Growing up, I always, always made things. I made clothes and perfume, and I made all kinds of drawings. I used to make little shows and all the scenery and set decoration. I made window decorations and paper dolls, and I also made a magazine. I think it was just trying to make a life. We didn’t have a lot of money, so it was always something that I was doing to help enrich my life. Making things added to my understanding of what was possible and expanded what limitations I felt I was facing.
When I was in college I wanted to paint as large as possible, and I didn’t have the money to buy large canvases. I used to buy really large tablecloths – the plastic-backed ones for picnics in the park – and I used to paint on the flannel underside. So I’d tack up these giant tablecloths on the wall, and because they were plastic-backed, the material didn’t seep through. They were also really easy to store, because I could just roll them up. I was doing lots of large abstract experiments then. They were mostly awful-looking, mish-moshing paint around, but the felt had an interesting texture, and I could do really big things on these giant canvases.
I also couldn’t afford paint, so I used to get spray paint, and I would blend the spray paint. I’d paint in my bathroom, and I remember I ended up getting some spray paint on the tiles in the bathroom, and the landlord was really upset. I’m not really proud of the work that I did, because I think it was pretty dreadful, but I’m really proud of my ingenuity and my workarounds at not being able to afford the kind of supplies that I needed to do the kind of work that I wanted to do, and still making it happen on some level.
I'm not really proud of the work that I did, because I think it was pretty dreadful, but I'm really proud of my ingenuity.
In college, I was the Editor-in-Chief of the school newspaper, and I had to design the newspaper as a by-product of that role. Before that, I didn’t even know that design was a career. That’s when I first fell in love with design and realized what design was, and I had a blast learning about how to design these things that were going to press every week. For me, it was this canvas to explore ideas and themes and politics and art. It was amazing, and it opened my mind to what this art form was. It was like being awoken: I suddenly was aware and able to enjoy doing something that I never knew existed. When I was putting that little magazine together when I was a kid, I didn’t know how magazines were really put together – I didn’t really think through the whole process of people doing that. And so to have the opportunity to actually do that was amazing. It was a defining year of my whole life, because it changed my knowledge of what was possible. It changed my expectations of what my life could be about.
The meaning of life, to me, is making things.
After college, I had no direction or guidance. I had no sense of what my life could be. It’s taken decades to have that as a part of who I am. I started painting again during that time. I didn’t start doing the text paintings right away, but I started doing them in the early 90’s, about seven years after I graduated. It’s just what spoke to me, it’s what I felt. I just started drawing words.
I think the one thing that I’ve realized now is that I’m happiest when I’m making things. It could be a drawing, an illustration, a painting, a podcast, a short story, a lesson plan, but if I’m creating something, then I’m happy. I didn’t know that when I was first making things. I didn’t know that that feeling was essential to my feeling alive. I didn’t take it as seriously, perhaps, as I do now, because it’s a gift. It’s such a privilege. The meaning of life, to me, is making things.
Today, I tell students: don’t consider what is impossible before you even consider if it’s possible. People start to self-edit while they’re still in college: I can’t do that. I’m not talented enough, I’m not rich enough, I’m not connected enough. Don’t assume that something is impossible just because you think it is.
Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator and brand strategist. She host of the award-winning podcast “Design Matters,” the world’s first podcast on design; Chair of the world’s first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts; the editorial and creative director of Print Magazine and President Emeritus of AIGA. She is the author of six books on design and branding.