debbie millman

Friday, January 27, 2006

Commentary: Salt

From the time I was very little I loved to make things. I made my own coloring books, I made my own paper dolls, I made dioramas, and I even tried to make my own perfume by crushing rose petals into baby oil. I made barrette boxes out of Popsicle sticks, key chains out of lanyards, ashtrays out of clay and Halloween costumes out of construction paper and old sheets. I got quite a lot of acclaim from my family for my artistic inclinations and found that creating things gave me a sense of accomplishment and pride and a fleeting sense of being special. It wasn’t until I got to kindergarten that an issue with my creative prowess emerged. Suddenly without any warning at all, when I was first learning to write, it became clear that I had trouble writing letterforms. I had specific trouble with the capital “Q” and placing the little tail exactly in the correct place on the “O,” and I had difficulty discerning lowercase d’s from lowercase b’s which was a bit of a problem given my first name. Of particular concern was my artistic and intellectual resistance to the capital H. For whatever reason, I had trouble constructing the two parallel lines crossed in the center by a horizontal one. I couldn’t draw any of the lines straight, I had trouble with the spatial relations between the lines and I was unable to get the weight of the three lines just right. Looking back on it now I remember my mother getting so exasperated with me that she actually enlisted my grandmother to take over the doomed endeavor. But as I continued to struggle, and my anguish turned to wrath, I experienced something that I had never consciously felt before: I couldn’t do something. I couldn’t get it right. Now while one might think being unable to write the letter H may not have any long-term ramifications, I should point out that at the time I was not called Debbie, which is actually my nickname. I was called Deborah. And it was not spelled in the conventional way: D-E-B-R-A. It was spelled D-E-B-O-R-A-H. So, in fact, not being able to draw an H was a rather big deal. As my temper tantrum intensified over my mangled H, my inventive grandmother made a sudden realization: since I had recently mastered the D’s and the B’s, I would be able to spell Debbie. The name Deborah would no longer be an obstacle to my self-expression. And thus a new moniker was established, and has lasted ever since. And I think that it when I first fell in love with the agile, malleable and thoroughly magical acrobatics of typography and language.

This tawdry affair has continued all my life and revealed itself in the curious ways. When I was punished in school for bad behavior and had to write 500 times over and over why I wouldn’t shoot spitballs, I distracted myself by attempting to write it mirror backwards. The exercise proved successful and looking back on the admonition, I find I can only feel grateful, as the talent to write mirror backwards has only gotten better and better as the years have gone by. And now, frankly, I am rather an expert at it.

Writing backwards, altering an autograph: the abstractions of these gestures intrigue me and propel me forward. I now have a persistent fascination with almost anything that contains type and text: whether it be provocative or beautiful pieces of art by Barbara Kruger or Joseph Kosuth or Lawrence Weiner or silly playthings like engraved rocks with dreamy words like peace or magic, or the hopeful but benign remnants of a John Kerry in 2004 tee shirt.

What remains in all of these messages are the words themselves. True or not, real or not, backwards or not, the letters endure. They are all works of art, really—whether the missive is real or imagined, hopeful or delusional—the letters endure. For it is the letters that provide the foundation of everything we see and everything we experience.

Yesterday I watched the Oprah episode wherein she skewered James Frey and his version of A Million Little Pieces of self-expression and I was struck by something she said in the somewhat sad and falsely redemptive spectacle: She inquired how much value contemporary culture places on truth. But ultimately I think that culture has very little to do with truth. Culture may be the reflection of what we believe is the truth. It is our WORDS that calibrate and distill what is true. As we deconstruct our language searching for authenticity, it is really only our letters that have the power and the permanence to measure and express it.

Thursday, January 26, 2006

Announcement: Design Matters Season Three Schedule

Design Matters is an internet radio show broadcast live from the Empire State Building in New York from 3-4PM EST every Friday afternoon on the Voice America Business Network.

You can view the VoiceAmerica Business site, and find the show here:

or you can go here, through the Sterling link:

Please note that you will need Windows Media Player or the equivalent program to listen in, but you can download the technology for free here:

Finally, you can listen to this show, or any of our previous shows, as a Podcast on iTunes, for free.

To listen to the Podcasts, you can do either of the following:

Subscribe manually, by going to the iTunes advanced menu, then select Subscribe to Podcast and enter the following: as the feed.

Or simply do a search on the iTunes music store Podcast directory for “Design Matters.”


January 6th Season Three Premiere: Chip Kidd
January 13th: Rick Valicenti
January 20th: Ellen Lupton
January 27th: Jonathan Hoefler & Tobias Frere-Jones
February 3rd: Bill Grant
February 10th: Paul Sahre
February 17th: Hillman Curtis
February 24th: Carin Goldberg
March 3rd: Grant McCracken
March 10th: Christoph Neiman
March 17th: Kenneth Fitzgerald
March 24th: Peter Buchanan-Smith
March 31st: Art Chantry
April 7th: Veronique Vienne & Steven Heller
April 14th: Jessica Helfand & William Drentell
April 21st: Ed Fella
April 28th: Brian Collins
May 5th: Bad Boys of Design III
May 12th: Gael Towey
May 19th: Todd Pruzan & Sam Potts
May 26th: William Lunderman
June 2nd: Ann Willoughby
June 9th: Paola Antonelli
June 23rd: Stanley Hainsworth
June 30th Season Three Finale: John Maeda

Friday, January 20, 2006

Commentary: Just Do It...Yourself

When I was 12 years old my best friend was also named Debbie. Like me, she loved magazines and fashion, and we both loved to write and draw and paint. The months before we went into sixth grade we spent the entire summer creating a magazine, which because we were both named Debbie, we titled “Debutante.” We spent endless hours writing all the articles in long hand and we illustrated all the pictures. We became consumed with the creation of this publication. We interviewed people we knew for “tell all” articles; we initiated our own surveys about boys and clothes and even kissing (though I doubt either of us had ever kissed anyone, at least romantically). We went through all of our own magazines and books for ideas and we were deliriously and passionately obsessed with our creation. We loved making all our own decisions about what to include and what not to and what we deemed culturally important in that summer of 1973. The only disagreement we ever had was over who was going to keep the original copy. For us, it was a perfect summer.

For me, the notion of “doing it myself” was not a novel concept. My mother supported our divorced family as a seamstress and because we didn’t have a lot of money, the first recourse for anything we wanted or needed was to make it ourselves. My school lunches were bagged, my textbook covers were made from the Sunday comics, and though I was profoundly embarrassed about it at the time, most of my clothes were handmade—sewn either by mom, by me, or knitted by my grandmother. My makeshift wardrobe included embroidered red corduroy overalls complete with a matching bolero jacket, a hot pink puffy-sleeved shirt with a purple butterfly appliqué-ed on the front, and a sky blue cable knit fisherman’s sweater with a matching hat. I subsequently made a skirt to match my pink puffy shirt but scorched it with an iron when trying to press the rather complicated pleated front. As you could well imagine, there was no consoling me that day.

All through junior high school I looked longingly at the girls in their cool Levi’s jeans and their lovely professionally made designer polo’s and was envious at their store bought crispness and their effortless fashion sophistication. I felt shabby and meager in comparison.

As my mother was aware of my Levi’s and Lacoste envy, she offered to make me the very same clothes and stitch an orange-y red tag onto the back pocket of a pair of no-brand blue jeans and glue a crocodile patch from the Lee Wards craft store onto the front of a new polo shirt from Modell’s. While that plan didn’t quite suit my aspirations of being a seventh-grade trendsetter (or at least voted the best dressed girl at Elwood junior high), I eagerly pored through the racks at Lee Wards desperately searching for a crocodile patch to stick onto the front of a new pink polo shirt. Alas, there were none. The best I came up with was a cute rendition of Tony the Tiger, but that really wasn’t the fashion image I was striving for.

Back then, there seemed to be a profound difference between doing something myself when I wanted to, and doing something myself when I had no other choice. Making my own magazine was a thrill and a challenge, but making my own wardrobe (or having my mother make it for me) felt like a castigation of sorts.

This all changed this past December. Every year, as the months wind down and the holidays take over, I take two weeks off from work. I try to squeeze 12 months worth of errands and home aspirations into those two weeks and cram the days with necessary chores like having the chimney swept, silly (but deeply fulfilling) chores like alphabetizing my cd’s, and pesky perpetual chores like (finally) cleaning out the closet underneath the stairs. This year I actually got to my pernicious closet stuffed with boxes of books and abandoned knick-knacks and badly re-wired lamps and broken speakers and dog kennels and old paint cans and power tools. I took everything out and opened up every box and bag. There were cartons I hadn’t opened in twenty years—they had remained taped shut from move to move, as I remained reluctant to throw anything out I might one day regret. As I perused through photo albums and wedding albums and college textbooks and journals and letters and postcards, I relived three decades of my life complete with laughter, tears, snickers, shrieks and groans. After two days I was down to two boxes. I was ready to give up the task, as I was exhausted, both physically and emotionally. But I pressed on and when I opened the boxes I discovered neat piles of clothes: sweaters and jackets, hats and blouses. They were the handmade clothes that my mother and grandmother had designed for me. There was the job interview blouse from the early 1980s complete with elegant neck bow, a brown tie-dye cowboy jacket with its groovy polyester leopard print lining, a navy blue bolero jacket with embroidered trim and…the sky blue fisherman sweater and its matching hat. My heart stopped when I saw the abundance of what I had uncovered. The sweater was the only one left that I had of my long-gone grandmother and it is the only evidence of her incredible handwork. I held the clothes close and realized how much time and energy and love must have gone into their making, and I was ashamed at how I was once embarrassed by their handmade nature. I realized then how much effort mom and grandma put into every detail as they strived in their own way to make me feel pretty and fashionable and special.

We are living in a time now where knitting and sewing and “doing it yourself” have become “au current.” In reconsidering my own family’s efforts, I can’t help but wonder if our “doing it ourselves” was really another way of “doing it for love.” In looking at the myriad of things we can now all do for ourselves, the one common denominator I find in all of our efforts is doing WHAT we love. For ultimately, no matter who we are doing it for, when we do it ourselves, we do it for the purest and most sincere of reasons: because we love what it is we are doing, and--if we are lucky--we love who we are doing it for.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Commentary: Life's a Blast

Back in 1998, I didn’t see the break up of my marriage coming. Looking back on it now, I often compare it to an earthquake: it happened suddenly and without warning; it caused tremendous damage and subsequently left nothing the same. There is something rather formidable and spectacular about how random life can be—and the momentous speed at which things can change. Whether you are ready for those changes or not.

Bracing yourself for change is a bit like being a prisoner to the iron-clad seatbelts you must wear on a rollercoaster—barriers to a sure demise that you are slammed into over and over, the force of which underscores the sheer magnitude of the experience. Preparing oneself for change ultimately dilutes the unexpectedness of any one particular moment as you brace yourself against the fear and anxiety with distraction.

I remember the day after I knew my marriage was over. I laid on my bed without moving for an entire day. I was in shock, I was catatonic, I was heartbroken. I couldn’t imagine a way out of the sorrow and anguish, the sense of failure and doom. It took years for it most of it to slip away and the subsequent despair I both felt and caused in its wake will always haunt me. Eight years later I realize that I did not handle the loss all that well. I will always regret that.

But another realization has materialized over time. It is a “well, if THAT hadn’t happened, then THIS wouldn’t have happened, and then THAT couldn’t have happened kind of continuum." In the grand scheme of things, I find that this is essentially the design of life. It might start with a bad choice and a wrong turn and then suddenly what is on the screen in front of you is perfect and it seems like it was meant to be and everything that lead to this outcome was well, pre-designed.

But maybe this is an inherently weak explanation, more of a rationale of sorts. It seems to take choice out of the equation, and somehow I can’t accept that everything could actually be pre-destined. But then, when you least expect it, love comes around again, and with the early thrill of it all comes the feeling that this is just too wonderous to ever be anything but meant to be. And the cycle begins or ends or takes a circuitous route once again.

Ultimately, I think it is all about patience and perspective. It sounds like an easy way out, but I do believe that there is something to be said for context. I was on an airplane yesterday, traveling to Pittsburgh. I was seated near the back of the plane behind a couple with three children, all boys, all under the age of five. They nearly filled up the two rows in front of me, only one seat remained unfilled by this brood. As it was early in the morning, the kids were cranky, hungry, restless and bored. Most of the passengers passing them by were business travelers off to Heinz or GlaxoSmithkline or one of the other big businesses in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. But this family was only stopping in Pittsburgh enroute to Florida and the kids were impatient and irritable. One was crying, another kept repeating “okay” “okay” “okay” and the third was looking for the toy car he had unfortunately dropped under his seat. The window seat in that particular aisle was free and as the passenger who was scheduled to sit there approached the row and saw what awaited him, his eyes widened. He quickly scanned the rest of the plane and hurriedly told the noisy family that he would find a seat further towards the back of the plane. I was tempted to follow him but realized that I had too much stuff to move and I was too lazy. As the kids loudly cheered the strangers’ departure, the dad looked at his wife, shrugged his shoulders and calmly said: we are the business traveler’s kryptonite. I chuckled and nodded to myself.

A few minutes later we took off. As plane lifted up the three little boys claimed in unison BLAST OFF! BLAST OFF! WE ARE BLASTING OFF! I realized the children were flying for the first time and I felt a sense of wonder as I witnessed a moment that these little boys would likely not forget for the rest of their lives. It occurred to me that my uprooted kryptonite friend was missing this and I was reminded that magic can be found even in the most unusual of experiences.

I guess this was another “well, if THAT hadn’t happened then THIS wouldn’t have happened and then THAT wouldn’t have happened” kind of continuum. And I think this is what life is. A series of mistakes and chance encounters and curious experiences that shape us and scar us and tease us and give us hope and joy and tears. Everything we do, everything we touch, everything we design has the opportunity to move us, to inform us and transform what is ahead. Every opportunity and every design can be held to these connections, and the perspective it holds in our minds and in our hearts. In turn, they give rise to new perspectives and new designs and new experiences. No matter how bleak a situation or the world might seem—it does offer opportunities and optimism. We need only design them, and believe in them.

Monday, January 09, 2006

Commentary: Dot For Short

When I was a kid there were a lot of rules in my house. One of the most horrific was the very limited amount of television I was allowed to watch. As a result, I read. And I read a lot. I read books, magazines, newspapers, encyclopedias and comic books; I even borrowed my mother’s Redbook and McCall’s, and snuck into my father’s library to read the steamy sections of “The Godfather” when I was sure that no one would catch me.

My fascination with books began as soon as I could read, and Golden Books were my favorite. Then came my introduction to the Weekly Reader and there was nothing, absolutely nothing I looked forward to more than the moment, every week, when Mrs. Mayer handed out those glamorous publications. By third grade I became acquainted with the Scholastic Book Club, and while my folks were stingy with television privileges, they were quite generous with my book allowance. I ordered as many books as I could afford and when the boxes came in with my name on them I spent a moment gingerly fingering the corrugated brown carton. I’d sit for a minute or two and imagine what was inside, what the books would be like, and of course how they would look.

Part of the universe I entered when I read these books was a visual one. I studied the illustrations and paintings of all of my precious tomes as intently as I read the words, yearning to gain entrance into this two-dimensional galaxy in order to make it my own.

After Scholastic came the series books: Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden and my all time favorite: the stories of Ginnie and Geneva by Catherine Woolley. These series books became mirrors into a different universe. A place where, despite danger or mishaps or misdeeds, life was always good, the bad guys were always caught, and everyone always lived happily ever after. These worlds were foreign to me and I constantly put myself into those books: became the characters, lived their challenges and grew so much richer for the experience.

I don’t know what happened to all of my books. My family moved around a lot when I was growing up, and since most of the books were paperbacks, I guess they didn’t make it from house to house. As a result, for the last several decades I have been scouring used bookstores, libraries, garage sales and flea markets for all of the books I read as a child. I am extremely particular about what I purchase: the Golden Books must have the gorgeous gold and brown metallic foil, the Nancy Drew books must have the hardcover yellow spine and the illustrations in the cover plate. The Ginnie books must have the illustrations by Liz Dauber or Iris Beatty Johnson and the Trixie books must have the cover illustrations of Larry Frederick. I have been extraordinarily lucky retrieving many of these classics; nevertheless there were several books that proved more elusive.

One was a book called Dot for Short, by Frieda Freidman. It was a charming, bittersweet story written in 1947 about an insecure ten year old girl who can’t wait to grow up. “She envies her two gorgeous sisters (Fluff and Peg) who are tall and slender and know how to talk to boys.” Her family is having financial difficulties, which she feels powerless to improve. Then she sees an ad in a ladies magazine featuring a contest to write a limerick about “why you use Masterpiece Muffin mix.” The prize was $10,000. She, of course, writes a limerick and…well, that’s all I am going to tell you. Needless to say the entire scenario of the book converged with my life and my fledging enchantment with…dare I say it…branding.

All through the ‘80’s, I not only searched through flea markets and the like for this pesky novel, I also went into every mass market and private bookseller inquiring about this book. Lots of storekeepers were sympathetic and often suggested I order it—optimistically offering that one used book store might come across it if a search was initiated. I did that over and over, but to no avail. Then one fine day in 1988 as I was doing my usual perusal in the children’s section of a bookstore, there it was. Reprinted. Fresh and clean and new and…mine. I grabbed it, gave my money to the cashier with shaking hands and read the entire book out on the street, leaning against a light pole. It was a magnificent, unforgettable experience. I still, to this day, believe that I am single-handedly responsible for Puffin reprinting this book.

My library is now nearly complete. Every now and then I remember a book that I read when I was eight or eleven or sixteen…the memory flutters into my head like a yellow butterfly…and then I am inspired to once again start a new search. I love this recreation of sorts…knowing that I am simultaneously rebuilding and re-crafting my past and my present and my future. Knowing that, like Proust’s moment with his madeleine, that these books “ultimately reach the clear surface of my consciousness, this memory, this old, dead moment which the magnetism of an identical moment has traveled so far to importune, to disturb, to raise up out of the depths of my being…and bear unflinchingly, in the tiny and almost impalpable drop of their essence, the vast structure of recollection.”

Friday, January 06, 2006

Announcement: Chip Kidd on Design Matters Today 01.06.06

Today marks the Season Three Premiere of "Design Matters with Debbie Millman" and joining me on this landmark show is the fabulous Chip Kidd.

Let me tell you a bit more about Mr. Kidd:

Chip Kidd has created over 1,500 book cover designs, including works for Bret Easton Ellis, Charles Schulz, Mark Beyer, David Sedaris, Alex Ross, Frank Miller, Michael Crichton, Cormac McCarthy and many, many others. His book jacket designs for Alfred A. Knopf have helped spawn a revolution in the art of American book packaging. His work has been featured in Vanity Fair, Print, Entertainment Weekly, The New Republic, Time, The New York Times, Graphis, New York and ID. The latter chose him as part of its first ID 40 group of the nation's top designers and awarded him 'Best of Category, Packaging' twice. Chip has also written about graphic design and popular culture; his first book as author and designer, "Batman Collected,” was given the Design Distinction award from ID magazine. His second book, "Batman Animated" (1998) garnered two of the comic book industry's Eisner Awards. Chip also designed the acclaimed trilogy "Superman: The Complete History," "Batman: The Complete History" and "Wonder Woman: The Complete History" for Chronicle Books. He has written a novel, "The Cheese Monkeys," which was published by Simon and Schuster in 2001, and in 2003 Kidd collaborated with writer Art Spiegelman on a biography of the cartoonist Jack Cole entitled Jack Cole and Plastic Man: Forms Stretched to Their Limits. Finally, a monograph of his work, Chip Kidd: Book One, Work: 1986 – 2006 was published by Rizzoli in 2005.

The show is from 3-4PM EST and you can view the VoiceAmerica Business site and listen to the show from a myriad of locations:

You can go here, through the Sterling link:

Or you can go here, through the Voice America link:

Please note that you will need Windows Media Player or the equivalent program to listen in, but you can download the technology for free here:

Or finally, you can listen to this show, or any of our previous shows, as a Podcast on iTunes, for free.

To listen to the Podcasts, you can do either of the following:

Subscribe manually, by going to the iTunes advanced menu, then select Subscribe to Podcast and enter the following: as the feed.

Or simply do a search on the iTunes music store Podcast directory for “Design Matters.”

Everyone is welcome to call in live and toll free--the number is 1-866-233-7861.

The VoiceAmerica Business network radio station is the industry leader in Internet talk radio, and Design Matters is proud to announce that we have 140,000 listeners to our show. : )

Monday, January 02, 2006

A Wish: To A Wonderful 2006

Archaic Torso of Apollo
by Rainer Maria Rilke

We never knew his fantastic head,
where eyes like apples ripened. Yet
his torso, like a lamp, still glows
with his gaze which, although turned down low,

lingers and shines. Else the prow of his breast
couldn't dazzle you, nor in the slight twist
of his loins could a smile run free
through that center which held fertility.

Else this stone would stand defaced and squat
under the shoulders' diaphanous dive
and not glisten like a predator's coat;

and not from every edge explode
like starlight: for there's not one spot
that doesn't see you. You must change your life.
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