Self-Portrait As Your Traitor: Debbie Millman Interview

Debbie Millman’s new book, Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, is a collection of original poems and essays that combines design and everyday life with obsessive hand-drawn typography. The poignant essays and design form visual poetry that expresses the complexity of everyday life in a very moving way. This book is a beautiful example of how good design can communicate more than just words.

Debbie recently sat down with us for a quick Q&A to give us some deeper insight into the work and emotion behind Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, as well as her reaction to being featured on the cover of the September 2013 issue of Graphic Design USA. (Bonus! Debbie also candidly gave us a sneak peek in to her creative process and how she keeps that childlike inspiration alive!) Welcome Debbie!

Q: Your book is titled Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, which, along with the rest of the book, is very striking and poignant. Why, and how, did you choose this title for your collection?

A: The title comes from the actual piece of art used on the cover. Most of the expletives are obscured in the printed cover. 🙂

Q: What is your vision for Self-Portrait As Your Traitor? What do you hope to communicate to the audience, both designer and non-designer alike, with this book?

A: The art of using language and images to convey a narrative account of real or fictional events is something I’ve been fascinated by for as long as I can remember. I started creating visual essays in the early 1990s when I expanded from painting words to painting stories. My best friend, a painter and art dealer named Katharine Umsted, urged me to insure that when creating art with words, the quality of every illustration must be comparable to the quality of the writing. She helped me understand that neither discipline could overwhelm or dilute the impression of the other; both needed to be fully integrated. This helped me take each element of the essays with equal care and dedication. After a big exhibit at Long Island University in 1992, I all but abandoned my artwork to focus on my day job and a commercial career. My non-visual essays re-emerged when I started writing monologues for my podcast, Design Matters, beginning in 2005.  After taking a class with Milton Glaser in the summer of 2005, I set out to try to make some lost dreams come true. So I wrote a letter to the acquisitions editor of HOW Books, with the idea to create a book of visual essays based on my monologues. Six weeks later, I had a book deal and one year later my book Look Both Ways came out. Worried that I would stop making visual essays without a forced deadline, I asked the Editor in Chief of Print magazine, if I could contribute a visual essay once a month on the Imprint site. He said yes, and for the last four years, I have been contributing a (nearly) monthly piece. Most of the work for Self-Portrait comes from this endeavor.

Q: Which of the pieces was the most difficult for you to design? What was it about this particular story or poem that presented the most challenges to you? 

116A: The idea for “Lucky” was to illustrate a short story on 12 clear plexiglass panels. But the process behind it was really challenging. As the story unfolds, the panels build, and each panel reveals bits of the story beneath. As the story gets bigger, history is still visible, but is obscured and reinterpreted by the unfolding tale. I worked over a grid I created and used vinyl stick-on type of various sizes, fonts, and colors to articulate the story. I painstakingly put down one letter at a time on clear plexiglass and only forgot to remove the clear plastic coating once. One paragraph actually took more than 8 hours to complete. After completing all of the typography, I worked with the amazing photographer Brent Taylor and we stacked each piece of plexiglass on top of one another. The plexiglass started to buckle so we used chopped up rubber erasers as spacers. Brent shot them in a reductive type style, shooting the last piece first, and removing each piece until we were at the bottom of the stack.  By starting with the whole stack, it enabled him to see what the entire piece would look like from the beginning of the shooting process. For each piece he adjusted lighting from underneath, focal length, aperture, and camera to subject distance. This way he could control the amount of focus being put on each letter, and highlight the ones he wanted to “pop.”

Part of the reason I wanted the story to be obscure is because it is a painful, semi-autobiographical story that I was too ashamed to put out there more “transparently.”

Q: The poems and essays in your book are not just wonderfully designed but also skillfully crafted – where do you pull your inspiration from when writing and designing your projects?

A: Visual storytelling combines the narrative text of a story with creative elements to augment and enhance the traditional storytelling process. By design, it is a co-creative process resulting in an intimate, interpretive expressive technique. Visual storytelling utilizes both language and art to pass on the essence of who we are. Today, the visualization of our personal stories is an integral and essential part of the human experience. I have been exploring the art of telling a story through a unique combination of images and words all of my life. In this body of work, I have tried to investigate the ability stories have to honor the diversity and commonality of our collective human experience.

Q: A piece from Self-Portrait As Your Traitor was recently chosen to be the cover image for the September 2013 issue of Graphic Design USA. The white punched outxcover type on the white background definitely creates a visually captivating piece, how do you feel about this honor and what was the inspiration behind the image they chose?

A: This particular piece is felt placed on the interior of a blank book–my intent is to try and challenge the constructs of what we see when we open a book. It is an incredible honor to have my work on the cover of GDUSA, particularly since this magazine is one I’ve had a lot of history reading and being impacted by, in a real, non-cliche, life changing way. In some ways, it feels very symmetrical and serendipitous for this to be happening and I feel incredibly grateful.

Q: In her introduction Paula Scher wrote that you never lost your exuberant passion for making things. How did you keep that passion alive and what advice would you offer a designer on how to keep (or reignite) that passion?

A: HA! It is harder than it seems, and this is a question that I get a lot. So I’ve put together the experience journey of working on one my visual essays; this pretty much reflects the struggle I go through in most creative endeavors. It goes something like this:

My process for creating the visual essay Seeing Duff, in 20 easy steps:

  1. Look at calendar and realize my deadline for my monthly visual essay is looming.
  2. Think about essay for a few days, and hope I can come up with something original.
  3. Do ten other things to avoid having to think about project.
  4. See a movie, tell myself goal is “inspiration.” Find none.
  5. Sketch out ideas. Throw everything away.
  6. Surf the internet, ostensibly for more “inspiration.” Find some.
  7. Sketch out ideas inspired by internet inspiration. Realize everything I sketch is derivative. Throw everything away.
  8. Come up with idea I find mildly interesting. Work on it for two days, and make two trips for supplies; one to the Container Store, one to Michael’s Art Supply Store. Realize effort is derivative of a previous essay recently completed and published. Discard, but don’t throw away.
  9. See #4.
  10. Go to Barnes & Noble to research threading techniques for new idea. Buy some books.
  11. Realize books can’t help me.
  12. Start work on new piece using thread and paint. Spend 2 days working and reworking.
  13. Sulk. Discard piece.
  14. Come up with idea. Feel energized and hopeful. Start furiously working.
  15. Assemble for photograph.
  16. Work with photographer to shoot hi-res images.
  17. Send to magazine. Hope and pray.
  18. Magazine approves and publishes.
  19. Smile, link and tweet.

About The Author

imagesDebbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. In her time there she has worked on the redesign of over 200 global brands. She is President Emeritus of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and is now featured on

To experiencself-portrait-as-your-traitor_1e the visual poetry for yourself check out her book, Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, now available at MyDesignShop. Also, we’re giving away a copy of the book. Simply comment below with questions, thoughts or insights. We’ll choose a random winner on October 23rd. Good Luck.