debbie millman

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Commentary: No Confessions Today

I am often moved, sometimes profoundly, sometimes humorously and many times surprisingly by the things I see around me. Silly posters for garage sales, house cleaning services or guitar lessons, posters pasted up on buildings touting a dating service specifically for people who have pets, or ominous signs asking you to determine if you, too, could possibly have a life-threatening disease by answering “yes” to a series of fairly mundane questions. Now, for whatever reason, when I see these masses of images surrounding me, I can’t help but feel that they may have some divine purpose or be part of some bigger plan, a master message of sorts. I guess what I am saying is you could probably call me an anti-existentialist. I can’t help but try to connect the dots of my visual landscape, looking for some grander purpose: perhaps an answer the origins of the universe or maybe something more simple: why we do the things we do, to ourselves and each other--in our culture and to humanity. Nevertheless, despite the sensory overload of messaging in Manhattan, I must confess that I haven’t found many answers yet.

However, there is a little church I pass on my walk to work every day, and they often have handwritten 8 x 11 posters on in the window box in front of the church. Usually they are advertising the upcoming sermon during the upcoming Sunday services, or a pot luck dinner on Friday night. This last week, however, featured two rather innocuous signs that not only made me pause, they also forced me to pull my cellphone out and snap pictures of them. Both of them made me smile, both of them brought me some pattern recognition as I could connect them to other events that were in synchronicity with manners of living these days, and both, in a lovely turn of double or triple entendres, gave me unsolicited advice that I felt compelled to take.

The first poster was a handwritten one color poster, probably made with a nearly out of ink, dry magic marker. It was taped to the front of the window box, as it was clearly a last minute notice. It said simply: NO CONFESSIONS TODAY. I riveted. I was surprised. I felt forewarned. I went on to my office and shared the picture of the poster with my workmates, and about an hour later, scrawled in green magic marker on one of those rather ugly erasable boards near my office, my darling colleague Gregory put up the same message: NO CONFESSIONS TODAY. Everyone laughed. But I felt just a twinge of sadness or disappointment, as I realized that part of what is so wonderful about being close to people and sharing the remarkable lives we are all leading is the unique ability we have to share our deepest thoughts, fears, anxieties, secrets…in short to trust each other with our confessions. For like love and fear and hunger and sleep and sex, trust seems one of the qualities of life that must be experienced fully.

The other sign was one I saw yesterday, for a church class…but this one was far more promising and optimistic. First, it was actually typeset, and it used two different fonts, so it was far more professional looking. But it had a most ominous feel which matched the following boldly portrayed message:

Oh, if it were just that easy! I couldn’t help but wonder if there, in that little church class held all the answers to all the questions we have in life. Is there a higher purpose? Is there a higher being watching over us determining our destiny, our paths and our actions? And what, for goodness sakes, does sex have to do with that?

I am not sure when the class is, but I am going to try to take it.

Ultimately, in some small and wonderous way, I think design can help us determine who we are, and why we are, and what we want to be or hope to become. It might not have the power to get us there—that, I think resides in our actions and commitment to those actions, but I do think it can give us the information and the impetus and the inspiration to at least become more aware. I ask you, I ask us all to look around, really see the things around us, the innocuous beautiful things: electrical grids, manhole covers, fire hydrants, fences, abandoned railroads, vacant lots, front lawns, trolley pulls, door bells, dilapidated buildings, mail boxes, broken down neon signs…things with messages (or without) that are all very poignant and necessary. I ask us all, I ask myself, to try and see the things that we don’t see but could and should. I think all of these things connect us to society and to culture, and to each other. Common vision connects us to common experiences which can connect us to common vocabulary and ultimately to a common, connected and very special sense of trust. Yes, I do think that design can accomplish all that.


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Location: new york city, United States

Debbie Millman has worked in the design business for over 25 years. She is President of the design division at Sterling Brands. She has been there for nearly 15 years and in that time she has worked on the redesign of global brands for Pepsi, Procter & Gamble, Campbell’s, Colgate, Nestle and Hasbro. Prior to Sterling, she was a Senior Vice President at Interbrand and a Marketing Director at Frankfurt Balkind. Debbie is President of the AIGA, the largest professional association for design. She is a contributing editor at Print Magazine, a design writer at and Brand New and Chair of the Masters in Branding Program at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. In 2005, she began hosting the first weekly radio talk show about design on the Internet. The show is titled “Design Matters with Debbie Millman” and it is now featured on In addition to “Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design,” (HOW Books, 2009, she is the author of "How To Think Like A Great Graphic Designer" (Allworth Press, 2007) and “The Essential Principles of Graphic Design” (Rotovision, 2008).

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