debbie millman

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pick One

I dropped my portfolio off at Condé Nast the moment after I graduated college, and somehow, miraculously, I got a call back to come in for an interview. To me, this was the equivalent of winning the lottery and I spent every waking hour prior to the interview agonizing over the contents of my “career wardrobe,” posing in outfit after outfit in an effort to ensure I would make the best possible impression. The outfits primarily consisted of the clothes my mother lovingly handmade as a graduation gift, and the morning of the interview I chose the royal blue bolero jacket, matching A-line knee length skirt, a beige faux-silk blouse with blue pin dots and a big, floppy bow in the front, sheer black stockings, and flat black patent leather loafers. I anxiously gazed at myself in the mirror before leaving my mother’s Queens apartment and took a deep breath. I knew that what happened next could change my life forever. As I sat on the cramped, balmy Express Bus into Manhattan, I fantasized befriending the Human Resources Director, being invited up to meet the design director of Vogue or Vanity Fair or Glamour, getting hired as his or her crackerjack assistant, working late nights and weekends, cavorting with the glamorous editors and art directors and designers and, of course, spending my entire career being fabulously successful at what I considered to be the best magazine company in the whole wide world.

I exited the bus on 42nd Street and Madison Avenue and skipped towards the Condé Nast building, faux-silk bow billowing in the breeze, faux-leather portfolio banging against my legs when the unthinkable happened. I tripped. I toppled so hard and so fast that three passersby came to help me. As they asked me if I was okay, I felt my stinging knee and burning face and knew without looking: I had an ugly bruise on my leg and a vicious tear up my stockings.

I didn’t have time to change my hose, but realized that both my skirt and the tactical placement of my portfolio could mask the bruise. I lumbered on and made it to my appointment on time. When I met the Human Resources Director, I was mesmerized. She was unlike any other woman I had ever encountered. She was cool and elegant and alluring in her pale yellow sleeveless shift. She had the thinnest arms I had ever seen and the biggest office I had ever been in. She invited me to sit down and I complied; and as I tumbled back into the overstuffed orange chair I felt the hole in my stockings widen and prayed that she didn’t hear the ripping sound. She quickly looked through my portfolio without uttering a syllable and when she was finished she shut it with a thud. She looked me up and down, and we had the following conversation:

So. What kind of design do you want to do?

Excuse me?

What kind of design do you want to do?

Kind of design?

(Said with a furrowed brow)

Me: think I would like to do any kind of design...

You can’t do any kind of design. You have to pick.


(Said with a very furrowed brow)
Yes. You have to pick. You have to pick editorial design or promotional design or advertising or custom publishing. You must choose one.

I sat there for a moment and thought to myself:
...well I really want to say editorial but maybe I am not good enough and though I don’t know what custom publishing or promotional design are I will say “promotional” but really I would happily sweep the floors if they want me to...

Finally, I cleared my throat and said:

And then I couldn’t help myself. I continued talking.

But I would do anything. Anything. Anything you need.

And then there was silence.

And She responded:
Well. Yes, then. I see.

And with that, she sighed and made one sweeping gesture for me to take my portfolio back. I looked at her and picked it up. Though she said she would be in touch, I knew that I was not going to hear from her, and I never, ever did. I made some small talk as I was escorted out; I remember asking how long she had been at Condé Nast and I remember her replying “12 years” with the slightest clip in her voice.

Several months later, in a moment of aberrant fearlessness, I got up my nerve and called her, but the person who answered the phone told me she no longer worked there. By then I had gotten my first job as a traffic girl at a fledgling cable magazine and worked late night and weekends and cavorted with the editors and art directors and designers and, of course, I didn’t spend the rest of my career there. But when I worked there, I joyfully learned about editorial design and promotional design and advertising and even custom publishing. I realized how much I did know and how much I didn’t know and embarked upon what has become a lifelong journey in learning about the abundant and bewitching specialties in the marvelous discipline that is considered graphic design.

Twenty-five years after that decisive day, I’ve come to the realization that my ill-fated interview did indeed impact the rest of my life, just not in the way I intended it to. But this is likely the most interesting thing about possibilities: there is always something new to dream of and always something different to choose. And you don’t have to pick just one.

Pick One is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, Essential Principles of Graphic Design, Rotovision, July 2008


Blogger berto said...

How boring would a life of 1s just be? I think in the end, that's why most of us are designers. We just can't decide over a 1, so we choose a career that allows us to reciprocate with others as we move through our adventures… :)

2/05/2008 09:22:00 AM  

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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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