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.

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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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