debbie millman

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.


Blogger Lisa said...

Hey... I just wanted to tell you that I admire your work. My computer graphics class is doing a project on influential graphics artists, and I hope you do not mind that I have chosen you as the subject of mine.
Could you please send me an e-mail at answering a few questions if you have the time?
1)When and where were you born?
2)What schools did you attend?
3)I know that you have worked with a number of very large companies. What is the nature of your work like? How exactly do you go about it?
4)Do you have any advice to give to an aspiring graphics artist?

1/18/2006 09:37:00 AM  
Blogger Lisa said...

Thank you so much for your time!

1/18/2006 09:38:00 AM  
Anonymous Emily Chionchio said...

Hello Debbie,
I had an opportunity to hear you speak at Pentagram in the fall with Akiko Busch's class from the Hartford Art School. I've been following your blog ever since, and also your speakup posts. Your thoughts always inspire me, it's great to hear from someone about how their personal life intertwines with their design work. Thanks for being so open about it!

1/18/2006 06:35:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

Emily and Lisa--
Thank you so so much.

1/19/2006 07:41:00 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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