Debbie Millman defies easy labels, preferring to design them. As President of the design division at Sterling Brands, she has spent nearly 15 years redesigning global brands from Pepsi to Proctor & Gamble. She created the custom “Debbie Millman Three” typeface now gracing Twizzlers candy’s redesigned brand identity. A prolific writer, she’s a contributing editor for Print Magazine and her most recent book, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design, has received critical acclaim. Millman also serves as President of AIGA, the professional association for design, host of the “DESIGN MATTERS with Debbie Millman“podcast, and chair of the School of Visual Arts master’s program in branding.
stated: Can you describe your work “in a nutshell?”
DEBBIE MILLMAN: I try to make the supermarket more beautiful.
stated: That’s a lofty and noble pursuit. How did you get started?
DEBBIE MILLMAN: 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 have 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 a 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.
stated: Too funny. I also “published” a short-lived “copy machine” magazine when I was about 12, but I have a feeling it wasn’t as impressive. Where did you go to school and what did you study?
DEBBIE MILLMAN: 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 who was the campus clown. More like the campus soapbox guy. He was the political guy who 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. Looking back on it, I don’t know where I got the courage to start my own company! I think that I had more balls than I’ve probably ever had on any day of my life since or before. I had no idea how we were going to do it! 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 didn’t like the ethics of the company. And it was half mine! It’s hard when you’re working with one person because it’s either you or them. Right now I have five partners. So if you disagree on something philosophically it becomes a round table. When you disagree with somebody philosophically and you only have one partner, it’s an argument.
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 didn’t want to do it anymore. At the time, I didn’t know what I wanted to do in general, and I was very disillusioned. I had just turned 30. So, once again, I quit.
stated: There seems to be something about that age that causes people to pause and take stock. Where did you end up next?
DEBBIE MILLMAN: 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.
stated: That’s fantastic. Clearly, you ended up in the right place.
DEBBIE MILLMAN: Currently, my day job is at Sterling Brands, where I am president of the design group. I have been there for 15 years 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.
stated: Don’t we all.Thanks so much for giving so generously of your time and going above and beyond.
BRIAN ASKED DEBBIE…
stated musician, Brian Karscig, asked Debbie…
BRIAN: I named [my band] The Nervous Wreckords largely because we dove into the band so aggressively and jumped into some pretty big shows very quickly. We were literally a bit nervous. You do branding work and surely the process is a bit more involved than ours. Or is it?
DEBBIE: Yes, sometimes it happens that way. And sometimes it doesn’t. Sometimes it takes a day, sometimes it takes a year. Anything and everything happens when you are trying to name something.
Debbie asked Noah Racey, an accomplished Broadway performer and fellow stated artist, the following question…
DEBBIE: What is your favorite Barbra Streisand song and why?
Visit Debbie at: