debbie millman

Friday, June 16, 2006

Commentary: Good Enough

born with a weak heart
Originally uploaded by debbie millman.
Last year I completed an apartment renovation that lasted nearly 14 months. What started as an attempt to simply choose new living room furniture burgeoned into an entire home redesign, with one new project begetting another and then another. My best friend, Susan Benjamin, an Emmy-nominated set decorator handled the redesign. I had never redecorated a home before, and throughout most of the experience, I lived amidst dust and debris and demolition. For two weeks in the deepest February, I even had to trek through the snow and frigid New York City temperatures in my robe and sneakers to use my generous neighbor’s shower while mine was being replaced.

It was a grueling journey, and during the experience I became so obsessed with faucets, floor tiles, door hinges and sofa fabric that I began to fantasize about toilets and bathtubs rather than my usual daydreams of designer shoes and expensive handbags.

This was my first experience working with an interior decorator. Albeit a different discipline, this designer also exhibited many of the same traits as graphic designers: she was headstrong, opinionated, finicky, elitist and a complete perfectionist. She was also frequently right, sometimes impatient (with me, mostly) and often baffled by my lack of interior design knowledge. And until she pointed it out for me, I couldn’t understand why it was not really necessary for me to ask my dog walker for her opinion of the color of the grout for the kitchen backsplash.

This experience has made me far more aware of my surroundings and beauty and comfort than I have ever been before. Sue was not satisfied with anything less than perfect and nothing ever seemed to be perfect. This impressed me, confounded me and surprised me throughout our arduous expedition together. I was far more forgiving of the contactor’s failings than she was, and I couldn’t understand (and still don’t, really) why she made the contractor who installed the glass wall in my entranceway take the damn thing down because she chose a 1/2 inch stainless steel border instead of a 3/4 inch one, and he made a mistake. But I guess this is her art--her creation--and she wanted it to be flawless.

I have experienced this before, over and over, in the business of graphic design. Many of the designers I work with and admire are on the same quest: the perfect layout, the perfect logo, a most perfect label design. But who makes that call? Who determines perfection? I had a client call me yesterday to tell me that the design work I recently presented was considered “good, not great” by her brand team. I couldn’t help but wonder what made them feel qualified to say that. Is it because they know the brand better? Because they think they know design? Or is it because they are paying the bills?

In this day and age of uber-fast decision-making and split second intuitive leaps, it seems as though knowledge, education and talent can’t always insure that our clients are making good, appropriate decisions or that our final creations will be exactly as we want them. I can’t help but wonder if it is possible that nothing, really, is ever good enough and if we should always strive for something better.

Two weeks after my fourteen-month renovation was finally complete, my dog Duff urinated on my brand new custom made sofa and a squirrel fell five floors down through my chimney, and was chased, covered in soot and blood, by my two cats all through my perfect living room. I was inconsolable. When I told Sue, first she comforted me and then she laughed. I was stunned at her humorous mood and questioned why she wasn’t more upset at the very obvious mess that was now prevalent in my apartment. She looked at me in bewilderment and told me though she wanted everything in the renovation to GO perfectly, she didn’t expect that everything would BE perfect. And though the apartment was now very messy, it most certainly wasn’t ruined. In fact, now it was officially “lived in.” And suddenly I knew what she meant: In a perfect world, the imperfections in our homes are really the only evidence we have of truly inhabiting where we live.


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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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