debbie millman

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Amazing Drew Friedman

Drew Friedman's Magnificent cover of The New Yorker

Drew Friedman's cover for this week's New Yorker is even more brilliant in person. Buy it now, before they run out and you have to get them on
ebay (like the New York Times after Election Day)!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


Article 2 (for BHO) from Andrew Sloat on Vimeo.

The brilliant Andrew Sloat does it again with this new film.

More of his marvelous films can be found here.

Monday, January 19, 2009


"Almost always, the creative dedicated minority has made the world better."
--Martin Luther King, Jr.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Great Leap Forward

At the end of last year, Steve Jones, head of the department of genetics and evolution at London’s University College announced that the forces driving evolution—including natural selection and genetic mutation—no longer play an important role in our lives. He further stated that should man survive a million years from now, they would resemble us: modern-day humans. "We now know so much about the process of evolution that we can make some predictions about what might happen in the future," Jones said in his lecture, and explained how “Evolution is driven by natural selection and mutation. Genetic mutations create traits which, if helpful, give individuals a competitive edge over rivals.”

Jones' contends, “that in our modern world of central heating and plenty of food, mutations are far less likely to give children any advantage. A baby born today can expect to live a long and healthy life, which in turn works against the evolutionary tool of natural selection.” Mutations occur when cells divide. But every time a cell divides, there is actually a chance of an error—a mutation. Ironically, it is those errors—or mutation mistakes—that are the foundation of all of evolution.

Mutations appear to be spontaneous in most instances. Sometimes they are beneficial, like inheriting an ability to run or fly faster, and many times they are harmful, like the pre-disposition for hemophilia or some types of cancer. But everything around us is impacted by this strange and persistent transformative power.

Including behavior. There are two popular theories about the evolution of behavior; one is rather logical, and is favored by continuity theorists. The theory suggests that the behavior of modern man is simply the result of the aggregation of knowledge, skills and culture over hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution. The other, far more mysterious theory contends that the seeds of our modern behavior occurred as a single, sudden event some 50,000 years ago and came about as a result of a major genetic mutation or as a result of a biological reorganization of the brain. Some scientists refer to this phenomenon as “the big brain bang” but the more politically correct term is also far more magical: it is considered the Great Leap Forward.

This Great Leap Forward is responsible for most of our modern abilities: language, art, music, cooking, self-decoration, and even telling jokes. This era also ushered in religious practices, honoring and burying the dead, and playing games. They are fundamentally considered cultural universals.

Given the state of our society today, I find it unthinkable to conceive of mankind permanently stuck in this groove of ghastly behavior filled with violence and cruelty, torture and evil. Whenever I have fantasized about the faraway future, I always assumed that we would become a smarter species, less petty and narrow-minded. We would attain greater spiritual awareness and a much higher consciousness.

So I am hopeful that the third ingredient important to evolution will intervene. This third factor is randomness. Chance, in the form of mutations, provides genetic variation. So there is always the chance that despite central heating and plenty of food, a random variation will insure that one million years from now we are, if nothing more, a kinder and more considerate species.

When thinking about evolution and behavioral modernity and all of their inherent implications, I can’t help but wonder how these scientific theories relate to art and design. Sure, it is easy to view both as narratives of random possibilities, with each new innovation a search for new standards. But how do advances in art and design occur? Is each era in art and design, or music and literature, built on top of one another? Is it a matter of linear influence? I can logically see the links from Impressionism to Expressionism and Fauvism to Cubism and Dadaism to Pop. But is it necessary to be aware of these styles in order to discover another? Malcolm Gladwell, in his provocative new book, Outliers, suggests that the innovation uncovered by artists like the Beatles or innovators like Bill Gates also came about through hours and hours of practice and often 10 years of hard work. But luck, or being at the right place at the right time, were factors as well. But if natural selection and progress are based on random mutations, then is it possible that massive breakthroughs in the way we think and perceive and create are also accidental? Are they merely evidence of another Great Leap Forward?

Whether great art of any kind is built on the shoulders of those who came before by influence or evolution is unclear to me. Somehow it feels more sacred and magical. And yet, when in the presence of greatness, there almost seems to be inevitability or a sense of destiny about it. I recently heard had a discussion with a childhood friend about a mutual acquaintance who became particularly successful. We realized that we always expected that level of success from our old friend; that somehow, she always seemed destined for greatness.

Where does great innovation come from? Could the answer be as simple as a random act of intellectual mutation? Is it from a deep knowledge of what has come before with the acumen to see exactly what should come next? Or is it something innate that is destined to happen? Maybe it is a combination of all three. In some ways, I hope so. I have found that my destiny is usually found on the road I take to avoid it. Perhaps next time I travel there, I will be lucky enough to stumble upon something I have never seen before.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Design Matters Today with Neville Brody

Image by Neville Brody
Image by Neville Brody

Neville Brody, the British designer and art director, has now been at the forefront of graphic design for over two decades. Initially working in record cover design, Brody initially made his name through his revolutionary work as Art Director for the Face magazine. Other international magazine directions have included City Limits, Lei, Per Lui, Actuel and Arena, together with London's The Observer newspaper and magazine. Brody has consistently pushed the boundaries of visual communication in all media through his experimental and challenging work, and continues to extend the visual languages we use through his exploratory creative expression. In 1988 Brody published the first of his two monographs , which became the world's best selling graphic design book. Combined sales now exceed 120,000. An accompanying exhibition of his work at the Victoria and Albert Museum attracted over 40,000 visitors before touring Europe and Japan. In 1994, together with business partner Fwa Richards, Brody launched Research Studios, London. Since then studios have been opened in Paris, Berlin and New York. Clients range across all media, from web to print, and from environmental and retail design to moving graphics and film titles. A sister company, Research Publishing, produces and publishes experimental multi-media works by young artists. The primary focus is on FUSE, the renowned conference and quarterly forum for experimental typography and communications. The publication is approaching its 20th issue over a publishing period of over ten years. Three FUSE conferences have so far been held, in London, San Fransisco and Berlin. The conferences bring together speakers from design, architecture, sound, film and interactive design and web.

Design Matters airs live weekly on the Voice America Business Network, now the industry leader in Internet talk radio. The show was voted a "favorite podcast" on PSFK's Marketing Podcast survey and it was voted 9th out of over 300 entries for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s People’s Choice Award in 2007. The show is also available as Podcasts on iTunes, where over 100,000 people download the show every month.

Design Matters is from 3-4PM EST and you can view the VoiceAmerica Business site and listen to the show from a myriad of locations:

You can go here, through the Sterling link:

Or you can go here, through the Voice America link:

Or finally, you can listen to this show, or any of our previous shows, as a Podcast on iTunes, for free. To listen to the Podcasts, you can do either of the following:

Subscribe manually, by going to the iTunes advanced menu, then select
"Subscribe to Podcast," then enter the following: as the feed.

Or simply do a search on the iTunes music store Podcast directory for “Design Matters.”

Everyone is welcome to call in live and toll free--the number is 1.866.472.5790.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Very Sad

approval matrix

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Book Review: Obsessive Branding Disorder

Nascar Baby
copyright 2004

The current discipline and practice of branding is both obsessively fascinating and shamelessly polarizing. Because our lives are so entwined with brands, it has become difficult to distinguish between our beliefs and our brand preferences. From Apple to Starbucks, from Rachael Ray to Tiger Woods, corporations and individuals alike are immersed in a brand ethos. As a result, branding has become one of the most significant influences on both public consciousness and the contemporary visual environment and it is a fiercely debated subject.

Brands embody allegiances, affiliations and identities, and they have become ambiguous totems: They allow us to connect with others and, at the same time, to differentiate ourselves from others. Critics such as the writer Naomi Klein, the de facto leader of the anti-branders, think that the brand mentality and everything it entails — the economics required to sustain it; the advertising necessary to propagate it — have an insidious influence on global society, the environment, and the quality of human life. Lucas Conley, a writer for the magazine Fast Company and author of the book, Obsessive Branding Disorder, believes that “branding offers a unique example of a business philosophy that has jumped the tracks, barreling through popular culture unchecked.” He also states, “Somewhere between the grocery aisle and gross absurdity, branding has become an epidemic — a mirage turned miracle cure. In the global community in which new media and increasingly fickle stockbrokers demand immediate results, today’s corporations have taken comfort in branding’s soothing, vague idealism.”

Oh, if only it were that simple! 100 years ago, building a brand was rather straightforward. A logo was a telegraphic guarantee of quality and consistency, or it was a signal that a product was something new. For that, consumers were prepared to pay a premium. Brands were also the first piece of consumer protection. You knew where to go if you had a complaint. Brands also helped consumers to buy efficiently. Today, consumers also buy brands based on how that particular brand makes them feel. This positively infuriates Conley. “Experiences represent multi-sensory gold mines for brands, trapdoors into our most deeply held beliefs and values,” Conley states in the chapter “Buying Our Way Into Being.” “For most of us,” he continues, “the idea of a branded object eclipsing the bonds of family, friendship, work, or spirituality is ludicrous. But branding’s most fervent gurus celebrate the best brands for their capacity to establish themselves firmly in our hearts and minds. Our relationships with our dearest brands, they argue, ought to resonate on a spiritual level. To this end, one branding strategy that has gained momentum in the past few years is the concept of “the brand church” — places of “worship” for brand tribes to gather.”

In this example, and throughout Obsessive Branding Disorder, Conley overstates the power and capacity of brands. Yes, brands can assert moods, tastes and affiliations. Yes, brands can create deeply intimate worlds we can understand and where we may feel as though we belong. Yes, brands create tribes. In this regard, most people like the way their favorite brands make them feel. When we covet a brand, we covet the feeling that that we hope that brand will produce as a result. But Conley believes that brands not only provide these feelings, they usurp all others, and because of brands, we now feel isolated, lonely, and that “we are living in relationships brokered by brands (which are) by and large superficial.”

Conley continually makes unsubstantiated claims as to the virulent evil of brands and all those who work in the discipline. Without providing evidence, Conley states: “in the name of brand, any idea can be defended as valid and any crackpot can assume the status of guru” and “A brand is something to be controlled rather than any expression of authenticity.” Further, he asserts that companies utilizing branding techniques are “banking on illusion, not innovation, to stay alive” and “Many branders have a hard time proving the impact of their work.”

While Conley puts forth grandiose, broad generalizations about the base depravation that is branding, he fails to consider how brands create and sustain momentum by developing an honest and compelling emotional connection with the people who buy into the brand. Ironically, it is precisely this visceral and amorphous quality of “the brand” that confounds and challenges brand consultants, cultural anthropologists, marketers, researchers, and designers. Rather than see branding as an art within the broad spectrum of business disciplines, Conley claims that “reaching beyond reason, branding throws off business’s true north. Disoriented, obsessed with surface and sentiment over substance, companies apply their ingenuity to the disingenuous, perfecting names and nuances instead of responding to consumer needs.” Yet Conley never defines what he means by the statement “business’s true north,” nor does he prove how these same disoriented companies repeatedly fail to respond to consumer needs, yet somehow manage to successfully sell these same products to unsuspecting shoppers.

What Conley fails to consider is that consumers are not that stupid or that gullible. He claims, “Like a pesticide working its way up the food chain, branding reaches the American consumer at many entry points and in heady doses. We’re contaminated by the products we buy, the offices in which we work, the advertisements around us and the news and entertainment we absorb.” But brands are not as all-powerful as Conley alleges, nor is the public as easily manipulated. The reality is more complicated. When considering the pesticide analogy, I prefer to agree with Jonathan Bond and Richard Kirshenbaum of Kirshenbaum/Bond who believe that “Consumers are like roaches. We spray them with marketing and for a time, it works. Then, inevitably, they develop an immunity, a resistance.” Consumers are still in charge of what they buy and don’t buy (and what they buy or don’t buy into).

Conley constantly contradicts himself in Obsessive Branding Disorder. “With so many schools of thought about branding, it’s often difficult to determine what, if anything, separates good from bad branding,” he states in one chapter, but in another he claims, “In most cases, guerrilla, viral and buzz marketing campaigns are harmless and largely ineffective.” Obsessive Branding Disorder would have been a far more convincing book had Conley delved more seriously into the reasons behind the behavior he describes. For instance, though he asserts that brands have replaced religion, he doesn't explain why. Yet answering this question is essential if we are to understand and critique the influence of branding. Why have we replaced our spiritual beliefs with products that provide social confidence or happiness? Why do more and more of us affiliate with consumer tribes and not with churches, temples, communities — or each other (if that is indeed the case)? Conley rigorously (if illogically, along with copious amounts of snark) articulates the many ramifications of branding but never investigates its history or its many failures.

Brand consultants are not the only targets of Conley’s derision. Designers come under attack as well. Conley states, “If brands are here to help us align our values, then the role of the modern branding professional is to amplify those aspirational values in the design and packaging of the product. The better things look — be they packs of gum or luxury sedans — the more people will desire them. Designers love this axiom because it implies that, if the design is good enough, the product is less important in the overall equation.” In Conley’s world, brand consultants, designers, market research professionals and advertisers all behave in one way and that one way is very, very bad.

In the last chapter of Obsessive Branding Disorder, Conley considers the future of branding. He admits that “people might be too clever” to let branding get under their skin and admits that as he was finishing the book, his colleagues at Fast Company were “quick to inform me that as a writer, I had a brand to maintain and that I ought to market myself by setting up a website and a blog.” Which Conley has subsequently accomplished. One of the great ironies of both the No Logo contingents and now the Obsessive Branding Disorder crowd is how willingly they employ the very tenets of branding they so obviously disdain.

Originally posted on the blog Design Observer.

For another interpretation of Lucas Conley's book, see the essay by Adrian Shaughnessy, previously posted on Design Observer, Obsessive Branding Disorder I.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

For The First Time Ever, An Electron In Motion

From Discover Magazine, one of the top 100 science stories of the year is a most remarkable motion pictures that lasts just 3 seconds—and that’s after it has been slowed down a billion billion times. The film documents an electron in motion the instant after it was booted from an atom by an ultraviolet pulse. Created by an international team of physicists, the movie is the first of its kind.

Individual electrons move too quickly for ordinary cameras to capture in a clear image. But a new method that generates supershort bursts of laser light allowed researchers to nab a high-resolution shot of the elusive electron. Each flash of light lasted only an attosecond. To comprehend how brief that is, consider that one second contains about twice as many attoseconds as there are seconds in the 14-billion-year life of the universe, says physicist Johan Mauritsson of Lund University in Sweden, who led the study [subscription required]. An electron orbits a hydrogen atom in about 150 attoseconds.

Mauritsson speculates that his high-resolution camera might help physicists understand how electrons interact with each other, but he doesn’t have a specific research goal in mind. “We don’t know exactly what we’ll use it for,” he says. “We push the limits because the limits are there to be pushed.”

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Look Both Ways

I often fantasize about what might have been, but isn’t. What my life might have been like if I had been accepted to the journalism school I’d applied to in 1985 or the art program I hoped to attend in 1992. I sometimes imagine what might have been if my first marriage hadn’t fallen apart, or the second. I will never really know, but I imagine that self a very different self, with shorter hair and different clothes, as if the choices I made for myself define how I look in addition to how I live. Somehow, these other “selves” have a sunnier disposition and cleaner closets and they are almost always thinner. They have more money and more free time, they drink less, and they definitely don’t worry about getting older. Nowadays, they are a more secret self, as the memory of what might have been is now more of a projection of what isn’t than what if. But mostly I find myself fascinated, as I live my deeply ritualized and ingrained life, with the idea of this unknown other. Who could I have been? Should I have been her? Could I have been her? And what about her?

This past summer I spent a lot of time in Albany, New York, the home of my alma mater, the State University of New York at Albany. I wasn’t there to visit the school, per se, but rather because my father (who lives in Upstate New York) was in the hospital undergoing triple bypass surgery. The first day was long and exaggerated, every response analyzed, every behavior deconstructed. My family was fully on edge, as we waited for news, and then when the news was good, we waited for physical verification. But my dad’s recovery took longer than expected and three days in Albany turned into seven. Most of the time I spent in the hospital, but one afternoon I headed over to the campus that was the center of my universe so, so many, many years ago.

There, I retraced my baby steps in design and literature and art and boys and books and bands. All of the offices and classrooms were locked, but the buildings were still open. I walked by every one—past the library, through the art gallery, into the English Department. I traced the embossed letters of the nameplate on the office door of my favorite literature professor, whom I was thrilled to see was still teaching. I ran up the three flights of stairs in the Campus Center to the offices of the school newspaper and the radio station and, on tiptoes, tried to peer through the dark windows into the rooms where I’d spent thousands of hours. As I lingered in the hallways, I looked down at the surging fountain in the center of the Campus and remembered the same view in the same building by the same person so long ago; how I stood in the same spot, squinting in the daylight for a clue, any clue at all, to who I was or what I would become. And it occurred to me, as I stood there, that I could simultaneously, vividly look both ways—backward and forward, at once. I remembered longing to know what was coming, who I would become and how. And I suddenly saw it all over again in front of me. The light was exactly the same, and as the sun fell and the summer shadows slivered against the elegant, lean, concrete towers in the distance, I recognized the smell of the warm air, the precise pink and grey of the coming dusk and the mysterious melancholy and joy of both knowing and not-knowing, and the continuity that occurs when both collide.

Last week, I went foraging through my storage closet looking for an old scrapbook I put together the years before I went to college. It was a rather makeshift scrapbook—as I simply used a large blank sketchbook as a vessel for my ephemera. This included the requisite party and bat mitzvah invitations, my commendations in art and home economics, various diplomas and newspaper clippings, and some shredded prom corsages. But it also included things I had long forgotten existed: the airplane boarding pass for a trip to Europe in 1976, the first cryptogram I ever solved from the Long Island daily newspaper, Newsday, in 1973, a faded mimeographed copy of the Lawrence Ferlingetti poem, “The Pennycandystore Beyond The El” with my scribbled notation “why does he say too soon,” a handmade poster encouraging my fellow students to vote for me for as Senior Class Secretary of Student Affairs in High School, the Playbill from a 1970s production of Chorus Line, and most incredulously, the original tag from my very first pair of Levi’s. As I gingerly hugged the Playbill, I surveyed these scraps, this evidence of a life. But I felt feeble recalling my desire to document such banality. How foolish I was! As I rifled through the book again, I fell upon the silly little threadbare newspaper cryptogram. I assumed I had saved it because it was the first code I ever broke. But as I re-read the content of the code I broke nearly four decades ago, it occurred to me that perhaps I kept it because of the quote it contained—this excerpt from Albert Schweitzer’s autobiography: “Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind.” Maybe we do collect our scraps and our memories as evidence of a life lived. And perhaps we decorate our pages, and our dreams, through the projective lens of what we hope for. But maybe, as Ezra Pound so appropriately stated: “We do not know the past in chronological sequence. It may be convenient to lay it out…on the table with dates pasted on here and there, but what we know we know by ripples and spirals eddying out from us and from our own time.”

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Design Matters Resumes With Jessica Helfand

The cover of Scrapbooks: An American History by Jessica Helfand

Joining me as we resume Season Five of Design Matters with Debbie Millman on Friday, January 9th at 3 PM, is designer, author, educator and theorist Jessica Helfand.

Jessica Helfand is partner. with William Drenttel, in Winterhouse, a design studio in Northwest Connecticut. Their work focuses on publishing and editorial development; new media; and cultural, educational and literary institutions. Recent clients include The Poetry Foundation, The New Yorker, Yale School of Management, Teach for America, Harvard Law School and the National Design Awards. They are recent recipients of a 1.5 million dollar grant from the Rockefeller Foundation to develop an initiative around design and social innovation, and will spend the spring of 2010 in residency at the American Academy in Rome.

Helfand is currently Senior Critic at Yale School of Art’s graduate program in graphic design. She is the author of several books, including Screen: Essays on Graphic Design, New Media and Visual Culture (2001) and Reinventing the Wheel (2002), both published by Princeton Architectural Press. Her most recent book, "Scrapbooks An American History," (2008: Yale University Press) was named the best coffee-table book of the year by The New York Times. Helfand was appointed to the Citizens Stamp Advisory Commmittee in 2006, where she chairs the design subcommittee. She is also one of the founders of the influential design blog Design Observer. She received her B.A. in architectural theory and her M.F.A. in graphic design, both from Yale University.

Design Matters airs live weekly on the Voice America Business Network, now the industry leader in Internet talk radio. The show was voted a "favorite podcast" on PSFK's Marketing Podcast survey and it was voted 9th out of over 300 entries for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s People’s Choice Award in 2007. The show is also available as Podcasts on iTunes, where over 100,000 people download the show every month.

Design Matters is from 3-4PM EST and you can view the VoiceAmerica Business site and listen to the show from a myriad of locations:

You can go here, through the Sterling link:

Or you can go here, through the Voice America link:

Or finally, you can listen to this show, or any of our previous shows, as a Podcast on iTunes, for free. To listen to the Podcasts, you can do either of the following:

Subscribe manually, by going to the iTunes advanced menu, then select
"Subscribe to Podcast," then enter the following: as the feed.

Or simply do a search on the iTunes music store Podcast directory for “Design Matters.”

Everyone is welcome to call in live and toll free--the number is 1.866.472.5790.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Be Kind Rewind

“Rewind City,” which promotes a French DVR service, plays the metaphor out literally: Crowds around the woman begin to move backward. A bus arrives, and with it the woman’s lover. Then comes the inevitable reunion. The spot was filmed in Goa, India, by Ringan Ledwidge — whose time-twisting Hovis bread ad was another recent Very Short List pick. Like that other miniature movie, “Rewind City” matches formal inventiveness with real emotional resonance — it, too, is a keeper.

Via VSL!

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

Design Matters Season Five Resumes on January 9th with Jessica Helfand

From Jessica Helfand's new book, Scrapbook: An American History
The “Stunt” Book "scrapbook" kept by Elinor Moses in the 1920s featured in Jessica Helfand's marvelous new book Scrapbooks: An American History

The final half of Season Five of Design Matters with Debbie Millman launches this Friday, January 9th at 3PM ET on the Voice America Business Network with my esteemed guest: designer, writer and educator Jessica Helfand. Among the many, many things we will dish about include her new book, "Scrapbooks An American History," which is truly awesome.

You can listen to a fabulous interview with Jessica and WNYC's Leonard Lopate here and see the amazing book and website she has written and created here. She is a partner at Winterhouse, she is one of the founders of the design blog Design Observer,, and her many, many accomplishments can be found here.

Design Matters airs live weekly on the Voice America Business Network, now the industry leader in Internet talk radio. The show was voted a "favorite podcast" on PSFK's Marketing Podcast survey and it was voted 9th out of over 300 entries for the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum’s People’s Choice Award in 2007. The show is also available as Podcasts on iTunes, where over 100,000 people download the show every month.

My guests for Season Five will be announced each week to keep things really spicy, but they include Dee Dee Gordon, Joe Duffy, Steven Heller, Natalyia Ilyin, Dan Pink, Patrick Coyne, Allan Chochinov, Leslie Smolan & Ken Carbone and others!

Friday, January 02, 2009

And The Year Begins

The magnificent Bon Iver performing Blindsided (from the magnificent album "For Emma, Forever Ago."
things i paint
things i photograph
design matters design matters poster designed by Firebelly
about me things i do those i thank things i like current playlist