To say that Debbie Millman is a thought leader in design and branding is something of an understatement. Having been president of Sterling Brands, she redesigned household names including Hershey’s, Burger King, and Tropicana. So influential was Millman that at one point, she was responsible for the design of 20% of everything you might find in the typical supermarket. She’s also the founder and host of the world’s longest running design podcast, “Design Matters.”
Millman begins by explaining how brands change now, compared to how they used to diversify in the past. Whereas previously it was enough to develop a new flavor or a new variant, brands now differentiate in terms of their values, in the difference they can bring to consumers’ lives.
Movements too need branding (such as Black Lives Matter), taking branding away from the realm of pure capitalism. Branding is a way of signaling human beliefs and is in fact an ancient tendency. As a teacher of design, Millman thinks the fundamentals haven’t changed but the focus has shifted in terms of current trends and movements.
Millman began her podcast seventeen years ago, choosing design as her niche to reignite her creativity, without knowing how influential and long-lasting the project would be. However, changing a successful name is not to be undertaken lightly, even as Millman reaches beyond pure design now with her guest choice. In her book “Why Design Matters”, Millman expands the concept to include how we design our lives to become happier and more productive.
She has some inspiring things to say about rejection. Although Millman admits that while it may still hurt, rejection only constitutes a failure if you let it defeat you. You have control over how much weight you place on external validation. Think of rejections as “not now” rather than “not ever”.
Millman talks about meeting the writer Dani Shapiro, who noticed that she owned a lot of books about building self-confidence. Shapiro said she thought that courage was more important since it must precede confidence. Confidence comes with time; it develops as an activity is repeated successfully. Having courage is far more challenging, since you don’t know how capable you’ll be first time out. Fear in such instances is natural and to be expected. Fear is an involuntary, evolutionary response designed to protect us.
Millman is uneasy talking about what one might “deserve” because of one’s labors. When she began her career she could define where she wanted to live and work (Manhattan), and worked to make that happen. She focused on the practicalities which would lead to that lifestyle. A native New Yorker from Brooklyn, she didn’t have a huge journey to make, but she felt destined to live in the big city, and so began with the “Where.”
Starting from that need, Millman then wanted to become self-sufficient. This led her to focus on commercial art and design rather than fine art.
Millman talks about an exercise she did as a student of Milton Glazer. Students had to envision themselves five years in the future and what their ideal lives would resemble. Years later, she stumbled upon her detailed response to this challenge. She found that, remarkably, much of it had come true. It took 13 years rather than five to achieve everything on her wish list, but Millman found the degree of correlation astounding. Millman now teaches an adapted version of this exercise.
Millman agrees that it’s vital to get to recognize the first impression you make on others. The lesson she hopes to instill in her students is that you do have control over how you come across. You can work on presenting a more effective exterior when you receive honest, actionable feedback.
When you’re invited to a high-level meeting or round table, she advises, don’t attend unless you have something active to contribute. Spectators are rarely appreciated, unlike participants who try to progress the subject under discussion.
Millman disagrees with the notion that people should think of themselves as brands, an opinion which runs counter to prevailing wisdom. “Brands are manufactured,” she says, “…brands don’t live, breathe on their own.” She believes you can own or manage a brand but says that “once we begin to see ourselves as brands, we begin to lose all of our humanity.”
You can, however, build character and reputation. As a person you are not directed by the marketplace but led by your own convictions. “Personal Branding,” in Millman’s view, is an oxymoron. Brands are impersonal; character and reputation are deeply personal.
If you feel you have a contribution to make on a topic, it’s important to get it out there. It took Millman 25 years to be awarded a Ted Talk, having built up slowly from giving talks at minor events and writing for small publications. Millman advises to start upon a self-generated project, one that isn’t influenced by exterior opinion makers. In this way, you’ll grow an audience, providing your content is connecting with people emotionally.
Millman recommends two coaches she had on her podcast, who are good on thought leadership: Dorie Clark and Alisa Cohn.
On leadership in general, Millman recommends the David Foster Wallace essay “Consider the Lobster.” In this essay, Foster describes good leadership as being able to persuade people to undertake more challenging tasks than they would on their own.
At 55, Millman was offered the chance to become CEO of Sterling Brands, a rare and unique opportunity. However, she had been nursing ambitions outside the company for several years, and she realized she had to take a leap into the unknown.
As you get older, the question becomes “if not now, then when?” Millman doesn’t regret her choice, whilst recognizing it was one of the hardest professional decisions she ever made.