Millman (@DebbieMillman) is a design and branding industry
impresario. She will, at any given moment, be involved in a
multitude of projects and roles across the profession. For nearly
20 years, she’s been the President of Sterling Brands, a design and brand strategy firm
based in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Since 2005,
she’s hosted Design Matters, one of the most successful radio shows
(now podcasts) about design and creativity. She also
founded and chairs the Master’s in
Branding course at the School of Visual Arts in
New York, and has authored numerous books.
In this episode, Debbie speaks about the structure and workflow
of Sterling — now a corporate agency, how she stays energized
across her many endeavors, and how she’s still working to overcome
awkwardness in her life and career. We also get to hear the story
of how Debbie and Prescott first met.
Show Notes & Links
- Design Matters was recognized as an iTunes Best of 2015 show.
Design Matters is among the iTunes Best
- Prescott discovered Design Matters while working a crappy job
working for a startup marketing firm.
- Helvetica, by Gary Hustwit
- Prescott is standing on the shoulders of giants with
- Debbie describes herself as a brand consultant, wannabe artist,
and chair of the MFA Master’s in
Branding at SVA
- Debbie and her partners at Sterling sold to the
business Omnicom in 2008
- Sterling defines itself as a Brand Consultancy with three
disciplines – Design, Strategy, and Innovation
- DeeDee Gordon runs Innovation from
Los Angeles; Austin McGhie runs Strategy from San
- Sterling acquired Philippe
Becker in San Francisco, joining that to their
- Simon Lince is Sterling’s Chief Creative Officer in New York,
with four Creative Directors under him. Same with Philippe Becker in SF.
- Sterling consciously went to the traditional advertising agency
model, rather than a “bullpen” model, with lots of
cross-disciplinary work. It was “less deliberate”.
- “Institutional knowledge” is important for growth within an
agency. Helps to serve clients year-on-year.
- Design strategy entails asking questions: What is the brand?
What is the criteria for success? What is the “whitespace” we want
to uncover? Can we own that space? What is the dynamic for change
within an organization? etc.
“Common vocabulary does not always equate to common
“The only people that really like brand design changes are brand
designers.” (joking/not joking)
“Ambiguity is never seen positively.” (e.g., ambiguous
“I don’t even know that I was a fully formed human
being when I was 30.”
“Getting your first job out of college is like starting
kindergarten all over.”
“We are what we repeatedly do. Excellent, then, is not an act
but a habit.”
“Multitasking is the enemy of focused creativity.”
- Debbie is now ashamed of her past pride as a multi-tasker
“When the going gets tough, we go to Facebook.”
- Multi-tasking is usually “rapid-switching”
- Lisa Grant, Debbie’s better half at Sterling
- J’aime Cohen, original SVA dir. of
- Mark Dudlik, current SVA partner in crime
Fox, producer for Design Matters
- Energy management is more important than time management.
- Copy the habits of small studios and create “in-house studios”
within the larger agency
- Allow strong Debbie Millmanality to exist and thrive in a
company; build a culture as such
- Prepare strategy and challenges during proposal/pitch stage.
Don’t wait until you’ve won it.
- Want something done? Ask a busy Debbie Millman — they have less
time to procrastinate.
- Learn what you’re good at. Production/details? Coming up with
- Celebrate small victories, such as winning a new project or
- Sleep a lot. 8 hours at least.
- Eat better. (better than soda, candy, cigarettes, that
- Read constantly.
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