Design leader interview series: Debbie Millman

For AIGA Women Lead’s first interview series, we sat down with women pioneers at colleges, design studios, agencies, and large companies to share their unique stories: the journey from mentee to mentor, frank assessments of women and the design field today, and how they’ve demonstrated a commitment to gender equity in the workplaces they now lead.


As a designer, author, educator, and brand strategist, you might call Debbie Millman a design “renaissance woman.” With such a strong command of these varying disciplines, it’s not surprising that Millman has a deep understanding of the status of women’s leadership across the design field—where it was, where it is now, and where it’s going in the future—and she has some recommendations. Millman spoke with AIGA executive director Julie Anixter about the two types of people in the world: “generators,” and “drains” (and what the heck those are), why “mastery is a process that takes years,” and why courage is distinctly preferred to confidence when it comes to success.

What does your organization do and what do you do?

For two decades, I worked at Sterling Brands, one of the top global brand consultancies. I was the #2 person in the firm (right after the founder and CEO) for most of the time I was there, and was the most senior woman in firm. When I first started my branding career in 1992, I was struck by the lack of women in senior positions in the business. I was working for a company then called the Schechter Group (now Interbrand), which was founded by Alvin Schechter several decades before. Our competitors were the firms Wallace Church, Gerstman + Meyers, Murrie Lienhart Rysner, Lipson Alport Glass, Peterson Blythe, The Coleman Group, Primo Angeli, Addison, Anspach Gross Portugal, and of course, Landor. All of these companies had tremendous reputations, and all were founded and run by men. As a newly minted business development executive, my job was to call on consumer goods companies for their business. In doing so, I found that the corporate design directors in the most senior positions employed in these organizations were also men. The only woman I could find in any senior position in any consumer brand corporation was Pamela Parisi, then the Director of Global Design at Gillette.

Fast-forward nearly 25 years and the pendulum has swung 180 degrees. When I left Sterling in 2016, more than half of the staff was comprised of women. Most of the senior executives, both on the client and agency sides, were a majority of women.

I now run a Masters Program in Branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and in the seven years we’ve run the program, we’ve always had at least half a student body that is female; in some years, more than 75% was female. We’ve come a long way in a short time and I believe we are just at the beginning of a permanent sea-change.

What do you think is most challenging for women in the creative industries?

I think the most challenging thing for women is the unconscious bias we are faced with everyday. Despite how successful Sterling has been, and how successful our acquisition was to Omnicom in 2008, there is no doubt in my mind that we were able to get the price we did for our business because there was a male CEO at the helm.

How does your organization create a culture that supports women?

At SVA there is virtually no disadvantage to being a woman. There are as many female chairs in the graduate department as men (maybe more) and the President of the school, David Rhodes, is one of the most empowering and trusting leaders with whom I have ever worked. I am lucky, as the environment was similar at Sterling. I was never held back from anything because of my gender. When the CEO was looking to move into a Chairman role, I was offered the CEO role before any of my male counterparts. My turning the job down had nothing to do with gender, but the myriad opportunities I wanted to pursue instead. I felt that there was no way to do the CEO job justice with so many other personal pursuits on my plate. Now, perhaps if I were a man, I would have felt differently about that. [Laughs.]

You've had great mentors and role models. What have you learned from them about leadership?

One of the most important tenets of leadership I learned was from my former partner, the CEO of Sterling Brands, Simon Williams. He believes that:

There are only two kinds of people in the world: “Generators” and “Drains.”

“Generators” tend to be leaders. “Generators” almost always have something positive to say; they tend to feel that there's always an opportunity waiting to be discovered, and something worthwhile in every lesson. Being a “generator” doesn’t mean that you're delusional or stupidly happy; it simply means that you are someone who almost always wants to make things better.

The “Drains” of the world are the people who must always point out the negative. They may be in the best restaurant on the planet, having the best meal of their life, but are compelled to complain that the temperature of the room isn’t right. Or the white wine isn't cold enough. Or the environment is too noisy.

We all know people like this. They often seem to correlate with how we see the notion of fault: generators tend to think that everything is their fault (this is often a female trait, ironically) and want to improve things; drains tend to think that nothing is their fault and blame others for any mishap.

I’ve come to realize that this behavior can be managed. If you are concerned that you might be a drain, try and be accountable to your behavior: count how many times you complain over the course of several days. If you find the number of times you complain to be excessive, make an active effort to stop. The next time you feel yourself wanting to complain about a situation you’re faced with, instead, try to make it better. Chances are everyone knows it’s not perfect; here is your chance to take the high road and make things better for everyone, including yourself.

What is the greatest challenge you've faced and how did you deal with it to become a leader?

When I first started out, I wish I knew that anything worthwhile takes a long time. I wish I knew that things would turn out okay by the time I was in my forties. I wish I knew enough to not to be afraid of going after what I really wanted.

But I didn’t—I thought that if I didn’t get into one graduate school or one art program that I wanted to go to, that I wouldn’t get into any. And I thought that if I didn’t get that one job that I really wanted, I would have to settle for whatever came my way, otherwise I would never get any job. At that time of my life I feared that I was too old, not talented enough, not smart enough—not anything enough to get what I really wanted. And I was only 30.

I think one of the unfortunate ramifications of the technologically-driven world in which we now live is the speed in which we expect things to happen. We live in what I call a “140-character culture.” We’ve gone from writing letters to making phone calls to sending emails to typing out one line about this vast experience we call “life.” As a result, we now want instant gratification of our hopes and dreams. But accomplishment and mastery take time and reflection. The only formula for success is time and hard work.

We are living in a culture in which you are expected to know exactly what you want to do when you graduate from college, where you want to do it, and what your life plan will be. This builds into a palpable sense of hopelessness if you aren’t able to achieve something quickly.

As a leader, I’ve learned that anything worthwhile takes time. Mastery is a process over years.

If you are one of the few souls in the world that are actually able to hit it out of the ballpark before you are 30, you might want to consider how you are going to be able to sustain that success over the long term. The pressure to keep succeeding over and over will mount, and you will likely feel that you must only hit home runs. This is impossible.

My advice to those that feel they need to make it big quick: Take your time and build your skills. Refine your methodology over time and give yourself the opportunity to grow and develop. Use your twenties to experiment. This is a time when falling flat on your face is expected. Build something meaningful rather than fast. The length of time it takes for you to succeed is generally a good measure of how long you will be able to sustain—and enjoy—it.

What have you learned that you wish you knew 10 years ago?

The great writer Dani Shapiro said something to me after I interviewed her for an episode of Design Matters. We were talking about the role of confidence in success.

She stated that she felt that confidence wasn’t as important as courage. The action to do something is much more critical to success than the idea that you feel confident about doing it.

The notion that courage is more important than confidence has stayed with me ever since.

What advice do you have for companies that want women leaders?

I’ll quote the bad-ass Cindy Gallop: “Anytime there is just one woman, one Hispanic, one African-American in a role where there hasn't been a person like that before means that that person becomes symbolic, and representative of the many. If the ratio is improved, then no one person is the female voice or the black voice or the Latina voice or the gay voice. Everyone can be free to agree or disagree and everyone has influence.” Now wouldn’t that be wonderful?


About Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman headshotDebbie Millman is a designer, author, educator, and brand strategist. She is host of the award-winning podcast “Design Matters,” the world’s first podcast on design, Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts, the editorial and creative director of Print Magazine, and president emeritus of AIGA. She is the author of six books on design and branding.