debbie millman

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.


Blogger fivemcclungs said...

Well said Debbie. Sounds like the beginnings of a good Design Manifesto. Isn't it about time for another reincarnation of First Things First?

3/18/2006 09:24:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

wouldn't that be nice!
thanks for writing in!

3/20/2006 04:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That vacuous empty feeling you get after a presentation or visit to a client is basically the conflict in your soul between art and business.The art of gambling is why people go to Vegas, it's a creative exercise in faith and hope
to make something out of hardly anything to be brave in the face of futile odds.I say as designers
learn to enjoy the business, the art is usually god given talent.


3/21/2006 03:55:00 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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