How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer by Debbie Millman
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Allworth Press, 2007
How acquired: Purchased at Debbie Millman lecture
This collection of interviews presents 20 noted graphic design-related figures ruminating about their activity. In her introduction, Debbie Millman disclaims the book’s title but it’s fairly descriptive, being instructive by example rather than recipe. Since the book makes no pretension of compiling a definitive list of contemporary design “greats,” I won’t fuss overlong (for me) over the arbitrariness of the designation.
What does constitute graphic design greatness? All of the interviewees are practically accomplished graphic designers (save John Maeda, who has renown but simply isn’t a graphic designer by the field’s common standards). However, the jury’s out on the long-term significance of most of these practitioners. That many other designers could claim equal—or greater—stature compared to those selected doesn’t spoil the book. Still, it would have helped for Millman to, at least briefly, outline her criteria.
Again, a curve isn’t necessarily being drawn that would be thrown off by alternate choices. The common trait attributed to all the interviewees is “high levels of empathy” that makes them able to “logically, poetically, and telegraphically transfer ideas from one mind to the other.” Besides being a tad mystical for my taste, the description suggests I may want to wear my tin-foil hat if I ever attend a Design Legends Gala. Some more demonstrable and mundane abilities may first be ascribed to these worthies—without lessening their real accomplishments as producers.
These arguments are ultimately beside the point. This is a book about and for graphic designers who are already sold on the standing of the interviewees. The biographies provided on the designers are cursory, longer on superlatives than context. Overall, there’s more telling than showing going on (if someone is possessed of great wit or an engaging spirit, it should be made manifest in the subject’s own words). It’s obvious from the text that the reader will expect no justifications. Millman isn’t engaged in a whitewash (and, for their part, the designers don’t actively sanctify themselves) but I couldn’t help wondering what happened to the great design bastards. They exist, don’t they?
While I would sieve out the majority of the modifiers in the author’s text, it’s the interviewees’ words that are the heart of the book. At this level of the field, it’s given that these people are articulate. And practiced at talking about themselves. Remove a third of these designers from the lecture and conference circuit and…well, the remaining two-thirds would need twice as many interns as they picked up the slack. So, the challenge of this book is squeezing something fresh out of over-examined people.
On this count, Millman does a fine job. Having a group that tends toward the garrulous helps but has its drawbacks. Millman prompts with a light touch and checks her enthusiasm, letting it work for her. Some of the questions are shopworn (“What’s your first creative memory?”) but the interviews are accomplished with admirable restraint. They aren’t the “deep(ly) psychological discussions” promised in the introduction (more confrontation would needed to pull that off) but the book is no worse for it. Simply put, How To Think was an enjoyable read and I learned stuff about everyone featured.
The best favor How to Think does for graphic design is demonstrating the variety of personalities, approaches and opinions amongst its practitioners. In other words, it showcases some healthy friction. Millman doesn’t directly challenge her subjects’ opinions or natures but the “greats” go at each other across the pages. It’s good to read Neville Brody claiming Stefan Sagmeister is “extremely wrong” on a topic—then saying why. And early on, Carin Goldberg succinctly defines (and disdains) designer schtick, which is later performed by its master, Chip Kidd* (replacing the bulk of his text with a rim shot sound-chip would eliminate the middle man and prove no substantive loss).
How To Think is a nice mid-range discussion—between a critical ‘scoping and the typical lecture Q & A—best filed under “Conversations with Notable Graphic Designers.” And it is small praise to simply credit Debbie Millman for bringing a smart, new interviewing voice to design.
What I would like to see from her next is a long-overdue project for the field: giving voice to the “regular” graphic designer. The real picture of graphic design is the legion of non-“great” but thoughtful (and sometimes not) practitioners crafting our visual environment. Millman’s own empathy for all designers is considerable—evidenced in this book, her Speak Up posts, and Design Matters shows. Interviews of the kind offered in How To Think with the “regulars” might do more to raise awareness of graphic design outside the field. Then again, it might not. But Debbie Millman could be the one to give it the best shot.
* Note: Carin Goldberg does not name Chip Kidd (or any other designer) as a purveyor of designer schtick. The interpretation and identification is entirely my own.