debbie millman

Saturday, March 21, 2009


My first job after college paid me $6 an hour. I was doing what would now be considered “old school” paste-up and layout for a fledging cable magazine, and because I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t believe that I was actually getting paid to do this very special thing that I loved. I never wanted to leave the office; I was the first person in every morning, and I happily stayed way into the night. The evenings in the office were my favorite; I would busy myself drawing picture boxes with a rapidiograph, but this activity was simply a shroud to eavesdrop on the real designers sitting in the bullpen as they compared notes on the latest issue of the Soho News, or who was going to see Richard Hell at CBGBs that weekend. I knew I was out of my league and I knew they were better than me, but I projected the fantasies I had of what my life could be onto their lives and imagined that I was one of them, but still me, only better. What I coveted most was the easy confidence they had in their design ability; and while I worked on mine, I watched and waited and wished for a moment when they might accept me.

All that changed when Penelope DiRossi was hired. Penelope was tall and thin and she had a swingy brunette bob with lazy bangs that brushed the tips of her eyelashes. She had the coolest hosiery I had ever seen and sported leotards in fuschia and yellow and sky blue; some had stripes, some had geometric patterns, some had textures that allowed you to see through to her long, pale legs. As I was only 5’4”, Penelope towered over me, and when we met, I felt her squint trying to figure me out. In that instant, I knew she didn’t like me. Penelope was everything I wasn’t. She was lean and breezy, effortlessly chic and slightly haughty. And she was smart and sardonic and droll. I, on the other hand, was chubby and over-eager; I bit my nails and wore grey courderoy gaucho skirts with matching heels. Penelope had an Italian boyfriend she lived with in a swanky loft uptown. I lived in a fourth-floor tenement railroad flat and had to pass through my married roommates’ bedroom in order to get to mine.

Everyone liked Penelope and her arrival brought on a fiery jealousy I never felt before. I wanted to look like Penelope. I wanted to dress like Penelope and talk like Penelope. Looking back on it now, I realize I simply wanted to be Penelope.

Suddenly my $6 an hour job wasn’t enough. Becoming a good designer wasn’t enough. I needed to buy new clothes and new shoes and I needed a new haircut and new thighs and a new life. Everything about me was utterly awful and wretchedly wrong. I didn’t have enough money to buy the clothes I wanted but I bought them anyway and charged them to my brand new American Express card. But when I went to work in my new duds, I still felt shabby next to Penelope, and I knew that no matter what I did and how much I tried to change who I was, I would never be like Penelope. And I hated myself even more.

When I opened my American Express bill I felt nauseous. I didn’t have enough to pay it, so I asked my mother for a loan. She didn’t have much money either, but she gave me what she had after I swore I would repay her. And though I managed to scrape by, I never seemed to have as much as I needed. I wanted new things and I kept wanting more. I told myself that if I could just save $1,000 everything would be okay. I would pay my bills and buy a few pretty outfits and I would feel better about myself. I would be secure. I could feel safe. And with that, despite the fact that I still actually loved my job, I started thinking I that perhaps I should try to find another one that paid better.

And I did. Shortly thereafter, I was offered a job at a real estate development company in Westchester as their Director of Marketing. It was a big title with a big increase in salary—now I would be making $25,000 a year—and it came with a car. I took it. Everyone congratulated me on my good fortune and the potential of this prestigious new opportunity. But after the last day at my old design job I went straight home, and—fully dressed— climbed into bed, pulled the blankets over my head and cried.

I hated my new job for the entire time I was employed there. I hated the work and I hated real estate and I hated the drive back and forth every day and it took me a whole year to save the $1,000 I hoped would insure my future security. I thought about this money every day on the long, grey drive to and from work. But by time I reached my goal, I realized that I actually needed $2,000 to really feel safe. Or maybe I would need more! And just when I settled in on what it would take for me to feel impervious to life’s challenges, I looked out at that long, grey landscape and remembered there was a sexy pair of black suede boots at Bloomingdale’s that I had my eye on and I realized that I had to keep driving.


Anonymous Rita said...

I think the older we get, the less we concern ourselves with the opinions of others. We learn there will always be someone taller, smarter, sexier, thinner, better dressed, richer, more talented ... you name it. But happiness comes from doing what you love and surrounding yourself with people who believe you are beautiful and all those other wonderful things.

3/27/2009 04:05:00 PM  
Blogger a.parker said...

I can't help but think that the social networking sites available allow us to evaluate, compare, despise, and change ourselves - more often, and for free. I think it's fair to say that everyone makes a choice when they post their favorite music, movies, pictures, etc., and they put this carefully controlled image out there. I'll admit that I have changed to my info after realizing that certain people would see it. Now, we have so many different personas to keep up...

4/08/2009 09:55:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Haven't heard the phrase "picture box" in eons. Brings back memories.

4/09/2009 05:19:00 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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