debbie millman

Friday, February 22, 2008


a magical charm bracelet

Growing up, I had a baby sitter named Nancy who watched me every Saturday night when, after getting all dolled up, my parents went downtown to go out for dinner. I was so taken with Nancy that I attempted to emulate everything about her: I tried to dress like she did; I parted my hair on the same side, and I wore ponytails in the identical style that she did. At the time, she was the most glamorous, sophisticated and kindest person in my life. She always brought me a pack of gum when she came to baby sit, she would let me stay up late watching television and she read to me before I went to sleep. I loved her.

Nancy had a very unusual, very beautiful necklace. She wore it all the time, and it fascinated me. Describing it will be difficult, but I will try: essentially it was a gold chain necklace that held a small spherical charm in the shape of a cage. The charm held brightly colored loose stones. This sparkly necklace mesmerized me. Whenever she came over, she would let me wear it. I would hold the necklace in the center of my palm for hours on end and imagine that the cage held all of the stars in the solar system. Looking back on it now, I don’t really know what it was about that necklace that so captivated me, but in analyzing it all of these years later. I think it was my first encounter with an object that I believed contained both beauty and magic.

Several months later my dad got a new job and we had to move from Howard Beach, Queens to Staten Island. I was inconsolable; I had just started third grade, I had made new friends, and I knew that Nancy would not be able to travel all the way to Staten Island to come to baby sit. I didn’t know what I would do without her. Before we said goodbye, she opened my hand and put a little box in it. I knew what it was before I opened it: the magical necklace. Her generosity overwhelmed me and I cried the entire trip to Staten Island.

Somehow, in the chaos of unpacking our new home, my magical necklace got lost. I was devastated and spent weeks on end searching the house to no avail. In the years since, I unsuccessfully scoured flea markets and eBay, vintage shops and jewelry stores in an effort to find a similar necklace. I never told anybody about my quest, but I never stopped looking for my lost little charm with the loose sparkly stones.

What has remained is the memory of Nancy: her generosity, her warm encouragement, her caring and her love. So it was with a deep sense of returning and giving back that I decided to become a mentor to a 15-year-old student named Alexandra in the High School of Art and Design in New York City.

Alex is incredibly cool and is amazingly talented and loves anime and horror movies and her boyfriend Mark, and she has one of the most extraordinary sketchbooks I have ever seen. Via this experience, I have come to realize that mentoring is about more than giving back. Mentoring is learning about yourself and the world. Mentoring is hard work and great fun and a big responsibility.
In Alex’s senior year of high school, my main task was to assist her with college applications and encourage her to get into the best possible school. Alex had been unsure about pursuing design, she felt she might not be talented enough, and she was insecure about her ability to get into a good program. I was insistent that she not make any decisions out of fear, but rather do the very best she could. And after all of the hard work, we were able to celebrate: she was accepted into the undergraduate design program at one of the best design schools in the country.
Shortly thereafter Alex handed me a beautifully wrapped present. I was perplexed as to why I was getting this gift, but Alex told me that she and her mother wanted to give me something to show how grateful they were for all of my help and encouragement. Alex told me this as I was about to go into a major presentation, but she insisted that I open the present right then and there. I opened it quickly and saw a lovely bracelet with dangly whimsical charms. I hugged her, put the box in my purse and went on to my presentation.

The next morning as I was getting ready to go to work, I remembered that Alex’s present was still in my pocketbook. I took it out of my bag and as I opened the box something glinty caught my eye. I picked up the bracelet to examine at it more carefully. And my heart skipped a beat. “No,” I thought, “it couldn’t be.” But I could see that indeed it was. The familiar round globe, the sparkly loose stones, the little gold cage: it was identical. My long ago lost charm. It was on the bracelet, and now, once again, in my hand.

I saw Alex the next day and told her the story. She was as incredulous as I was. And as happy.

I think when we give something of ourselves, what we get in return is immeasurable. We might be giving back because someone gave to us, or we are giving back because we know we should. Either way, when we do this, something remarkable happens: we get a uniquely human, mutually shared experience. And in that experience, continuity develops. You give something away, you get something in return and the cycle is perpetuated. As long as we are capable, and as long as we participate, the cycle can never be broken.


Blogger Shalimar said...

That is beyond incredible!

2/22/2008 04:55:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

i know! i know! if it hadn't happened to me, then i would never believe this story!!!!!

2/22/2008 05:02:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Thanks a lot! Just about to leave for mountain biking, and now I'm crying.

2/24/2008 02:03:00 PM  
Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

Thanks a lot! Just about to leave for mountain biking, and now I'm crying.

2/24/2008 02:03:00 PM  
Anonymous Claire said...

Debbie, I loved your story! What a wonderful lost + found.

2/27/2008 12:39:00 PM  
Blogger heidi said...

great story! I'm enjoying your blog.

3/01/2008 08:18:00 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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