Today, she is a writer, educator, artist, brand consultant, and radio show host. Specifically, she worked in design for over 25 years and currently serves as president of the design division at Sterling Brands, a leading brand consultancy formed in 1992 with offices in New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Cincinnati. She's held the position for 17 years. You know her work.
The consultancy’s client roster includes many international brands such as Procter & Gamble, Nestlé, Disney, Bayer, Google, and Visa. She has been personally responsible for working on the redesign of over 200 global brands.
While her position alone would be enough to scream success, she is also a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at FastCompany.com, chair of the Masters In Branding program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City, and hosts the award-winning weekly radio talk show “Design Matters With Debbie Millman.”
And yet, with all sincerity and despite the twinkle in her eye, Millman is among the first to say that her career never really took off until her 30s. Before that, she chalked up one failure after the next.
What does Millman think made all the difference?
While Millman shared a top ten list of things she wish she knew before she started her career (a list that will be published on a transitionary AIGA Las Vegas site later this week), it took a question from the audience to pin it all down. When asked what was the catalyst for change, she settled on a single word after a long and thoughtful 30-second pause.
The single word answer almost fell flat on the 200 or so attendees at the Jan. 25 event hosted by AIGA Las Vegas, Las Vegas - Clark County Library District and Library Foundation. Enough so, that as a speaker and instructor, I wanted to jump in and provide a greater context for what she meant. I got it, even if not everyone did.
Millman didn't mean that everyone needed to find a psychologist or therapist to find success. But what most people need to do, especially students on the eve of graduating who can't see a clear vision into their future, is to change their thinking. The greatest road block for success begins with giving ourselves permission to succeed, something Millman had admitted that she never really did until later.
"I started to choose a path that was failure proof," Millman said. "If there is such a thing."
Her revision of the Burger King logo was met with considerable scorn. But it was the blog's comments that drove the discussion away from a single logo design and defining Millman as a talentless hack.
Millman might have been able to weather the criticism had she not just recently been more or less shackled by the leadership of AIGA as not being progressive enough as a designer to hold a position on their board. (This was also despite finally finding her dream position at Sterling Brands.) Basically, it meant to her that neither AIGA designers nor anti-AIGA designers would accept her or her work.
But that was a long time ago. What really changed it for Millman was her ability to stop avoiding failures and start embracing them. In fact, Millman says that if you don't make mistakes, you aren't taking enough risks. And taking risks — not avoiding failure — is a critical step toward finding success.
You can't be successful by trying to avoid failure.
Many of Millman's life lessons are much like that. While some people might chalk it up to common sense, the truth of it is that most people are afraid to take risks, find excuses not to make them, tend to quit too soon in order to prove success is elusive, and never give themselves permission to live the remarkable lives that they dream of, assuming they ever open themselves up to dream them. I couldn't agree more.
Therapy is the right answer, but it doesn't necessarily mean hiring a a therapist. It means accepting who you are and changing your outlook about what's possible, especially if you have built a lifetime of resistance. Most people need help to do it. And it just doesn't matter whether that help comes from a teacher, mentor, friend, colleague, ideology, faith, or whatever because it sounds simpler than it will be.
We have to be open to the possibilities, work hard in actively pursuing them, and never give up in the face of failure. As Millman eventually learned, it was her failures that often opened doors for success and not the other way around. Or, as she so eloquently put it, she failed her way to a successful life.