long, long tme.

What’s the best advice that you’ve ever gotten?

From a fortune cookle: Avoid compulsively making things worse.

A spread from Debbie's book, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor

A spread from Debbie's book, Self-Portrait as Your Traitor

Cover image of GDUSA September/October issue

Cover image of GDUSA September/October issue

How do you record your ideas?

On paper.

What’s your current favorite tool or material to work with?

A pencil.

What book is on your nightstand? 

Three: Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of The World, Esther Perel’s The State of The Affair, and Dani Shapiro’s Hourglass.

PRINT magazine cover design

PRINT magazine cover design

Illustration for Print Magazine

Illustration for Print Magazine

Why is authenticity in design important?

Authenticity is important in everything. Why should design be excluded?

Favorite restaurant in your city?

CookShop or Gramercy Tavern

What might we find on your desk right now?

A mess.

Who do you look up to and why?

I look up to Gloria Steinem. She paved the way for everything I think is important.

American Poets Magazine

American Poets Magazine

Debbie paid homage to Sally Ride’s accomplishments with a soft sculpture using felt typography, fabric and computer graphics. Published in The New York Times.

Debbie paid homage to Sally Ride’s accomplishments with a soft sculpture using felt typography, fabric and computer graphics. Published in The New York Times.

What’s your favorite project that you’ve done and why?

My favorite projects are the design and brand positioning of the NO MORE movement and the Joyful Heart Foundation. These projects have made my life make sense.

What are the last five songs you listened to?

Frederick - Patti Smith
Ring of Keys - Fun Home soundtrack
Elderly Woman Behind The Counter - Pearl Jam
To A Child - Laura Nyro
Sorry -Beyonce


View more of Debbie's work on debbiemillman.com and follow her on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Also, check out the Design Matters podcast!


This episode of Clever is sponsored by Musicbed. Musicbed is a full service licensing platform that provides a highly curated selection of songs to filmmakers for use in media projects. They’re all about making quality music easily accessible, empowering creatives to tell better stories, and supporting musical artists. Start exploring their extensive library of over 650 artists: http://mscbd.fm/clvrpnw

They’re also offering 20% off exclusively to our listeners. Just enter the promo code CLEVER at checkout to receive 20% off your next non-custom license. 

And special thanks to our sponsor, BenchMade Modern, who makes affordable, custom-sized, modern sofas in days... not months. Use code CLEVER for 15% off your order at benchmademodern.com.


Special thanks to Chris Modl of Yore Studio for editing this episode.
Music in this episode courtesy of El Ten Eleven—hear more on Bandcamp.
Shoutout to Jenny Rask for designing the Clever logo.