Debbie Millman: Artist, Designer, Host, Author, and Curator

The walls of Debbie Millman’s home are almost entirely full of artwork that features text. Some are images with text in them. Some are texts as images. Some are text about images. In fact, almost everything in her house has text on it -- even her chandelier. Ask for water, and you might receive it in a glass that says “tears.” It’s a collection decades in the making. And she was onto something when she started it; the 21st Century has seen an ever-increasing prevalence and value attached to text:

“Objects and experiences all around us—on clothes, in events, on bodies, online, in politics, in sports, in all of culture really—now contain an inscription or an impression or a point of view,” says Millman. She cites the MAGA hat as an example; “Twitter and instagram have given us a telegraphic way to communicate globally, instantly. Tattoos have taken over the role that religious amulets have had and instantly communicate without any conversation necessary.”  

Debbie Millman is already an artist, a veteran designer, the host of the Design Matters podcast on Design Observer, the chair of the Masters in Branding program at the School of Visual Arts, and the author of several books. Now she is putting on a fairly new hat: curator. Her first show, Text Me, opened last September at the Museum of Design in Atlanta. Her next show, Look Both Ways: The Illicit Liaison Between Image and Information, will be open from August 24th to September 21st at the SVA Galleries. Both shows sit at the crux of text and art, image and words.

Twitter and instagram have given us a telegraphic way to communicate globally, instantly. Tattoos have taken over the role that religious amulets have had and instantly communicate without any conversation necessary.

Like Millman, who calls herself “homeless” to describe her straddling of industries and mediums, her shows defy classification. They feature artwork by designers (including Seymour Chwast, Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister & Jessica Walsh, Paula Scher, Jessica Hische, and Timothy Goodman), artwork by artists (Text Me featured Basquiat, Jenny Holzer, Lawrence Weiner and Look Both Ways is set to feature Shantell Williams, Oliver Jeffers, Betty Tompkins, and Karen Finley), artwork by writers (Dave Eggers, Miranda July, Seth Godin), and writing by all of the above.

Text Me set out to demonstrate “how language reflects and defines culture” by providing examples of works that effectively transmit meaning. The pieces in the show didn’t make you work that hard to understand them. It was like a hopeful alternate reality in which branding was honest and contemporary art made sense--perhaps because much of the art was by designers on their days off who literally trade in the clarity of messaging and don’t always get the chance to tell the truth.

Take, for example, the piece “President” by San Francisco-based artist Someguy (AKA Brian Singer, former designer at Pinterest). A simple gold canvas features, painted in its center, the word “president” in the president’s beloved air quotes. Or, “Bottled Feelings,” by Adam JK: literally a wall of ceramic bottles labelled “feelings.” Or, Timothy Goodman’s piece, a continuation of his popular Instagram-based project #memoriesofagirlIneverknew, a painfully relatable account of his awkward, sad dating travails, scrawled in his own handwriting.

With Look Both Ways Millman plans to “showcase the many ways in which words, text, and information influence art, design, literature, music, and all forms of visual communication in culture today. From social media to tattoos to wayfinding signage to fine art, fast moving consumer goods, clothing, household goods and decoration, bold typographic expression has become the cultural currency of communication and the centerpiece of connection.”

Millman’s shows respond to a world where connection and truth come at a premium--emotionally and politically. For example, connection makes Timothy Goodman’s vulnerable, #nofilter instagram delightful. Earnestness ultimately transmits a lot more meaning than the filtered content we’re used to.

“Tim’s work is seeking to tell the truth about himself in places that reward people for projecting images of perfection,” says Millman. To put this in context, she points back to 2001-2004’s slough of “isolation nation” headlines blaming the iPod for anomie as the beginning of an end: “We feel happiest and most secure when our brains are harmoniously resonating with others. We started to seek that from our devices. That’s why Myspace surpassed Google as the #1 website on the planet. We became social nihilists. People stopped having anywhere to share the private aspects of their lives.”

We feel happiest and most secure when our brains are harmoniously resonating with others.

Maybe that’s why there’s more text all over everything than ever and why we tweet so much. Maybe a collective baseline desperation fuels a vicious cycle in which we continuously yell more into the void and feel more isolated. It’s worth noting that we became a hyper-partisan nation during the same period; we all witnessed the formation of a giant rift. Look Both Ways, Millman says, will be about how typography and visual expression “can change a mood, a culture and the world.” The scary thing, is that the power of messaging, language, and text cuts both ways. The whole exhibit could just as well be one MAGA hat. (Spoiler alert: it’s not.)

Connection only happens when transmission of meaning is successful. Truth-telling requires the same. Through these shows, Millman implores designers to help:


"The minute the notion of ‘alternative facts’ became part of the zeitgeist, it became a moral imperative for every designer working with information to be able to communicate in a stronger, more powerful, more earnest, more engaging way. You are specifically required to communicate truth about the world. It’s OK to work commercially. But after we satisfy Maslow’s needs and feed our families, we have no other choice but to combat hateful, racist messaging and behavior with alternatives--to create messages that wake people up and allow them to see the truth."

Text by Zoe Mendelson

Images by Justin Ryan Kim