Debbie Millman: searching for the meaning of design

20 July 2021  |   0 Comments   |    |  


Debbie Millman is an American designer, teacher, artist, curator and writer. She has been recognized as "one of the most influential designers of the moment" by Graphic Design USA and "one of the most creative people in business" by Fast Company.

In addition to a 20+ year career with major consumer brands, she is committed to spreading the mission of graphic design to the media, the public and businesses: "All graphic designers hold high levels of responsibility in society. We take invisible ideas and make them tangible. That’s our job."

Designing better and selling more

From 1995 to 2016 Debbie Millman was the art director of the Sterling Brands agency in NY, which she largely helped to develop (from 15 to 150 employees over that period).

There she worked for many renowned brands and designed identities and logos for Burger King, Haagen-Dazs, 7Up, Gillette, Tropicana, Colgate or Kleenex. Millman has become an expert in graphic design and the creation of visual identities for mass-market products.

Extract from Debbie Millman's visual essay for 99U d'Adobe

For the record, it was in 1999 that she designed the new identity and logo for Burger King, which the brand would adopt until 2021 (before giving a second chance to their vintage logo). In an online interview on the Creative Waffle channel, Debbie explains that during the first client meeting, the marketing director warned her: "don't expect  changing the logo"! It had been changed many times, but the director in question never liked any of them.


"We knew we had to keep the integrity of the existing iconography and its heritage so we kept the bun, the bubbly typeface by sharpening its edges, and 'activated' it to inject more energy. We did worldwide consumer testing and it turned out to be more effective; people liked this version better. Still, I was horribly harassed by this rebranding; I was nicknamed 'She Devil' for this logo!"

"But it's been used for 20 years now... All the fuss over new logos falls off after a year. That was the case with the new Uber or AirBnb logo. Most people don't like change, it makes them feel vulnerable. Only designers like the new identities they create!" she explains.

On the meaning and role of design

In parallel to her activities, she is the art director of Print magazine since 2002. Her artistic work does not stop there; she is also an artist and illustrator, and sometimes integrates her work into Print Magazine. She also does other illustrations for magazines like The New York Times and Design Observer.

"Discouraged by all the commercialism and consumerism" of her work as a designer, she launched and hosted the award-winning podcast Design Matters in 2005 to "help her cope" as she says. 15 years later she has interviewed nearly 500 designers, thinkers, authors or professors about creativity, including Marina Abramovic, Stefan Sagmeister, Milton Glaser, Shepard Fairey, Ethan Hawke or Barbara Kruger. It is now recognized as one of the 100 best podcasts in the world and among the most listened to of all time. But she doesn't stop her design activity for all that.

In 2016 she designed pins to support Hillary Clinton's election campaign, alongside 45 other designers like Paula Scher or Michael Beirut, and observed how good design can help candidates win votes.


To push the boundaries a little further, always seeking the meaning of design in society, she is a curator in galleries and museums and organizes exhibitions. Look Both Ways exhibited in 2019 the "illicit link between image and information".

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


Photo credits JSP-Art-Photography, SVA Chelsea Gallery

Passing on and teaching design

In 2009 she co-founded the Masters in Branding (a world's premiere) at the School of Visual Arts in New York, with Steven Heller. She passes on her experience and failures to future designers. This unique one-year course offers a multi-disciplinary approach to design and branding through marketing-oriented courses that cover strategy, history, economics and statistics.

Debbie Millman has also spread her message and experience of design through lectures and books. Millman has written 6 essays including How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer and Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, or around personal development like Why You: How To Make A Living Doing What You Love.

Finally, because she embodies the desire to promote design to corporate government and the American media, Debbie Millman is currently President Emeritus of the AIGA (American Institute of Graphic Arts).

The role of design: from consumerism to social engagement

In 2011, however, she sees a real shift in society and notes that branding is truly evolving. While branding marks have long been used as signs of rallying and belonging (religious signs, livestock brands...), they were then used for mercantile purposes by big companies.

Today, she realizes with joy that design has been democratized, carried by people who create change, without trying to sell anything. This is the case with the "visual identities" of the Gilets Jaunes or #BlackLivesMatter and all other forms of branding of social movements we talked about on the blog.

At a TedX conference on branding titled "how symbols and brands shape our humanity" she says that "as early as 2011 we started to see the impact of change via social networks and #, which connect people sharing the same ideals. For the first time in 10,000 years, brands -which aren't even brands anymore- are no longer being pushed down for people, but up by people, for the sole purpose of changing the world and making it a better place."

Illustrations by Debbie Millman from her TedX conference

"Over the past 10 years, our best innovations have been creating brands that can make a difference in our lives and reflect the world we want to live in. These signs were created to serve what I believe is the purpose of branding: to unite 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 behind the strategic positioning and identity of the NO MORE movement, which fights domestic and sexual violence around the world, a topic that affected her personally as a child and which she overcame to build herself. She is also involved in gender equality and LGBTQ+ movements through her interviews in her podcast.

It's easy to understand why she is now more dedicated to the dissemination and teaching of design than to her practice as such.


Extract from Debbie Millman's visual essay for 99U d'Adobe

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