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Debbie Millman: And nevertheless, she persisted.

Interview by Alina Wheeler

Debbie Millman is the host of Design Matters, and chair of the world’s first graduate program in branding at SVA in New York City.

If any, what challenges have you experienced as branding woman during your overall career?

When I started in the brand design industry in 1992, I was struck by the lack of women in senior positions in the business. I was working for a company then called The Schechter Group (now Interbrand), which was founded by Alvin Schechter several decades before. Our competitors were firms such as Wallace Church, Gerstman + Meyers, Murrie Lienhart Rysner, Lipson Alport Glass, Peterson Blythe, The Coleman Group, Primo Angeli, Addison, Anspach Gross Portugal, Lippincott, and of course, Landor. All of these companies had tremendous reputations, and all—every single one—were founded and run by men. As a newly minted business development executive, my job was to call on consumer goods companies for their business. In doing so, I found that the corporate design directors in the most senior positions employed in the organizations were also men. There was nary a woman to be found. The graphic design business fared slightly better back then, but just barely. Paula Scher had recently become the first female partner at Pentagram, and for a brief moment, Cheryl Heller was a partner at Frankfurt Gips Balkind. But for the most part, if a woman wanted to be at the helm of a design firm, she had to start her own agency. But that didn’t always work, either: when Charles and Ray Eames jointly ran their eponymous business, Ray often played second fiddle to her more famous husband (assuming she wasn’t mistakenly referred to as Charles’ brother Ray, rather than his spouse). The stewardship of the brand and graphic design communities represented this state of affairs accurately: in its first one hundred years, AIGA, the professional association for design, elected only five women to preside over the largest design organization in the world. And despite a mission of “championing the very best in commercial creativity,” it took the Art Director’s Club 55 years to allow any woman to become a member.

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