debbie millman

Friday, March 31, 2006

Commentary: Two Worlds

I have been on the road for the last week; I left from New York City, traveled to Boise, Idaho through Salt Lake, continued on to Los Angeles, and now I am at the AIGA Y conference in San Diego. Everywhere I traveled I took in as much of the local landscape as I could, the gorgeous, snow capped mountains of Idaho and the low, grey sky of Utah. Somehow I hoped that I could get a glimpse of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty from the airplane, and though I couldn’t, I drew a mental picture of it as we traversed the Great Salt Lake from the sky. I couldn’t help admire the kitsch signage that is part of the Los Angeles landscape: the 3-dimensional giant signs for donut shops in the shape of actual donuts, the handmade signs for rug companies and foam companies and nail shops and sandwich shops. These were, of course, juxtaposed with the media properties and the phone companies and the car companies and the banks. All have their own unique personalities. But no matter what state or city I was in, no matter what neighborhood or town I visited, I observed no matter where we are in the world, there are actually two worlds. Two worlds that co-exist.

There is the world of the haves and the world of the have-nots. The world of the givers and the world of the takers. The world of the needy and the world of the needless. What struck me most was the notion that the have-nots, the givers and the needy fundamentally maintain the world of the haves, the takers and the needless. These two worlds exist simultaneously and in the same place, yet they are separate. The people that make up these two worlds have much interaction, yet they don’t quite overlap, and they try to get away with as little acknowledgement of the other as possible. I am lucky: I am one of the needless. I go from place to place, hotel to hotel, restaurant to restaurant and everything is in place for me: a clean bed, a good meal, a fine time. Those that are living in the “other world” make these things happen for me. They make it happen for all of us that are lucky enough to be needless. What I couldn’t help but notice, as I traveled from city to city, was the one thing both worlds have in common: the walls in place keeping the needy needing and the needless in control. There is an unspoken invisibility between these two worlds, with little or no eye contact, meaningless or irrelevant verbal discourse, with virtually no acknowledgement of the magnitude of the co-dependency of these two worlds. Why is it that the needless have such little regard for the needy? Why is that the person changing our sheets or cleaning our toilet bowl in a hotel room is someone that we will rarely look in the eye? Are we afraid to acknowledge our co-dependency? Are we embarrassed by what we ask people to do in the name of service? I think we are.

But I also think that those that service the needless are far less needy than we think they are. I believe that there is strength of character in their ability to interact with what is usually an intolerant, superficial and careless contingent of society. I think it takes great patience to take care of a group of people that have little time for them, and chances are, even less respect. Our culture perpetrates the hierarchies of these two worlds. Both depend on each other, and while the needy are forced to be polite and gracious by the very nature of their service, the needless tend to be rather rude and are often nasty in the exchange of services. What I think we fail to recognize is that these hierarchies are man made. In the grand scheme of our journey here, we are all born and die the same way. Whether we are wearing nicer clothes or sleeping on nicer sheets is irrelevant. We all deserve the same kindnesses. Whether we have the funds to pay for them or not is irrelevant.

Wednesday night I went to a very posh restaurant in Los Angeles. It was not only quite fancy, it was also rather trendy, clearly an “it” spot. Limousines lined the sidewalk in front of the venue, and beautiful people milled about, waiting for tables and to be seen by the other beautiful people posing and lolling about. After we finished our meal, my colleagues and I waited outside the restaurant for a taxi to take us back to our hotel. It was late in the evening, and as we stood there, I took in all the action around us. I looked across the street and couldn’t help but notice a man standing in an extremely large, brightly lit window on the second floor of a luxurious apartment building. He was peering down at the crowd below. I wondered what he was thinking as he took in the scene before him. Then he bent down. As he stood back up I saw that he was a professional window washer and he was cleaning the windows. And there it was, evident for everyone to see: the two worlds. As he cleaned the barrier between us, I couldn’t help but hope that after he was finished, maybe, just maybe, we could all see the one world that unites us a bit more clearly.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Poem: Precedent

No one taught me how.
I came unformed, unaware.

I tried to be nice to make up
for the inexperience.

Lack of pride got in the way and
revealed what was obvious.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Commentary: Eye of the Beholder

Many years ago I dated a man that was incredibly handsome. Kevin was so good looking that I often felt dull in comparison and tried to compensate by wearing especially pretty clothes and taking extra care with my make-up and accessories. One day, after several months together, we went strolling through Soho, holding hands and window-shopping. After several hours of bumming around, we stopped in a sidewalk café. We sat outside in the sunlight and watched as people went by and wondered out loud what their lives were about, who they lived with, what kind of music they listened to, what their names were. As we were about to get the check, a very tall, pale, heavyset woman walked by in Birkenstocks and cargo pants. Her hair was unbrushed, she didn’t have on a trace of make-up, and she was wearing a gigantic, slightly dirty, fleecey jacket. When she saw us her eyes lit up and she rushed over. Kevin jumped up and ran to meet her, and they hugged and kissed hello. He brought her over to meet me and introduced us: she was Kathleen, his ex-girlfriend. She held out her hand warmly, and graciously said hello. I kept my shock at bay, but after she walked away I told Kevin that meeting Kathleen had surprised me. He asked why. I replied that when he had first told me about her, I just assumed that she was stunningly beautiful; I thought she must be, given how good looking he was. When I told Kevin this, he looked completely astonished. And I’ll never forget what he said next. He told me that she was stunningly beautiful; that she had one of the most incredible faces he had ever seen. In fact, he thought she was gorgeous. I was shocked, and suddenly felt like a silly little kewpie-doll in comparison.

Beauty is a strangely obsessive concept in our culture. We live in a day and age wherein there are more people undergoing plastic surgery than ever before, and there is no part of the body that can’t be refurbished and remade. I even read recently there is a reconstructive service now available called vaginal rejuvenation. And I will never forget seeing an episode in the UK of an extreme makeover show that featured anal bleaching. I think I can safely say that we have reached a tipping point in our efforts to recreate who we are by recreating how we look.

Beauty is also an incredibly subjective experience. From a cultural perspective, what is beautiful in one culture may be considered ugly or even grotesque in another. Last week I watched the movie ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ with my dear friend Cheryl Swanson. Cheryl is a brand strategist, a trend forecaster, color analyst and design consultant. We watched the film together, and observed a woman’s journey in becoming a Geisha (which means ‘artist’ in Japan.) We were struck by what was considered beautiful in the Japanese culture at that time: white painted faces, red-stained lips, charcoal darkened eyebrows, tabi socks and geta sandals. Sexy was the briefest glance of a “naked” wrist. We couldn’t help compare this to what is considered conventionally beautiful in American culture today: the modern day Daisy May/Barbie Doll looks of a Jessica Simpson or the pornographic version of the same embodied by Pamela Anderson. Cheryl and I could not find one modicum of beauty in either woman and we shook our heads in wonder as pondered how a) George Bush could even consider inviting Jessica Simpson to the White House and b) if she even knew what the word “politicizing” meant. After all, this is the same woman who thought that the Chicken of the Sea tuna brand was actually chicken. Then again, George Bush did think that he really was going to find weapons of mass destruction. Maybe these two are perfectly suited to each other.

Every culture has its own pre-conceived parameters in place for what a woman “should” look like: many Islamic women are restricted to wearing burka. Indian women adorn their sari’s and their beautiful bindi, the Zoë tribe in Africa have wood planks put through their bottom lip when they become teenagers, and, of course Americans make their breasts bigger, their thighs, noses and tummies smaller, their nails colorful and their hair blonde. All in the name of what? Social confidence? Peer approval? A sense of belonging?

Now more than ever, the idea of what is “aesthetically enviable” has changed. It was only a few years ago that urban kids in Manhattan were shooting each other over a pair of Levi’s. Now that same pair of jeans is featured on a business magazine accompanied by the headline, “How Levi’s trashed a great American brand.” We now live in a media age wherein what we engage with or utilize in order to feel beautiful changes in milli-seconds.

Last week, as I was racing through an airport, I saw a very pretty young girl of about 8 or 9 years old. She was walking towards me carrying her luggage, and I could see a small doll head bobbing out of the backpack behind her. Both the girl and the doll had the exact same color hair: a flaxen blonde. I was struck by the identical hair color (and hair style, both doll and girl had a long, swinging pony tail) and I couldn’t help but slow down to look both at the girl in front of me and, as she passed me by, the doll bobbing behind her. When I got a good look at the doll I realized it was a carbon copy of the real girl, just a smaller version. This made me feel a bit odd--this forced mimicry of sorts--when suddenly it made me smile. It occurred to me that women have tried to look like Barbie Dolls for decades; now a girl had a doll that was made to look like her. This reversal of roles felt empowering, and I hoped that this exchange of aesthetics could extend beyond pretty little girls, and include every type of beauty: the conventional, the unconventional, the hidden, the incongruous and the subjective. Today I want to feel optimistic that maybe one day, anyone who wants to feel beautiful can; that beauty will be measured by the virtue of who we are rather than what we look like.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Commentary: Sell-out or Shout Out?

For the last couple of days I have been in Las Vegas. I was there on business; my partner Marcus and I were pitching the redesign of a logo of one of the casinos. After we finished our pitch, we went trolling up and down the strip and ended up on the second floor of the Venetian Hotel. I had never been there before. We arrived at about 10pm, and when we walked off the escalator the first thing that struck us was the light. Though it was a vast windowless space, the lighting was designed to mimic the daylight of noontime in Venice. It was so realistic that we suddenly experienced what it must feel like to be in Alaska during spring fever. It was both disconcerting and pleasurable at the same time. What was even more incongruous were the real water canals snaking through the floor. The design is deliberate, as the second floor of the Venetian was created as an exact replica of Venice’s Rialto Bridge, complete with gondolas steered by sexy sailors singing Italian opera. The only thing that threw the journey off was the Ann Taylor and Banana Republic stores situated on the faux cobblestone streets. Though I have never been to Italy, I can’t imagine that these chain stores have a major presence on the streets of Venice. At least I pray with all of my heart that they don’t.

Marcus and I watched people shop for garish jewels and neon colored short sleeve button down shirts and we witnessed them gamble away what mostly seemed like hard earned money that had been saved for a very long time. We watched as people clenched their crumpled bills, right up until the moment they laid it down on the tables for the dealers to take away.

I confess that I find gambling fascinating. And while I do occasionally partake, I must also admit that I have the worst luck. That doesn’t keep me from doing it; it just keeps me from doing it a lot. There’s only so much cash a girl can lose and still hold on to any semblance of dignity.

While I am in the midst of playing, something rather strange happens. I find that with every spin of the roulette wheel, with every pull of the one-armed bandit, with every card that is turned over, in those seconds before the ball drops, in those seconds before the numbers or the symbols or the cards are revealed, time slows down. It almost stops. And in those suspended milli-seconds I have high hopes mixed with breathless optimism. There is the chance that I will hit the jackpot and my heart pounds and my mind races and I wonder if the next moment will be it: when I will finally, once and for all, show the world that I am a winner! No wonder gambling is addictive.

We are living in a culture wherein money has become the chief measurement of success. As a cultural object, money contains a heady mix of greed and inferiority. According to Psychology Today, “No matter what a persons financial standing, many people do not feel they have enough, and most feel that they have nowhere near enough. What is fascinating and unusual about these people, when compared to how they spend their money elsewhere, it is their complete abandon to the act of throwing away their money—money that in Las Vegas brings little in return except the act of throwing away it away. For most of them, it is not a wild or pleasurable abandon. If anything, it seems a determined and often a cranky abandon. They know what they are doing, and they do it with almost frenetic (though also somehow glum) energy, and they have come a long way and planned a long time do it. When they take breaks to eat, many queue up on lines for half hour and longer to save money at a $5 buffet. This behavior is difficult to understand, since before and after they have eaten they are willing to lose those same five dollars in minutes or even seconds at the games.”

Money plays a dangerous and intriguing role in our culture, our lives, and in most, if not all of our relationships. We dream and hope for freedom on so many levels, and money is often the path we think we need to get there—and though many of our wars are fought under the guise of religion, money and power often figure prominently in these struggles as well.

Money also plays a significant role in design. If we aren’t designing something that we are getting paid for it is often disregarded as a vanity project. Yet it is often in these unpaid excursions that designers do some of their best and most compelling work. One of the best examples of this is Stefan Sagmeister’s Cranbrook poster. I think that a true conundrum exists when we assess design and money. Only a certain level of success seems respectfully permissible. Once you reach the financial prowess of an Interbrand or a Futurebrand, suddenly you are either perilously close to, if not outright considered a sell-out. And yet so many of us still have practices that continue to take on speculative work, and to me, this is the most outrageous and illogical gamble of all.

The value of design in our culture is changing at light speed. We often bemoan our lack of control in this. But any good marketer knows that if you don’t create a focused, compelling position for your product or brand, others (whether it be friends, foes, competitors, or customers) will be more than happy to do it for you. It is time now for designers to make a strong statement about the value of design. Let’s not leave it to the business magazines or the business schools or the marketing community or the media. Some may say it is a gamble, but I prefer to think of it as a calculated risk—a risk in order to gain some advantage: it is time we stop bemoaning the state of design, the state of our clients and colleagues, and band together to show the world what design can and does accomplish. It is a gamble only we can make, and one I believe is well worth taking. Our lives—and our livelihood—depend on it.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Commentary: Spec This

True story: a very prominent and (what most would consider very cool) entertainment company called us at Sterling and asked us to pitch a project. While initially we were thrilled, as soon as we heard the pitch details our excitement quickly waned. Apparently, this very prominent and cool company wanted the various firms they were asking to pitch the project to do speculative work for said pitch. For those that may not be totally familiar with the concept of speculative work, it is when a prospective client asks several agencies to do “free” work, ostensibly so that they can get a sense of how they would approach the project and get a little “look-see” as to the type of creative they could expect.

Now, I understand that the way most advertising agencies get their business is by doing speculative work, as they are investing in winning business that is likely to be worth tens of millions of dollars. This investment is considered “part of the agreement.” But design firms…well that is another situation entirely. I do not believe in doing speculative work. Not only do the fees not warrant that type of investment, I believe that if a company is interested in working with you they should be able to assess your work and your philosophies and strategies towards design by your portfolio, by your intellect and by your proposal. Anything more than that is giving it away for free, which in my opinion is unfair. It is also demoralizing. It is also wrong.

You might ask, ‘why’? Why is it wrong? Well. We are professional practitioners who make a living by designing things. Many of us are educated, with degrees in design or business or both. Would anyone ever ask a doctor to do work “on spec”? How about a plumber? Or how about borrowing a pair of shoes from a department store “on spec”? If you like the way they feel after wearing them once or twice, (and get the requisite number of compliments) cool, if not, bring them back and you won’t have to pay for them. Hmmm. I think not. Requesting a designer to participate in a scenario wherein they deliver actual work requires an actual fee. Anything less denigrates the profession of design and all designers everywhere.

In any case, we turned the cool company down. As much as it smarted to tell the prominent entertainment conglomerate “thanks, but no thanks” I also felt proud that we stood up for our values and ideals, and at the end of the day, could hold our heads high.

But let me be totally honest about my history with spec work. In the late '80s I started a company with a partner and we were hungry for work. Desperate is probably a more accurate word. We were asked to do some spec work for the same company I was referring to earlier in this post. We were told who the other agencies were that were pitching the account as well. We were a small fish in a big pond, several other much more prominent agencies were asked as well. We did it, just to get our foot in the door. A "you never know" type situation. Plus, it was a cool job and we thought our creative team would be pumped to work on this type of project. All the other agencies except one (Frankfurt Balkind) agreed to do the work as well. So we stayed up for days on end and killed ourselves to do great work. We didn't get the project. About a year later, I found out that Frankfurt Balkind got the work. The client didn't like any of the pitch/spec work from ANY of the agencies, and hired the one firm that had said, "No, we won't work for free."

I learned my lesson that day.

So bear with me when I repeat: Speculative work denigrates both the agencies and the designers that participate. If we give away our work for free, if we give away our talent and our expertise, we give away more than the work. We give away our hearts for free, and we give away our souls.

Cat Morley, the brilliant woman behind Designers Who Blog has started an incredible resource for anyone interested in more information about the evils of spec work. The effort is called NO SPEC and more information can be found here: Go there now.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Commentary: Brio and Suss

Many years ago, shortly after moving to Manhattan, I took a taxicab from the Upper East Side to my then apartment in Chelsea. Luther Vandross was playing on the radio, singing a remake of the popular Leon Russell song, Superstar. I loved that song in all of its various incarnations: the raunchy version performed by the songwriter, the haunting interpretation by Bette Midler, or the heartbreakingly earnest Karen Carpenter rendition. This was the first time I had heard Luther’s version and I was mesmerized by his silky, seductive voice and his smooth but urgent delivery. I was traveling downtown after viewing my first-ever movie at the New York Film Festival. As I made my way downtown, I suddenly felt a thrill of brio and pride. I was living in New York City, I was working in a field that I loved, I had just come from one of the most famous film festivals in the world, and I had gone via an invitation from my then boss! At 21 years old, I suddenly felt like I had made it. I had never in my life felt that way before. But as my taxi traveled on, as I neared my tiny tenement apartment and Luther faded away, I suddenly realized I was kidding myself. I was no different than I had been yesterday, no different than three months before, or five years before that. I was simply a bit older. I morbidly thought to myself, “How much more obvious can I possibly be?” I became certain that everyone could see right through me and I knew in that moment that no amount of posh movie tickets could camouflage the way that I felt about myself.

In today’s culture, for whatever reason, I find that when it comes to assessing other people we are quick to make decisions about what we believe is obvious. Obviously Barry Bonds took steroids, obviously that man had sex with that woman Miss Lewinsky, obviously Freckles is in love with Sawyer, obviously Brad was having an affair with Angelina long before he left Jen, obviously there were no weapons of mass destruction. No matter how hard the media or our parents or our government might try, it seems no one can persuade us otherwise. We know when people are lying or hiding something because we feel it is obvious and we just know what we know that we know. As we search for clues or tip-offs and proof of the truth in everything around us, we apply what we think we know even to the things we don’t.

In as much as we can be completely and utterly certain of the truths and lies and obviousness of others, I find that many people have difficulty admitting what is obvious about themselves to themselves. Why is that? How can we be so sure about the truths of others and so clueless about what is true and obvious about ourselves? Isn’t it possible that if everyone can be so sure that they can suss out what is obvious and true, that those very same rules could apply to our own behavior? For example, if I think that I can always tell when someone is lying, doesn’t it stand to reason that people can tell when I am not telling the truth? Why again, as a culture, do we think that anyone could be immune to this supposed unique ability? Is it possible that we all just think we are smarter than everyone else? Or is there just that many different ways of looking at a blackbird? Once again, we come back to the subject of objective vs. subjective experience and how language and behavior impact our views.

I think that what is wonderful about art is that it is capable of uncovering both what isn’t obvious, but at the same time is representative of the truth. But it also takes us further: art helps expand the notion of what is obvious and true. The biggest difference between art and language is this: with language you will often hear the following: “That’s not what I meant by what I said,” but in art you rarely hear: “That’s not what I meant by what I drew.”

I found out recently that a friend lied to me. It wasn’t a drastic lie, but it was enough of one to cause concern. I was perplexed as to why this person would try and get away with this falsehood when it occurred to me that the more obvious a lie is, the more the liar needs it to be true. And sometimes we all just need things to be true—if only to ourselves. Perhaps all we can hope for in each other that our intentions and our actions are true. And to consider not HOW obvious we may be, but WHY. I think that the humorist Henry Wheeler Shaw said it best when he wrote: "The trouble with people is not that they don't know but that they know so much that ain't so."

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Poem: The Alternative Is Unthinkable

I can’t believe I settled for this.
So inconsequential and small
I felt shriveled on the best of days.

But I am lazy. I compromised.
The result of an impatient heart
and mediocre expectations.

Friday, March 03, 2006

Commentary: Public Displays of Bullshit

Last week I took the subway to visit a friend on the upper west side. As I was departing the 96th street station I saw a man, probably no older than his mid-30s, rifling through one of the trash receptacles. He was pulling out piles of newspapers, scattering them all over the ground in a way that resembled a rather subversive and messy Christmas tree skirt. He was rapt with attention at his task. As I walked by, another man, a fairly dapper older man in his 60s, charged over to him and insisted he stop what he was doing. The younger man paused for a second, skeptically looked him up and down, cocked his head and loudly retorted: Mind your own business. The elderly man responded with an expletive and stormed off.

This incident has been plaguing me. In replaying the event again in my head, I can’t help but puzzle over what the younger man meant when he stated, “Mind your own business.” After all, he was in a New York City subway station, he was infiltrating a community garbage can and he was littering in a public place. How is that not everyone’s business?

The lines between our public and personal experiences have become more ambiguous than ever before. Wireless Internet, cell phones and a rabid media have made much of our personal lives quite public. I have overheard a racy one-sided phone conversation in an airport restroom, a conversation on a bus wherein my seatmate had their cell volume so high I could hear every word of both sides of their conversation, and one time I mistakenly read a love letter sent to me that was actually meant for another Debbie M in a colleague’s email address book. The whole world knows about a certain President’s penchant for oral sex and cigars. We recently became privy to a Kid Rock post-concert orgy. And how could anyone ever forget the image of OJ flanked by police in his white bronco? It is a strange phenomenon--this participation in not only what is private--but is often more information than required or requested. But now, as much as I may have snickered when Paris Hilton’s phone book was broadcast to the world, I shudder thinking that if it could happen to Paris, it could happen to anyone. And it does, quite easily.

It is a new kind of cultural intimacy, this mass exposure to experience and information. In our sharing, we have become a community without boundaries. This has both its advantages and its drawbacks. For every blog that mightily exposes a writer’s false memoirs, there is a targeted identity theft or an intended breach of confidentiality. Now, not only have the lines between our public and personal experiences become more ambiguous, the lines between our private and public consciousness are nebulous as well. I recently read a powerful editorial in the March issue of Poetry magazine. Titled “In The Flux That Abolishes Me,” the piece poses pertinent questions as to the relevance and preservation of what may or may not be publicly consumed work, or art in the public consciousness. The writer asks this: “Does it seem cruelly inadequate that, out of all those hours these poets spent in solitude and silence, and given all the life they sacrificed for the sake of their work, only a handful of poems, maybe nothing more than a stanza here and there, persist in the consciousness of a later generation.”

I, for one, feel that it is cruelly inadequate. For all the time spent bombarded by useless and trivial public displays of bullshit, I’d much rather be exposed to the private profundities of unknown poets and philosophers and musicians. What is our responsibility to this fragment of our culture? Or asked in a different way: What is our business or isn’t? What should be our business and isn’t?

A friend of mine recently related a story that deeply resonated. He recounted an experience on his commuter train, wherein the woman sitting next to him subjected everyone in the vicinity to a deafening cell phone conversation. After listening ad nauseum for about half an hour, he politely asked her if it was possible to speak more softly. She looked at him in utter amazement and told him to mind his own business. Rather than take it on the chin, he stood up, and asked everyone sitting around them if anyone else might be bothered by her loud and outlandish banter. Every single person raised their hand. The woman angrily—and noisily—hung up and hurried to another car. The remaining passengers applauded and quietly continued their commute. And in my perfect world, they were all happily reading poetry.
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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 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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