debbie millman

Friday, April 21, 2006

Commentary: Always My Fault

bad girl
Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.
I am the kind of person who tends to think that everything is my fault. If someone is upset, I wonder what I might have done to upset them, if a client isn’t happy I conclude that I didn’t work hard enough to please them, and if the Mets are losing at the bottom of the ninth, I believe that it is (inevitably) because I am watching them. I find that when I watch sports events on television this feeling can be so profound I will intentionally leave the room so that my preferred team can have a reasonable chance to catch up.

I think that my sense of being intrinsically at fault was best evidenced during the 2003 East Coast black out. At the time, I was visiting Boston where the lights remained on. One of my reactions upon hearing of the situation was relief that I wasn’t home in NY when it happened. I did not experience this relief because I still had electricity; rather it was because I could not possibly be held responsible for the five state blow out because I had been blow drying my hair with the air conditioner on.

For most of my life I thought nothing of this psychological impediment; it is only in the last few years that colleagues and loved ones began to suggest that I reconsider this highly narcissistic view of the world. But the biggest obstacle to facing this was finding myself in love with a man that, despite professing undying love for me, seemed to find fault with almost everything I did. He told me that I slouched when I walked, I made too much noise when I ate, I didn’t drink the right cocktails, my wardrobe was matronly, my shoes were cheap and I even clapped too loud in a jazz bar. I did everything I possibly could to change myself: I bought new clothes and shoes, practiced eating with my mouth closed; I even hired a dog trainer to help tame what he claimed were disobedient dogs. Since I thought this man was smarter than me, and since I already believed I was at fault for anything that went wrong around me, I assumed that he was seeing the world—and me—more accurately than I could. What an accomplishment it would be if I could finally, at long last, fix all my flaws!

After a year and a half, I gave up. I was exhausted and bleary-eyed and downright depressed. I was also embarrassed. I still believed that this man was smarter and more sophisticated and erudite than I was, and not only was I sure that his criticisms of me were accurate, I was fearful that everyone that knew us both—especially the really intelligent ones—would shirk away from me and pity the poor girl that let the smart boy get away.

According to Jerome Segal in his wonderful book Graceful Simplicity, “Nearly everybody perceives themselves through the norms of culture. This is why most people consume whatever the marketplace touts, without a second thought. The basic self-esteem of the individual is defined by the consumptive norms of society and of others. Hence, what is outside of them forms their self-identity and their personal norms for behavior, consuming not only products and services but values of worth and self-esteem.”

Self-perception is a complicated and fascinating subject and it is also unavoidable. What I have since learned is people decide on their own attitudes and feelings from observing themselves behave in various situations. This is especially true when internal cues are so weak or confusing they effectively put the person in the same position as an external observer. But Freudian psychology suggests that self-perception is an illusion of the ego, and cannot be trusted to decide what is in fact real. Such questions are continuously reanimated, as each generation grapples with the nature of existence from within the human condition. The questions remain: Do our perceptions allow us to experience the world as it "really is?" Can we ever know another point of view in the way we know our own?

My hard thought answer: I don’t know. In retrospect, I think that my holding the world so close and imagining everything going wrong as my fault was my way of exercising a wish of control: in other words, the harder I worked the more things would be good and safe and comfortable.

Most recently I have become captivated by the tension between the perfect and the imperfect, and the murky matter in between. I am beginning to believe that both intrinsically depend on each other, feed off each other, and in the magical place where they balance, something resides that just might be considered art.

Or perhaps (explained with a tad less grandiosity) it is just something you can learn from. Last weekend, now several years since my break up with the critical ex-boyfriend, I had brunch with a dear friend. Over our meal, she mentioned to me that an incredibly smart and successful mutual acquaintance recently asked her if the man and I were still together. When she told me this, I immediately concluded that he was asking because he felt sorry for me and my romantic travails. When I sheepishly asked what his response was when she told him we weren't together, she laughed and informed me that despite being very happily married, he was so concerned for me during the relationship he had considered trying to rescue me. I laughed in relief and gratitude and gleefully floated back home. But my moment of vanity was short lived. A few days later as I was walking to work, a haunting and familiar headline jumped out at me as I passed an ad on a telephone kiosk. It read, “YOU COULD HAVE KEPT THE BLACK-OUT OF 2003 FROM HAPPENING...” I inched closer and finished reading the copy. In much smaller type, the sentence continued: “...with the amount of energy wasted by non-AMD powered servers.” And for one brief and blissfully perfect second, I rejoiced in the fact that the message wasn’t referring to me and my blow dryer.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Commentary: Noise

Originally uploaded by debbiemillman.

I have been living in my apartment in New York City for over twelve years. I live in a building that was built in the late 1800’s and was refurbished as a coop in the 1980’s. When the renovation was underway, the builders configured the apartments cheaply, complete with the thinnest possible walls and little to no insulation between floors. As a result, the noise factor in my home is rather boisterous. The last four years this has been amplified by the arrival of Lena, the little girl who lives upstairs. Lena is one of the most beautiful little girls I have ever met. She has been in my life since she the day she was born and I have an extraordinary fondness for her. She often knocks on my door and shyly asks if she can visit. She comes in to watch cartoons on my bed; she eats cookies and potato chips, and she endlessly plays with my dogs.

Lena is a girly girl. Her parents are both well known theater folk and she is always dressed in the most imaginative and colorful outfits. She also sports a pair of patent leather Mary Jane’s that I am certain she is so attached to she sleeps in them. While one can’t help but recognize how cute and smart and adorable and clever Lena is, living beneath her has proven to be a bit of a challenge. You see, from the moment Lena wakes up until the moment she goes to bed, she races around her apartment in those Mary Jane’s, or she plays her cherished xylophone, or she bounces balls and chases what I can’t help but imagine is her cat. Despite the intensity and consistency of the ruckus, I have been reluctant to complain to Lena’s parents for a myriad of reasons. First, they are incredibly lovely people and I don’t want to annoy them. Second, I am crazy about Lena and would hate to be the cause curbing her boundless enthusiasm. And finally, Lena’s father helped me rid my apartment of an errant squirrel that had fallen five floors from my roof, down the chimney and into my fireplace, and I didn’t want to seem ungrateful. Nevertheless, I have mentally fantasized about what to say and how to say it many times. But until three weeks ago, I never did.

I changed my mind after what sounded like a rigorous round of bowling followed by a clean sweep of their apartment with an industrial sized vacuum cleaner at 9:00 am on a Saturday. Bleary eyed, I mustered up the courage and sent Lena’s parents an apologetic email gingerly asking if they could reduce the noise factor on weekend mornings. Being the gracious people they are, they responded immediately and regretfully, assuring me they would do everything possible to keep the volume to a minimum. I was relieved at their congeniality and thrilled at the prospect of an unencumbered slumber.

The reprieve lasted three weekends, when this past Sunday, I was woken by screaming and crashing: Lena was having a play date with what sounded like the New York Knicks. Unable to take it anymore, I bounded out of bed like a crazy woman, hair on end, pajamas askew and dead set on flying up the stairs, banging on the door and demanding that they play outside. But by the time I got to my front door, I reconsidered and instead decided to flee the scene. Without brushing my hair or teeth or even changing out of the tee shirt and sweat pants I had slept in, I decided to take my dogs out for their morning walk.

Children’s bedlam aside, our culture has become overtaken by noise. Cell phones, police sirens, car alarms, those horrific two way pagers, radios in taxi cabs, the constant hum of air conditioners, televisions, email pings and residual iPod head phone overflow has now made silence a precious commodity. And it is not unusual to have overlapping sensory overload. Attending a basketball game recently, I counted five different aural experiences simultaneously: an organ, an announcer, a hot dog man, three nearby cell phone conversations all accompanied by the roar of the crowd. We are now living in an age where the cacophony is both deafening and ubiquitous. Things once thought free from this—even opposed to it—a museum, the theater, a library—find it ever more difficult to retain autonomy in the face of constant communication and connection. And we have become sensitized to it as well. At the very same time, smaller and smaller temporal and physical crevices are being packed with the voices and messages of the moment. I think my guest today, Jessica Helfand, describes it best in her essay, 'On Sound, Authenticity and Cultural Amnesia' from her insightful and compelling book 'Screen, Essays on Graphic Design.' “Silence,” she says, “in contemporary life, is not only a commodity, it is an endangered species: hard to come by, harder still to sustain, and oddly associated with a kind of anachronistic world view: silence is the stuff of old media, a body of stillness, an inert mass. In today’s 24/7 multiplex of sensory input, we have come to identify and accept what writer Mark Slouka calls an “auditory landscape” as a new lexicon, a built-in yet discordant soundtrack of accidental sound bytes juxtaposed against and superimposed upon the already noisy world we inhabit.”

After I left my apartment last Sunday morning, I took my dogs to the neighborhood park. As I walked past the little church on the corner I once again heard a loud commotion, when all of a sudden, the door burst open and throngs of people started filing out, one by one, holding what looked like tree branches. Then they started to sing. I remembered it was Palm Sunday and quickly realized I was standing in the very path that they were traversing. I didn’t want to interrupt their stride so I moved over and watched them go by. The dogs were riveted, and as each of the singers passed us, every single one of them smiled as the two little dogfaces stared up at them in amazement. For it was truly an amazing scene to behold. And as the volume increased and the singing became more triumphant, I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony of my impatience and intolerance. And I rejoiced in the gift of sound, all sounds: noisy, boisterous, harmonious, rowdy, robust, unruly and most of all--alive.

Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Commentary: Charmed

When I was a little girl I had a baby sitter named Nancy who watched me every Saturday night when, after getting all dolled up, my parents went downtown to go out for dinner. I remember being so taken with Nancy that I attempted to emulate everything about her: I tried to dress like she did; I parted my hair on the same side, and I wore ponytails in the identical style that she did. At that time, she was the most glamorous, sophisticated and kindest person in my life. She always brought me a pack of gum when she came to baby sit, she would let me watch television when my parents were gone and she read to me before I went to sleep. I loved her.

Nancy had a very unusual, very beautiful necklace. She wore it all the time, and it fascinated me. Describing it will be difficult, but I will try: essentially it was a gold chain necklace that held a small spherical charm in the shape of a cage. The charm held brightly colored loose stones. This sparkly necklace mesmerized me. Whenever she came over, she would let me wear it. I would hold the necklace in the center of my palm for hours on end and imagine that the cage held all of the stars in the solar system. One year Nancy promised me that she would try to find me a similar necklace when I turned seven. I waited with breathless anticipation for my birthday to arrive and on the Saturday that Nancy was to watch me, I could barely contain myself. Looking back on it now, I don’t really know what it was about that necklace that so captivated me, but in analyzing it all of these years later. I think that this was my first encounter with an object that I believed contained both beauty and magic.

Sadly for me, Nancy was not able to find the exact same necklace that year, and instead she gave me a different one: it was a flower charm with a pearl center. Though I admired it very much, it wasn’t the same as the one she had, and my disappointment was palpable. Nevertheless, I wore it all the time.

Several months later my dad got a new job and we left Howard Beach, Queens to move to Staten Island. I was sad to go, I had just started third grade, I had made some nice friends, and I knew that Nancy would not be able to travel all the way to Staten Island to come and baby sit me. I didn’t know what I would do without her and cried when we said goodbye. As she was about to leave my house, I could see she was sad too. Before she left, she opened my hand and put a little box in it, and told me to open it after we left. I knew what it was before I even opened it: the magical necklace. I was elated.

Somehow, in the chaos of our move to Staten Island, my magical necklace got lost. I was devastated and swore never to wear the other pearl necklace that Nancy had given me. I wanted to keep it my jewelry box forever to insure that I would never lose it, and in doing so, be forever connected to the memory of my beloved babysitter. And to this day, nearly four decades later, I still have, and treasure, that little flower charm with the pearl in the center. Yet not a year has gone by wherein I do not think of Nancy and my lost little cage charm with the loose sparkly stones. I have scoured flea markets and eBay, vintage shops, jewelry stores and junk shops in an effort to find this necklace again, but in 37 years, I have never, ever once come upon the same little gem. I have never told anybody about my quest, but I have never stopped looking.

What has remained is the memory of Nancy: her generosity, her warm encouragement, her caring and her love. So it was with a deep sense of returning and giving back that in the fall of 2003 I became a mentor to a 15-year-old student in the High School of Art and Design in New York City, Alexandra Alcantara.

Alex is incredibly cool and lives in Harlem and is amazingly talented and loves anime and horror movies and her boyfriend Mark, and she has one of the most extraordinary sketchbooks I have ever seen. She’s had a vastly different adolescence than I had, and I find that I am learning a lot from her. But via this experience, I have come to realize that mentoring is about more than just giving back. Mentoring is learning about yourself and the world. Mentoring is hard work and great fun and a big responsibility.

I believe that mentoring is necessary. Last year, in an issue of Communication Arts, there was a provocative, compelling article about mentoring by Sanjay Khanna. In it, he poses tough questions about the role that experienced designers have (or don’t have) for young designers. One of his key issues is this: “Young designers need encouragement. It needs to be reinforced that as young people they have a unique way of seeing and that they carry the images, hopes and fears of their generation within them. They are intrinsically important and their vision requires a good measure of support from their elders (us).” And in the same article, Paula Scher states, “I hire students from my classes as interns. I teach, hire and mentor them, closely observing their progress. I stay young because I get to borrow their eyes. In fact, I get more out of it than they do.”

This is my third, and last semester as Alex’s “official” mentor. She is now interning at the design firm that I run; she contributes to projects and I get to see her every day. This year, my main task was to assist Alex with her college applications and encourage her to get into the best possible program. Alex had been unsure about pursuing design, she felt she might not be talented enough, and she was insecure about her ability to get into a good design school. I was insistent that she not make any decisions out of fear, but rather do the very best she could. I promised that I would do everything that I could to assist her in getting into a good design school. And last month we were able to celebrate: she was accepted into the undergraduate design program at the School of Visual Arts, one of the best design schools in the country.

I guess Alex must have told her mother about my assurances, because shortly thereafter she handed me a beautifully wrapped present. I was perplexed as to why I was getting this gift, but Alex told me that she and her mother wanted to give me something to show how grateful they were for all of my help and encouragement. Alex told me this as I was about to go into a major presentation, but she insisted that I open the present right then and there. I opened it quickly and saw a lovely bracelet with dangly whimsical charms. I hugged her, put the box in my purse and went on to my presentation.

The next morning as I was getting ready to go to work, I remembered that Alex’s present was still in my pocketbook. I took it out of my bag and as I opened the box something glinty caught my eye. I picked up the bracelet to examine at it more carefully. And my heart skipped a beat. “No,” I thought, “it couldn’t be.” But I could see that indeed it was. The familiar round globe, the sparkly loose stones, the little gold cage: it was identical. My long ago lost charm. It was on the bracelet, and now, once again, in my hand.

I saw Alex the next day and told her the story. She was as incredulous as I was. And as happy.

I think when we give something of ourselves, what we get in return is immeasurable. We might be giving back because someone gave to us, or we are giving back because we know we should. Either way, when we do this, something remarkable happens: we get a uniquely human, mutually shared experience. And in that experience, continuity develops. You give something away, you get something in return and the cycle is perpetuated. As long as we are capable, and as long as we participate, the cycle can never be broken.

Friday, April 07, 2006


I used to think that my love affair with brands began when I was in the seventh grade—the year I became convinced that if I only had a pair of Levi’s jeans and a Lacoste polo shirt I would go from a geeky, artsy wallflower to a fantastically popular, sought after trendsetter. But what I now realize, as far back as I can remember, brands were vividly present both in my daily life and in my imagination. Because I grew up with a dad who was a pharmacist and owned a drug store, by the time I was five I was as familiar with Robitussin as I was with Mister Rogers.

One of my favorite things to do was to visit my father’s pharmacy. I was dazzled by all of the branded boxes that neatly lined the mahogany shelves, and I would spend hours ogling the packaging. I would make up stories about the babies on the Gerber products, I’d pretend to apply the Cover Girl make up and I’d endlessly analyze the girl on the beach on the Stay Free sanitary napkin packaging, the contents of which, at the time, was perplexing.

But for me, the crown jewel in my fathers store was the barrette display. This was a stand of magical wonder; it was a spinning cascade of glamour and hope and desire. And while I saw lots of other brands of barrettes in lots of other stores, my father had only one brand featured in his display: the Goody brand. The stand held every possible hair accessory: head bands, bobby pins, colorful plastic clips in the shape of butterflies, a myriad of hair brushes, combs, shower caps, pretty bows in velvet, bows in gingham, and my favorite barrette of all: pony tail holders. They were sold in packages of 4 or 8 or an eye popping 20. The barrettes were of simple construction: two round baubles held together by an elastic band that was twisted around to hold ponytails in place. Each pack was organized by style: some were translucent, some were opaque, and they were segmented by color and size: small, medium and large balls of primary and secondary colors. I was allowed to pick out one package per visit to keep. I would stand in front of the stand for what seemed an eternity, slowly spinning it round and round, overwhelmed by the magnitude of my choice: what should I take? What was the most beautiful? What would make me look the prettiest? After I made my decision, I would bring home my coveted treasure, carefully open up the packs, spread out my newly obtained amulets and then I would, well…I would do nothing. I wouldn’t do my hair up and I didn’t try them on. I just stared at them in divine bliss. I was simply content to look at them and add them to my lovely, expanding trove. I felt rich with accomplishment and dizzy with glee. No one had the collection I had; no one could be as lucky as I was.

My best friend, a very petite blonde haired girl named Andrea, lived next door. We did everything together and we were very much kindred spirits. We shared our deepest secrets and we would spend hours on end planning our futures and imagining what we would be when we grew-up and where we would travel and what we would wear. Andrea, however, did not share my penchant for hair accessories and while she tolerated my burgeoning collection, she had no desire to join me in my trinket worship. One day, when we were playing at her house, I noticed a small ponytail holder on her bureau, and I was immediately mesmerized and perplexed. I had never seen this particular style. It was a pearly pale yellow, and I had never seen a barrette of that hue, ever. Of course, it was the Goody brand. For the next weeks, whenever I went over to Andrea’s house I always looked for the barrette and it always there, always in the same place. Every time I went to my father’s drug store I looked to see if he had the pale yellow barrette and he never did. Suddenly I was angry and jealous. I wanted that barrette and I didn’t know how to get it.

For better or worse, this little object--this little brand--transformed me. Brands can do that: they are capable of creating intimate worlds inhabitants can understand, where they can be somebody and feel like they belong. Brands create tribes. I believe that with brands we assert moods, tastes, whims and choice. Brands can signal our affiliations and define our beliefs. In a time when our culture is so diverse and dispersed, brands can allow us to simultaneously stand out and fit in. For whatever sad reason, my childhood barrettes buoyed up an otherwise rather fragile center. They provided me with a social confidence I may not have otherwise had, however illusory its foundation.

My fervent obsession with barrettes has a rather tragic ending. I continued to fixate on Andrea’s yellow barrette, and one afternoon, before I could stop myself, when my best friend wasn’t looking, I took the barrette off of her bureau and put it in my pocket. I stole Andrea’s yellow barrette.

For weeks after I completed my crime, I waited for Andrea (or worse yet, her mother) to notice, but she never did. But for me, our friendship was irrevocably changed. Now I had a terrible secret we couldn’t share. I couldn’t face her anymore. And I couldn’t face who I became because of my desire and my greed.

Brands can be many things, and the pro-logo contingent and the no-logo advocates all have deeply felt convictions that convincingly support why they feel what they feel. But what I can tell you about brands is this: maybe they can make you feel more beautiful, or maybe they can make you feel thinner or sexier or cooler or hipper or more alluring. What they do not have the power to do is make you a better person. Brands can’t do that. There is no sneaker in the world, no burger brand, no cocktail, no barrette that can make you a kinder, more interesting, more lovable person. Only we can do that for ourselves.
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