debbie millman

Friday, August 26, 2005

Commentary: Time and Space and Ideas and Emily

I am fascinated by numbers and physics. I have favorite numbers, and numbers that I hate. I think certain numbers are beautiful, like the numbers 8 or 11, and others that I think are awkward or even ugly, like 31 or 47. I like that numbers can signify things—horrible things like 9/11 or provocative things like 69 or semi-ingenious things like the television show 24. I love to follow the stock market, with it’s unpredictable ups and downs, and I am slightly addicted to both roulette and poker, and the momentary suspension of time and belief that gambling on numbers can create as you wait for your particular numbers to come up—or not.

I have become both perplexed and enraptured with some of the more modern theories of physics—string theory being the most interesting and challenging. Over the last few years I have been reading as much as I can on the life and work of Albert Einstein, especially the work after publishing his theory of relativity. During the last three decades of his life, Einstein became obsessed by the dream of producing a unified theory of the laws of physics, an equation that would establish a link between the seemingly unrelated forces of gravity and electromagnetism. He was convinced that this existed, despite all the evidence to the contrary, and the scorn of the science community. When asked about what he was attempting to accomplish with this unifying theory, his response was this: “to understand the mind of God.”

In trying to discover a unifying theory, Einstein hoped to resolve the inherent conflict between the then two competing visions of the universe: the smooth continuum of space-time, where people and stars and planets reign, as explained in his general theory of relativity, and the unseemly animation of the quantum world.

Einstein worked hard on the problem, but success eluded him. That was no surprise to his contemporaries, who saw his quest as a not only indulgent, but ridiculous. They were sure he had gone a little mad, a bit crazy, and was simply wasting his time and diluting his legacy. In contrast to the ideas of the time, Einstein was convinced that in the conflict between quantum mechanics and general relativity, it was the former that constituted the heart of the problem. "I must seem like an ostrich who forever buries its head in the sand” he said near the end of his life.

We know now, however, that it is indeed Einstein's theory of relativity that ultimately did fail. On extremely fine scales, space-time, and thus reality itself, becomes grainy and discontinuous, like a badly overmagnified newspaper photograph. The equations of general relativity simply can't handle such a situation, where the laws of cause and effect break down and particles jump going through the space in between. In such a world, you can only calculate what will probably happen next — which is just what quantum theory is designed to do.

Einstein could never accept that the universe was at its heart a cosmic crapshoot, evident in another of his famous quotes: “God wouldn’t play dice with the universe.” But the mystery he tried to solve is still so utterly fundamental. In simply recognizing the problem, Einstein was so daringly ahead of his time that only now has the rest of physics begun to catch up. A new generation of scientists has at last taken on the challenge of creating a complete theory — one capable of explaining, in Einstein's words, "every element of physical reality." And judging from the progress they have made, the next century could usher in an intellectual revolution even more exciting than the one Einstein helped launch in the early 1900s.

At the heart of all of his endeavors, Einstein used his imagination and will power to come up with his ideas. That is one of the other unifying principles of the universe as we know it—anyone and everyone can use their imaginations to come up with ideas—both little and large--and influence, change or impact the world. Whether is be psychics, art, design, number theory, politics or even gardening. And, to me, that is what makes this particular universe so incredibly special.

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Commentary: What It Feels Like For A Girl

I have often wondered what it would be like to be a man. I have occasionally suspected that my whole life would have been a whole lot easier had I been born male rather than female, aside from my complete and utter lack of sports acumen. I say this not only because I question whether or not I have more testosterone than I really should have as a woman (because I think I actually do) but rather because it seems a lot easier to be man in the working world and to have it “all,” so to speak. I also say this because when I am being bossy I wouldn’t have to worry that I am being perceived as bitchy, when I am moody I wouldn’t have to worry about being thought of as premenstrual, and when I am strong I wouldn’t have to worry about being considered overly aggressive. Us women have to worry about these things, and frankly, men simply don’t.

I grew up in a house where both of my parents worked. In fact, for many years, during my mother’s second marriage, she was the only one that did work. So when I thought about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I just assumed that I would work. Having a family and a house in the suburbs did not even register in my fantasies of adulthood. My idea of the future was always about a career, financial independence and self-expression. My choices never included being a mother, at least they didn’t until I hit forty and worried that if I didn’t make a move soon, I would never be able to be a mom. It seems unfair that we girls have a built in expiration date to have biological children, and as I approached the finish line to my maternal window, I found out that, once again, given the choice, I didn’t want to go to the extreme lengths it would require for me to have children. I often joke about how much easier it would be for ME to have a wife—and I still joke about it, but now I wish I didn’t have to joke. It is hard to do it all when you work 60 hours a week, and while I adore what I do, it would be nice every once in a while if someone else could pick up the dry cleaning or buy all the pet food that I need for my four furry friends.

But in the grand scheme of things, I do love being a woman. Mostly because I like the clothes and the shoes and the make-up and being allowed to cry at sappy movies, and being allowed to watch sappy movies without fear of being a sissy. But I also love being bossy and strong and decisive. And I love other women that are like that too. My friend Stephen Hinton sent me a link today to an article in the New York Times about what is now being referred to as “girl crushes.” Apparently, according to the Times, "this is a new phrase that many women use in conversation, post on blogs and read in magazines. It refers to that fervent infatuation that one heterosexual woman develops for another woman who may seem impossibly sophisticated, gifted, beautiful or accomplished. And while a girl crush is, by its informal definition, not sexual in nature, the feelings that it triggers - excitement, nervousness, a sense of novelty - are very much like those that accompany a new romance." Stephen sent me this link because of my own admittance to a fervent infatuation I have on my friend Emily. What is interesting to me is that this crush is all about what I love most about women--and being a woman: the ability that we have now to be both beautiful and accomplished—with and for each other. Maybe it is with these new types of relationships we can redefine what it means to “have it all.” In the meantime, while we still may have difficulties having it all, I think it is nice to know that we can be it all, albeit with some strong stereotypes still to combat. But as Shelly Lake once said, “well behaved women rarely make history.” Well, I say this: here’s to being bad.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Commentary: How I Spent My Summer Vacation

I have been feeling rather ashamed of myself this week. It is quite a peculiar feeling to be in a nearly constant state of shame, but all this week I have been in Milton Glaser’s summer program at the School of Visual Arts. And in this time I have been confronting all of the daily lies I live with in my daily life and frankly, there are not always noble reasons for doing the things that I do.

I have learned a lot about myself and my relationship to the world this week. I have learned the less capable you are of surviving the less options you have, and as a person who has managed to survive quite a lot, I limit my options with my own fear. I also learned that I often get stuck in the same place in my work: at the beginning of something. This is a wall I need to penetrate—yet I have stayed here longer in this area because it is so comfortable. I often get very pessimistic at the start of something new—I am not quite sure why—but I do know this is preventing me from growing and that I am the only one capable of making any changes to this dynamic. Afraid to start something new leads me to be stuck in a groove, no longer interested in any new process or experience other than what has been successful before. Everything predictable. Kind of like a Cindy Sherman photograph.

On this website I ask the question, what would you do if you weren’t afraid. Would you quit your job? Would you start a rock band? Would you write a novel? Would you start your own company? Would you travel around the world? Would you call your mother? Would you say you are sorry? Would you say I love you? I have been asking myself these kinds of things these last few days, and while I don’t have any definitive answers right at this moment in time, I do have some guidelines that I am considering for articulating my answer.

I am calling them Debbie’s Guide To My Own Personal Happiness. Here we go:

1) Try not to brag about things you do in order to convince yourself that you are worthy.

2) Wearing make up will only make you feel prettier until you have to take it off. Same for pretty clothes. How you feel about yourself can not be repaired by how you look.

3) Pride is different than hubris. Know the difference.

4) Assume that change will not kill you.

5) Having some money in the bank will not give you courage. Courage begets courage.

6) Freedom is not another word for nothing left to lose. Freedom is knowing what you want to lose.

7) People are like plants. They need a lot of water.

8) Being right is not as important as knowing when you are wrong. Admit it.

9) When you have nothing to say, it is better that you keep your mouth shut and listen.

And my most profound realization:

10) True love is not only about unconditional acceptance. True love is also about true love. It also helps if you assume that love is a good thing.

Ultimately I don’t really think I am searching for love or happiness or answers to how we got here and why. What I am searching for is some semblance of authenticity. I think with authenticity all of those other wonderful things come organically. So now I am asking myself, and I am asking those around me with intense curiousity: what nourishes you? What do you do with your intuition? How can we make a real difference, a real contribution to our friends, our families, our colleagues, our loved ones…and the world? Heady questions for a hot and sticky afternoon, but long overdue and I think, well worth the effort.
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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 FastCompany.com 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 DesignObserver.com. 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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