debbie millman

Friday, April 07, 2006


I used to think that my love affair with brands began when I was in the seventh grade—the year I became convinced that if I only had a pair of Levi’s jeans and a Lacoste polo shirt I would go from a geeky, artsy wallflower to a fantastically popular, sought after trendsetter. But what I now realize, as far back as I can remember, brands were vividly present both in my daily life and in my imagination. Because I grew up with a dad who was a pharmacist and owned a drug store, by the time I was five I was as familiar with Robitussin as I was with Mister Rogers.

One of my favorite things to do was to visit my father’s pharmacy. I was dazzled by all of the branded boxes that neatly lined the mahogany shelves, and I would spend hours ogling the packaging. I would make up stories about the babies on the Gerber products, I’d pretend to apply the Cover Girl make up and I’d endlessly analyze the girl on the beach on the Stay Free sanitary napkin packaging, the contents of which, at the time, was perplexing.

But for me, the crown jewel in my fathers store was the barrette display. This was a stand of magical wonder; it was a spinning cascade of glamour and hope and desire. And while I saw lots of other brands of barrettes in lots of other stores, my father had only one brand featured in his display: the Goody brand. The stand held every possible hair accessory: head bands, bobby pins, colorful plastic clips in the shape of butterflies, a myriad of hair brushes, combs, shower caps, pretty bows in velvet, bows in gingham, and my favorite barrette of all: pony tail holders. They were sold in packages of 4 or 8 or an eye popping 20. The barrettes were of simple construction: two round baubles held together by an elastic band that was twisted around to hold ponytails in place. Each pack was organized by style: some were translucent, some were opaque, and they were segmented by color and size: small, medium and large balls of primary and secondary colors. I was allowed to pick out one package per visit to keep. I would stand in front of the stand for what seemed an eternity, slowly spinning it round and round, overwhelmed by the magnitude of my choice: what should I take? What was the most beautiful? What would make me look the prettiest? After I made my decision, I would bring home my coveted treasure, carefully open up the packs, spread out my newly obtained amulets and then I would, well…I would do nothing. I wouldn’t do my hair up and I didn’t try them on. I just stared at them in divine bliss. I was simply content to look at them and add them to my lovely, expanding trove. I felt rich with accomplishment and dizzy with glee. No one had the collection I had; no one could be as lucky as I was.

My best friend, a very petite blonde haired girl named Andrea, lived next door. We did everything together and we were very much kindred spirits. We shared our deepest secrets and we would spend hours on end planning our futures and imagining what we would be when we grew-up and where we would travel and what we would wear. Andrea, however, did not share my penchant for hair accessories and while she tolerated my burgeoning collection, she had no desire to join me in my trinket worship. One day, when we were playing at her house, I noticed a small ponytail holder on her bureau, and I was immediately mesmerized and perplexed. I had never seen this particular style. It was a pearly pale yellow, and I had never seen a barrette of that hue, ever. Of course, it was the Goody brand. For the next weeks, whenever I went over to Andrea’s house I always looked for the barrette and it always there, always in the same place. Every time I went to my father’s drug store I looked to see if he had the pale yellow barrette and he never did. Suddenly I was angry and jealous. I wanted that barrette and I didn’t know how to get it.

For better or worse, this little object--this little brand--transformed me. Brands can do that: they are capable of creating intimate worlds inhabitants can understand, where they can be somebody and feel like they belong. Brands create tribes. I believe that with brands we assert moods, tastes, whims and choice. Brands can signal our affiliations and define our beliefs. In a time when our culture is so diverse and dispersed, brands can allow us to simultaneously stand out and fit in. For whatever sad reason, my childhood barrettes buoyed up an otherwise rather fragile center. They provided me with a social confidence I may not have otherwise had, however illusory its foundation.

My fervent obsession with barrettes has a rather tragic ending. I continued to fixate on Andrea’s yellow barrette, and one afternoon, before I could stop myself, when my best friend wasn’t looking, I took the barrette off of her bureau and put it in my pocket. I stole Andrea’s yellow barrette.

For weeks after I completed my crime, I waited for Andrea (or worse yet, her mother) to notice, but she never did. But for me, our friendship was irrevocably changed. Now I had a terrible secret we couldn’t share. I couldn’t face her anymore. And I couldn’t face who I became because of my desire and my greed.

Brands can be many things, and the pro-logo contingent and the no-logo advocates all have deeply felt convictions that convincingly support why they feel what they feel. But what I can tell you about brands is this: maybe they can make you feel more beautiful, or maybe they can make you feel thinner or sexier or cooler or hipper or more alluring. What they do not have the power to do is make you a better person. Brands can’t do that. There is no sneaker in the world, no burger brand, no cocktail, no barrette that can make you a kinder, more interesting, more lovable person. Only we can do that for ourselves.


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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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