debbie millman

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.


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1/24/2006 08:24:00 PM  
Anonymous Amber Eklund-Wilks said...

Debbie, first I'd like to say how much I love your show. I preach your podcast to everyone meet. I tell them you are the female Steven Heller. (Since almost everyone knows his name.) Your words are prolific and profound.

I just got through listening to this podcast and I found the whole concept very disheartening. I've been "brain washed" by some very brilliant professors at the University I'm currently attending to view graphic design as an equal to fine arts. The idea that anyone who picks up a book can do what I do is depressing. I currently work in the graphics department at the local newspaper and one of my favorite pastimes is critiquing some bad layout and ad designs that get published with other designers from the University's design program. There are people in positions that may not fully qualified, from a design standpoint. To not critique would feel unnatural.

The educational structure at the University is modeled after Bauhaus, like so many other art programs are. I'm a huge history buff and revel in the wonderful amount of art history we are exposed to. If you don't know the past you can't make educated steps into the future?

As always, your broadcasts are wonderfully thought provoking and thank you for being so inspirational.

1/28/2006 05:24:00 PM  

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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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