Design Matters: An interview with branding expert Debbie Millman

We recently got the opportunity to sit down with Debbie Millman: author, educator, curator, and host of the podcast Design Matters, one of the world's first and longest-running podcasts. 

As the host of Design Matters, Millman has interviewed over 400 artists, designers, and cultural commentators. In the 13 years since its inception, the show has garnered over five million downloads per year, honored with a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, and designated one of the best overall podcasts by iTunes. 

Debbie is the author of six books and President Emeritus of AIGA, one of five women to hold the position in the organization’s 100-year history. She's a frequent speaker on design and branding and has been a juror for competitions including Cannes Lions, The Clio’s, the One Club and many, many more.

Here, she shares her thoughts on authenticity and vulnerability in branding and life. 

Debbie, tell us a little bit about yourself.  

I am a designer, an author, and an educator at the School of Visual Arts. I co-founded and run a graduate program in branding. I'm also the host of a podcast called Design Matters.

What tips can you offer to someone who wants to create a new brand presence for themselves?

Well, I wouldn't recommend that someone ever recreate themselves; I would recommend that they feature who they are on their best day, in a way that feels very authentic and true to their soul and being. People tend to respond more favorably to people that are being themselves, and, in many ways, holding that "freak" flag really high, because they can then relate and be able to connect with them in a much more visceral manner.

So, my recommendation would be to celebrate who you are on your best day, speak from the heart, and offer an opportunity for people to get to know who you really are.

A lot of people are hesitant to really put themselves out there. What would you say to them?

Watch Brené Brown's TED Talk about vulnerability. I really, truly believe that vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, and you can't be creative and say something that is going to touch or reach other people unless you are doing it with your own open heart. So there really is no choice. If you're not comfortable with being vulnerable, my strong recommendation would be to get comfortable being vulnerable, because why else would anybody want to get to know you or pay attention to what you have to say? What are they getting to know, then? Some false friend?

How can people get out of their comfort zone and become more authentic?

Take small steps, small moves. You don't have to reveal everything about your childhood in your first email, but if you can share some part of yourself that you feel is worthy of connecting with other people, and people will feel is honest, then why wouldn't you want to do that?

That's what people want to know about you. They don't want to know all of the successes and all of the amazing things you're doing. They want to know how you've struggled, or how you've overcome an obstacle, or what lesson you learned in the process of doing something. And the more you can share that, I think the more value it has, both to yourself and to others.

Specifically, what kind of value does sharing your failures provide?

Well, everybody has experienced failure. And if you aren't able or capable of sharing what you've done wrong, why would anybody care if you're sharing what you've done right? And I feel that if we're putting a face forward that's only positive and only impressive, then we're manufacturing our meaning, because that's only one small part of what it means to be human, and strive, and long for things, and create things, and make things. And there is none of that without failure, rejection, vulnerability, fear. All of those things are just part of the process of being a maker.


Are there any particular failures or struggles that you can recount from your professional career that helped you become who you are today?

Well, almost anything I've done has been fueled by an enormous amount of rejection, whether it be book ideas, business ideas, or new pitches. My past is riddled and littered with rejections and failures. But, there are very few that I can actually look back on now and say, "I didn't either learn something, or overcome something to get to a better place, or create something out of that failure, that then became successful."

And, of course, it's easy to look back on it and say in hindsight, "Well, if that hadn't happened, then that wouldn't have happened, and then that wouldn't have happened, and I wouldn't be sitting right here," but I can tell you that it's really true.


Are there any other places that you turn to for inspiration in your career? 

Well, I love to read. I love to learn, so for me, some of the people that I'm either mentored by or inspired by are people like Seth Godin, who is one of the most generous, smartest, kindest people on the planet. And he does a daily blog, seven days a week, and so you can get daily morning inspiration from him. Also, Steven Heller. He's somebody that has also been enormously supportive and helpful to me, and mentored me, and inspired me, and educated me in ways that I could never have imagined. So those are two people, on a daily basis, that I turn to, both personally and professionally, online and offline.


Finally: What's your number one tip for brands who want to create a better connection with their audience?

Think about the benefit you can provide your audience. People aren't really interested in another form, or another flavor. They're interested in what kind of difference you can make in their lives. So, what can you offer your audience that will help them grow, help them become more successful, help them learn something that they wouldn't have expected or had the opportunity to do? What can you offer your audience that no one else can?


Interested in hearing more from Debbie? Check out her podcast, Design Matters


About the Author

McKenzie Gregory is a senior content manager on Emma’s marketing team. A Nashville native, she can be found covering all things email on the Emma blog, debating hyphenation rules, and watching obscene amounts of Netflix without a trace of shame.

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