debbie millman

Friday, February 03, 2006

Commentary: Incongruity

Last weekend I took the subway to Brooklyn to visit some dear friends. I got on at my usual stop and as the train was about to take off, a gaggle of giddy teenage girls rushed the doors as they were closing and hurried in, all breathless and giggly. As it turned out, the group wasn’t sure that they were even on the correct train to their destination and asked a man near them for clarification.

I have discovered that as people run to make a nearly departing train or race across a street to beat a red light turning green, folks under a certain age tend to laugh rather hysterically at the prospect, as if there is something hilarious about keeping people waiting on a train or forcing traffic to pile up. Perhaps it is embarrassment at their behavior or perhaps it is glee at a negligible act of rebellion. In any case, as I scanned the small subway crowd traveling downtown, I noticed the man the girls queried was dressed in green camouflage pants and a chestnut brown suede country western jacket covered in knee-length fringe. He was sporting a battered fisherman’s cap and was licking a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone. Now, I don’t know what it is about me that attracts odd people--maybe it is a frequency that I give off from my inner antennae--but before I knew it, he approached me and sat down. I couldn’t help but acknowledge his sudden proximity; I mean after all, he was eating an ice cream cone in the middle of winter in a crowded subway car, and now he was my next door neighbor. As he settled in for the ride, he leaned into me and said very seriously, “there is something profoundly incongruous about people laughing as they ask for directions to get to Ground Zero.” I nodded in amazement. But I couldn’t help but think that there was something profoundly incongruous about a man dressed in green camouflage pants, a chestnut brown suede country western jacket covered in long fringe and a battered fisherman’s hat while licking a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone, talking to an utter stranger about incongruity.

The dictionary defines incongruous as “lacking in harmony; incompatible or not in keeping with what is correct, proper, or logical.” All this week I have been feeling this lack of harmony, but this is not due to my odd train encounter. The incompatibility I feel stems from our President’s State of the Union address Tuesday night. I find that there is something inherently incongruous about one of the world’s biggest oil “pushers” (so to speak) alerting the world of America’s addiction to oil. In my mind this would be equivalent to RJ Reynolds chastising smokers for being addicted to cigarettes. That this represents the sole memorable sound bite from our President’s annual address is not only incongruous to me, it is downright depressing. As I sat down Tuesday night to watch the speech and the subsequent analysis, I couldn’t help but wonder how we ended up here. Over 2000 Americans have died in Iraq. 250,000 people have abandoned their homes in New Orleans. Teenager girls laugh en route to the tourist attraction that is now Ground Zero. And yet we press on in our efforts to camouflage the obvious and the incongruity grows. Why must we kill each other? Why do we need to design and push this personal, moral and religious superiority? I think that ultimately it is a feeling of incongruity with the world and the universe that is at the heart of the problem. We fight our wars now with all sides convinced of their own moral superiority. Somehow we all believe that God is on our particular side. Yet no one is actually sure where God resides, and whether or not he or she actually exists at all. Therefore, to fight a war in the name of God feels a bit, well, incongruous, at least to me. I guess if we knew with certainty the origin of the universe, if we knew unquestionably how we got here and why, suddenly it would seem rather foolish to have our own personal subjective stance on who our creator was and to fight to convince each other that this specific creator ONLY liked us. I think it is this incertitude that is at the heart of all of our behavior. We are not fighting for the truth. We are fighting for proof. If we win, then we will believe that we have proven we are right. And I think this is true for both sides—all sides, really.

Today, we search for truths or answers or certainty in almost all of our endeavors. Inherent in this search is the notion that there are truths or answers or certainty! Maybe the world as we know it was designed this way, maybe it wasn’t. I think Joan Didion says it best in her remarkable book, “The Year of Magical Thinking.” She says: “Life changes fast, life changes in the instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” So as we make our way through our corner of the universe, perhaps all we can be certain of is the uncertainty and the incongruous. I want to be optimistic this Friday afternoon and choose to see the possibilities and the beauty in this. If nothing more, perhaps we can take heart in however bad things might seem at this very moment in time, everything can change for the better in the moment that comes next.


Post a Comment

<< Home

things i paint
things i photograph
design matters design matters poster designed by Firebelly
about me
My Photo
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).

things i do those i thank things i like current playlist