Women of Influence
Debbie Millman, B.A.’83
President, Design Group, Sterling Brands
By Carol Olechowski
Photo credit: Nebojsa Babic
Debbie Millman has a simple philosophy: Design matters. Why? “Design reflects the condition of our culture,” observes the president of Sterling Brands’ design group.
Millman’s interest in design blossomed at the University at Albany, where she majored in English and wrote for the ASP. “A baby designer was born” when she edited “Aspects,” the student newspaper’s arts and features section, and found “I was as interested in the form as I was in the content.”
Her minor in Russian literature, which enabled Millman to “understand humanity and the soul of a culture,” also influenced her career choice, as did her “amazing” professors. “Helen Elam taught me to learn with joy and gave me confidence. Deborah Dorfman taught me to write and listen and to be a better person. Harry Staley introduced me to James Joyce and inspired my pilgrimage to Dublin in 1992. And Hugh MacLean encouraged me to think with more rigor, to challenge conventions and to love Renaissance poetry.”
After graduation, “I wanted to do something special, but I felt compelled to safeguard my economic future,” recalls Millman. She worked for a cable magazine and a real-estate firm before starting a business with Cliff Sloan, B.A.’82. Millman subsequently accepted a marketing position with Frankfurt Balkind, then “the best design firm in the country.”
A year later, she joined New York-based Sterling Brands, which does brand strategy, innovation and brand design. Throughout two decades with the firm, Millman has worked with about 200 international brands, including Burger King, 7Up, Hershey’s, Gillette, Haagen Dazs, Colgate and Campbell’s Soup. She helped Sterling expand its staff from 15 to 150 while “shaping the overall vision and strategy of the design group.” In 2008, Millman and her partners sold the company to Omnicom.
Millman, president emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA), is also a respected broadcaster, author and educator. Her podcast “Design Matters,” currently in its 10th season, airs on Design Observer (http://designobserver.com). The show won the Cooper Hewitt National Design Award in 2011. With “Law & Order: SVU” star and Joyful Heart Foundation founder Mariska Hargitay, Millman created the NO MORE campaign (www.nomore.org) to eradicate domestic violence and sexual abuse. In 2009, she and design expert Steven Heller co-founded the world’s first graduate program in branding at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. Millman’s six books include Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits.
“None of this would have happened without the education I received at the University,” maintains Millman.
She also met her close friends – Susan Benjamin, B.A.’83; Susan Milligan, B.A.’84; Robert Edelstein, B.A.’82; Joe Trelin, B.A.’83; and Sloan – at UAlbany.