Updated: Mar 23
Debbie Millman is a designer, author, educator and the host of the award-winning podcast Design Matters, one of the first and longest running podcasts in the world. She is also co-founder and chair of the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts; editorial director of Print magazine; and the author of seven books on design and branding. As the President of Sterling Brands, she worked on the design and strategy of over 200 of the world’s largest brands. She is currently Chair of the Board of Directors for Law & Order SVU actor and activist Mariska Hargitay’s Joyful Heart Foundation.
Interview by Carolina Gómez
What is Debbie Millman’s Brand Story?
I fell in love with brands when I was in the seventh grade. I looked around and noticed everyone in school was wearing really cool pants with a little red tag on the back pocket; the ubiquitous and chic fashion ensemble of the day included polo shirts featuring little crocodiles stitched onto the fabric, right above the heart.
Levi’s and Lacoste: The names that go along with these iconographies are intimately familiar to us now. In my junior high school years in the late 1970s, Levi’s and Lacoste apparel were more than my family could afford. Furthermore, my mother couldn’t comprehend why we would have to pay more for the red tag and the crocodile when the clothing without them was the same quality but cheaper.
To make matters even worse, my mother was a seamstress. She didn’t understand the appeal of buying something she could make herself. She compromised by offering to make the very same clothes from scratch. She’d stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants; she’d glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto a perfectly good polo shirt from Modell’s.
While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter—or of being voted the best-dressed girl at Elwood Junior High—I eagerly pored through the racks of the local craft store desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there was nothing even close. The only remotely related substitute I found was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the look or cache I was striving for.
I rode my bike home from the craft store dejected and mopey. When my mom found out I hadn’t been successful, I could see she felt sorry for me. So she 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. But she didn’t get the denim variety that everyone else was wearing; she found a design that must have been from the triple-mark-down racks—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 if I was wearing lime green corduroy! They were Levi’s. I was cool. My reign of logo worship had begun, and continues to this day, over 40 years later.
We love your quote: “Branding is the profound manifestation of the human spirit”. Can you please explain why?
Contemporary culture is now almost entirely composed of brands. Everything we consume—even the most basic commodities like water and salt—are brands. Experiences are brands. People are brands. Our role models are people, and thus our role models have become brands. Brands are so persuasive in their personal, political, economic, aesthetic, psychological, moral, ethical and social consequences that they leave no part of us untouched, unaffected and unaltered. Any knowledge of culture is impossible now without an understanding of the implications of “brand.” We have entered a day and age where brand is an extension of human facility, whether it is psychic or psychological. And we are now at a tipping point in the way brands are being created. Branding has finally become democratized, and the results are not commercially driven. Historically, brands were created in a “top-down” model: they were pushed down from the corporation to the people. Branded movements like Occupy Wall Street or Black Lives Matters or Me Too were created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose branding has: to bring people together for the benefit of people. Now that equation has flipped! Brands are not being created for financial benefit. Brands are being created to signify what people believe and, in my opinion, they are proof positive that branding is not just a tool of capitalism—branding has the potential to become a profound manifestation of the human spirit.
Why Design Matters and why Brands should care about design?
Branding is the process of meaning manufacture. Design is the communication of that meaning. But designing is not only about design; it is now the meticulously crafted balance of cultural anthropology, behavioural psychology, economics, and creativity.
Design matters because everything humans create using their talent and imagination is designed: our clothes, our homes, our jobs, our experiences, and our lives. We have myriad choices for everything we do—even the kinds of things we see, and we design our lives as we live them.
What are the key elements to create a Successful Brand Design Strategy?
Creating successful brand design requires an intrinsic intertwining with a powerful marketing strategy. You also must talk directly, passionately, and as uniquely as possible to your audience. It is a relentless persistence and constant assessment of your connection to your key constituency.
Brand design must provide a telegraphic expression of your product’s positioning, personality and values, as well as create a symbolic link between your customers and the company.
Understanding the need vs. desire for change
What is the motivation for changing any design? If you are changing for change sake, just don’t do it. The only audience that likes brand design changes are brand designers. People don’t go to a shelf in a supermarket, see a change and think “WOW! Why look at that! Tropicana changed again! YAY!” They look for their trusted reliable visual cues and if they see a change, they immediately become skeptical. They worry that the recipe has changed. Or they wonder if they are paying more and getting less (yes, I am looking at you, yogurt packaging). The best reason for reinvigorating any brand’s design is to communicate what the benefit is to the consumer. Some good reasons to change a design include the following:
--a new strategic vision
--a new and inventive reason for being
--a better purpose
--a unique point of view
If any design is just to elicit the imagination of the consumer and the seduction falls short of any real promise, don’t bother doing it. You are epically wasting your money.
Generally speaking, do you think organisations and brand leaders understand the value of Design? Why do you think this is very important?
At almost any other point in history I would have said no, organizations and brand leaders don’t understand the value of design. Historically they thought brand design was about a logo. But now—in 2022—they do care…because they must! Design has become one of the most important drivers of shareholder value. Design is now embedded in the language of finance. As a result, design now plays a significant role in all of marketing.
What else should Brands do to better serve us?
Have a strong, provocative point of view, be courageous in the risks you take to engage your audience and be brave in the execution of your visual communication.
In many of your lectures, you mention that: “The condition of branding has always reflected the condition of our culture”. Can you elaborate?
Every design we create now has ramifications, because it gets swept up into a swift sequence of designs that precede and follow it. The condition of branding has always reflected the condition of our culture and that culture now includes a climate crisis, systemic housing and food insecurity and the widest disparity in income equality in history. No individual design or brand can be excluded from the assessment of this condition. Containers for bananas and ballot forms and bottled beverages and salty-snack packaging and propaganda posters all need to be approached with the same rigor and transparency. If not, we segregate our power to communicate and translate what is happening in the world around us and nothing will change. No matter how fearful or dismayed or outraged we might be given the conditions we have imprisoned ourselves in, it does offer opportunities. We—the designers and the marketers and the makers and the markers—need only invent them.
What common mistakes do companies often make when it comes to Brand Design?
The most common mistake companies make when it comes to brand design is how often they miscalculate how to best use market research, and how to evaluate results.
You have to be very careful when using research to evaluate design. As many new product innovations have shown, sometimes a great design idea can tank in focus groups and still become a slam-dunk in the marketplace (the Absolute bottle being the best-known example). There are other forces that take over after the initial reaction to a new design has passed.
There are several paths you can take when it comes to researching new design concepts, and they include ethnography, focus groups, quantitative eye tracking and online testing—often it’s a combination of a few methods. It ultimately comes down to selecting the right research methodology for the particular project and this is wisdom that is accumulated through collective years of experience.
Over the years I’ve also realized there are several ‘Nevers’ of brand identity and package design testing:
Never ask if a piece of graphic or packaging design will make someone more likely to buy something. Most people are not willing to admit that they are so superficial as to be influenced by packaging, so results will be skewed.
Never ask consumers to explain why they like what they like in specific design terms- Ask them what the design says to them about the brand or product itself or how it makes them feel about the product.
In qualitative testing, never test design in isolation. Remind consumers how anything new compares against the competition by doing side-by-sides. Comparison spurs more conversation—and opinions.
Never ask consumers how to improve a design. Often, they will have input whether you ask for it or not. Instead focus on their reactions. The solutions are what we do.
Debbie, any Brand or inspiring Brand Story that you particularly admire or had the opportunity to work with recently?
I first started working to help eradicate domestic violence, sexual assault, and child abuse when I help to create the NO MORE movement ten years ago, which was created by a consortium of organizations including Verizon, Avon, Kimberly Clark and the Joyful Heart Foundation. During that experience I met Law & Order SVU star Mariska Hargitay who is also the founder of the Joyful Heart Foundation. She subsequently invited me to help them with the branding and repositioning of the foundation. We launched that work during the Obama administration with Vice President Joe Biden. I subsequently joined the Joyful Heart Foundation, which, quite frankly, makes me feel like my whole life makes sense.