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.


Blogger Allan L. said...

dThank you so much for interviewing Art. I was totally looking forward to the interview, and it didn't disappoint, not that I expected it to,

4/02/2006 11:19:00 PM  
Anonymous GN said...

Hey Deb. Clicking in from Designers on Life, of which I'm also a part of. I've made it a point to visit the other designers of the "Life" section to say hello to my neighbors...

Wonderful and equally in-depth observation you have there. Hang around in L.A. enough (or be a native angeleno like myself) and you'll have many essays to write about the L.A. life. It was great to read your dissection of the deceptively mundane, and I'll be sure to check out the rest of your site. Meanwhile, keep creative and drop by if you get the chance.

Cheers =)

4/04/2006 03:43:00 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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