Department Dossier: Debbie Millman

March 26, 2010

The fourth in a series of one-on-one conversations with SVA department chairs.

The College’s newest graduate program, the MPS Branding Department, is getting ready to welcome its first students in the fall 2010 semester. The department offers students a one-year curriculum that examines the power of design thinking as a way to combine creative skills with problem-solving and decision-making processes, and will be chaired by Debbie Millman, partner and president at Sterling Brands, host of the Design Matters radio show, and a longtime member of the SVA faculty. Millman talked to the Briefs as she was reviewing applications for the program’s inaugural year.

How did you come to chair the new MPS Branding Department?
I’ve been working in branding for over two decades, and Steven Heller [co-chair of the MFA Design Department and co-creator of the new branding program] asked if I’d be interested. I immediately said yes.

How does your professional practice carry over into the structuring of the new department?
I think my reputation in the business has helped generate excitement for the program. Also, my ‘day job’ has given me exposure to more students and faculty. I’m in a very fortunate position—Sterling Brands has done work for brands like Burger King, Hershey’s, Kleenex and Häagen Daz. Because our work is seen by millions of people every day and designers are aware of who did what, that exposure has been extremely helpful.

Why is it important to learn about branding in the contemporary marketplace?
Brands do more than they ever have in our society and in our history. They help define our beliefs and affiliations. We wear amulets to define that we’re married or unmarried, if we’re part of the Nike tribe or Starbucks tribe—brands help telegraph who we are to the world. It seems to be deeply ingrained in the human experience, and we’ll be studying human anthropology as well as economics and creativity. Students will get a full, in-depth portrait of why humans behave the way they do, because brands help document and tell the story of our humanity.

What are you most looking forward to as you prepare to open the program’s doors?
I’m looking forward to the first class graduating! It will realize all of our hopes, dreams, plans and potential for the program and our students. But before that, I’m looking forward to being in the trenches with the students, getting our hands dirty and opening up our minds.

Image: ©Nebojsa Babic.

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