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Speak Up Goes to Harvard and Survives

It’s obvious we have all been eager to hear what was it like for Debbie to spend five days clustered in ivy-clad Harvard, surrounded by Design Leaders. All I can say is that it was worth the wait. In her review, she practically places us right there amidst the action with an insightful, and entertaining, twenty-one-hundred-word write up.

You have two options:
1) Read it online
2) Download the PDF (a measly 37kb) and do whatever you want

And as a bonus — to feel even more part of the action — Gong Szeto graciously took some pictures and is happy to share them.

Maintained through our ADV @ UnderConsideration Program
PUBLISHED ON Sep.05.2003 BY Armin
eric’s comment is:

Millie, i'm glad that the rest of the world is beginning to appreciate how brilliant you are too.

again, welcome home and thanks for the update.

On Sep.05.2003 at 09:54 AM
graham’s comment is:

the funniest bit is where no one knows what 'anthropological" means. maybe a more basic course is in order?

On Sep.05.2003 at 10:05 AM
Tan’s comment is:

Damn damn dammit. I see a lot of people I know. I should've gone.

thanks for the report Deb!

On Sep.05.2003 at 10:07 AM
graham’s comment is:

debbie-how much did the course cost?

On Sep.05.2003 at 10:19 AM
Kiran Max Weber’s comment is:

debbie-how much did the course cost?

A billion.

Thanks Deb. Just printed it...

On Sep.05.2003 at 10:22 AM
JLee’s comment is:

Thanks for the great write up!

On Sep.05.2003 at 11:06 AM
graham’s comment is:

i assume all the attendees will be at the tokion thing this weekend for another anthropological expedition. it's cheap, too! witness the natives practicing what they preach! keep a safe distance-don't touch-they bite! don't worry-guides will be on hand to escort you safely back to civilisation. be sure to wear 'the uniform' (casual version; blue/white/black polo shirt, tucked into cream/beige chinos, or dark dress/blouse/skirt) for easy recognition.

either that or you could join landmark.

On Sep.05.2003 at 11:29 AM
surts’s comment is:

Ditto on the thanks, especially about the suggested reading list at the end!

On Sep.05.2003 at 11:34 AM
Armin’s comment is:

>how much did the course cost?

From the AIGA's site:

"The fee for Business Perspectives for Design Leaders is $8,000 for AIGA members and $8,275 for nonmembers."

On Sep.05.2003 at 11:57 AM
graham’s comment is:

thanks armin (happy birthday again, tequila's on me).

really sounds worth it.

On Sep.05.2003 at 12:07 PM
steven’s comment is:

Wow! What an inspirational week that had to have been. From just reading Debbie's write-up it sounds like it was a great information dump from some great minds.

Lucky girl.

On Sep.05.2003 at 12:33 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Great write-up, Debbie. I'm going to read it again later and try to process more of it. I absolutely believe that we should never stop learning, even if we think we've become so-called experts. At the point when you think you achieve mastery, it probably means it is time to work twice as hard.

Also, your point about opening your mouth, being embarassed and moving on goes straight to my heart. Even when my mouse arrow hovers over the "post" button, I'm debating with myself over whether I should click it or "cancel".

On Sep.05.2003 at 12:38 PM
graham’s comment is:

>Wow! What an inspirational week that had to have been.

>I absolutely believe that we should never stop learning

at eight grand a week? how far could one travel on that? what thing could one make? whose life would it make so much better? what kind of party could you throw? come on.

On Sep.05.2003 at 12:45 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Graham, such a free spirit!

I agree that there are other things one can spend their hard-earned money on. I also believe that people don't spend enough money on their continuing education. I know, "school loans" and whatever and I understand it's not an opportunity anybody can take. I don't think it's so bad to spend that kind of money on something like the Harvard deal. Plus, if you read the review, you will learn that Debbie probably determined the return on investment before deciding to go or not ; )

On Sep.05.2003 at 04:00 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

I found the "Here are some key tactical learnings" section fundamentally flawed, in the textbook Western way. Sorry.


On Sep.05.2003 at 04:21 PM
graham’s comment is:

everything is education.

i don't need or want to sit in a room for a week to find that out.

cod philosophy and cultism is fine by me but there's lots of places i could suggest where people would find it for free.

from debbies description, that week sounds jaw-droppingly simple-minded. and it's wretched (but gleeful in an apocalyptic way-let's have another war, yeah!) that a group of 'professionals' have never thought, spoken or experienced the things debbie describes before. just jaw-droppingly obvious.

they would have learnt more by pooling their fees and donating the money but never telling anyone ever than attending this very expensive group therapy session.

i suppose i'm just really shocked that peeps seem to think it's unquestionably, uncritically a good thing.

and i'm shocked that something like that could be the best week in someone's life.

On Sep.05.2003 at 04:31 PM
steven’s comment is:

>>>from debbies description, that week sounds jaw-droppingly simple-minded.

Then may we all sit at your feet and worship you? I don't really think I learnt enough in my college education nor in my design experience to dismiss the knowledge I might pick up from the peeps at Harvard. There might be some rehashed material there, but all-in-all looks like it could have been a good learning session, $8,000 and all.

On Sep.05.2003 at 04:43 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

eight grand a week? how far could one travel on that? what thing could one make? whose life would it make so much better? what kind of party could you throw?

Actually, eight grand ain't what it used to be. For a proper party these days you need at least fifteen.

On Sep.05.2003 at 04:57 PM
graham’s comment is:

you can worship if you want. it's free. i'd even buy you a tequila. i've learnt more frum dat stuf then i did frum skool.

On Sep.05.2003 at 04:58 PM
graham’s comment is:

michael b.; too true. although eight g's would do a good night out.

On Sep.05.2003 at 05:00 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I love the fact that Debbie enjoyed this so much, I think its great that she got as much out of it as she did...the learning, the exposure, the people, the intensity. Fucking great, Debbie!

But ultimately...I kinda like what Graham is saying. But I have a few comments of my own.

Look at every annual report you can find from the past two years, when the US economy got caught in the septic tank so bad it couldn't even be revitalized by some sort of super plunger. Read the chairman's letter. You'll notice something: in the event that the corporation lost money or performed below expectations, count how many times "market conditions" were the culprit.

Then, go back a few more years and find the same annual reports, when the US economy was riding higher than Keith Richards. Did the board or management credit "market conditions" for their success? Hell no, they (sensibly) credited their people, their innovation, their strategy, whatever else.

I hate consultants because I don't understand what the fuck they do. For instance, there was a design firm that had a client. Well, a client of a client--BeerCompany contacted three agencies and AdAge1 asked the design firm to do some packaging and that sort of thing because AdAge1 had to beat out two other agencies for the business. Why the pitch? Well, BeerCompany went to BigConsultingFirm who charged who knows how many millions of dollars and spent who knows how much time developing a report that would recommend something. And when I heard this, I thought immediately of the whole "so you're thinking about planning on maybe talking about possibly doing something" tirade. This report, when all was said and done, identified lots of "market problems" and things that BeerCompany was doing "wrong," over the course of many, many pages. BigConsultingFirm's report, on the last page, had a timeline consisting of about 8 items, 7 of which were in a box with a solid outline. The 8th was in a box with a dotted outline, and it said "Creative Idea." The legend indicated that a solid line meant "done" and a dotted line meant "To Do." So essentially, BeerCompany needed a creative idea, but God forbid BigConsultingCompany come up with THAT.

Fuckin' knuckleheads. I'd get an MBA too if it meant that I could jack off for a bit and make money from the dolts who stood around watching, only to say at the end "it's better with someone else."

Now, I'm not narrow-minded enough to say that this is ALL business and that MBAs are incapable of doing anything (just look at the HOW Magazine article on VSA from last year, they talk a lot about the Kellogg MBA who in many ways saved the firm), but I seriously question the value of much business discourse. To supplement this argument, I provide you with my library of Fast Company magazines from 1998-2000, along with my stash of Inc.'s, Red Herring's, and Industry Standard's from the same time.

Because, quite honestly, commerce drives a lot of things in society and culture, it makes a huge difference and to ignore the importance of profits, investments, and just money in general is stupider than ALL business discourse. Commerce is where it's at, through commerce you can cause change. It gives you a lot more flexibility and utility.

Then again, sometimes freedom from finances grants you more liberty than you could imagine. It all depends.

But fundamentally, change happens because you DO something. Say what you want to about Bill Gates, but he ditched Harvard because he felt like it was a bunch o' wankin', started his silly little company that became huge under him and a guy who got sick of Stanford's MBA program. The best way to learn is by doing, in my opinion.

Ultimately, this sounds like a great course and if it didn't cost so much I'd go myself next year. But if I had 8,000 bucks lying around? Well...I'd do something crazy.

Ooh, one more thing. Whoever it was in the write-up that said "there is no objective right or wrong" just committed a lovely contradiction. That's distinct premise used to make an argument. It in itself is claiming to be "right." Remember folks, to say that "there is no black & white, everything is gray" is inherently a black & white statement. Fact is, the world is a little bit of black & white, and a little bit of gray depending on what's going on.

On Sep.05.2003 at 06:12 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


Yeah, I agree. I agree about the shock over the program, and the value of booze, but what place, what right, does any one of us have to pass judgment on this week being among the best of Debbie's life? I'm okay, you're okay...

Hey, also: when you go drinkin', do you ever have that weird but totally cool period where you're on that line between "tipsy" and "Boris Yeltsin" (anybody get my Simpson's reference?), that's insanely metaphysical and hyper-aware? I don't know how to explain it, and please, nobody refer me to AA, but when I do my hard drinkin', its during this little window that I notice the most about my surroundings and remember the most next morning. It's kinda cool, to feel that plugged in. I call it my "philosophical state," even though the stuff I say is totally unintelligible.

On Sep.05.2003 at 06:18 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Actually, eight grand ain't what it used to be. For a proper party these days you need at least fifteen.

Hey, you get the right people and the right place and the party just happens.

For proof...

ANDREW W.K.!!!!!

Think I'm kidding? I'm not. Download the "We Want Fun" music video. That looked like a fun party. Or better yet, GO TO HIS CONCERTS. I went a couple nights ago, I haven't seen that much passion or intensity in a band, or in a group of people, in AGES. If ever. Once being passionate fell out of favor, I wondered if I'd see it again on a mass scale. Fortunately, I did...and I felt bad for everyone who wasn't there, they missed out on one helluva a good time.

Cheap too.

On Sep.05.2003 at 06:24 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Bradley, I just wish you would tell us what you really think. Don't feel like you have to hold back, let it all out.

Safe trips dude!

On Sep.05.2003 at 06:34 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

I agree about the shock over the program, and the value of booze, but what place, what right, does any one of us have to pass judgment on this week being among the best of Debbie's life? I'm okay, you're okay...

I love you guys. Especially you, Graham. You are the toughest, most arrogant (well, almost), brashest kids on the block. Thank you...

On Sep.05.2003 at 08:06 PM
graham’s comment is:

bradley; i didn't/don't deny debbies experience-that's just how i feel. i promise-i'm not doing a 'depp'.

debbie; you got it. arrogance is my forte. it's all a pretext to get you out for a drink (i'm still here).

however: the challenges can be harsher, the questioning more intense, even obtuse, the acceptance more wary, and yes, judgement, old testament and fuckheaded; i can't relax with it, i don't want us to relax with it and i want to see this probing-sometimes unforgiving-because i want it myself and i'll give it until i get it. i still stand by what i wrote and i'm a git who won't let go and, today, because i share (almost) a birthday, because it's what this site, armin, everyone here since day one, for the respect of it and because this is the one place i've ever found outside of my family and sisters and brothers at tomato that deserves this kind of tenacity, or will, or wishing god knows.

On Sep.05.2003 at 08:46 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>however: the challenges can be harsher, the questioning more intense, even obtuse, the acceptance more wary, and yes, judgement, old testament and fuckheaded; i can't relax with it, i don't want us to relax with it and i want to see this probing-sometimes unforgiving-because i want it myself

me too, Graham. That's why I loved the Harvard program. Maybe I wasn't as specific as I should have been with the actual challenges I felt going through the program, it was in all honesty, more than just a lapse in knowing the defintion of "anthropological."

I guess in the end I felt that I was pushed. Not in a group therapy kind of way (that I can do all on my own, thank you very much) but in a more terrifying way--actually challenging my own "fuckheaded-ness" and realizing that it was something that, if I really work at it, I could look at it straight in the face.

And your pretext worked: anytime you are ready for that drink, I am there. I know a few other NY Speak Up authors that would want to join us...is that your birthday you are referring to?...a most Happy Birthday, dear Graham.

On Sep.06.2003 at 08:59 AM
Lea’s comment is:

Eight grand is a lot. That's possibly one or two year's tuition, depending on where you go. I'd attend more lectures (events, etc.) if it was cheaper or, God forbid, free.

But Graham has a point. However, he overestimates the knowledge of some people. Sometimes, the things most obvious to you is not most obvious to others. If you need to spend 8 grand and attend a lecture of other professionals in order to open your eyes -- do it. There's no shame, and it doesn't mean you're not smart. You're just willing to invest to learn more. If you can open your eyes by yourself through gritty hard work and self-research -- do it. If you can do both -- do it.

You'd be surprised how many apathetic and uninformed people there are.

On Sep.06.2003 at 10:55 AM
Rudy’s comment is:

Wow! Such tough talking, passionate conversation from graphic designers. And what do they give us?: Burger King logos, and bland annual reports that no one ever reads.

Anyway, very sad to see people gushing all over Debbie's experience at Harvard while earlier dismissing and ridiculing Terry Irwin's article in CA. You want to learn something? Need to expand your horizon? Buy Fritjof Capra's "Hidden Connections", and "Natural Capitalism" by Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken. Maybe it will give you some ideas that'll benefit everybody and not just yourself or the corporation you so badly want to work for. And it'll cost you less than 50 bucks.

On Sep.06.2003 at 11:39 AM
eric’s comment is:

Book sales down Rudy, what the fuck?

No real problem with us supporting one of our own for going to a 'seminar' for a week and getting back to us on it.

My general response to the fee is that it seems that the Harvard gig was to be somewhat exclusionary in its offering, hence the high pricetag (though i find the punitive addl $275 for non AIGA members somewhat arbitrary.) It was a hardcore case study event with limited space. Clearly the people involved would most likely be those clearly invited by AIGA or Harvard and anyone with corporate backing to write-off the expense.

On Sep.06.2003 at 12:15 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>Anyway, very sad to see people gushing all over Debbie's experience at Harvard while earlier dismissing and ridiculing Terry Irwin's article in CA.

Those are two very separate discussions and totally unrelated. I don't think there is anything sad about it either, Terry Irwin's article was as inflated as the Harvard event price of admission — if not more. That is sad.

On Sep.06.2003 at 02:57 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


Really? Not related? Two designers have an epiphany and then go on to explain how we should open ourselves up to different ways of thinking and learning and challenge our accepted modes of working. I think these articles relate very much to each other. They just draw completely different conclusions.

On Sep.06.2003 at 04:07 PM
Armin’s comment is:

>Really? Not related?

Well... ok... damn, you got me on that one.

On Sep.06.2003 at 04:15 PM
kyle’s comment is:

It sounds like a really interesting week.

I'd like to hear more about this point..

--Two biggest secrets to a high-performance organization:

1) peer pressure

2) self-selection system

The first idea seems pretty self-explanatory, but the 2nd?

On Sep.06.2003 at 04:33 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


So it's all about language then? Well, I, for one, can read through Speak Up's "fuck this and fuck that" as easily as I can through Debbie's exec talk or Irwin's inflated academic speak.

On Sep.06.2003 at 05:06 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

2) self-selection system

To me, this suggests that those in a high-performing group push themselves, rather than being pushed. They are always striving for greater successes and more unique ideas. The pressure is from within, not solely peer-based. I think the two feed each other and are not mutually exclusive.

On Sep.06.2003 at 05:16 PM
peter scherrer’s comment is:

eight grand for a week is a lot and i wondered if it'd be a worthwhile investment. looking back (ROI), even ten would have been justified. plus, the week was just the beginning. but, if you can pick it up by reading a book or two -- great for you. thanks for the write-up debbie.


On Sep.06.2003 at 05:21 PM
Armin’s comment is:

Rudy, I really don't know where you are headed with this. Is Debbie's exec talk as bad as Irwin's inflated academic speak as bad as Speak Up's fuck this fuck that? What are we left with then? I'm really not trying to be a prick, I'm just slightly confused and don't know where all this is coming from, much less where it's going.

On Sep.06.2003 at 05:39 PM
Momo’s comment is:

I just wanted to thank you all. Since I discovered Speak Up about a week ago — reading Rick Poynor's editorial on Eye mag online — I can't stop reading.

Dare I say it? It's been one of the best weeks of my life.

Just kidding, Graham, just kidding. But surely Speak Up is for free!

I have to admit I found Debbie's key tactical learnings sometimes deeply interesting, sometimes a bit too obvious to be teached from an HBS prof - I followed a marketing course this year and half of debbie's points were very familiar to me.

Here's one of the most challenging:

Debbie wrote: >No one ever wakes up in the morning, asks themselves what they are going to do today and says: I think today I will deny reality.

Seemed no one else noticed those lines about reality. I did. Feels great reading that there still are people starting everyday from what's most beautiful and true: reality.

I'm sick of professors teaching their own point of view, telling you nothing more than what they believe to know, selling it as an undeniable truth. What the hell? Reality is out there, all one's has to do is to accept it, every single moment it is so unpredictable you can't even imagine. I just think that starting from what one already knows is a reductive way of approaching life.

>You want to learn something? Need to expand your horizon? Buy Luigi Giussani's "Religious Sense", this book completely changed my life, design being a part of it.

Thank you all.

On Sep.06.2003 at 05:46 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


My (poorly expressed) point was that Debbie's corporate talk, and Terry's academic speak and SU's informal lingo are all equally valid ways of expression, and that we shouldn't get hung up on language, which I thought you did when you referred to Terry Irwin's article as "Inflated." I thought you were dismissing it because of her use of language. Sorry, didn’t mean to confuse.

On Sep.06.2003 at 07:52 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I'll gladly dismiss Terry Irwin's article because it doesn't say anything. No more than the jibber jabber of so many business consultants out there. I read Manuel De Landa's 1000 Years on Nonlinear History two years ago and it says many of the same things touched on by that article. That way of "thinking" isn't anything new and not to hammer on it in this thread, but Irwin seems to lean towards determing what constitutes "good" and "bad" aspirations when that's not her decision to make.

Thing is, SU might have the "fuck this, fuck that" attitude, HBS (too bad the H is there...hee hee) has its talk about "c-level people"--and somebody please tell me what THAT means because I sure as hell don't get it, and Irwin has the rambling academia-speak. Granted, they're all equally valid forms of expression, and as such, should be dismissed, attacked, ridiculed, discussed, followed, admired and whatever else that strikes people's fancy as they read them.

The beauty is, despite what you think of ANY of these topics...people responded to them and were agitated enough to, if nothing else, give 'em a bit of their time. How many of us see that in our daily professional lives? No sense in reiterating the apparent value of this site, so on to the next thing...

Which regards a particular fuck-up of mine today. With my new-found free time, I've decided to arbitrarily try new things. Such as, instead of making the short, simplistic drive from St. Louis to Chicago, I decided to take the train. As in, Amtrak. Well, this was all very fascinating to me because even on such a short trip, the peaceful isolation of being on a train is interesting...you've got more room and personal space, fewer travellers, but what few there are demonstrate the presence of "train culture." I don't know how to make this clear, so if you're curious...make like Monopoly and get on the Short Line. Either way, on the way back today it was lovely outside and I looked out the window and saw two guys on motorcycles headed south. And I thought, how perfect.

So I sat and thought about how much fun being on the train was, and how next time I'll do it on a bike. And then I started thinking about all the stuff people talk about on here, and how SU and posting here revitalized a lot of the passion I had that I foolishly let evaporate because it wasn't profitable. But right now, at this moment and at that moment, I felt an overwhelming sensation that...everything is possible. And it was great, so I just blue-skied for awhile and had a grand old time. I piddled around with a couple of ideas for books and somewhat inane "personal" work that I wanted to do, daydreamed a bit more, etc. Then a dear friend called, she told me about a few things, and we had a pleasant conversation but I was so off in my old world that I COMPLETELY FORGOT IT WAS HER BIRTHDAY until several hours later I opened an email from her in which she reminded me of that.

Sometimes the best way to "make a difference" is to start from ground zero, at home, around those closest to you. I'm frequently guilty of forgetting things like birthdays because I'm off "doing my own thing," whatever form that might take, and its kinda ridiculous. There's something to be said for focusing internally and "changing the world one person at a time," as they say.

On Sep.07.2003 at 04:52 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

Bradley, "C" level people are executives with "Chief" in their titles: CEO, CFO, CTO. I just found this out about a year ago myself. Now, back to the deep end.

On Sep.07.2003 at 06:27 AM
Armin’s comment is:

>we shouldn't get hung up on language, which I thought you did when you referred to Terry Irwin's article as "Inflated."

I really wish it would have only been the language. It was the article as a whole. I guess this little riff was just part of getting caught up in "language". Oh well, that's what happens when you have these discussions without sharing a glass of cold milk... I mean manly beer.

On Sep.07.2003 at 10:09 AM
graham’s comment is:

armin-off topic, but how about a speak up chat room thing?

as if you don't have enough to do . . .

On Sep.07.2003 at 10:34 AM
eric’s comment is:


What kinda bullshi� I mean, that doesn’t seem the caliber of erudite rebuttal that I’ve come to expect from my colleagues here. When it would seem more the raffish and perfunctory quip of our betters,

“Wow! Such tough talking, passionate conversation from graphic designers. And what do they give us?: Burger King logos, and bland annual reports that no one ever reads�Anyway, very sad to see people gushing all over Debbie's experience at Harvard.”

To engage this forum, which is informal, on the grounds of Language is an interesting idea. Armin, perhaps in our golden years we too should consider changing Speak Up’s format so that we can infrequently publish only �important’ essays on design. What with our dozen or so weekly threads on a wide variety of topics from design education to critiques to �what pants we are wearing’ getting in the way of what is important to real designers. Maybe also, we’ll consider something small and paperbackish, along the lines of a Harlequin Romance (you know, purely for artistic reasons.)

Somebody also offered, “I think these articles relate very much to each other. They just draw completely different conclusions.”

Mmm, yes: “relate very much” and “completely different”. I think I understand where I’ve lacked on the sobriety of my arguments in the past.

And I couldn’t agree more about Debbie’s exec speak. We should consider dismissing outright anything financial that Debbie Millman has to say. That she runs the New York office of one of the largest branding firms in North America would immediately call me to question her knowledge of important issues about finance. That invitation from Harvard was a real cry for attention. Oh, and she’s a �girl’. You know, I’ve got some Tony Robbins tapes in a shoebox of college materials and a Zig Ziglar book from my sales days that I’d be glad to recommend to anybody in need of real financial advice.

On Sep.07.2003 at 01:27 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


Well, I guess I asked for it.

I'll try to explain. I don't really know who Debbie Millman is. All I know is that she posts frequently on Speak Up and what she writes is always very insightful and well considered. Definitely much better than my blows below the belt.

From a previous thread I also know that she was involved with the Burger King logo. And that's where my beef is (sorry). When I read her article, and I look at a logo like Burger King's, there’s a huge disconnect for me. It's not that the Burger King logo is bad, it's just extremely bland. (At least Nancy's VH1 logo is so weird it becomes kind of endearing. Like, where did that come from?) And I'm sure that designing logos isn't all that Debbie does, but that's the part of her work that us consumers get to see everywhere we go. So whenever I hear designers/advertisers get all philosophical and deep and self-reflective, as she did in her article, I wonder when that's going to translate into some extraordinary visuals.

People like Debbie have a huge impact on the visual world that I inhabit and I oughta be able to vent from time to time. Shout back at all that red, blue and orange, so to speak. But that's it for me. I have a harlequin romance to finish.

On Sep.07.2003 at 09:42 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> the Burger King logo is ... extremely bland

What, you think Burger King's "clientele" goes there for a challenging lunch?

Once you decide to promote crap, you have to make crap yourself. If the Burger King logo was tasteful and stimulating, they'd lose their entire customer base. Just like cows don't eat melon-prosciutto.


On Sep.08.2003 at 12:21 AM
Dan’s comment is:

What, you think Burger King's "clientele" goes there for a challenging lunch?

That's no excuse to lower your standards for your own work. And it seems like a really condescending attitude toward the audience. Heck, I enjoy a Whopper once in awhile.

To quote Michael B. quoting William Golden:

"I happen to believe that the visual environment...improves each time a designer produces a good design—and in no other way."

I really think that this is one of our primary responsibilities to keep in mind every time we send something out into the world that people will have to see.

On Sep.08.2003 at 11:59 AM
debbie millman’s comment is:

Wow! Such tough talking, passionate conversation from graphic designers. And what do they give us?: Burger King logos, and bland annual reports that no one ever reads.

When I read her article, and I look at a logo like Burger King's, there’s a huge disconnect for me. It's not that the Burger King logo is bad, it's just extremely bland.

People like Debbie have a huge impact on the visual world that I inhabit and I oughta be able to vent from time to time. Shout back at all that red, blue and orange, so to speak.


Let me introduce myself. Debbie Millman, Speak Up author, and as Eric mentioned, I work at Sterling Group and run our NY office. I have been here 8+ years, came from Interbrand, but got there when it was still Schechter Group (remember them?). I am no longer a “practicing designer,” so to speak, I left the drafting table/computer screen in 1992 when I had the opportunity to work at Frankfurt Balkind and Aubrey would only hire me if I came to work for him in a marketing position. I had my own firm for 5 years before that, and while I was trained as a designer and loved being a designer, I recognized (as did Aubrey, apparently) that my talents were more in the area of building companies and brands than actually designing the packaging or logos or collateral.

But enough about my background. I just wanted to give you a little bit of my history so that it grounds what I am going to say next.

I believe that brand design or packaging design is actually the wrong term for what companies like Sterling or Futurebrand or Landor actually do. If it were only that easy. I have said this before in this forum, and I will say it again: brand design or designing for our culture is about 20% design, 30% cultural anthropology, 30% psychology and 20% marketing. The world is so incredibly diverse, so psychologically complex and with so many cultural rituals, expectations and demands that it is virtually impossible to create package design, brand design, logos or identities that are universally loved, revered and admired.

I don’t want my response to your concerns to be about the Burger King logo, specifically, as we have been through this before in the AIGA: Sold Out discussion when Felix took me to task for the logo. My responses to his concerns about the mark are all there in that discussion. The only thing I would like to add to the BK issue is this: a lot of thought, effort, talent, blood, sweat, tears, as well as global market research (qual and quant) went into the logo. BK had attempted to design the logo six times before and it always failed in research, consumers—the people—always preferred the old logo. This logo was the only one that was universally tested and loved. With statistical significance to consumers all over the world. Does that make it great design? To you, no. But to many others, (granted they may not be as critical or with as high standards as you) well, they actually seem to like it. BK’s market share has gone up since the redesign, internally it made them feel prouder from a corporate perspective, more modern and dynamic and...well, just better about what they stood for. I am sorry you don’t like it. You are in good company: neither does Shawn Wolfe, Armin or Felix.

But enough about BK. This is way more than I intended to say, anyway!

On to the big issue for me: your “huge disconnect.” I get where you are coming from and actually don’t blame you for taking me to task given how bland you think the work we do is (actually, that you are aware of—we do quite a bit more than design), and the reputation that most brand consultancies have. I doubt, since you said you don’t really know me, that you are aware of my philosophies about branding, culture, accountability and responsibility and any of the work that I have published, taught or presented on the need for brands to be authentic, honest, meaningful representations of what they truly are. I actually think we have something in common: the need to create the best design possible and to inspire people (not manipulate!) to new places via their visual experience of the world.

So this is my issue with what you are suggesting: just because someone doesn’t like someone else’s design work, does it mean that they are not qualified to have an opinion about design, or an epiphany about business in a situation that has opened them up to some new ways of thinking that they would want to share? Again, is it possible that you and I are could be trying to do a similar things with design—transform people’s thinking about what they are seeing? The BK logo withstanding, the main reason I am so passionate about Speak Up (aside from Armin and the authors) is the ability to communicate about design, with designers, design advocates, design efficiando’s, design fans and design critics in real time every single minute of every single day. Maybe a strange dichotomy, writing for Speak Up and working in branding, but I personally think not.

What I try to do in both is make a tiny bit difference and to listen to everything can, if I can. That is what I care about most, what I live for, really.

On Sep.08.2003 at 03:16 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> That's no excuse to lower your standards for your own work.

It's not an excuse, it's a requirement.

Once you accept the job, that is.

> And it seems like a really condescending attitude toward the audience.

You betcha!!

I go to Buger King myself once in a while, but that doesn't make it OK. I'm just as weak as the next guy, but at least I realize the depth of the crap we're swimming in. Graphic design is not going to change the world. Graphic designers aren't that relavant. That doesn't mean a given graphic designer should change careers. Not everybody can be relevant to long-term cultural progress. I certainly can't.

The first step to betterment is admission.


> they actually seem to like it.

There you go.


On Sep.08.2003 at 03:28 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>Not everybody can be relevant to long-term cultural progress. I certainly can't.

Then why bother?

On Sep.08.2003 at 06:20 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

Oh, so it's either long-term cultural significance or suicide?


On Sep.08.2003 at 07:37 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:

>Oh, so it's either long-term cultural significance or suicide?

No, but I think there needs to be some aspirational nature to what we do. The potential that we can make a difference doing what we do. And the hope that what we do can actually have some effect.

On Sep.08.2003 at 09:19 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

I gotta say, I have more respect for the type of work Debbie does than I do for most of the work littering awards annuals and the personal libraries of every hipster designer out there. Despite the fact that I so horribly disagree with the methodology used in firms of that size and on most levels don't like the end product too much.

Maybe that's just because I'm totally incapable of it though. I cannot do corporate design to save my life (I tried and I disliked it), and the idea of subjecting my work, or anyone else's to research, makes my skin crawl and even infuriates me. I could rant and rant and rant about how stupid it is--and to an extent, I honestly do believe that, because nothing new and fresh ever tests well--but there's a reason for it. And its a true test of DESIGN as opposed to "whatever the fuck I want." There's a struggle there that transcends the personal battle that creativity always is.

Don't get me wrong, I like the "whatever I please" game and I'll continue to play it and seek out self-indulgence at every turn. Fundamentally its what I enjoy and so I'd be crazy to do something else and when I reach a point of more control and/or leadership, I'll never adopt the principles and models used by a Landor or Sterling or whomever.

But what Debbie's firm had to put up with to get that BK logo done? Puh-leaze...I'd never be able to swallow it, there's no way, I'd have a really hard fucking time and I'd turn into a bitchy malcontent. And you know what? The end result is pretty good. It beats the hell outta that crusty old one...it communicates. It works.

Its better than anything I could have done and I'd probably not have even attempted it myself. Like I said...not my cup of tea, but while I don't like the research and other stuff that goes on...I'm not going to get on my high horse and so blithely call it "bland."

Doing cutesy designs for bands no one's heard of, avant-garde theater and dance troupes, posters for designer lectures or calls-for-entry, and "edgy" magazines that only designers read (like Emigre) is EASY. That doesn't mean "bad" or "worthless," it means its easier to do whatever you want when there's really no one to answer to. The Landors of the world get to answer to millions of people with the vast majority of their work, and as such, it has to be "watered down" to some extent. The rest of us, those who don't play that game, don't have quite as many people to answer to nor the return of investment question hanging over our head.

Because the fact of the matter is, as cool as the cool work is, and as much as I salivate over doing it, its the Landors, the Sterlings, the FutureBrands, InterBrands, and SiegelGales that determine how people think about design--if they do at all--and what our supermarket shelves, gas stations, airplanes, laundry detergents, and fast food joints look like. If commerce has a face, this is it.

On Sep.08.2003 at 11:06 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

Graphic design is not going to change the world. Graphic designers aren't that relavant. That doesn't mean a given graphic designer should change careers. Not everybody can be relevant to long-term cultural progress. I certainly can't.

The first step to betterment is admission.

Very true, very realistic. Except for the last part. The first step to betterment is believing that something is possible.

I'd rather work with the insane idealist rather than the content reliable one. That of course is just me...ideals are a good thing though. Far better to dare mighty things...

On Sep.08.2003 at 11:12 PM
eric’s comment is:


Thank you for phrasing what I had neither the patience nor eloquence to express. I too believe that there is great room in the world for work to be decided by committee and by the individual. From an idealistic POV, and certainly as somebody that works predominantly in the fine arts community, I affirm that genius will never be arrived at via focus groups.

It’s the aberrant wunderkinds that history looks kindly upon, despite some of their misgivings. Misgivings or not, it is Rudy’s comments that I thought were not politick, considering the nature and environment upon which Debbie’s review was conveyed, though they are certainly valid to him.

And I should offer, “aberrant” or not, Rudy’s work has been of vital import to many amongst us. For myself, I can only offer that he’s has made a difference in my life. I could only hope to return the favor.

So far as Millie goes, sharing a hamburger with her is not nearly enough for the debt we owe her for her contributions to the profession and this forum.

On Sep.08.2003 at 11:31 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> the hope that what we do can actually have some effect.

Like convince Burger King customers to keep eating crap.

I have plenty of aspirations, thank you very much - they just don't involve the oxymoron of "consumer culture". And I don't feel that focus group results make you a better person.

First, we must admit that the core is rotten.

Otherwise we're part of the problem.


On Sep.08.2003 at 11:49 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


I'm embarrassed to say, but of all the companies you mention only Frankfurt Balkind sounds vaguely familiar to me. But don't ask me what it is that they do.

Isn't that funny? Here we are on the same blog talking about design (I believe we're talking about design), yet we seem to be living in different universes. So let me introduce myself. I co-founded my company Emigre more than 20 years ago. We design and sell typefaces (Oh, that's what I know Balkind from; they bought some of our fonts!) and we publish a magazine about design. We have been awarded an AIGA gold medal, a Chrysler Award, we were selected into the first I.D. 40, received The Charles Nypels Award for innovation in typography, and each year we are nominated for a National Design Lifetime Award, but like Susan Lucci, never hit the jackpot. Of course, according to Bradley, what we do is easy. Obviously he has no idea what a headache it is to store all those awards.

All bad jokes aside, Bradley throws a really interesting idea into the mix. So let me go out on a limb; I actually think it's far more difficult to do what we do than what Debbie does. It seems to me that in Debbie's case all you need to do is compromise. Debbie's concern is to make everybody happy; the corporation, the consumer, the stockholders. Well, with all the money that Debbie has at her disposal and all the testing that she can do through focus groups and whatnot, how can you possibly go wrong? And if, on top of all that, you're able to set aside your own aesthetic values, it's gotta be quite easy.

At our house, on the other hand, we simply follow our own aesthetic convictions and answer to absolutely no one. Each time we produce something we put a little bit of ourselves out there in front of the public and we have no idea what our return on investment will be. Which is a real concern, because our work is our bread and butter. If it fails, we starve.

Debbie and I agree on one thing, though; we both have a "need to create the best design possible and to inspire people." In that sense we are "trying to do similar things with design."

However, I simply think that using "the audience" in focus groups as a gauge for what is a good and what is a bad logo (or whatever) is a dead end. It's the one reason why so many logos end up looking alike, which defeats the very purpose of what a logo is supposed to do. Plus, if you give people exactly what they want, how are you inspiring them? Wouldn't you be inspiring them a whole lot more if you gave them something unusual, something they haven't quite seen yet?

But I am talking a bit outside of my expertise. "The Landors of the world," as Bradley puts it, "get to answer to millions of people with the vast majority of their work." It must be a daunting task to be the tastemakers of the world. I almost feel sorry for them.

On Sep.09.2003 at 10:47 AM
graham’s comment is:


lets say one has nothing. but one desires to do something. and that costs (for arguments sake) $10000. perhaps even making some photocopies, or printouts, takes half a day and perhaps requires a greater outlay than one can afford. so now one has -$10000. the thing is made and goes out into the world with no guarantees of anything but its presence.

lets now say that one is working in a big company. everything is sorted. computers, printers, access to outside resources and so on. most of the time, one attends meetings (probably about twice the amount of time one spends on making things). one is briefed, deadlines set, contingency, alternatives, rationale etc. the work goes to a meeting, comes back, goes to testing, comes back, all the while nudged and tweaked until everyone is as sure as can be.

which is 'harder'?

and why is it that, with all the resources at their disposal, none of the landors etc. have yet come up with an emigre (for example). that's something i've always wondered about.

On Sep.09.2003 at 11:19 AM
Hrant’s comment is:

> It seems to me that in Debbie's case all you need to do is compromise.

But Design is the proper balance of compromises.

Without compromise, it's just selfish Art.

> if you give people exactly what they want, how are you inspiring them?

What does making money have anything to do with "inspiring"?


On Sep.09.2003 at 11:34 AM
jonsel’s comment is:

why is it that, with all the resources at their disposal, none of the landors etc. have yet come up with an emigre

I think Nancy Bernard wrote an interesting article about this in the recent STEP magazine. The basic jist is this: ideas come from individual people, not committees. It takes the courage and conviction of a single person to put forth a unique idea and the passion and committment to follow through on it. There is major risk in this - financial and otherwise. Committees, by their nature, work to remove risk by working out "problematic areas" so all agree on a path forward. You can't please everyone all the time. Brand design for large corporations tend to seek approval from disparate audiences. Well, you can't appeal to everyone without removing the edges to the design's personality. Rudy was willing to take the risk that Emigre would be a horrible failure and put him in the poorhouse while maintaining his vision. "If they don't like it, then tough." It is simply a stance that most corporations won't take.

On Sep.09.2003 at 11:58 AM
eric’s comment is:

I wrote this before I read the other recent comments so I thought I’d send anyway because to overlap is telling too�

For me there seems to be a disconnect between difficulty of production and excellence of product. the nature of a small shop or independent voice gives rise a more unique result. However, the idea of constantly compromising the end result and trying to appease committees, respond to focus groups, marshal your employees etc is much more random and chaotic thing to navigate.

The difficulty relies in process -- not even addressing the quality of the finished product. Presumably it only takes one great designer to achieve one great solution.

On Sep.09.2003 at 12:13 PM
graham’s comment is:

jonsel-thanks for that.

it seems though, that the outlay (financially) for any notional (let's say print based) project of an intimate nature, balanced against the rewards (potentially limitless) belie any risk.

again, as example, lets say a budget of $8000 for a print project with a 2000 run-obviously this creates parameters (compromise), but that's only good. surely $8000 for something that could rest in the hands of 2000 potential clients but is neither a hard sell bit of direct mail nor entirely a 'selfish' art piece is a reasonable outlay. one could even charge for it!

i mean, $8000, what's that to a big company?

On Sep.09.2003 at 12:14 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

Graham, $8000 is indeed a drop in the bucket for large, Fortune 500 companies. But a percentage point of marketshare is worth millions. And the cost to implement a design on that level - say, Burger King - is tremendous, obviously. The stakes become much greater. So when Burger King revamps a logo and it increases their market share slightly, that's points up on the stock and millions more coming in for shareholders (and management, of course).

A niche brand is much easier to take the unique, more personality-driven route. Nancy uses Mini as an example. It shows how they picked a target market and defined their personality and were willing to go after that particular market and forsake the others. Emigre seem to me to be similar in that they don't sell generic typography. They don't design the magazine to sell off the rack (even when they were more easily found on magazine racks) like Cosmo.

My point is not to defend poor design or ambiguous design derived from focus groups. I just understand why and from where it comes.

On Sep.09.2003 at 12:32 PM
graham’s comment is:

jonsel-$8000 is indeed a drop in the bucket for large, Fortune 500 companies. But a percentage point of marketshare is worth millions.

but one thing does not negate the other-why not do both?

speaking off the top of my head and really generally, there's plenty of small-smallish places that make little self-driven pieces of design and do the big stuff too. it just doesn't seem to happen the other way round. and i wonder why.

On Sep.09.2003 at 12:44 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

A common theme that has run through many design meetings I've been in centered on this: "The client won't go for that." I understand it is irresponsible to go blue sky with no regard to reality, but I wonder how many times good ideas die because the firm is a worse client than the actual client. Second-guessing and committee approval is a definite source of mediocre, bland design, and I think it is ingrained in the process of large design firms and less so in smaller, more personality-driven shops.

On Sep.09.2003 at 01:01 PM
graham’s comment is:

jonsel-i think we may be talking at cross-purposes.

it seems that some companies (i.e. 'clients') are comissioning/employing designers whose work sits outside of what we might consider the 'mainstream'. this has been going on for a long time. in many cases, these designers are employed because of their 'personal', 'self-authored' work as well as their more visible work for other clients. these designers are comissioned and continue to be so because they do not present with powerpoint, do not accept 'the client won't go for that' (what are they going to do? break your arms?) and so on. however, they are not difficult gits, they work within parameters-in fact, desire parameters-and are the best people at selling their own work. all they really do, actually, is to ask why, or why not-then back it up with work. these designers may well be working on projects for, say, procter and gamble whilst making, for example, a short blood and sex film. they also might spend their own money, thus putting themselves in debt, on a little project of their own.

so, my question (perhaps rhetorical) is, once again, why are the bigger design firms unable to engage in or comprehend this?

if silence/aquiescence follows the "The client won't go for that" line, then one is digging one's own grave. and not doing one's job.

On Sep.09.2003 at 01:24 PM
Bradley’s comment is:


Like I said, I like the cool independent stuff more and I'm not denigrating it...but just because one doesn't risk money in the same way on big corporate projects, hardly implies that their work isn't difficult.

Because it is.

And really...all of it is, its just a matter of how and where. For the personal book I'm working on the only obstacle is finances but, I feel like I would have less if I didn't just do it and put it out there. Keep in mind--this was one of the factors that led to me leaving my "enviable" job as some have called it. But the process of doing what I'm doing now...oh so much easier than what I did at my previous place of work, because there's just me to answer to. And I nitpick my own stuff to death and never feel fully satisified with it, blah blah blah. But really, leaving that position was essentially not a tough decision. Why would I continue to do something that wasn't for me? I'd do just as well to bang my head against a wall. Its not a matter of "sacrifice," its a matter doing whatever I feel like.

So I have tremendous respect for those who do the things I don't have the stomach for.

Sometimes the hardest, most challenging impossible thing to do, is not only come up with but pursue and implement what YOU really want to do, the idea you personally believe is best. That's hard....but its harder when you've got committees and numerous client contacts and internal people to deal with in order to make it happen. Maybe some people who work in those environments don't care about the purity of an idea, but I'm sure many of them do. Just because they have more money to play with and safety net doesn't mean everything is easy. Didn't "Michael B." (sorry to keep putting your name in quotation marks, I just find it funny in my 12-year old way) say that people who buy dog biscuits and the like deserve well-designed packaging, just as much as us hipster designers get off on whatever cool shit we get off on? I for one have immense respect for people who do shit that faces a lot of people who do what's worse than a mean critique--people who ignore and don't care.

So, I guess we've all got it hard, huh?

Don't get me wrong, Emigre is great. But let's see Rudy try to design a corporate identity program for a corporation like...I dunno, Exxon. Or, if a big dirty company like that is too much take, what about NASA?

And, hey, Debbie--you design an album cover for Interpol. Or a titling sequence for that cool TV show, 24.

Hmmm...this could be a fun discussion topic. "Everyone do something different. Like really different!"

On Sep.09.2003 at 02:08 PM
graham’s comment is:

>So, I guess we've all got it hard, huh?

no, i don't think any of it is all that hard, not really. not as in physically or mentally hard, or even emotionally.

which is why i find any attempt to elevate or denigrate one application of work over another based on it's perceived value but isolated from it's function (however anyone deems to value anything-record sleeve over corporate logo or vice versa, professional/personal, big/small etc.) fundamentally flawed and twisted.

there is a simple joy to this job that is an essential part of the process of making and showing that is missed/dismissed in bigger companies. big companies believe in 'ways of doing things', and that they are 'serious' and engaged in a 'serious' undertaking. they undermine themselves and paint themselves into a corner with their rationalisation, unable to lose face yet unable to accomodate their client, and they believe in making it easy for themselves most of all and anything that requires a little extra thought, motivation or plain work is anathema to the bottom line.

the clients are not a problem, not even close. the big deign companies are, particularly because they want to believe it is hard, they want to believe it is serious (self-justification?) and they want to believe that doing an exxon logo is better (as in first class is better than economy) than doing a cd cover. the big design companies want power, the same kind of fiscal power their clients have because they have an insane desire to be respected by their clients that blinds them to their clients needs, one of which is to let the clients in on the big scary secret that doing a bit of graphics can actually be a laugh, that things change, that nothing is perfect, that nothing is forever and nothing will convince all of the people all of the time, and that's why they do their clients a deep disservice and waste their time and money.

we all make our choices to do or not to do things based on circumstance, need and desire (amongst other things). but i think (hope) choice has a lot to do with it.

On Sep.09.2003 at 03:01 PM
graham’s comment is:

>the big deign companies

quite a nice slip, but unintentional. sorry.

On Sep.09.2003 at 03:03 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

no, i don't think any of it is all that hard, not really. not as in physically or mentally hard, or even emotionally.

Sarcasm, dude. Sorry it doesn't come across so well on-line, my bad.

No, its not hard--I made a crack about trying to pursue fame and attention in a conversation last night and I think it pissed that individual off. She responded with, "well, if that's not a concern, why not dig ditches?" And I thought...digging ditches is hard work.

As an aside, I believe that attention is a good thing in that it can lead to more opportunities in case you tire from constantly creating your own or something. But I've never understood the value in doing something so that other people think you're cool.

And who says I'm necessarily putting more value on one type of work as opposed to another? I'm not in the business of randomly declaring red superior to green, but I think its ridiculous how people constantly criticize most corporate design without having ever stepped foot into the environments where that work is created.

I do apologize for soundling like I'm totally polarizing everything...but what good is this place without a litte oomf.

Now, where I'm in complete agreement with you is the part about designers and firms being the problem, not clients. This is something I've alluded to before, but perhaps not as in great a depth as I'd like to. I think there are problems with how designers see themselves and I think that's cause for many difficulties--the fact that you would ever assume that a FOCUS GROUP has a valid opinion over a design is ludicrous! Design is not something that just anyone can do, after all. I've already given my opinions on research and committees and focus groups so I'm not going to repeat them. I believe that gut and intuition rules and is responsible for the strongest work and I think the fear of standing behind such "loose" methods is destructive. These are my personal beliefs, but, I understand why "the other side," so to speak, exists.

On Sep.09.2003 at 03:35 PM
debbie millman’s comment is:


Thanks for your response—I appreciate the introduction, but I already knew who you are and what you do. Don’t we all? I am actually a huge fan. But I’ll save that for a private email.

I think it is unfortunate that some of us are making value judgments about how difficult or easy our respective businesses are. I have been in business long enough to know that no business is easy. I have no idea how hard it is to run �migré or Pentagram or Number Seventeen or Landor, all businesses I admire. I would assume that it is all back-breaking work we do because we love it and want to be doing it. The only other thing I can add of value to this part of the discussion is two lines I will borrow from the poet Charles Olson, in “Maximus to Himself.” They are: “I have had to learn the simplest things last. Which made for difficulties.” We should all be so lucky to have that epiphany.

What I can share with you is a little bit of why package design is a complicated, tricky, often hard business. I have already shared the complexity of the components (cultural anthropology, psychology, marketing and design). I think one issue that seems to be recurring in this thread, as well as several others of the last months, is the idea that brand design firms simply rely on focus groups to make design decisions. This is ludicrous. If it were only that easy, we wouldn’t have disasters like New Coke (which tested through the roof in research) and Absolut Vodka (which tanked). Yes, research is a component of the work, but I have never worked on a project wherein the work was created in a focus group. The work is created before the groups by serious, well-trained, passionate, committed brand designers and evaluated by consumers afterwards. Decisions are made to change or evolve work after that, but if the design firm only does what they are told and does not rely on their own expertise to access the results of the research and make sound decisions based on said expertise, then, as Graham said, they shouldn’t be in business.

As far as research itself is concerned: much of the research done in this country could be considered flawed. At least I think it is. Qualitative research, while it certainly tries to get to more robust and insightful findings by the nature of the methodology, can often be easily misinterpreted. That is where the skill of the design firm and their ability to evaluate results is so critical, Happily, there is a revolution going on in research right now. There is an effort underway by some firms to reach people from a more ethnographic point of view—outside of research facilities and into people homes, watching them honestly and avidly. This type of research is much more objective and exciting and sincere. Hopefully, this type of work will be more effective in evaluating the real needs and opinions of the public.

Here are some of the questions brand designers face everyday:

--Is this brand design effectively reaching the target market?

--Is it an honest attempt to reflect the brand vision?

--Is it being truthful about what is in it, or what it stands for?

--Is it following the regulations set up by the FDA?

--Is the packaging clearly communicating the values, attributes and qualities of the brand?

If answering these questions is compromising, then I guess, yes, compromise is involved. I prefer to think of it as balance, as I believe was already mentioned today. But on the subject of compromise: Can anyone out there truly say they never compromise? If so, I would suggest then that you are either a courageous genius (lucky you) or pig-headed. I know that I fight like hell with my clients to inspire them not to compromise unnecessarily, or to operate out of fear. But come on! Are we always sure that we are always right? I am a huge advocate of authentic branding. I have walked away from clients that I felt were being dishonest about their intentions. But to suggest that because I am working in an environment that tries to create design that is both a well crafted and an effective communication tool, and has the ability to create profitable results for my clients as utter compromise is utterly ridiculous.

I believe that many brand designers try to do good, meaningful work. In any industry, there is good work going on and bad. I would say that is true in every facet of design, though. I understand the tremendous power of brand design and respect that power and work like hell to mind that power. Yes, I am sure I am guilty of some bad design decisions. Well, clearly I am, if the BK logo is an example, at least to some of you! But please don’t let that stop you from thinking that I am indeed committed to elevating the power, potential and effectiveness of what brands and brand design can and should do.

On Sep.09.2003 at 06:46 PM
jonsel’s comment is:

why are the bigger design firms unable to engage in or comprehend this?

Sorry to leave this hanging, Graham, but I got buried in some work. I understand a bit more where you're coming from, and I agree with the premise. I don't fully get it myself. I was going to post a diatribe against the big brand firms, but I've stopped myself. Frankly, there's no reason why it can't happen. There are brand firms that do sell strong work with conviction and passion and surprise. But the fact is that not all clients want to be surprised. To reference my old employer, there was a saying (not sure how valid it is anymore) that "no one ever got fired for hiring Landor."

I think it is the same in all professions: there are good doctors and bad ones, good lawyers and shysters. But maybe we're having a problem of perception. Rudy is doing his part via Emigre. Debbie feels she's as committed as Rudy, although she does it through branding. Is one really better than the other?

On Sep.09.2003 at 08:47 PM
ps’s comment is:

does one need to be better than the other? i mean, what is the point of comparing work that has two completely different purposes, audiences against each other? i'd understand if both would start having the same goals in mind.

On Sep.09.2003 at 09:34 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

think it is unfortunate that some of us are making value judgments about how difficult or easy our respective businesses are. I have been in business long enough to know that no business is easy.

I for one, and I don't remember anyone else either, saying a thing about the difficulty of running a business. If it came across that way then I apologize, but I do know I never said that ay any point. Business and creativity are two different things...as should be clear to everyone, I would think.

In advertising, which I respect as much as anything else creative, you get little to no respect for presenting a book filled with ads for small clients no one's ever heard of. Some things immediately lend themselves to "easy" solutions, like condoms or sex shops or even guitars. I think that the world of "graphic design," which is only somewhat different from advertising, has the same components. That's all I was saying and either I've been unclear and confused people, or people have read what I wrote and taken it in a completely different direction. I don't know. I know that designers love to look down on ad people, and ad people on designers, both stances are totally retarded, but whatever your feeling...the ad world actually can be interesting. Relevant, even.

As far as "value judgments" go, I don't think I've seen anyone say that one type of work is "better" than another. That's extraordinarily confusing to me. Would you ever say that someone who's had a more difficult life is a "better" person than someone who had an easier time? Probably not. "Harder" doesn't mean "better," it just means "harder."

But, like I was saying originally, in terms of coming up with creative solutions...oh never mind, nobody understands or seems to give a fuck.

All I'll say is this: what would you rather do--a package design for trash bags, or packaging for a new fragrance from Armani? Why? What would you rather design--a prospectus for a life insurance brand, or a catalog for high-end bicycles? Why? A vending machine for bottled water, or a wine label?

Does this make any sense? Any?

On Sep.09.2003 at 11:16 PM
Bradley’s comment is:

but I have never worked on a project wherein the work was created in a focus group.

I don't see where this was mentioned either. My experience with advertising in the past saw many, many things effectively "killed" by (or because of) focus groups. I suppose its different, or has changed, with branding consultancies.

I think people would do well to read a bit about Bill Bernbach, but I've never had any luck convincing other designers, hell, even ad people, that he was an interesting guy with good ideas. I just remember how he commented that it was foolish to rely on statistics and opinions for guidance when you could create statistics and shape opinions.

On Sep.09.2003 at 11:25 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> What would you rather design?

A typeface that nobody will necessarily ever actually use, but people will be talking about as culturally significant for a hundred year. Think Bayer's Universal (except hopefully smarter).


On Sep.09.2003 at 11:27 PM
Michael B.’s comment is:

I've been meaning to post this all day, and this (great) conversation has gotten ahead of me, but here goes:

Imagine a spectrum of possible design practice. At one end, the designer works with absolutely no reference to client or audience, with the only goal being self expression. This is the "designer as fine artist" end. At the other end, the designer leaves all the decisions in the hands of the client and audience. This is the "designer as commercial artist" end.

You can work as much as you want down at the fine artist end as long as you (1) don't need money, and (2) don't mind working on the margins of everyday life as we know it.

But if you want to do bigger, more visible projects that affect the lives of increasing numbers of people, you are led, inevitably, in the direction of the commercial end. You will have to temper your need for self expression with an understanding of with your client's goals and your audience's expectations.

Some designers have made reputations (among other designers at least) at the fine art end. Ed Fella comes to mind. At the opposite end are the miserable, nameless (but perhaps well-compensated) hacks who make most of the world look so fucking shitty.

Most of us, however, live somewhere along the middle. The heroes are the ones who manage to sneak as far as possible towards goals of the commercial end without compromising the impulses that got them into design in the first place.

I especially admire designers who understand when the conditions are right for self-expression and when they require pragmatism. Sounds obvious, but after you've read a few letters to Emigre complaining that their (beautifully functional) website is "boring" you realize that it's a subtlety that may be lost on many. And although he doesn't choose to do it, I bet Rudy could design a beautiful Exxon logo.

On Sep.10.2003 at 12:24 AM
Michael B.’s comment is:

One more note, perhaps not directly related.

Never underestimate how difficult it is to actually sell a good solution to a client. And it you don't sell it, it may as well have never existed.

I happened to have worked on earlier attempts to redesign not one but two of the identities most discussed on Speak Up. In both cases I feel what we designed was better than what they ended up eventually accepting from our competitors.

I cannot tell you how little satisfaction that knowledge -- "what we did was better, even though they didn't use it" -- gives me. None whatsoever, actually. And I blame myself, not the client. Sigh.

On Sep.10.2003 at 01:06 AM
graham’s comment is:

michael b said

>You can work as much as you want

>down at the fine artist end as long as you (1) don't

>need money, and (2) don't mind working on the

>margins of everyday life as we know it.

>But if you want to do bigger, more visible projects that >affect the lives of increasing numbers of people, you

>are led, inevitably, in the direction of the commercial

>end. You will have to temper your need for self

>expression with an understanding of with your client's

>goals and your audience's expectations.

one can do both. sometimes even at the same time. and sometimes the first thing feels like having 'to temper your need for self expression with an understanding of with your client's goals and your audience's expectations', and the second thing feels like 'working on the margins of everyday life as we know it'. which is not a bad feeling, considering,

On Sep.10.2003 at 08:38 AM
amy’s comment is:

I have to agree strongly with you, Michael B. And that's one of the things that really gets me down about working for other people. I don't try to sell people on super creative visions that don't ultimately meet their goals for their company; I don't try to override the client like that, like some designers I know. I thoughtfully consider their needs and often come up with beautiful AND functional designs. Which clients apparently love to destroy, function and form.

It's good to hear "real" designers have that problem too. Me, I suddenly feel like a little pathetic hack in the presence of giants... Debbie, Randall, Michael (et al), I worship at your feet!

On Sep.10.2003 at 01:15 PM
Rudy’s comment is:


When all is said and done, you and I are very different for one single reason: you find it challenging to service big business, and I don't. The list of Fortune 500 companies that Emigre has said no to is probably as long as the one you have said yes to. This colors everything we say and believe in.

I like Michael B's rendering of "a spectrum of possible design practice." But in the end I am placing myself on one end of that spectrum not just because I want complete control over my work, but also because I choose not to work for large corporations because I simply don't care what most stand for. To be more specific, I will not work for Burger King simply because I think their product sucks. There, I said it. The cat's out of the bag. Up until this point the conversation has remained completely free of politics, but I for one can't keep the two separate.

I respect your ideas Debbie, but I wish that your article and insightful comments on successful branding during this discussion would have included some mention of a concern for the environment, or people's well being, or made a hint at the idea of a sustainable consumerism. The companies you work for have a huge impact on the world on so many levels. Terry Irwin's article touched upon these issues. I liked what she said. I'd like to know what you think about those issues. But perhaps we should save that for another discussion.

Obviously, by choosing not to work for corporate America I forfeit the opportunity to have any kind of impact, good or bad. Some would say that's taking the easy way out. And maybe it is. Having this conversation with Debbie, and all of you, is probably the closest I'll ever come to influencing big business. Luckily, Debbie is very sincere and willing to open herself up to the ideas of others by discussing them on a public forum like Speak Up. For that I respect her greatly. That's where it all starts. And therein lies my hope.

On Sep.10.2003 at 03:11 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> I for one can't keep the two separate.

And nobody should.

Compartmentalizing reality is nothing less than an escape.


On Sep.10.2003 at 05:11 PM
ps’s comment is:

where do we draw the line? does the taste of burger king matter. does it help that they offer a BK veggie to accomodate us veggies. is selling emigre through amazon.com, borders or barnes&nobles a bad thing as they run the small bookstores out of business. is it better to turn burger king down and have someone else to a crappy id, or do we take burger king on and try to create something decent... (after all we'll be seeing it a million times).


On Sep.10.2003 at 05:32 PM
Hrant’s comment is:

> where do we draw the line?

Anywhere that requires some personal sacrifice - the more the better - upto the individual's limit. This is the only basis for a healthy society, for a healthy world. The West gives too much priority to the individual, and that's why the world has been sucking harder every day for hundreds of years now (but especially since the Industrial Revolution). Go back to the rift between Rome and Greece, to regain the balance between East and West.


On Sep.10.2003 at 06:13 PM