debbie millman

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Circle Game

Last weekend, as is often the case, my six-year-old neighbor Lena, daughter of Mary and Neil, knocked on my apartment door and asked if she could come in to play. As usual, I welcomed her in, and in what has become a ritual of sorts, she asked if we could watch TV. We channel surfed for a bit, but after discovering there was nothing that suited her fancy, she abruptly had an idea. “I know,” she stated, at once adorable and determined, “I can go get my movie.” Thirty seconds later, she returned with a DVD I had to struggle to pry out of her little, magic marker stained hands. The moment after I removed the DVD from the case, she grabbed it back and held it as if it contained the meaning of life. Her eyes glistened. When I looked at the name of the film, I recognized the logo without needing to read it and realized that in my hands I held the holy grail of every girl under ten. In my hands I held the purveyor of fantasy and fascination and folklore, in my hands I held the electrifying, nearly dog-eared version of the one and only wondrous Walt Disney film titled...The Little Mermaid.

As Lena settled in for her magical journey, I remembered my own foray into the divinity that is Disney, and reminisced back to the Sunday evening ritual of my youth: first, the viewing of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom starring Marlon Perkins, followed by the ever Wonderful World of Disney. Meanwhile, Lena was mesmerized watching the adventures of the mermaid known as Ariel, and when it was finished she looked up at me with urgent eyes and asked in a whisper: “Can we watch it again?” This surprised me, and I asked her why. “Because,” was her utterly logical response. I then asked her how many times she had previously watched the movie, and her answer was stated as if it my question were the silliest query in the world: “Millions,” she impatiently said. “Millions and trillions and billions.”

Children love repetition. Whether it is the resplendent “bye-bye, bye-bye” of the Teletubbies or Dora the Explorer’s constant “Vaminos” or Hannah Montanta’s recurrent “Sweet Niblets,” kids seem to be endlessly fascinated by the familiar. As I watched Lena press the play button for a second and then a third time, I started thinking about how much adults love repetition and ritual as well. We have our regular drinks in Starbucks that we order day after day after day. Mike, from my office, boasts that he has eaten the same sandwich for lunch for the past two years. Sue, my best friend since college, used to scold me for dating the identical man over and over and over, wondering when I would ever learn. Food, dating, entertainment—even seats at a conference room table in a business meeting—human beings seem hardwired to stake out a physical and emotional territory and stick with it. We even will go out of our way to resist having to change things.

This week, the New York Times published an article by evolutionary biologist Olivia Judson. In it, she writes, “It is striking how often similar traits evolve in similar environments….all these systems show the same thing: at the genetic level, evolution is, to a remarkable extent, a repeater.” What is it about repetition that we crave? Do humans feel safer with what we recognize? Does consistency allow us to feel more secure?

And what about art? Shouldn’t we expect art and design and literature and music to be fresh and original? Perhaps it depends on the person. Many years ago, when I was working in the magazine business, word on the street had it that a new magazine was coming to Manhattan, and it was going to change everything. Some people were breathless with anticipation and others, like my friend Suzanne and me, were skeptical. As two young women trying to break into the world of mass media, this was yet another barrier to the big time. I’ll never forget the day in the fall of 1986 when the magazine hit the streets: I saw it first and called her from a payphone in the West Village as I scrutinized the first issue: “Ugh, it’s hideous,” I stated. “There is an ugly picture of Chris Elliott looking like an idiot beside the cover line JERKS. And inside: even worse. The type is so small and sarcastic it is virtually unreadable. Forget it,” I said haughtily and laughed, “it'll never last.”

Of course, the launch of Spy that year was hardly a failure; in fact, the magazine so profoundly shook up the fat and happy publishing world, one could argue that it has never been the same since. Suzanne ended up getting a job there and we never, ever spoke about my dire prediction again.

I guess change is inevitable. How else could we evolve and grow? Still, there is something utterly comforting about consistency. Just last night, I lay tossing and turning in bed, once again unable to sleep. I switched the television on, hoping for something good to watch. With 600 channels, I had plenty to choose from: an all but impossible to believe new episode of House that I had previously recorded and two cool movies on demand that I hadn’t yet seen. As I went through my options, I suddenly stopped. Sex in the City was on! It was the episode when Miranda and Steve get married! Joyfully, I put it on. And I laughed out loud as I realized that, like Lena and her Little Mermaid, I had seen this particular episode no less than twenty times before. But lying there in the middle of the night, waiting for the world to wake up, it seemed that there was absolutely nothing that could be better than seeing something I had seen before, and so thoroughly loved, a thousand times over.


Blogger Tania Rochelle said...

I have SO missed your personal essays and stories. Loved this.

2/02/2008 10:22:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Marquardt said...

We designers have to make a point against the rut and repetition that the world lives in. If we can move, open eyes, make somebody discover, then we have accomplished our job. Even the slightest effort to shuffle up things a bit may change the world eventually. Let's change it for the better.

2/02/2008 10:36:00 PM  
Blogger Mary Campbell said...

There is great comfort in familiarity and routine. I've always thought of it as being the comfortable landing place I require to be able to go out into the world and push the envelope creatively...I like to wear the same outfits, sit in the same places, eat the same breakfasts, use the same pens but I would like to believe that the way that I create, think, explore is anything but mundane.

2/03/2008 02:21:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

Thanks Tania! And thanks all for commenting on this post!

2/04/2008 01:29:00 PM  
OpenID Colleen Hill said...

Great post Debbie! It reminded me of a post a friend of mine wrote on her student blog ( about relying on the same methods over and over again in her design process and how that continued to yield the same results in her finished work.

"I realized that my process lacked a key factor. It lacked my own personal trust. Instead of trusting that my process will take me to new and exciting solutions, I bail out before I ever get there, falling back on my tried and true methods. By utilizing what I already know works, I greatly reduce my risk of failure. Or so I thought.

When one disallows their process to take them somewhere new, its only natural to rely on the basic methods we’ve been taught from day one. But what fun is that? If one already knows what they’ll end up with when they start, what good is a design process? Not knowing exactly where you’re going is a scary thing, but sometimes it is this very uncertainty that can help breath life into our work. Attempting to plan out every single aspect of a design process places limits on the possibilities, can deprive results, and eliminates room for chance or spontaneity."

My favorite assignment in college was intended to break us of our typical routine by forcing us to use chance methodologies as the driving force in producing our assets, compositions and even in selecting our typefaces. It was surprising to see how different and unique the results of this project were among the twenty or so students in the class whose work I was always able to identify as being theirs, no names attached. It's true, there is comfort in familiarity but being forced to break from that, as scary and difficult as it may be, can prove to be refreshing.

2/04/2008 02:42:00 PM  
Blogger Shalimar said...

My lord, all of this is so true. My whole life is surrounded by certain repetitious rituals. One of them includes watching and re watching the same episodes of x-files, even though i've watched the entire series at least 3 times over, not to mention certain episodes tens of times. It is the ultimate feeling of comfort. Besides, what is better and more comforting than David Duchuvny's face.

Thank you so much for the great post.


2/04/2008 10:54:00 PM  
Blogger debbie millman said...

Hey Shal--
which X-files ep are you refering to? the one where scully recovers from cancer and looks at mulder with *those eyes* before they hug? or the one when the guy shapeshifts into mulder and practices being an agent in front of a mirror ("you are one fine lookin' man, agent mulder")? or the episode called "home" with the freakazoid in-bred family?

not only am i an X-files FANATIC, i went to THE X-files convention at Javits. i also had a kick ass X-Files magazine collection, which i ended up selling on ebay when i was trying to purge a bit. i sold my collection for SIXTY BUCKS! : )

btw--how many times did you see the movie?

2/04/2008 11:01:00 PM  
Blogger Shalimar said...

Let me be completely honest. When I read your response to my comment, I began to giggle uncontrollably. It isn't often where I come across someone as fanatic as me about this show. I spent half my time getting my friends into it. Because, how can you NOT like the X-Files. All those episodes that you are referring to, I have watched SO many times, I cant even begin to count, and the movie... I lost count at some point. I think the one ive watched the most, besides the cancer one you are referring to called Momento Mori, is one called Detour, where they get stuck in the woods chasing an invisible monster. Also the three parter where Mulder goes crazy and Scully goes to Africa. Its so hard for me to pick favorites. I actually recently repurchased the series on DVD. This time i got the ultimate collection. My other discs were worn out and abused from so much use. I never got to go to any convention, but you can bet your life I'll be there on July 25th for the second movie.

Awesome. Simply brilliant.


2/05/2008 11:48:00 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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