debbie millman

Friday, May 25, 2007

Follies and Floss

While waiting on line at a midtown soups-and-sides deli, a cup of vegetable soup glowing hot in my hands, I noticed a peculiar thing. The customer at the counter, a sweet-looking old woman with a stunning Louis Vuitton bag gripped in one tiny fist, placed her meager items on the counter, pulled out a handful of cash, and proceeded to order Lottery tickets. I didn’t pay attention at first, this being New York, the city that practically invented the slogan “a dollar and a dream,” but when the long roll-call of Lotto jargon flew from her lips, like a devout widow counting off the beads on her rosary, I started to worry. Quick Pick, Mega Millions, Take Five, straight in the box: the jargon flew effortlessly as the clerk tapped on the machine and cranked out the slips. And it didn’t end there, for soon after she unfurled the poetry of scratch-offs: Juicy Loot, Sunny Money, Set for Life, King of Cash, an endless catalogue of intermingled chance and desire. By then, the collective grumbling on the steadily increasing line was becoming more pronounced, and new characters were making their entrance. A man standing behind me said to his friend, “To make up for his misstep, I had him make donations to two of my favorite charities: my bartender and my drug dealer.” Another man, who was leaning against the ice box, said into his cellphone with a voice that dripped like olive oil, “Since you obviously don’t know how to get sugar from a sugar bush, I’d say it’s time you tap into another venue.” The young woman with the martyred look who stood in front of me continually grabbed the stray ends of her hair and chewed on them hungrily, as if she hadn’t eaten since the Velvet Revolution. And of course there was me, a cup of soup sweating in my palms, my heart beating because for a moment I imagined myself as a girl wearing an Alice-band who happened upon a rabbit hole. But instead of Wonderland, I’d wandered into a tamer version of Dali’s “Vision of Hell.” I’m sorry to report that, after the old woman snatched up her tickets and shunted down the counter to begin her penny-scratching, the young hair-chewer, after ordering a pack of Camel Lights, restarted the Lotto roundelay, leaving me with chilled and congealed soup. On behalf of Design Matters, I’d like to thank the New York State Lotto Commission, without whom none of the preceding would have been possible.

This little chance-medley experience got me thinking about quirks. We all have them, even if we don’t want to admit it. From the repulsive businessman who clips his fingernails on the bus to the gruesome guy who flosses on a trans-atlantic flight (which I happened to witness with wide-eyed dismay, the man working against his gums with the zeal of two lumberjacks operating a cross-cutting saw), humans do the strangest things. And our own quirks are what define us as unique individuals. There are troves of signage that are peculiar to every subset, and our distinct qualities are what aptly describe the wealth of contradictions and moods, the originality of style and substance, inherent within us all. Even the way one smokes a cigarette is overt testimony of their one of a kind DNA. Could anyone else in the world blow as beautiful a plume of smoke as Bogie did in Casablanca? Or transmit the now clichéd message of utter cool, as exemplified by James Dean’s rebellious stare, cigarette jutting from his lower lip?

Let us consider the more recent examples of famous quirks. The weird swirl on the peak of Donald Trump’s skull, which looks like the deflated hair net of a burned-out fry cook, and the baby-talk look he gets on his face when he’s about to say, “You’re fired.” Or the droopy-eyed, drunken pout of Paris Hilton, when she slurs, almost inaudibly, “That’s hot,” her body at half-mast with hands that perpetually swat away invisible paparazzi. Billions of examples abound, whether you vacation in Sun Valley or hail from Rego Park, it doesn’t matter, for odds are, if you were to examine yourself closely, you’d find that you were much weirder than you thought. So don’t look too closely, or you may never leave the house again.

After my morning jaunt at the deli, I went into my office consumed with outrage and fury. As I recounted to my colleagues every last baffling behavior, the conversation turned to all of our quirks and bad habits. While no one would admit having any, Lisa reminded Jen that she screamed out “NAILS” every time Karen tapped noisily on her keyboard. Rina retaliated by telling Clara that she always crinkled the silvery orange package of her granola bar when it was time for her afternoon snack. Jen told Andrew that he was such a loud talker she could hear him yapping on the phone in the next office. No one could believe the follies of their own behavior. Then everyone stopped and looked at me. I looked back in mock horror. “What,” I asked, “do I do?” They all started laughing. “You mean you don’t know?” Rina replied. “No,” I said. “I don’t.” They continued laughing. Lisa went first. “You have a really loud way of blowing your nose.” Then Rina added, “You apologize a lot.” And finally Jen threw her two cents in: “When you’re nervous, you tap your stomach.” I was mortified. I had no idea. Well, I knew about my nose blowing abilities, but stomach tapping? That was outrageous.

After I recovered from my embarrassment, I realized that most of these behaviors were unconscious. None of us had any idea we were being so incredibly annoying. Clara didn’t realize she was crinkling her healthy snack wrapper, Karen was unaware her nails were so grating, and Andrew insisted he wasn’t a loud talker.

Our quirks and odd mannerisms are manifestations of living on auto-pilot. Perhaps it is in our nature to avoid conflict. And perhaps it is in our nature to be oblivious to our own freakish behavior. But not me, not anymore. Never again will I tap my stomach when I am nervous. And next time I see someone flossing on a midnight flight, I am going to wrench the floss from their fat little fingers and threaten to strangle them with it. Then I’ll apologize, of course.


Anonymous Longtooth said...

I wanted to say how much better I feel knowing that you're out in the world somewhere. Your posts should have an assigned "shrinkshare" point value, which one can accumulate and trade in in lieu of time on the couch. I cancelling my appointment for next week.
Thanks so much.

5/25/2007 05:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Yael Miller said...

that was a GREAT read. just GREAT!

6/07/2007 02:10:00 PM  

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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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