Debbie Millman Turns Typography Into Poetry

With her new book Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, Millman creates a contemporary illuminated manuscript.

When she isn’t busy hosting her “Design Matters” podcast or working as president of both the AIGA and Sterling Brands, Debbie Millman creates beautifully designed and original art books. Her latest, Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, is a collection of visual poems and illustrated essays that range from the dark and gritty to the serene and playful.


Millman tells Co.Design that this latest book began the way most of her personal projects do: “I always start with the words first–they could be something I’ve written recently or something I’ve been rewriting for years,” Millman says. Her experimental, trial-and-error creative process involves anything from buying entire stocks of adhesive mailbox letters at Pearl Paint to printing and re-drawing text that she’s typeset on a computer. “A lot of what I do ends up in the garbage,” she admits.

This book is a synesthetic fusion of the verbal and the visual; a contemporary illuminated manuscript that’s reminiscent of William Blake’s illustrated poems and the work of Maira Kalman and Marian Bantjes. “There is so little to be ashamed of,” reads one piece. It’s a simple statement that’s easily ignored when typed in Times New Roman on a white background. But when hand-lettered and painted in bold sherbet and sunset colors, these words become magnificent and deeply felt.

Millman’s work in this unique genre of painted words started about 20 years ago, when she was in the middle of a “flurry of painting on canvas.”

“I found that the only thing I felt passionate about drawing were words,” she says. “So it started first with visually investigating single words, like ‘infidelity’ or ‘please,’ and then, the way a child learns to read, I moved on to drawing sentences and then stories.”

For many years, Millman had put aside the kind of personal creative work seen in Self-Portrait to focus on her more lucrative career in corporate branding. “I find working on brands some of the most interesting work you can do,” she says, “but I started to feel like my life was passing me by. I was only doing one of several things that I really wanted to do. I was getting far too commercial and was losing my soul a bit. I didn’t feel like my soul was being nourished. Money was never going to do it.”

It was a summer intensive course taught by Milton Glaser, where she was asked to construct the kind of life of which she’d always dreamt, that changed this balance. “The course was the single most transformative event in my life,” Millman says. “I decided to really take my night work, my non-day job, more seriously.” She volunteered to contribute a monthly visual essay to Print magazine’s website, and much of the deeply personal Self-Portrait is derived from this work for Print.


In this book, Millman pushes the visual aspects of poetry to their limit, using not just line breaks and experimental spacing but color, typography, and texture to convey thought and emotion. “Visual storytelling combines the narrative text of a story with creative elements to augment and enhance the traditional storytelling process,” says Millman. “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.”

Self-Portrait As Your Traitor, published by HOW Books and with an introduction by Paula Scher, is out now.


About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.