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Branding thought leader on recharging your creativity

Photo by John Madere

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Q&A with Debbie Millman, founder & host, Design Matters

The Debbie Millman brand comes with a lot of superlatives. “One of the most creative people in business” (Fast Company). “One of the most influential designers working today” (Graphic Design USA). Her “Design Matters” podcast has been running for more than 14 years. With six books and illustrations in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Print Magazine and Fast Company, Millman is everywhere. She even created the first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City and was one of only five women to serve as President Emeritus of AIGA. Here she talks about succeeding in today’s competitive branding environment.

From where you sit, what does today’s branding landscape look like?

I find the role of branding now incredibly, incredibly exciting. A lot of that has to do with the energy and intellect of the new generation of designers and makers. Movements such as “Black Lives Matter” is one of the most important instigators of change to enter our cultural discourse in a long time.

As is the use of the Pink Pussy hat. After hundreds of years of brands under the control of the corporation, design has finally become democratized, and these efforts are not about anything commercial. These efforts have not been initiated for any financial benefit, market share position or return on investment. They have been created by the people for the people to serve the highest purpose design has: to bring people together for the benefit of humanity.

This is creating an environment wherein design and branding are not just tools of capitalism; rather, they have become profound manifestations of the human spirit.

What is it like running a design business today?

It’s hard, but nearly everything meaningful takes great effort. Creative people in all disciplines need to be polymaths now. In addition to their marketable skill, they need to be able to write, draw, code, design and market, position, brand and sell themselves. The business world is so much more competitive than ever, and employers and clients want to work with creative people who can create way more than one thing.

In many ways, I think being great at your specific discipline is now table stakes for any career in that discipline. In addition, there is no space between the categories of digital, social media, advertising, branding, etc. You must create on as many platforms as possible with arresting imagery, a strong, strategic message, and a distinct and engaging personality. And be better than almost everyone else.

The business world is more competitive than ever, and employers and clients want to work with creative people who can create way more than one thing

You also must work hard to discover what it is you are passionate about. You have to experiment and take risks. It takes work to get the work you love. There is no other way. The first 10 years of my career were very much organized around avoiding failure. But my inadequacies were completely self-constructed. Nobody told me that I couldn’t do something; nobody was telling me that I couldn’t succeed at something. I convinced myself and lived in that self-imposed reality.

I think a lot of people do this. They self-sabotage and create all sorts of reasons for not doing things under the misguided assumption that, at some point, they might feel better about themselves and that will finally allow them to take that risk. I don’t think that ever happens. You have to push through it and do it as if you have no other choice—because you don’t. You just don’t.

What should design entrepreneurs know about striking out on their own?

Be fearless when asking people for business. Find lots of clients. Because it’s impossible to know which of them will be good. Work harder than anybody else that you know. Never give up if it is something that you really want. And don’t lie about what you know and what you’ve done.

Also, the key to a good client is trust. Will they let you do good work? Will they listen to your insights and feedback? If you can create a good partnership with a client and they trust you to do your best work, you will have a better client.

Finally, something I share with my undergraduate design students is this: Anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process of years. If you are one of the few souls in the world that are actually able to hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you are going to be able to sustain that success over the long term. The pressure to keep succeeding over and over will mount and you will likely feel that you must only hit the home runs. This is impossible.

Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop. Use your 20s to experiment. This is a time when falling flat on your face is expected. Build something meaningful rather than build something fast. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain and enjoy it.

Define the importance of criticism.

It is invaluable. You must actively seek criticism. I often talk to my students about the three ways of “knowing things.”

No. 1: We know what we know. For example, I know I’m a woman, I know I’m left handed and I know I’m a Scorpio.

No. 2: We know what we don’t know. Again, for example, I know that I’m not a mathematician. I know that I’m not a brain surgeon.

No. 3: We don’t know what we don’t know. That’s the important information to know. And the only way to be able to find that information out is to ask. You must actually seek out criticism.

Now, when I’m looking at the portfolios of entry level or young designers, I recommend that they always ask this question: “What is the one thing in the portfolio that you’d recommend I take out?” It doesn’t mean that you have to, but if you start to hear the same thing over and over, you should probably take it out.

What advice you can offer young designers?

It’s important to only include pieces in your portfolio that you love. Please do not have work in your portfolio just because you want to show somebody that you can do “that type of work.” Only include a book cover (and only if) it is an awesome book cover. If it’s a crappy design, nobody is going to hire you to do a book cover.

Same for everything else. It’s better to have less work in your portfolio and have it all be work that you’re proud of and that you can defend and talk about strategically than something that’s filler. It will never impress anyone, and it will end up diluting the overall impact of your work.