debbie millman

Friday, June 01, 2007

Word Play

I have always been fascinated by words. I love to say them, I love to learn them; I even like to play with them. I get enormous enjoyment composing new lyrics to popular songs I hear on the radio, I create funny nicknames for people I love and I abbreviate and manipulate words that I like to use. Brill is short for brilliant, lunchville is my witty way of saying I am leaving for lunch, heading to snoopville means I am off to sleep and taking a trip to Louisville is slang for going to the loo. I also love to twist the meanings of things that aren’t quite similar, but should be. This started quite by accident; when I was little I confused windmills with helicopters and band-aids with rubber bands.

Sometimes words confound me. Years ago, after a particularly bad break-up with a boyfriend, I hopped into my Ford Escort with the exact intention of heading anywhere the road would take me. I put the pedal to the metal and ate up the highway, rudderless, lovelorn, but with the bubbling animal spirits of a free individual, American Woman to the core. I drove along sinuate bi-ways and over long shaky bridges in their autumnal bleakness, seeing nothing but the dust of the road and the endless sky, and when I pulled off an exit ramp and entered a town in New Hampshire whose name I have long forgotten, I was struck dumb by the cloud-cuckoo landscape in which I had found myself. Here there were bent-backed trees with leaves in full bloom, high fields rife with flowers for which I had no name, and a scent in the air that was unblushing in its reminiscences of love. But, most troubling of all, was the main commercial drag, which sported stores that seemed to cater to those undismayed by romantic yearnings, the lovers who held hands on sun-drenched mornings, the married who shared kisses on moon-rippled nights.

I walked the avenue as if spellbound, oblivious to the sidewalk strollers. There were storefronts that had the airy goodness of bath bubbles, touting Cupids and poetic baubles, confectionaries with heart-shaped chocolates ensconced in velvet, stationary stores with the inevitable rank of Susan Polis Schultz greeting cards, restaurants with romance lighting, and, as if to add salt to the festering wound, a bedding retailer with a display of deep-dish mattresses that begged for languishing bodies, the embodiment of cozy sleep and dream. And though I forgot the name of the town itself, I never could blank my memory of the name of one particular flower shop: Turnsole of Rainy Lane. For a reason I couldn’t quite fathom at the time, this sounded the alarm strobes within my skull, and I hightailed it out of there, back into the Escort, back to New York and the comforts of slag cement and building brick, but thankfully, not back to the bad boyfriend.

In hindsight, I understood that it was the vital force emitted by the word “turnsole” that struck me to the quick. The turnsole, which is a plant that turns toward the sun very much like the heliotrope, signified for me not just a turning of my own soul— away from love, responsibility, and possibly even my sanity. The imagery conjured by the flowershop’s name, that of a sun-facing plant immersed by a pouring rain on a lonely stretch, was too much for me to withstand. Sometimes, as James Joyce so aptly stated: “The longest way round is the shortest way home.”

Words can be used to transport and amuse and entertain, but they can also be used to destroy. They can freeze you over and douse you in flames. Words can be hurled like grenades, shot like bullets, and slung like arrow. They can radiate the kinetic energy of a shaped charge. Used correctly, they can elevate men and women into positions of power. But used incorrectly, like a politician who straddles a third-rail issue, they can be one’s downfall. You don’t have to delve too deeply into this country’s history to see how many have come undone: Michael Richards with his racist onslaught, former senator George Allen’s “macaca-gate,” and Don Imus’s strangling of urban slang. No one, regardless of class or ethnicity, is beyond language’s pale. We are, to paraphrase the poet Michael Schmidt, at its beck and call, servants of the servants of the muse.

Lately, I have been pondering the necessity of words. In as much as I can hardly imagine what it would be like to be mute, there is something strangely compelling about choosing not to speak. Years ago, a good friend of mine went to a monastery for a week wherein she wasn’t allowed to talk. Sure she wouldn’t succeed, Suzanne ended up triumphant in her effort, and returned from the experience imbued with more cognitive clarity than she had ever experienced before.

Human beings have the ability to communicate unlike any other creatures on earth. Graduating from gestures to the first guttural eruption—a leap that our evolutionary ancestor, the chimpanzee, can not make—we use language as our prime mode of communication. This is a first development akin to the sparking of man’s first fire. Yet this aptitude, this capacity for connectivity, is only as authentic as our intentions. Even though I remain steadfastly attached to language, I can’t help but wonder how any communication can be as profound as the wordless smile you give a loved one. Or how about the unspoken transmission of emotion between pets and people? Not a word is exchanged and yet the knowledge that affection is mutual is unquestionable.

Or is it? Given my penchant for silly, made up language, instead of asking my dogs if they want to go for a walk, I started asking them if they wanted to go to Milwaukee. They got so used to this, all I had to say was “Milwaukee” and they would exuberantly race to the door. Last week, in an effort to curtail the ritual stampede, rather than ask my furry friends if they wanted to go to Milwaukee, I asked them if they wanted to go to Wisconsin. They looked at me for a moment, cocked their little heads in unison, and then made a mad, merry dash to the door.

I laughed as I realized that sometimes go means stop, sometimes a windmill can look like a helicopter, and sometimes (just sometimes) you can take your dogs for a walk or you can take them on a trip to Wisconsin.


Anonymous dane benton said...

Debbie - just wanted you to know I really appreciated today's show. Your last caller really nailed it on the head when she complemented you and your guests on doing such a superb job. I hated to hear that last week's call was unsuccessful for her - I was excited for her! Alas, things happen, I suppose.

I greatly appreciate your monolouge every week, but from a fellow word lover, this week's was simply fantastic.

Thanks so much for continually representing our industry so well - - You make me proud to be a designer, and I appreciate your diligence to continually offering a well produced and mentally stimulating show.

Take care, and have a great weekend! :: dane.

6/01/2007 06:08:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

dear dane--
thank you so so much! you made my day.

6/01/2007 10:58:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...


This past show with helicopter was one of my favorites, and I've now listened to it thrice and passed it on to as many friends as possible. One issue though, and I wasn't sure who to contact about it, is that Voice america has it listed incorectly on their website, which is making it confusing for people when I send them to listen. Right now its listed as "June 1, 2007 - Alan Dye, Creative Director Apple". I just wanted to bring that to your attention.



6/04/2007 12:33:00 PM  
Blogger Laz said...

Wonderfully written entry! I can whole heartedly relate to everything you said here, but specifically got caught on one of your final points. As much as I love language myself, I must say that there really isn't anything like the smile you give a loved one. It's a feeling that just transcends choice and slips right through you without permission or second thought. It's one of the more beautiful forms of communications I've ever felt and am glad you appreciate it as well..

Thanks again! -Laz

6/05/2007 03:54:00 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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