debbie millman

Friday, January 12, 2007

The Fray

Sometimes I think if we knew how the world was really created, I mean really, truly—from the beginning of time, then there wouldn’t be any wars. How much easier would it be if we knew we were created by an intelligent, magical entity or if we evolved from single cell paramecium after a very big bang, or if we were simply part of some indescribable technological matrix? This knowledge would make our lives so much less complicated. No one, not one person on this planet, knows empirically how or why we are here. That uncertainty has given rise to incredibly elaborate theories we have come to believe so certainly that we fight to the death to convince others that our elaborately constructed ideologies are somehow superior. All of this comes from our elusive and mysterious origins. If only we knew how we got here. But, right now, in this particular time in our universe, the answer eludes us. So we battle on, weary and restless, anxiously waiting for proof and convincing ourselves that if we win this one last battle or send more people into the fray, that all will be won and justice, finally, will be had.

If only it were that easy.

Walking home from work yesterday I imagined what the legacy of our generation will be one hundred years from now. Maybe, if we are lucky, 1% of the people living today will still be alive, albeit very old. I wondered what will be remembered and how history will judge our actions. I realized that much of what we think of as news or entertainment will be long forgotten; no one will know of or remember Britney Spears or Angelina Jolie or Donald Trump; they will barely be footnotes in the annals of how we distracted ourselves at the turn of the 21st century.

But these are our times. In many ways, this is all we have. I think we forget about that. We use all sorts of elaborate rues in order to create a sense of security about who we are and what our purpose is, when in fact, there is no way of really knowing. Personally, I am very guilty of this; I use all sorts of things to convince myself that I am secure. I will readily admit that I try to convince myself that I feel more secure when I have an abundance of paper goods in my home: when I have an ample amount of paper towels, toilet paper, tissues and napkins. I convince myself that I feel more secure when I have enough cat and dog food to feed my pets for a month and enough water to drink for a year and packs of batteries and bath soap and clean sheets and light bulbs and coffee and good salt and Diet Dr. Pepper. I know that somehow I feel like I ever so slightly fit in if I have the brand new iPod and pretty clothes and snazzy shoes and an “it” handbag. But this collection of things, this loopy safety net is not really keeping me safe at all. I know it is the illusion that I enjoy, in order to convince myself that if anything bad happens, I will still be able to go on and take care of the people and the pets that I love. But these things aren’t enough, and they never will be enough, really, because in the same way we are searching for scientific certainty, philosophical certainty is just as elusive and mysterious.

I think that this ongoing quest has resulted in the undue responsibility we have placed upon these things—these brands--that we collect. We all know that we “use” these things to fit in and express choice and create community. But I also think the consistency and stability and tenacity of these brands allows us to feel safer and more secure in an often hostile and volatile world.

This past Monday, I was walking home from work and stopped at an ATM to withdraw some cash. When I got to the entrance of the bank, a homeless man opened the door for me. He was holding a paper cup containing a few coins and a single dollar bill. I thanked him for opening the door and went over to a machine to extract some cash. A few moments later, the homeless man opened the door for somebody else, and another homeless man walked into the bank, also carrying a cup. They looked at each other for a moment and then the first homeless man told the second homeless man, “This is my spot.” He continued by telling the man that he understood it was cold out, but he had gotten here first and it wasn’t fair for him to move onto his territory. The second man was quiet for a second and he looked around. Then he nodded and said he’d only stay for a minute or two, until he warmed up. The first man said thanks and then suggested he go to a bank on 23rd Street; that it was a good place to stay. The second man nodded again and said okay.

I hadn’t really thought about the inner politics of homelessness before. Inasmuch as I see homeless people everyday, I hadn’t really thought about the relationship that they have with each other and the machinations of living in a world where you are competing for nothing with people that also have nothing. I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by the exchange between the two men, and once again, chastised myself for imaging that I don’t have enough.

We are all connected in this universe. We are connected by the things that we have, by the things that we don’t have, by our uncertainty and by our strength. Though today I am no more certain of things than I was yesterday or the day before, today I am grateful that I don’t sleep in a bank and that I have enough paper towels in my apartment to last me a few months.

2 Comments:

Blogger MCALDWELLC said...

great post.

This has always been my tension with design. I love the challenge of it, I love the problem solving, the intellectual aspects of it and yet I have to wonder, am i just putting MORE crap into the world that we really don't need? Am I responsible for creating more need that could never be filled by any brand's promise?

We live in a culture that, on most levels, suggests going outside of yourself is the path to peace. We collect things, people, experiences and never bother to dig into our own minds and hearts. Our values have been so distorted by this frenetic consumer mentality...it's alarming when you think about it.

1/18/2007 08:10:00 AM  
Blogger riveraphobia said...

This is very fine writing, Debbie. Urbane, profound, and very aware of the world, that which is obscured from meaning as well as that which is naked to the eye. Truly, one of your best monologues. But anyone who knows you knows that this is a part of your personal framework, so I am not elucidating any characteristics that can be remotely hidden from even an unwitting observer. It makes me proud to know you, and especially proud to be a part of your life.

1/18/2007 10:40:00 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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