debbie millman

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Lost In Translations


I have spent the last week in Tokyo observing Japanese consumers in qualitative market research articulate their feelings and beliefs about mouthwash and potential new package design. It seems absurd, really, to describe my participation as an observer. What I’ve actually been doing is listening to a young female narrator translate into English what these unusually loyal mouthwash users have been saying in Japanese.

Her interpretations have been remarkably creative, offering such statements as “the packaging looks lonely” and “the design is like a fluffy painting” and I have been wondering if her surprising decoding is the verbatim representation of what is being said or the result of an imaginative reconstruction.

I’ll never know. Being in a country where the language and the alphabet are both foreign and unreadable has unabashedly reminded me of my reliance on language and reading in order to communicate and relate. This experience has underscored how dependent I am on the ability to decipher signs in order to distinguish whether where I am headed is joyfully welcoming or dreadfully dangerous, and to reassure me that I know where I am going. This week I have been humbled by my utter lack of both.

I have been thinking about the inadequacy of language and interpretation. What is language, really? Why is it that sounds have come to embody meaning? How accurate are those meanings? These are basic questions of the philosophy of language. And language, like design, is a system of signs used to communicate. The act of communicating is a matter of letting other people know what we think or in many cases, what to think. The signs that make up language get their meaning from our association with them and our collective agreement of these associations.

But John Locke, the great English philosopher, believed that rather than language, thought originates in experience. Out of the product of experience, ideas develop. And through this power of association, ideas are transformed into complex mental constructs like language.

But language is a highly arbitrary and highly interpretive medium. Back when I was about 10 or 11 years old, I went through a particularly difficult phase in my life, wherein my behavior, in reflecting on it now, could probably best be described as post-traumatic stress disorder. As a result of the disruption of my outer world, my inner world began to crumble and I developed a bizarre speech disorder. Whenever anyone asked me how I was doing or what the weather was like or any other rather innocuous question, I froze, and found I couldn’t answer. In as much as I thought I knew how I was doing or what the weather was like, I felt that I couldn’t be absolutely sure. What if my idea about how I was doing wasn’t real? What if the weather was different somewhere else? As I tried to answer these harmless questions, I found that all I could muster were responses such as, “Well, maybe I am feeling well, but maybe I am not” or “Maybe it is raining, but maybe it is not.” “Maybe or maybe not” became my standard reply to any question, including what I wanted for dinner. My mother and stepfather were horrified and angry at my inability to articulate an answer to even the easiest of questions and I was punished for my lack of conviction and clarity. But, for the life of me at the time, I couldn’t fathom how anyone could be sure of anything and I preferred to be grounded than to have to utter a phrase that contained a fixed belief on anything, including even what I wanted for dessert.

Given that language is our primary tool for thinking, can we perceive or describe something without first having a linguistic boundary for it? And where does nuance fit in? What about ambiguity? How can we accurately describe the meaning of the flutter across someone’s face? I think that Mark Rothko described it best as recorded in Bernard Malamud’s heartbreaking introduction to the retrospective tome ‘Mark Rothko.’ Malamud wrote: “Rothko liked to reminisce. One night he told me how he had left his first wife. He had gone off for an army physical during World War II and they had turned him down. When he arrived home and told his wife he was 4-F he didn’t like the look that flitted across her face. The next day he went to see his lawyer about a divorce.”

The French philosopher Jacques Derrida stated that we inhabit "a world of signs without fault, without truth and without origin". One of the central tenets of his philosophy (also called Deconstructivism) is ‘there is nothing outside the text.’ Deconstructionism is aptly named because it seeks to deconstruct the nature and meaning of language. Common phases reflecting this ideology include, "We really can’t know if something is true or not" or my favorite: "That depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is."

Critics of Derrida complain that if words have no meaning, there is no meaning. Or, if there is, you cannot actually communicate it. I fundamentally disagree. Design is first and foremost a language that dependent on words in order to communicate. Like the facial flutter of Rothko’s ex-wife proves, symbols and action have as much profundity as words. In fact, facial gestures are all but universal and far more trustworthy in reading a situation than language could hope to be.

Nevertheless, language can be helpful. Yesterday, in hiring a taxi to transport me from the middle of Tokyo back to my hotel, I found that the elderly taxi driver had no idea what I was saying and where I was asking him to go. As my attempts to communicate proved fruitless, I began to ask passersby if they could help me. A young Japanese woman came over and I asked her if she could help me tell the cab driver where I was going, as I was lost. It seemed that she understood the word “lost” and I began to feel relived. But before I knew it, she got into the cab along side me and started feeling around the floor! She falteringly asked me “What lost?” but before I could answer, she motioned to other passersby. Suddenly five generous people began looking for something I hadn’t lost in and around the taxi. I couldn’t help but laugh and consider the various things one actually could lose: your confidence, your control, your appetite, your dignity, your reputation, your keys, your dog, your faith, your shirt, your heart, your mind, your life. I had simply lost my way. It took a few minutes, but I was finally able to correct the miscommunication by showing the growing group around me a postcard of the hotel where I was staying, which fortuitously, I remembered I had in my handbag. The image did the trick, and then all of us: the young woman, the elderly cab driver, the burgeoning crowd of helpers and me, all bust into spontaneous clapping and laughing. Not a word was uttered, not a phrase was exchanged, but suddenly, everyone was on exactly the same page, and everyone understood.


Anonymous redmagiq said...

i am a long-ago friend of jennifer's and love your blog. this is absolutely one of the most thought-provoking, and exquisitely expressed thoughts i have observed in so long. it is so nice to see that someone is willing and able to disseminate language (and nuance, and interpretation, and the agreed upon images that an established pattern of sounds have come to represent, arbitrarily, to any given demographic). i studied russian in the military many years ago, and am fascinated by the willingness and necessity to express ourselves by any means or medium available.
please keep writing... thank you.

2/13/2007 05:47:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

Dear Redmagiq--
Thank you so much!

2/13/2007 05:55:00 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home

things i paint
things i photograph
design matters design matters poster designed by Firebelly
about me
My Photo
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).

things i do those i thank things i like current playlist