debbie millman

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."

1 Comments:

Anonymous Craig said...

Did you happen to see last evening's "The L Word"? It was striking how sick, fragile, and essentially dead Dana looked, while all her friends carried on as if she was more or less going to be okay. This was somewhat shocking to watch but I have been in this situation myself and believe it captured the truth of behavior. It is not a question of "being optimistic." It is difficult or impossible to erase importance of that magnitude from one's sight/mind. That's a human thing, it's understandable and okay (and accounts no doubt for the ton o' bricks that hits when your loved one actually dies). Perhaps something similar is operating about ourselves, to ourselves. I think you said this too so forgive my redundancy. Awareness is like the horizon: it's worth walking toward but can you ever arrive?

3/13/2006 03:07:00 PM  

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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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