debbie millman

Monday, November 13, 2006

Would You Like Me To Seduce You?

We, are, more than ever before in our culture, being constantly seduced by design. Our world is so saturated with design now that we can hardly separate ourselves from it. Though much of design is explicit and sometimes obvious, we hardly notice that in so doing, it is continually reorganizing us. I am wondering if it is possible now that design is now taking over the social role that music or fashion have served over the last half a century. It seems to me that design is becoming the most important, and least understood influencers of our culture and our consciousness today.

The idea of what is intrinsically beautiful or cool or phat or blazin’ has become more elusive, revolutionary, even controversial. No longer is beauty limited to a pretty face or a pretty package: beauty has come to personify and reflect the social and cultural issues of our day. Now we end up defining a generation by the products it buys. Think of the iPod. Think of the Mini-Cooper. Think of a Blackberry. These products are no longer being differentiated by flavor or form or price. They are being differentiated by the difference they make in our lives and the attitudinal difference it creates in the passionate zealots that participate in these new consumer cults. Design has become the leading factor in that difference.

And whether we like it or not, these objects are also now defining us. As we "give style" to our character, we do nothing more than claim and renounce freedoms and choices. Style now ends up signifying our beliefs and our affiliations.

And with affiliation comes choice. And with choice comes…brands. Brands create intimate worlds inhabitants can understand, and where they can be somebody and feel as if they belong. Brands create tribes. In 2006, people can join any number of tribes in any number of ways and feel part of something bigger than who we are individually. When I was a little girl and my dad drove around in his beautiful Porshe 911, I remember that when he passed another one on the road, he always acknowledged the other driver—and the driver acknowledged him back. It was the private Porshe 911 club. But it wasn’t just the Porshe club, it was the Porshe 911 club. I think Marty Neumeier stated it best when he confides his thoughts about sneakers in his book, “The Brand Gap.” He says “As a weekend athlete, my two nagging doubts are that I might be congenitally lazy, and that I might have little actual ability. I am not really worried about my shoes. But when the Nike folks say, “Just do it,” they’re peering into my soul. I begin to feel that, if they understand me that well, their shoes are probably pretty good. I am then willing to join the tribe of Nike.” But to see the world in brand tribes is to take possession of much more than just a theory of the world. It is to possess a theory of all the activity in it, perhaps an entire science, an ethology that could tell us everything we want to know about human behavior. And what would we find out if we were to analyze that style in regards to our culture and to human behavior today?

Ultimately, I think that the goal of a brand should be to change the culture in which we participate. A lofty goal, yes. This should inevitably evoke a unique composition of perceptions. The extension of any one of these perceptions alters the way we think and act—and the way we perceive the world. When these perceptions change, people change. I contend that brand and its inherent dependence on design—has more impact on our culture than any other medium.


Blogger neal s said...

Excellent piece -- very well said. And I'd have read it anyway, but that title...oh my.

11/14/2006 10:57:00 AM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

So true.

11/14/2006 08:01:00 PM  
Anonymous Noah Brier said...

Excellent post Debbie.

Yesterday I was thinking about something that I think relates closely to what you're saying here: Consumer is the wrong word. It assumes a passivity that is no longer there. People are creating their identity through the products they buy and the brands they associate with. I don't really know where else this goes, just wanted to share the thought. Maybe you can help me complete it. :)

11/17/2006 09:38:00 AM  

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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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