Notes and Notices

On art, architecture and design


Read: Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits

Posted by Carren Jao Pineda |

I would not be alone in saying that I have a love-hate relationship with brands. On one hand, they are the icons of our consumerist society. On the other, they have influenced the way we think, feel and live, (Think mega-brand Coca-Cola, whose color scheme has defined the color of Christmas for millions of people, for example.) This has given me a kind of heeby-jeebies about how much brands really affect our lives, whether we know it or not.

In her new book, Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits, Debbie Millman sits down with others who work around brands to try and figure out the lay of the land, so to speak. I had the pleasure of speaking with Debbie about this new book, her ongoing fascination for branding and the surprises along the way of this book's publishing. Without further ado, this is me in conversation with one of unabashed heroes.

The people you interviewed (which include Malcolm Gladwell, Dan Pink, Seth Godin, Karim Rashid) were amazing. How were you able to winnow it down? 

D: Because the book started as a brand design book, I started interviewing people that had that expertise—people like David Butler, Phil Duncan, Cheryl Swanson. Then, I started to feel that I wanted to broaden the conversation. I started to ask more people. Then I had to limit it because I could have kept going on and on and on.

It was really limited only by my deadline, I could have continued asking people forever. There’s still so many people that I wanted to talk to. I really wish that I could have talked to more.

I loved how the conversations were so organic. There so many varied topics you touched on. How did you go about doing the interviews?

D: I had done interviews before online via email and they just don’t have the richness and the depth of conversation. Every single conversation in Brand Thinking was an actual conversation. There was no time delay between question and answer and response and response.

It was all done in real time, taped and then edited. All of the interviews were transcribed, so you really get very intimate with the language of these interviews when you’re doing all the transcriptions and all the editing. It’s quite extraordinary.

I’m guessing the challenge would be also to edit the interviews because a very conversation is very rich.

D: Yes, absolutely. It’s very hard. In each interview, the actual conversation went between one and two hours. The editing and the transcriptions took probably 24 or 48 hours. It was unbelievable. It would take me about 8 hours just for editing. Then, I had another editor edit what I did.

There were so many viewpoints expressed about brands and what exactly a brand is—from being a totem to a story—whose point of view do you find yourself resonating with the most? 

D: There were a couple of things in the book that really, truly stopped me in my tracks in terms of when I interview people. I think the most profound comment in the book is what Dan Pink says about how humans metabolize brands quickly.

If we’re looking for redemption, if we’re looking for satisfaction, if we’re looking for fulfillment, self-realization, we’re looking for those types of long-lasting meaningful emotional responses from brands, we’re playing a fool’s game. That, ultimately, we end up running on the treadmill of consumption because those things are not going to provide everlasting contentment.

It’s like buying a new pair of shoes, when you wear them, you suddenly feel like everything else that you own is shabby. That’s just what happens with brands, they end up feeling shabby because they don’t provide what we’re missing internally.

It was really shocking to me to see that brands weren't always depicted as bright, shiny, happy things. There were times you brought up dilemmas in the practice of brand design. Do you think that brand designers always tackle these questions in their work? 

D:  Absolutely. I do think that brand design is a discipline of compromise and ambiguity. There are definitely things that are being done that can be questionable. I think each designer, consultant or strategist or planner has to determine for them what is acceptable and what isn’t.

I’ve been doing this for a really long time and I’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of marketing. I think it’s everybody’s own personal position about what they will do, what they will accept, in the same way they make the decisions about what they will buy.

Brands can connect us on their best day. They can make us feel larger than we are in terms of people who have vision and values, whether they be values of environment or values of politics or values of beauty or values of love, or they can also be used to destroy us.


D: I think we have to make decisions about where we fit on that continuum about how we either participate or refute those values.

Agreed. It was great to hear so many differing viewpoints on the role of brands too. Having said that, were there things that surprised or shocked you during the interviews? 

D: A couple of the brand gurus whether it be Wally Olins or Tom Peters, their frankness and honesty really surprised me. To both of those gentlemen, I had to say, “You okay with me printing this?” They were both like, “Absolutely! Gloves are off!”


D: I was really shocked at how funny DeeDee Gordon was. When she talked about the smug factor of certain groups of people, that just had me on the floor, she was able to talk about Kierkegaard and South Park in the same breath.

Wonderful. Well, unlike your previous illustrated essay book, this one had no visuals at all. Why is that?

D: Yes. I have gotten a lot of questions about why there are no visuals. There were visuals really because they were conversations.

The conversations weren’t over a slideshow or didn’t have any specific graphics that we were discussing in particular. Yes, there was a lot of discussions about Coca-Cola, there was a lot of discussion about Starbucks, but there wasn’t any reference in those conversations about graphics as we were speaking, so I felt that it would really be disingenuous to refer to the actual illustrations or brand drawings when that wasn’t done while we were doing the interview.

Fair enough. What then would you want people to take away from reading this book, putting it down and then digesting its contents for a time?

D: I think we are living more and more in a branded world whether it’s people or politics or food or movements, but I think that, ultimately, people still have the power over those brands and we need to remember that.

It’s up to us to determine where we want to move our culture via those brands and via the people. Brands are not in control, people are.

Very true, indeed. Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview. 

Brand Thinking and Other Noble Pursuits is available now. Don't miss the many wonderful conversations that may just help you think about where you stand when it comes to brands.


Get updates via RSS