Bad Girl of Design

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Debbie Millman's not one of those over-35 types who's squeamish about her age. "I'll be 39 in October," she cheerfully announces. "Thirty-nine is an awkward age. I can't wait to be 40, then I'll start to be like Sharon Stone."

That must be the Sharon Stone of Basic Instinct, because Millman, a managing partner and president of the design division at New York-based international design consultancy Sterling Group, has a wicked side and a wicked sidelight: since 1992 she's been the creative director at Emmis Broadcasting's Hot 97 in New York, a hip-hop/R&B FM powerhouse with a track record of in-your-face outdoor and transit work.

This makes for something of a stark contrast with her Sterling clients; though hardly the staid company it may once have been, with youthfully cool design work for Burger King, Polaroid's i-Zone , MTV, Nike and others, Sterling is quite a leap from Millman's music marketing mosh pit days. In an earlier incarnation, the New York native and SUNY/Albany English major, who describes herself as "a total music maniac who listens to everything," did freelance advertising and promotion for Madonna's Blonde Ambition tour and edited the magazines distributed at rock concerts by a company called Wave Communications. She got her big-time design house start as director of marketing at Frankfurt Balkind in 1992, which "at the time was probably the hottest design firm in the country," she says. "It was a great opportunity to do entertainment-related design work, but it was also a chance to move into more corporate branding, particularly with annual reports. I wanted to move into the blue-chip world."

And indeed she did, going from Frankfurt to Interbrand for two years, "my first foray into a pure branding consultancy," then on to Sterling in `95. But Hot 97 went right along with her. Back in `92, the station "just wanted to attract new listeners," she explains. "They were a dance music station at the time and really didn't know what they wanted to be. They literally had no budget, so we ended up doing a very provocative ad campaign by picking out some of the sexy people that worked there, putting them in scanty clothes and photographing them. It was so sexy, Newsday put it on the front page of the paper [headline: `Sexy buses, sexy subways'] and a local congressman was complaining about how smutty it was. It even made CNN. The ratings went through the roof."

The follow-up campaign kicked off with an open call on the radio for models, which brought thousands of mostly black and Hispanic listeners in to try out for the ads. It too was a big hit, and the station wisely staked out the burgeoning hip-hop/R&B territory. And Millman, white, female and Jewish, had staked out a prime piece of the `urban' marketing landscape. She insists she's down with this scene, which still features many white people at the executive level. Moreover, "One of the best compliments I ever got was Brandy looking me over and saying, `Nice suit,' " she says half-jokingly. And she's down with hip-hop culture as well, despite it's notoriously negative media image. While there's clearly a less than desirable side to the rap business, "the culture is real and the best of it can be about getting your life together and doing positive things," Millman insists. "People like Missy Elliot, Foxy Brown, Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu . . . it's more about the women than the men."

The design business, of course, is more about the men than the women. "When I came to Sterling, it didn't have nearly the reputation of a Landor or a Gerstman & Meyers, but I felt I could have more of an impact here and create a real dynamic, and I think I have, primarily because of the chairman, Simon Williams. He's always pushing us to grow and change, and he isn't afraid to work with strong women," she laughs. "I've always had a problem with that.

"I'm one of the few female partners in a branding consultancy in this country," she adds. The problem isn't with the clients, it's just that this industry has long tended to be a very old-boys' network. But it's changing now. There are women at Pepsi, Kraft and Gillette, for example - it's almost a changing of the guard. "

Much the same can be said of Sterling. "It's a much cooler company now, thanks to plenty of people besides me, but when I started here we did package design and strategic planning. Now we also do corporate identity, advertising, market research and a whole slew of interactive projects, and the interactive division just started 18 months ago. We'll be going more and more into the new-media arena, advertising both on and offline It's either do it or die. "

What about the design scene as a whole? "I'm really missing Tibor Kalman and what he was doing for our business," Millman says. "I only met him a few times, but I was always inspired by his work and the way he challenged the community. When everything is branded, when even dry-cleaning supplies are branded, it's time for a reassessment of why people buy what they buy. What Tibor did was make us all question what we're doing. There's a responsibility we have to take for encouraging people to consume things. That's what I'm worried about for the future. There's so much money being made now from the branding of sneakers, of all the inane commodity products that never used to have brands associated with them. We're getting all caught up in the hype, and not being careful enough about the messages that we're sending. I take these issues of accountability as seriously as the creative.. There's certainly of lot of great work being done, and there are a lot of great designers, but I'm missing the influence, say, that Fabien Barron had at Harper's Bazaar. I think we need a new bad boy."

But what about a bad girl? "A bad girl is definitely necessary," she chuckles.

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