debbie millman

Friday, February 16, 2007

To Infinity And Beyond

Infinity

My favorite cookie of all time was a brand made by Keebler named Fudgetown. Fudgetown were chocolate sandwich cookies popular when I was a young girl, and I thought they were the most delectable and beautiful cookies ever created. They were delectable because the milk chocolate was soft and fudgy, and the bisquit was crispy and flaky. They were beautiful because they were shaped liked flowers, with a thick dollop of chocolate deep in the center. I used to savor the experience of these cookies slowly; first I would stick my tongue into the center and flick out the chocolaty dollop, then I would pop open the two sandwich pieces, and use my teeth to scrape off the side with the chocolate. Then I would keep each cookie on my tongue until the heat of my mouth melted it away. This ritual probably took about 20 minutes, but the memory of this experience has lasted a lifetime. And while I also cherished my moments with Wise Bar-b-que Potato Chips, Drakes Yodels and Devil Dogs, Cheese Doodles and Grape Nehi Soda, it is the Fudgetown cookies alone that still make my knees weak with love and devotion.

In addition to the mystical taste these cookies provided, I also fell under the spell of the package containing these blissful morsels. Of course it featured the Keebler Elves, but in as much as I found these brand icons amusing and entertaining, it was not the Elves that captured my interest. What had me utterly mesmerized was what the Elves were doing. What had me positively transfixed was the illustration on the front face panel of the cookie package that featured the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies. Which meant that the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies were holding a package featuring the Keebler Elves holding a package of Fudgetown cookies. And so on and so on and so on. The Keebler Elves holding the package of Keebler Elves holding the package was infinite! This killed me! I would stare at the package for hours on end, trying to pinpoint the moment I could see the singularity: where the Keebler Elf and the cookie package both originated. It all ended up in a single point that was indiscernible and I was both entranced and perplexed as to the notion of this infinite lineage. This became my entrée to the concept of infinity, and I found the philosophic conundrum it represented and the unresolved mystery both wondrous and stupefying.

According to David Darling, author of The Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, infinity is a concept that has fascinated philosophers and theologians, linked as it is to the notions of unending distance and space and eternity. But it has also met with open hostility throughout most of the history of mathematics. It is only within the past century that mathematicians have dealt with it head on and accepted infinity as a number – albeit the strangest one we know.

Yet according to John Barrow, author of The Infinite Book, “Infinity remains a fascinating subject. It lies at the heart of all sorts of fundamental human questions. Can you live forever? Will the Universe have an end? Did it have a beginning? Does the Universe have an edge or is it simply unbounded in size? Although it is easy to think about lists of numbers or sequences of clock ticks that go on forever, there are other sorts of infinity that seem to be more challenging. What about an infinite temperature or an infinite brightness? Can such physical things actually be infinite? Or is infinity just shorthand for “finite but awfully big?”

My search for the origin point on the Fudgetown cookie box was my first experience with the illusory magic of packaging. This obsession boldly grew and came to include Goody Barrette packaging, Golden Book covers, all things Barbie (of course), the record covers of Olivia Newton John, Elton John and later Roger Dean’s covers for the band Yes. Band Aid tins, the Morton Salt girl and McCall Magazine’s Betsy McCall also figured prominently in my attraction to consumer icons. What I now romantically and proudly call branding.

The upside to all of this brand attachment is just that: feeling connected, part of something larger than oneself, and the participation in a real or imagined community of like minded spirits. The downside, of course, is multifaceted. First: these communities may very well have a shaky foundation. After all, it is hard to depend on the reliability and support system of transitional objects, which most of these connections usually are. Second: there comes a point when you realize that these things, these brands, aren’t “enough.” Having more or better or best doesn’t provide you with a lasting sense of having more or being better or being best. It is a rather fleeting experience, this romantic attachment to and with brands, and I find that if I am not careful, the search for having more or better or best is a precarious journey into the infinite. When you depend on finite objects—or brands—to provide you with a long-term sense of self or love or pride or achievement, you set yourself up on a path with no end. No object, no product, and no brand can provide you with ultimate, infinite satisfaction.

I once had a boyfriend tell me I was a bottomless pit of need. He wasn’t saying this because I thought I needed another pair of shoes or a Prada handbag (which I likely did at the time, but that’s another story entirely) but rather because of a fragile emotional state that demanded constant reassurance of my lovability. As you can imagine, this drove him crazy! My infinite need for reassurance required an infinite effort on his part, and you can guess how that relationship ended up. Some infinites are tough. Others, like the idea of infinite space or mathematical subdivisions, are simply inconceivable. But I believe some infinites are worthy challenges: the search for what is truly beautiful: laughing at the same time with someone you love, discovering a perfect piece of poetry, experiencing the deepest feelings of empathy. If that doesn’t work, there are always chocolate cookies, but I do think T. S. Eliot describes it best in his poem Preludes:

His soul stretched tight across the skies
That fade behind a city block,
Or trampled by insistent feet
At four and five and six o'clock
And short square fingers stuffing pipes,
And evening newspapers, and eyes
Assured of certain certainties,
The conscience of a blackened street
Impatient to assume the world.
I am moved by fancies that are curled
Around these images, and cling
The notion of some infinitely gentle
Infinitely suffering thing.
Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
The worlds revolve like ancient women
Gathering fuel in vacant lots.

3 Comments:

Anonymous redmagiq said...

again, thank you.
my humble experience with grasping the slightest concept of infinity is defined within the context of my relationship with my son. to stand in the presence of a love that dwarfs my own existence within the universe to the significance of a dust mote is what defines my love for him. hence the game we play at bedtime; i love you, mom. i love you, too, ray. i love you more, mom. no, i love you more, ray. i love you so much it hurts - i love you so much i want to hurt you, and so on, and so on, until the trump call is sounded - i love you infinity squared, plus shipping and handling.

2/17/2007 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger Kim said...

Thank you for reminding me of my love of Fudgetowns - truly one of the finest cookies ever! The spell of packaging cast on me however were 16 ounce glass Coke bottles and Marlboros, all for their coordination with our family's white '66 Thunderbird. It was a perfect experience to be in the backseat (blue leather), have the bottle in hand, and see my mom's pack of smokes on the dash as the Texas summer sped by.

The true thanks are for the thoughts on "some infinites" and for Eliot's Preludes. Easy to forget, so wonderful to be reminded.

2/28/2007 01:48:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Burry Biscuits of Elizabeth, NJ (long shuttered) produced Fudgetown cookies, NOT Keebler. True Fudgetown's were chocolate cookies with a fudge cream filling. Keebler's version is vanilla cookies with a "fudge" center and are still vended today.

12/19/2007 01:55:00 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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