DG Q&A: Debbie Millman

Debbie Millman Debbie Millman has worked for a long list of high-profile clients, including Unilever, Gillette, the NBA, and Kraft. As the host of the weekly Internet radio show/podcast Design Matters, she has interviewed an even more impressive list of designers and design thinkers, from Stefan Sagmeister and Steve Heller to Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin (and me). Her book How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer features conversations with 21 leading lights. Debbie is not only a good listener but as interesting as the people she talks to. She was kind enough to let us turn the tables and have her answer the questions.

DG: Your love affair with brands began at an early age. What seduced you?

DM: My love affair with brands began when I was in the 7th grade. I looked around and everyone in school was wearing really cool pants with a little red tag on the back pocket and polo shirts with little crocodiles on the front right section over your heart. Levi’s and Lacoste. But they were expensive and my mother didn’t understand why we had to pay more money for the red tag and the crocodile when the clothing without them was the same quality but cheaper. Furthermore, she was a seamstress and her compromise to me was an offer to make me the very same clothes and stitch a red tag into the back pocket of the pants and glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto the front of a perfectly good polo shirt from Modell’s. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter or at least voted the best dressed girl at Elwood junior high, I eagerly pored through the racks of Lee Wards desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of my favorite pink polo shirt. Alas, there were none. Nothing even close. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the branded look I was going for.

Levis I rode my bike home from Lee Wards dejected and mopey and when mom found out I wasn’t successful, I could see she felt sorry for me. She then took the matter into her own hands. The Lacoste shirts were too expensive, but there were indeed some Levi’s on sale at the Walt Whitman mall and she bought me a pair. Problem was she didn’t get me the denim kind like everyone else was wearing, she found me a pair that must of been from the triple mark-down racks...they were a pair of lime green corduroy bell-bottom Levi’s. It was with a mixture of horror and pride that I paraded in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom, ever-so-slightly sticking my butt out so that I could be sure the little red tag would show. So what, I was wearing lime green corduroy! They were Levi’s. I was cool. My reign of logo worship began right then and there.

DG: How much can brands control their own glamour, and what tools can they use?

DM: Brands have become cultural transitional objects. The things a designer produces and a consumer buys creates a process of simultaneously merging with and differentiating ourselves from the world of others. Deodorant, coffee, water, shoes, handbags and nearly everything else we can acquire or consume today has become the currency in which we define ourselves. Years ago, brands were differentiated categorically. Now, brands are manufactured to differentiate a consumer attitudinally. The consumer chooses a brand that makes them feel most socially confident and wears this badge of cultural acceptability...whether it is deodorant, coffee, water, shoes, handbags and so forth.


Most people believe that brands are the promise of an experience. I believe that brands are a projection of our hopes and dreams and fantasies about who we are and what we want people to believe.


Today, consumers buy brands based on how that brand makes them feel. Brands assert moods, tastes and affiliations. Brands create deeply intimate worlds we can understand, and where we can be somebody and feel as though we belong. Brands create tribes. And interestingly, with brands we can join any number of tribes in any number of ways and feel part of something bigger than who we are individually. We can belong to the Apple tribe when we wear our iPods or talk on our iPhones, the Target tribe when we shop, the Starbucks tribe when we want a cup of coffee, the Chanel tribe when we put on our make-up, the Prada tribe when we pick up our purse. In this regard, the truth is that most people like brands and the way their favorite brands make them feel. When we covet a brand, we covet the feeling that that we hope that brand will produce as a result. Most people believe that brands are the promise of an experience. I believe that brands are a projection of our hopes and dreams and fantasies about who we are and what we want people to believe.

If a brand makes a person feel glamorous, then in order for a brand manager in a corporation to control this, they must arduously adhere to the intrinsic integrity of what this feeling actually means to their zealous constituents. They must remain true to this positioning despite marketplace idiosyncrasies and fads. The brand owner must retain control of the brand perception with a relentless persistence and constant assessment of the brand’s relevance or the consumer will do it for them. In my opinion, the best tool to assess the consumer mind is with rigorous ethnography.

DG: What brands do you find glamorous? Why?

24fauborgDM: The Finity grey corduroy suit I wore to my first job in 1983. I remember the sparkly colors of the stones in a brandless necklace a cherished babysitter gave me when I was 6. Goody Barrettes. Lanvin. The Hermes scent I wear every day called 24 Faubourg. These objects and brands mark time for me, they represent age and rites of passage; they represent longing, and in my mind, they represent the glamorous moments of my life when I fit in, and was happy and loved.

DG: What books would you recommend for understanding glamour?

DM: Your book: The Substance of Style, for one. I would also recommend the books Grace: Thirty Years of Fashion at Vogue, the Sex and the City books designed by Emily Oberman and Bonnie Siegler at the design firm Number Seventeen, Marilyn by Gloria Steinem, Class: A Guide Through the American Status System by Paul Fussell, and The Art of Imperfection by Veronique Vienne.

The DG Dozen

1) How do you define glamour? Or what makes someone or something glamorous?

When I was a little girl, my mother drank her coffee black. She also smoked cigarettes and her friends from the neighborhood would come by to visit and sit in our orange vinyl breakfast nook and talk. Or rather they would gossip. They would chat about who had recently bought a new car or a fur coat or who was taking a vacation or a mistress or some new pill that had just come on the market. At eight years old, I was fascinated with my mother’s girlfriends: to me, they were magnificently glamorous with their brightly painted nails and tightly pulled chignons and billowing wisps of smoke, and I would sit in the kitchen, off by myself, and pretend I wasn’t listening when in fact I wasn’t missing a word.

I find that the idea of beauty and glamour are strangely obsessive concepts in our culture. We live in a day and age wherein there are more people undergoing plastic surgery than ever before, and there is no part of the body that can’t be refurbished and remade. But for me, true glamour can not be constructed or created. To me, glamour is an attitude.

2) Who or what is your glamorous icon?

The most glamorous woman that ever lived was Grace Kelly. Her performance in the film Rear Window is the most glamorous performance in movie history. And her clothes! And that charm bracelet! And the little valise with her nightgown and slippers! I am swooning just thinking about it!

3) Is glamour a luxury or a necessity?

Neither. It is a gift. You either have it or you don't.

4) Favorite glamorous movie?

Funny Face. Think Pink!

In 1993, I was still painting and had a solo show at Long Island University. My friend Isaac Mizrahi dressed me and lent me some pieces of clothing from his couture line to wear at the opening. He put me in a black taffetta skirt, a black leather strapless corset and insisted that I wear a little black cashmere sweater--but he only wrapped it around my shoulders and buttoned at the top. I felt so glamorous that I actually felt foolish, as it felt so foreign and strange to be so dolled up in such sexy, sophisticated, revealing clothes.

6) Favorite glamorous object (car, accessory, electronic gadget, etc.)?

My second divorce.

7) Most glamorous place?

The bathroom in the Hyannisport Airport, where I bumped into Jackie Kennedy Onassis coming out of a stall. When I saw her I gasped.


8) Most glamorous job?

The great graphic designer, Carin Goldberg, asked me to be the Mistress of Ceremonies for an all day AIGA design and fashion conference in NYC last year titled Body Language. She also asked the designer and editor (and effortlessly gorgeous glamourpuss) Jiae Kim to dress me. Jiae encouraged me to wear clothes that I would never have picked (with color!!!!) and the AIGA had artists do my hair and make-up. I was in heaven. One of my colleagues sons didn't even recognize me!

9) Something or someone that other people find glamorous and you don't

Donald Trump.

10) Something or someone that you find glamorous whose glamour is unrecognized

The great screen actress Thelma Ritter. She always played second fiddle to Bette Davis or Marilyn Monroe or Grace Kelly and she was one glamorous dame in her own right.

11) Can glamour survive?

One can only hope and pray.

12) Is glamour something you're born with?

Sadly, yes. I curse the day I was born without it.


1) Angelina Jolie or Cate Blanchett?

Angelina is currently the most gorgeous woman on the planet.

2) Paris or Venice?

Paris, since I have never been to Venice. I'll let you know if this answer changes after my visit there next year.

3) New York or Los Angeles?

New York (as if!)

4) Princess Diana or Princess Grace?

Princess Grace (see above)

5) Tokyo or Kyoto?


6) Boots or stilettos?

Boots. Although my Christian Louboutin stiletto boots are really glam.


7) Art Deco or Art Nouveau?


8) Jaguar or Astin Martin?

Jaguar. Preferably in Racing Car Green.

9) Armani or Versace?


10) Diana Vreeland or Anna Wintour?

Diana Vreeland

11) Champagne or single malt?


12) 1960s or 1980s?


13) Diamonds or pearls?


14) Kate Moss or Naomi Campbell?

Patti Hansen

15) Sean Connery or Daniel Craig?

Pierce Brosnan

Deep Glamour Style

The photos are just samples. You can order other styles and colors.

Stylephile Phhhht

Stylephile Variety has dimmed the lights on The Stylephile, written by Caroline Ryder.  Fashion and beauty publicists everywhere mourn the loss by wearing black.

On the other hand,  perhaps "gifted" can revert to being an adjective, rather than a verb.

Is This The End Of ATNM? Tall Photogenic Winner Chosen

081120-top-model-winner.small America's Next Top Model might have jumped the shark last night. Winner of cycle 11, McKey is a 6 foot tall, 20 year old from Lake Forest, Illinois. (Born Brittany Sullivan, which is so not a a model name.) She might actually be a real model.

Television Without Pity readers pegged her right from the start.

(And to complete the whole cycle, Tyra's giving Isis sex re-assignment surgery, which should be good for another special or maybe even a whole series.)

Quotable: Jeff Greenwald On James Bond...and Spock

Spock “If there were two characters I wanted to be during the sixties, they were Mr. Spock—and James Bond. The relationship is quite logical. Both displayed total self-confidence and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic locales, surviving any number of deadly perils. Both were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure. 
Bond, of course, had his weaknesses; his tackle rattled like a crib toy at the sight of a well-filled bikini. But Mr. Spock was virtually unassailable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the vaguely sarcastic mien—these were coins of the realm to my circle of adolescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school? We became Spock. How did we survive the irrational outbursts of our parents? By invoking Spock. Who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else, I say, but Spock?”

Jeff Greenwald, Future Perfect: How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth 

Tots: Hot Or Not?

Hey Virginia, don't you write for Forbes? Maybe you can help me figure out what's going on over there. Apparently now they are not only ranking the richest people in the U.S., India and everywhere else in the world, they are now listing "Hollywood's 10 Hottest Tots."Shiloh


The AP's explanation:  "Forbes.com...ranked celebrity children 5 years old and younger based on media attention and their parents' popularity."

Apparently Suri Cruise is numero uno and--get this-- only three of the six Jolie-Pitt kids. Ouch. Apparently Maddox didn't make the cut. WHAT!?!? I protest! He practically started that band!

Anyway, this makes my mind wander over to the recent Motrin add that was killed by Twitter moms. (Forbes has this story too!) The ad, see it here, starts out "Wearing your baby seems to be in fashion." Turns out moms don't like to think of their babies as fashion statements and they don't want to think they look tired and "crazy" because they carry the baby on their body. 

It's actually pretty hilarious when you realize the Motrin takedown was started with just one woman's Twitter (article here) in which the The Longmont Times points out, "The ads came at a particularly bad time, Gates noted. This week is International Babywearing Week, according to Babywearing International."

But back to our hottest tots. I'm seeing a huge disconnect here. I mean, I get that Forbes loves them some lists. Hello The World's Most Expensive Houses, The World's Billionaires and Top 10 Real Estate Markets Most Likely to Rebound, and that's just for starters. But hot tots? This I do not get.

Their rationale for the Hot Tots list is this:

"With a growing need to generate magazine sales and Web traffic in a softening economy, media outlets are increasingly turning to stars that are both much-loved and highly reliable...But as the economy heads toward what many predict is a recession, these adorable kids--and the desire to chronicle their upbringings--may become more important than ever. Simply put, fawning over celebrities and their picturesque families may be just the sort of distraction people need."


The article ends with this little ditty, "Los Angeles-based Kitson boutique owner Fraser Ross sees the benefit these children provide retailers, 'Kids are becoming the new designer handbag.'"

OK, nuh-uh. Nononononono no. I'm seeing a huge disconnect here. Let's set aside the fact that the Kitson quote is so stupid I don't even know where to begin. Also forget the fact that the people who supplied the quotes in the Forbes story are upscale boutique owners, gossip rag editors and the owner of a paparrazi company; let's just focus on the list itself. How is it in any way supposed to help brands tap in, and thus cash in, on what consumers desire when, as seen from the Montrin backlash, this is the very last thing they want? Apparently moms don't want babies just to add to their personal glamour. Whaaaaa?!?!? I know, you're all shocked.  (Wow, I feel like I just came to the same sarcastic conclusion that the VW Routon's ad agency did. Great minds and all....)

Hey Forbes, I get that maybe you're trying out stories that are maybe a bit more recession-friendly, but why not try this one on for size: The top 10 money-making mommy blogs. That might help your readers a bit better and avoid a Twitter backlash in the making. 

Because as the lede in the Longmont Times said, "When Amy Gates spotted an Internet advertisement that she felt trivialized mothers who "wear" their babies...and posted her beef online on Saturday night. "

OMG, ya'll! Do NOT tell the Kitson owner!

[The black-and-white kids? From left to right: Robert, Moira, Malcolm Jr. (Steve), Timothy, and Christopher Forbes, October 1957, from Google's new Life archive.]

Dive Bars And The Glamour Of Seediness: The Tune Inn

Images_Tune Inn2 (Small)
There's a certain mystique in being regarded as a regular at some establishments.  While the Four Seasons and the Waverly Inn are places to be seen, the really intelligent scenester knows being utterly at home in place with a dubious reputation is far more glamourous.

Tuneinn Playboy.com has released a list of Top Ten Dive Bars (and the NY Post came up with their own, just to be difficult.)  But my own sentimental favorite is the Tune Inn, in Washington DC. Since Esquire  "discovered" it a few years back, the Tune has been on nearly every list possible.  In January, a new generation of Hillites will discover its joys.

But when I was living on 3rd and A, behind the Supreme Court and kitty-corner from the ACLU, the Tune wasn't quite so well regarded.  It was always packed at Happy Hour, but during the day, I could spend all afternoon in a  booth, dawdling over a draft beer, a bad cheeseburger, and a book.  In DC, most people had jobs with regular hours, and freelancers were few.  I got my mail there, when I was between fixed addresses, I listed the number as an emergency contact, and I ran a tab so I could eat between paychecks. (The bartender cashed my unemployment checks, too.)   After a Christmas in Montana, I brought back  frozen elk meat, and the kitchen turned out elk burgers for the lunch rush ( the owners were big hunters,  judging by the wall decor.)  When I got engaged, I had a bridal shower at the bar, if unwrapping edible panties in between shots counts as a shower.

Walking on the wild side of Washington seems rather quaint when viewed from Los Angeles, many years later.  Everyone needs a home away from home, though, and the Tune was that and more.

Behind The Red Carpet Glamour

On my way to dinner Monday night I ran into the L.A. premier of Twilight and, as you can tell from the video, it was loud, with a much larger turnout of (screaming) fans than the typical Westwood red carpet event. But, as always, the premier itself felt less like a real event than a theatrical presentation where what the audience sees--on TV and in publicity stills--is different from what you see when you're there. For one thing, it's much more brightly lit. The movie may be Twilight, but on TV it looks like daylight thanks to those high-powered lamps.


By the time we finished dinner, the lights were gone and they were striking the set.

Striketheset  Trash

Glamour Toys

What do you find when you search Amazon Toys for glamour? A lot of Glamour Cats party supplies, sparkly dress-up accessories--including parts for Mr. Potato Head--and a hair salon for Troll dolls. A sample (and a friendly reminder to do your shopping via DG's Amazon links and other advertisers):

Real toy glamour isn't a style, however, but the promise of escape through play--escape that looks especially appealing in commercials like these baby boomer classics.