UnderConsideration / EST. 2001
Debbie Millman
Debbie Millman / Sterling Brands / New York, NY / [Photo: Nada Ray]

Debbie Millman has been in the design business for more than half of her life. At the international brand consultancy Sterling Brands, where she is a partner, she has designed some things she is really proud of and lots of products that you have likely purchased in a big supermarket or drug store chain. This makes her very, very happy. Debbie loves to write and you can see the fruition of these efforts in the column she writes for Print magazine, on her own blog at debbiemillman.com, and right here on Speak Up (her first love). She is also writing two books: the first, How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer will be published by Allworth Press in October; and the second, Essential Principles of Graphic Design is being published by Rotovision in May 2008. She also likes to talk. This is most evident in the classes she teaches at the School of Visual Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology, the lectures she gives around the country as a National Board member of the AIGA, and on her weekly internet talk show, Design Matters.

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 red tag and the crocodile when the clothing without them was the same quality but 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.

Sad little story, huh? Nevertheless, my turbulent and tempestuous love affair continues to this day, and I have the honor and responsibility and guilt of working on lots of big brands. But rather than believing that a brand can make someone cool (and then have to deliver on a persona of coolness they may or may not have) I try to inject honesty, integrity and decency into the brand expressions I work on. I now believe that the condition of “brand” reflects the condition of our culture, and I am bound and determined to inspire brands to reach for higher ground. I have been called a “she-devil” because of this obsessive attachment to brands… but I guess I’ll have to live with that.