Named “one of the most influential designers working today” by Graphic Design USA, Debbie Millman is also an author, educator, brand strategist and host of the podcast Design Matters. As the founder and host of Design Matters, the first and longest running podcast about design, Millman has interviewed more than 250 design luminaries and cultural commentators, including Massimo Vignelli, Milton Glaser, Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Barbara Kruger, Seth Godin and more. Debbie is the Chief Marketing Officer at Sterling Brands, where she has worked with over 200 of the world’s largest brands, including the redesign of Burger King, merchandising for Star Wars and the positioning and branding of the No More movement. She is also President Emeritus of AIGA and is a frequent speaker on design and branding and has moderated Design Yatra in India.
You don many hats : a design enthusiast, an entrepreneur, an editor, a host and an author. How do you manage to play such diversified roles and which role do you enjoy the most?
I also don’t see what I am doing as a commitment or “work” in the traditional sense–I see it as joy. I love what I do and I feel so privileged to be doing everything I do, so it is really quite a lot of fun for me. Also, I have been called a “finisher.” I tend to finish what I start, so it is easier to keep track of things!
As for which role I enjoy most, that would be like Sophie’s choice—I wouldn’t want to choose.
How has your journey been from being a student of design to being the President of the design division at Sterling Brands?
My love affair with brands began when I was in the 7th grade. I looked around and everyone in school was wearing really cool pants with a little red tag on the back pocket and polo shirts with little crocodiles on the front right section over your heart. Levi’s and Lacoste. But they were expensive and my mother didn’t understand why we had to pay more money for the little red tag and the crocodile when clothing without them was the same quality, only cheaper. Furthermore, she was a seamstress and her compromise to me was an offer to make me the very same clothes and stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants and glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto the front of a perfectly good polo shirt from Modell’s. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter or at least voted the best dressed girl at Elwood junior high, I eagerly pored through the racks of Lee Wards desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there were none. Nothing even close. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the brand look I was going for.
I rode my bike home from Lee Wards dejected and mopey and when mom found out I wasn’t successful, I could see she felt sorry for me. She then took the matter into her own hands. The Lacoste shirts were too expensive, but there were indeed some Levi’s on sale at the Walt Whitman mall and she bought me a pair. Problem was she didn’t get me the denim kind like everyone else was wearing, she found me a pair that must of been from the triple mark-down racks…they were a pair of lime green corduroy bell-bottom Levi’s. It was with a mixture of horror and pride that I paraded in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, ever-so-slightly sticking my butt out so that I could be sure the little red tag would show. So what, I was wearing lime green corduroy! They were Levi’s. I was cool. My reign of logo worship had begun.
Logos and brands are not the only things I love. From the time I was child, I loved to make things. I made my own coloring books, I made my own paper dolls, I made dioramas, and I even tried to make my own perfume by crushing rose petals into baby oil. I made barrette boxes out of Popsicle sticks, key chains out of lanyards, ashtrays out of clay and Halloween costumes out of construction paper and old sheets. I even handmade an entire magazine when I was 12 with my best friend. Her name was Debbie also and we named the magazine Debutante. We were very proud of it.
I went to the State University at Albany in New York. I had an incredible education, despite the lack of fancy pedigree. I knew I wanted to do something creative but thought I was going to be a painter. I studied painting and took some design classes because I needed the credits. But my major was in English literature. After I graduated, I quickly realized I was not going to be able to pay my rent as a painter. I also realized that the only marketable skill I had was the design bit that I had briefly studied. That, and I had been the editor of the arts section of our school newspaper. I went to school in Albany and the Albany Student Press had the largest circulation of any student newspaper in the country, so it was a pretty big deal. This is one of the reasons people went to school in Albany. I went just because my best friend did, and, at the time, it was the best state school that I could afford. So off I went to Albany, and got involved in the school newspaper. But, as it turned out, I didn’t really like the editing part of it. What I *loved* was creating the design of the paper. I actually came out of college with this fantastic portfolio because it was a large format paper. I had a 12-page section that I did every week. I had these little magazines that I designed entirely by myself. I would give my friends articles to write and I wouldn’t edit them. I’d publish them. There was this guy that was the campus clown. More like the campus soapbox guy. He was the political guy that would get up on his soapbox and talk about whatever political issue he thought. He was my favorite writer. I’d say, Hubert, write me an article about women’s choice and he’d come back with 15 pages. I’d print the entire thing.
After I graduated and started looking for a job, I saw an ad in the New York Times for a magazine job at a publication called Cable View. The ad specifically stated “no visitors.” Resumes only. I decided to go in person anyway figuring ‘what would they do, throw me out’? I figured I would just deliver the resume. They hired me that morning, on the spot, and I started right away. But they didn’t really know what to make of me because I had this bizarre English/Art degree. They put me in trafficking, and I ended up working in both the editorial and design departments concurrently. I did a little bit of design and a little bit of editing. It ended up being the perfect job. I could do everything I wanted to do and I loved it. I thought it was fantastic, but I couldn’t live on the money. A year later I got offered a job at an advertising agency doing design, and I took it. It was real estate advertising, and all I did was design brochures for tasteless non-descript buildings. I knew the day that I quit Cable VIew I had made a terrible mistake because I cried for 48 hours. And it turned out that I did indeed make a mistake, as the work was dreadful, and I found that I hated doing work I didn’t really believe in. I quit after a year and started working at RockBill magazine, again doing both editing, writing and design. Shortly thereafter, the creative director and I decided to start our own design firm. This was in 1987, and I had been working professionally for about four years at the time. We didn’t have any money. We didn’t have any clients. We didn’t have really any contacts. But we did it anyway, and all of a sudden we had this business. All of a sudden we had a company, and then we had 20 people working for us. It was incredibly exciting. But ultimately, I realized that I was never going to be able to do something that I was really proud of in that particular business. Over the four years we were together, we made a lot of money. So, once again, I decided I don’t want to do it anymore. At the time, I didn’t know what I want to do in general, and I was very disillusioned. I had just turned 30. So, once again, I quit. I took a year off and I freelanced for Planned Parenthood and worked on their new identity. I did a brochure for a law firm and I travelled, and I thought about what I wanted to do. I decided that I wanted to work for the best design firm in the country (at the time), Frankfurt Balkind. Through a friend, I got an interview, and I showed Aubrey Balkind my portfolio. He said he’d hire me, but NOT as a designer–he didn’t think my work was good enough. And this was all the work I had created in my entire career thus far! But I really wanted to work there, so I took the job he offered me: a job in marketing. About a year later, I got a call from a headhunter and he spoke to me about a job at a branding consultancy called The Schechter Group. I’d never done “formal” brand identity in my life. But it was incredibly compelling to me. When I gave Aubrey my notice, despite my not having been the world’s greatest Marketing Director (and not having the smoothest of relationships with him) he looked me in the eye and told me that I was going to be very good in package design. He was right. For the first time in my life, I found my niche. I have been working in branding ever since and am blissfully happy all of the time.
Joking! I am actually very insecure and thus feel that I have to constantly prove myself every second of every day.
Currently, my day job is at Sterling Brands, where I am Chief Marketing Officer. I have been there for 20 years and helped grow the firm to the size it is now. I am also the Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts and the Editor and Creative Director of Print Magazine.
Which has been your most memorable project as a brand strategist and why?
My most memorable project was designing the NO MORE symbol. The team involved in the NO MORE project worked to create a new visual symbol to express universal support for ending domestic violence and sexual assault in our society. The purpose of the symbol is to raise visibility, create awareness, encourage conversation, and help break the social stigma surrounding domestic violence and sexual assault. It is hoped that by accomplishing those goals, we will be taking the first steps toward a broader level of change: that the increased visibility and dialogue will contribute to changing social norms, and ultimately to improved public policies and more resources.
The symbol can be worn and displayed by both influencers and members of the public to express their commitment to this cause. It can also be used by the many organizations working in the field of domestic violence and sexual assault in their efforts to generate awareness, education, prevention, and funding. The concept of “NO MORE” reflects the overarching aspiration to create a society in which there is no more domestic violence or sexual assault. Like the peace sign, the yellow “support our troops” ribbon, the red AIDS ribbon or the pink breast cancer ribbon, our goal is to use this new symbol to help spark a national dialogue and move the issues of domestic violence and sexual assault higher on the public’s agenda.
What are the challenges that you face in the world of branding?
Design isn’t about design anymore—or technology. There isn’t a “mass market” in which to target a message or a book or product or a company anymore; there is no one demographic picture of the planet. Cultural anthropologist Grant McCracken spoke at a conference and talked about how lifestyle typologies have expanded to first 3, then 6, then 9 and then 12 typologies, now there is too much variation. We have reached categorical exhaustion. In order to get any attention at all (online or off) we must holistically balance four distinct but related disciplines: cultural anthropology, behavioral psychology, commerce and creativity and express this visually. The balance includes cultural anthropology because what we do in our culture—whether it is an obsession with social networks or politics or the cult of celebrity, these all have a major impact on the way we understand and interpret the world and our place in it. It includes psychology because if we don’t fundamentally understand the brain circuitry of our audience and really know what they are thinking—(and why they are thinking it!)—we will not be able to solicit any audience imagination. And of course, it includes a fundamental understanding of commerce. Understanding the marketplace and the messaging impacts and influences perception. And of course, it includes creativity because if we don’t create an engaging identity, then consumers won’t even see it.
Read part II of the interview here.