Debbie Millman: looking for meaning in design

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Debbie Millman
is an American writer, educator, artist, curator, and designer. She was referred to as “one of today’s most influential designersby Graphic Design USA and “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company.

In addition to a career spanning more than 20 years with major distribution brands, she is committed to spreading the mission of graphic design to the media, the public and companies: “All graphic designers have a great responsibility in society. We take invisible ideas and make them tangible. This is our job.”

Design better to sell more

From 1995 to 2016 Debbie Millman is the Artistic Director of the Sterling Brands agency in NY to which she has largely contributed (from 15 to 150 employees during this period).

She works there for many well-known brands and redesigns the identities and logos of Burger King, Haagen-Dazs, 7Up, Gillette, Tropicana, Colgate or Kleenex† Millman has established himself as an expert in graphic design and creating visual identities for consumer products.

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Excerpt from Debbie Millman’s Visual Essay for Adobe’s 99U”I was lost and fell into creating visual identities. I have worked on the design of some of the biggest brands in the world. I have designed other brands. And others

For the record, it was in 1999 that she proposed the new visual identity and the new logo for Burger King, which the Burger King will adopt until 2021 (before the old logo is revisited). In an online interview on the Creative Waffle channel, Debbie explains that the director of marketing warned her during the first client appointment, saying: don’t expect to be able to change the logo † It had changed many times before, but the principal in question had never liked one.

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“We knew we had to preserve the integrity of the existing iconography and its legacy, so we kept the bread, the ‘bubble’ typo by sharpening the edges, and we ‘activated’ everything to put more energy into it.” We did global consumer testing and it turned out to be more effective, people liked this version better, I was still horribly harassed by this brand change, I got the nickname “the Satan woman” for this logo!

“But it’s been in use for 20 years now… All the buzz of new logos subsides after a year. Such was the case with the new Uber or AirBnb logo. Most people don’t like change, which makes them vulnerable. Only designers love the new identities they create!” she explains.

Thinking about the meaning and role of design

In addition to her work, she is the artistic director of Print magazine since 2002. His artistic work doesn’t stop there; she is also an artist and illustrator and sometimes features her work in Print Magazine. She also does other illustrations for magazines such as The New York Times and Design Observer.

Discouraged by “all commerce and consumerism” of her activities as a designer, in 2005 she launched and animated the award-winning Design Matters podcast to “try out”. In 15 years she interviews almost 500 designers, thinkers, authors or professors on creativity, including Marina Abramovic, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, Shepard Fairey, Ethan Hawke or Barbara Kruger. He is now recognized as one of the top 100 podcasts in the world and one of the most listened to of all time. But she does not stop her activity as a designer.

In 2016 she designed pin’s in support of Hillary Clinton’s election campaigntogether with 45 other designers such as Paula Scher or Michael Beirut, and observes how good design can help candidates win votes

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To push the envelope a little further, still in this process of searching for meaning about the role of design in society, she curates in galleries and museums and organizes exhibitions. Look Both Ways illustrated the “illegal link between image and information” in 2019.

Present on our clothes, in politics, on the Internet, at public events, on the products we consume and even on our skin with tattoos, the power of letters says a lot about our culture† The works on display, mainly from Millman’s personal collection, ranged from Shepard Fairey to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Paula Scher.

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Photo credit JSP-Art-Photography, SVA Chelsea Gallery

Transfer and teach design

In 2009, she co-founded the Masters in Branding (Masters in Visual Identity, a world first) with Steven Heller at the School of Visual Arts in New York. She passes on her experience and her failures to future designers. This unique training, condensed over a year, offers a multidisciplinary approach to design and branding through marketing-focused courses that cover strategy, history, economics, or statistics.

Debbie Millman has also spread her message and her design experience through conferences or books. Millman wrote 6 essays, including: How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer (how to think like a great graphic designer) and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits (the brand concept and other noble pursuits), or around personal development such as Why You: How To Make A Living Doing What You Love (why you: how to Make A Living Doing What You Love (Making Money Doing What You Love).

Finally, because it embodies the wish promote the design to the US government and media, Debbie Millman is currently President Emeritus of theAIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts).

The role of design: from consumerism to social engagement

In 2011, she nevertheless notes a real change in society, noting that: branding is really evolving. Although marks have long been used as a sign of togetherness and belonging (religious signs, animal signs, etc.), they were subsequently used by large companies for commercial purposes.

Today she realizes with joy that design has become more democratic, driven by people who create change, without trying to sell anything. This is the case of the “identities” of yellow vests or BlackLivesMatter and any other form of social movement branding discussed on the blog.

Speaking at a TedX Trademark Talk titled “How Symbols and Brands Shape Our Humanity” she claims that: “As early as 2011, we started to see the impact of change through social networks and #, connecting like-minded people† For the first time in 10,000 years, brands – that aren’t even brands anymore – are no longer pushed down for people, but up by people, with the sole purpose of changing the world and making it better

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Illustration by Debbie Millman from her TedX talk

“Over the past 10 years, our biggest innovations have been creating brands that can make a difference in our lives and reflect the world we want to live in. These badges are made to serve what I think it is the goal of branding: uniting people in the expression of shared ideals† Branding is not just a tool to serve capitalism, it is the profound manifestation of the human spirit. It is our responsibility to design a culture that reflects and honors the world we want to live in.”

Millman is also responsible for the strategic positioning and identity of the NO MORE movement which: fight against domestic and sexual violence in the world, a subject that touched her personally in her youth and that she overcame to build herself. She is also committed to gender equality and the LGBTQ+ movements through his interviews in his podcast.

We better understand why she is now more committed to the dissemination and teaching of design than to practice as such.

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Excerpt from Debbie Millman’s visual essay for Adobe’s 99U “It’s not about the money, it’s not about consumerism, it’s not about consumption. Design and branding are now being used to effect change. To create movement!”

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