December 19, 2013
Interviews: Thinker in Residence: A Q&A with Debbie Millman
Creativity requires a personal belief that you have something meaningful to say or to contribute. If this belief gets squashed or hindered, it can fundamentally damage the brain’s neurological pathways responsible for creative connections and communication.
Q. At what time do you think kids lose creativity? Isn’t creativity part of the process of adapting to the world?
DM: I think that kids lose creativity when they feel that the only way they can fit in is to conform. Creativity requires a personal belief that you have something meaningful to say or to contribute. If this belief gets squashed or hindered, it can fundamentally damage the brain’s neurological pathways responsible for creative connections and communication.
I do not think that creativity is part of a process of adapting to the world. I think that adapting to the world is a psychological process that involves good parenting, conditioning, societal constructs, education and pattern recognition. I do not believe that creativity is a “process.” In many ways, creativity is an anti-process! You may have a process for being creative, but I believe the actual act of creativity is organic and (nearly) involuntary: you have to do it—you have no choice—or a part of you dies.
Q. How would you define ‘personal brand’ and what are some good ways to build and manage it?
DM: I have a hard time with the notion of a “personal brand.” I believe that the definition of branding is deliberate, intentional differentiation. I think if people seek to define themselves as brands, they lose touch with the very thing that separates people from brands: heart, soul, mutable beliefs and the ability to understand and integrate meaning in abstract, creative ways.
Ironically, before the industrial revolution, products and services were associated with people rather than with organizations, and a person’s values brought to the marketplace were as much personal attributes as they were professional ones.
Brands today can’t replace people any more than people can replace brands. Brands do not contain humanity. Only people do. In any relationship with “brand,” there comes a point when you realize that these things, these brands, aren't "enough." Having more or better or best doesn't provide you with a lasting sense of having more or being better or being best. It's a rather fleeting experience, this romantic attachment to brands, and I find that if I'm not careful, the search for having more or better or best is a precarious journey into the infinite. When you depend on finite objects-or brands-to provide you with a long-term sense of self or love or pride or achievement, you start yourself out on a path with no end. No object, no product, and no brand can provide you with ultimate, infinite satisfaction. You also must be very careful about what psychologists call the “hedonistic treadmill.” In other words, if you’re always looking to validate yourself by buying things, then you are never going to be satisfied. You are always going to need a bigger, better fix.
Ultimately, better living through consumption doesn’t stop when you’ve consumed everything you covet. Unfortunately, brands are elusive and they don’t keep you happy for very long. As Dan Pink states, “The evidence is overwhelmingly clear that human beings metabolize these things (brands) very quickly. I’m specifically using the word metabolize because we are talking about hunger and thirst. If a big-screen TV is your symbol of stature and significance, it’s a fool’s game. These kinds of external objects do not provide enduring satisfaction.”
Q. What about our self-portrait betrays us? Don’t we know ourselves the best?
DM: That depends. Self-awareness is a continuum and often it is quite amorphous. You can know yourself very well and still hide who you are. You can present yourself in a context of how you hope to be perceived and project who you want to be rather than who you actually are. You can be full of doubt and self-loathing and still be successful. You can be successful and still be full of shame. You can be at the top of your game and still feel like a profound failure. I was really ashamed of all my failures for a long time. Now, I feel it’s important to share these experiences. I am hopeful that it can give other people hope and context to see things a bit differently. Failure is not defeat until you stop trying.
Q. Can a strong individual brand work well within a larger corporate brand?
DM: A strong individual brand works well within a larger corporate brand when the individual brand is leading the company and represents the values of the corporation in a genuine and non-cliché way. Steve Jobs, Richard Branson and Warren Buffett are great examples of leaders who have engaged by example. They inspired their constituents to do things they might not have otherwise had the courage or perseverance to achieve.
Q. How do you use art, design and other creative elements to help you move forward in your career and life?
DM: The first ten years of my career were very much organized around avoiding failure, but my inadequacies were completely self-constructed. Nobody told me that I couldn’t do something; nobody told me that I couldn’t succeed; I had convinced myself and lived in that self-imposed reality. I think a lot of people do this. They self-sabotage and create all sorts of reasons for not doing things under the misguided assumption that, at some point, they might feel better about themselves and that will finally allow them to take that risk. I don’t think that ever happens. You have to push through it and do it as if you have no other choice—because you don’t. You just don’t.
My whole life has been one thing leading to another, leading to another, and then another. It has been completely circuitous and mostly unplanned and that includes every art and design project I’ve ever worked on. Lately, I have been thinking a lot about these experiences: those elusive happenstances that often lead to defining moments in our lives. But what if one of those defining experiences never occurred? What if something wonderful, something that we have come to depend on, that serendipitous bit of luck that provided us with a big break or a big deal or the Big Time never happened? I call this “six degrees of serendipity”—the quintessential recognition that if this didn’t happen, then that wouldn’t have happened, and we wouldn’t have ended up right here, right now, in this way.
So I truly believe that lives are built while you are living them. EVERYTHING you do helps you move forward in your career and your life—as long as you want to move forward.
Debbie Millman is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for 18 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of over 200 global brands, including projects with P&G, Colgate, Nestle, Kraft and Pepsi. She is President Emeritus of AIGA, the largest professional association for design in the world. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine and Co-Founder and Chair of the world's first Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting, "Design Matters," the first podcast about design on the Internet. In 2011, the show was awarded a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award.
My whole life has been one thing leading to another, leading to another, and then another. It has been completely circuitous and mostly unplanned and that includes every art and design project I’ve ever worked on.
Debbie is the author of six books on design and branding, including Look Both Ways, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, and now, Self-Portrait As Your Traitor
Read more about Self-Portrait As Your Traitor in yesterday's Thinker in Residence post.
About Sally Haldorson
Sally Haldorson's job as 800-CEO-READ’s General Manager is to make 800-CEO-READ a great place to work for our employees, and a consistently high-performing customer service organization for our clients, authors, and our partners in the publishing industry. In addition to her General Manager duties ensuring collaboration, integration, and quality, she reads, writes, reviews, curates, and edits for the company. Helping craft The 100 Best Business Books of All Time used parts of both skill sets. Outside of work, she is most likely to be found hitting a tennis ball around or hanging out with her boys (husband, child, dog) at home.