Debbie Millman a designer, artist, author, educator, CMO of Sterling Brands + host of Design Matters, the world's first + longest running podcast on design. Today's conversation shows us how a simple creative brief begins a powerful marketplace story.

ccp 013 debbie millman how to use a creative brief as a strategic storytelling tool-bio

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Alzay Calhoun:  Hey, everybody. It's Alzay Calhoun with Coveted Consultant. Today I'm here with Debbie Millman. I am happy to interview her today, because she really is a design expert. She's got a lot of experience, a lot of passion around this topic, well established in the field. I'm going to let her tell us about her background. I just want to start by saying hello. Hello, Debbie. How are you today?

Debbie Millman:  I am wonderful. Thank you so much for having me on your show.

Alzay:  Thank you. Thank you for being here. Let's start just by telling a story. Tell us about when you realized that design was important.

Debbie:  It's an interesting question, because I would say that subconsciously I knew quite a lot before I recognized consciously that it was important. There are a couple of things that happened to me when I was a kid that really impacted my whole life.

My father was a pharmacist. He had his own pharmacy. When I was a little girl, my mom would take me to visit him at the store. I was enthralled by the packaging.

We'd spend countless hours looking at the packaging, whether it be Goody barrettes, or Stayfree maxi pads, or Lay's potato chips, and imagine the world that these products came from.

Like the girl that was on the Stayfree sanitary pads packaging, at that time back in the '60s and '70s, was walking on a beach in a beautiful gossamer dress. I wanted to know who she was. Why was she there? What was she thinking? What did she do when she wasn't on the package?

I envisioned these lives that these characters had. Even the little cartoon characters on cereal packaging for me had a soul, they had lives, they had a whole world that I wanted to inhabit. That was when I first, in hindsight, recognized that design impacted me.

It really wasn't until I was in college and first started to study design a little bit and worked on my student newspaper as an editor but very quickly realized I was much more interested in how the pages looked than how the articles read. That's when I realized that design was a discipline and really started to take it seriously as something to consider doing for the rest of my life.

Alzay:  Very good. As you've worked in that field, you've done some things to establish yourself in the field. You've written some material, you've written some books. Tell us about some of the things that you've done in that space.

Debbie:  The first 10 years of my career ‑‑ I've been working now for a bit over 30, believe it or not ‑‑ the first 10 years, I would say, were experiments in rejection and failure, where I learned what to do and what not to do and how to do things and how not to do things.

The second 10 years is when I really got my footing in the discipline of design, I think I really became a practitioner. It took about 10 years for me to really get good at what I was doing. This last 10 have been about advocating the power of design.

That's when I began writing and began my podcast and began getting the word out, so to speak, about what design could do, the power that design and branding have in our culture. I often say that the condition of design and branding reflects the condition of our culture.

It's only been in the last 10 or 12 years that I've come to understand how and why. I'd say the first 10 years were experiments, the second 10 years were practicing, and now this last 10 years is a combination of practicing, experiments, and then also advocating.

Alzay:  I appreciate you offering that experience. We live in a culture that's very instant. We have a lot of things that are instantly accessible to us.

Debbie:  I call it the 140 character culture.

Alzay:  Indeed. We expect that success, which can be defined a number of ways, but success, a prominence in something can happen instantly.

What you just described is the exact opposite. I had to spend some time not doing so good. I had to spend some time dedicating myself to a discipline. I had to spend some time advocating on behalf of that discipline.

For those of us who want to leverage design, we have to think about it in terms of that discipline you just described versus the instantaneous, "I have a logo, therefore I should be doing well." Thank you, thank you for offering that. I'm going to set this up. Hopefully, I do it in a fair way.

You are creative. There are those of us in the business world that would call ourselves not creative. We are brass tacks, bottom line, profit‑driven business people. I put myself in that category.

There are sometimes where the creatives, I'll call them pure creatives, and pure "business people," we have our frictions, because we speak two different languages. However, the reality of business requires both things. It requires the hard core, if you will, profit and loss and the hard core design.

If we're going to have a conversation around how to use design to build our business, help us start that conversation. Where should we begin to have this conversation?

Debbie:  I think it's important to recognize that design is not just about design. Design is about cultural anthropology, it's about behavioral psychology, it's about economics, and it's about creativity. Good design is a combination of all of those things.

If you aren't able to understand the condition of the culture, the condition of what is happening and why things are happening in the way they are in our day‑to‑day lives, the anthropological trajectory of how we are evolving, you're never really going to be able to understand the zeitgeist and capture the zeitgeist in a way that means something to people.

If you're not able to understand how they think, why they choose the things that they do, why they make the rational and irrational decisions that they make about what they choose to have in their lives, you are never going to be able to capture the imagination of the consumer.

People often believe that what is going to make a difference to a consumer, to a shopper, to a human being, is a different form or a different flavor. People don't care about that anymore. People want to know how this brand, how this design is going to make a difference in my life.

Unless you have a higher order of purpose, unless you can really provide a differentiation for why your product, your brand, your thing is different from everybody else's, all you'll ever do is inspire a trial but you won't inspire loyalty. You won't inspire stewardship. That's really what is required now to create a meaningful brand.

When it comes to economics, people I think since 2008 have been talking about the value proposition. I think that's only one part of an equation. It has to do with a return on investment. There also has to be some type of reason that this is going to be valuable to people.

If the value proposition was all that mattered and there are people that think that that is the most important thing, then why would we be selling so many iPads? It's not just about the cheapest or the most easy to achieve. It's about what makes somebody feel better about themselves and creates a sense of being valuable in their lives.

That's really critical to understand now when calculating any return on investment.

Finally, it's about having great creative because that will set you apart. That will create a sense of desirability in a way that very few other disciplines can. Design is not just about design. Design is about those four disciplines that come together to create the most holistic expression of a brand and of a product.

Alzay:  In my own business, I have examples of clients that come to me and say some version of "Hey, we want to be the next iPad." They're not always comparing themselves to the iPad, but that's the basic idea. We want to be the latest success. What you've done is you just said "Yeah, it's a little deeper than that. It's a little deeper than just creating a gadget that you think will be interesting to someone else."

We have to tap into something different, we have to tap into a different conversation, and I heard you use a word that I want you to please define for me. You said zeitgeist? Can you please explain that term?

Debbie:  The zeitgeist is the state of things at this particular moment, what is the overwhelming mood of the times.

Alzay:  If we're still talking about iPads, iPads would have been less relevant 10 years ago. We were ready for the iPad at the time the iPad was introduced. For example, we already had the iPod, we already had the Macintosh computer. There was an opportunity for it where 10 or 20 years ago the opportunity was different. Am I capturing that well?

Debbie:  Yeah, I do think that one of the interesting things about Apple, and it'll be interesting to see if and how that can continue without Steve Jobs at the helm, what they were so remarkable in doing is not responding to what they thought consumers wanted. What they were able to do was create what they thought people need.

One of the famous quotes about need versus want is the quote that Henry Ford famously said at the turn of the 20th Century, which was if he had asked consumers what they wanted in better transportation, it would have set a faster course. It would not have been able to envision the car.

It is up to designers and inventors and marketers to evolve culture by creating new opportunities that have yet to be thought of. If all we're doing is rehashing old things or creating variations on a theme, we're not going to really be able to innovate.

That's not innovation. That's repetition. The great designers, the great inventors, the great marketers are those that take a chance by creating something that hasn't been there before, in an effort to further our humanity and our opportunities and our abilities. That's what I think is most exciting about branding.

It's really about the ability to invent things that haven't been invented before to create new opportunities for humanity, which sounds really lofty, but I'd rather be lofty than redundant.

Alzay:  [laughs] I appreciate that. If a business leader is listening, and they go in the category that you're describing, they believe that what they have really is not simply an iteration on but a true improvement of, we are moving forward.

If they believe they have that kind of thing in front of them, but they can't draw ‑‑ sticks and lines is the best they can get. Boxes and circles is the best they can get ‑‑ how do they communicate with you? How does design help that person get started with how to move forward from a design perspective?

Debbie:  That's a really good question. The best design reflects the best ideas. Ideas, in many ways, are easy. Strategy is much harder.

Alzay:  Yes, indeed.

Debbie:  I could ask any designer to come up with a redesign of a label of a beverage. It would take them a couple of days maybe to do something that was really interesting, maybe less. If I were to ask for an entirely new beverage that had never been created before, that might take a really, really long time.

The best design is reflecting the best strategy and unique ideas. Strategy is really choosing to perform activities differently or choosing to provide different activities than rivals. That's a sort of Michael Porter Harvard Business School definition of strategy.

What you want to be able to do, and this is where designers can really help marketers and inventors and executives. How can you help refine an idea to ensure that it is performing different activities than rivals, that it really is providing something different in the marketplace and creating the best possible reason for being if all you're doing is, again, an iteration of something that's already been done before, why does the world need that?

Why does the world need another bottled water? Why does the world need another carbonated soft drink, another salty snack, another over‑the‑counter pharmaceutical? What is the reason for being? What you want to be able to do is create a reason for being that has a fundamental human need. If you can uncover what that is, you have a very good chance of creating some meaning in the marketplace.

Alzay:  I'm going to ask this next question from my level of understanding. That may be very, very low, shallow, elementary.

Debbie:  Don't sell yourself short.

Alzay:  [laughs] Let's see what happens. I have what I believe to be a world changing idea, at least marketplace changing idea. I believe that what I have is really good. It's worth investing into. I'm talking to a design expert. What picture do we draw first? Do we draw a logo? Do we draw a website design? What do we do first?

Debbie:  I can't even begin to tell you how many times I've been asked to try and create the next Nike swoosh. If you deconstruct the Nike swoosh first and look at its history, it was created overnight by a student. Phil Knight gave her $60. He didn't even like the Nike logo she came back with. He felt that it didn't have the same sense of energy as the popular Adidas logo of the time.

He was on a deadline for printing his shoe boxes, the sneaker boxes, so he went with it. If you look at the logo as a piece of iconography, if you turn it upside down, it's the Newport cigarette's logo. It's not the mark. It's the marketing. It's the marketing. You can't start with style first.

You have to start with the substance. If you're looking to design something, you're looking to reflect what the meaning of the brand and the product is. First and foremost, you want to develop a creative brief. What is the criteria for success in this visualization?

Once you have that, you begin to sketch, you begin to draw, you begin to come up with ideas that help visually articulate the language of this product. Then you can create an idea visually, only then. Create the meaning. Create the point of difference. Create the criteria for success. Then begin sketching.

Alzay:  What that means is that my first step needs to be to create a creative brief?

Debbie:  Yes.

Alzay:  Are there four or five things that typically go in a creative brief? If you just said them, please repeat them.

Debbie:  No, I didn't. I think one day of working on a creative brief saves about two weeks of design time. [laughs] Just so you know. It's advantageous from a financial standpoint as well. You need to create a creative brief that has really differentiating language.

For example, many, many years ago I was at a conference and was listening to a really smart guy talk about some of the language that was given to him in a creative brief by one of the world's largest food companies. The directive was to create something that appealed to contemporary moms.

What does that mean? Nothing. It means nothing. Who were you trying to target? Who were you trying to get interested in this product? Define your audience. Define the need state. Define how and why this matters. Then you can begin designing.

Alzay:  Very good.

Debbie:  It's not just about contemporary moms.

Alzay:  Very good.

Debbie:  What mom wouldn't describe herself as contemporary?

Alzay:  Right. Have you ever met anyone who says, "I'm contemporary?" No one uses that word. What are we talking about?

Debbie:  Exactly.

Alzay:  Right, wonderful, wonderful. OK. Let's go one step further, just where we are right now in the conversation. Let's say I've got my great thing, I've created the creative brief. I've done my job of giving some words or some language around this thing that I do. OK. All right. Now do we start drawing? When do we start drawing?

Debbie:  Now you can start drawing. Unless you're really, really in tune with culture, it's very difficult to use yourself as an arbiter of great design if you're not a designer. What's interesting is that people will hire designers and then direct the designer to do something that the designer may or may not think it's a good idea.

Design is a really subjective experience. That's why it's so important to have a sound, strategic point of view about what this product can do, because design is really subjective. Art is really subjective. You'll find as many people that like Jackson Pollock as don't, or Salvadore Dali as many people don't like him as don't. There is no one way of thinking about design and art.

The one bit of advice I would give to non‑designers hiring designers is let designers do their job. Trust the designer to show you what you might not consider possible. Don't decide what's impossible before you even realize what's possible.

Alzay:  Very good. Thank you. It's the leader's job to provide leadership. Then, after that, get out of the way.

Debbie:  Get out of the way. Sure, bring all of your expertise in the market to the evaluation, but give the designers some runway to take off before you shut down the engine.


Alzay:  Very good. Thank you, thank you. In your business, what big project are you working on? Anything you have special coming up?

Debbie:  I have been working on my 11th season of my podcast which is "Design Matters" with the first design podcast in the marketplace in the world on iTunes, too. I've been working with some wonderful guests. I have I think a really special season this season. iTunes voted us one of the best podcasts of 2015. We're celebrating that as well.

I'm also working with the Joyful Heart Foundation, which is Mariska Hargitay's non‑profit, to help eradicate sexual abuse, domestic violence, and child abuse. I've been working on developing new positioning and a new logo for the organization which will be unveiled in May of this year. I'm very excited about that.

Alzay:  Very good. Very good. If someone wants to contact you and work with you or just learn more from you, where should they go to do that?

Debbie:  A couple of different places. They can go to my website, which is They could follow me on Twitter @debbiemillman, or they can email me,

Alzay:  Very good. Debbie, we've done a good thing today. Thank you so much for your time. You've given us a way to help digest this design conversation. Good luck in the future. Thanks so much.

Debbie:  It's been a pleasure being on the show with you today. Thank you.

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