debbie millman

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Smoke and Mirrors

I started smoking the summer I was 30 years old. I was newly divorced and madly in love with an Englishman addicted to Marlboro Reds. Together we’d sit in outdoor cafes, intertwining our legs and I’d steal the cigarette from his lips. I felt glamorous surrounded by dissipating swirls of smoke and comforted by the potential of this exotic new persona. It took me a while to truly get the hang of it, but by the time I figured out how to inhale without coughing, my British boyfriend was gone. All that autumn, I languished around my apartment, still smoking, if only to take solace in the now familiar smell. But all I did in those few months alone was trade one addiction for another.

The only person I ever hid my smoking habit from was my father. I was loath to disappoint him and I knew he would disapprove of my dependence. Whenever I visited him, I would buoy myself up with gum and candy and, over the course of a weekend stay, would slowly and agonizingly begin to withdraw. I wouldn’t light up again until I was safely out of his purview and my first puff was always a heady affair. It was as if my brain somehow came alive with each inhalation.

My Dad lives way up in the Catskills and after one Father’s Day Sunday several years ago, I decided to stay overnight as I had a business meeting on Monday midway between his house upstate and mine in Manhattan. This, of course, substantially increased my craving, and by the time I left, I was jittery, cranky and impatient. I couldn’t get my fix fast enough and ended up chain-smoking through the entire journey to see my client.

As I waited in the lobby for my colleagues to join me, I decided there was just enough time to have one more cigarette. As I made my way outside, my agitated, fired up brain played a trick on me. There were two sets of glass doors in the lobby, but only one set was opened. I thought the first set was opened facing out. But in reality, it was the second set of doors that were open, facing in. Because I didn’t realize that the first set was closed, I walked head first into the glass door, broke my nose and ended up in the hospital with twelve stitches. Both my face and my ego were bruised for weeks; and if that wasn’t sufficient, I felt sheepish and guilty about keeping the specifics of the accident a secret from my Dad.

I often think back to that day and wonder how my brain could make a mistake like that. Why do we see what we see? How do we see? Our lives center around the perception of what we see and process with our brains, and scientists have determined that our eyes receive and send over 10 million signals to our brains each second. But we can only consciously process about 40 of those signals per second! Our perceptions are actually made up of what we selectively choose to see. Harvard University professor John Stilgoe believes that people are so focused on a goal or zeroing in on what appears to be obvious that they miss what is right in front of them. Rather than not being able to see the forest for the trees, they are unable to see the trees for the forest. Stilgoe attributes this to the "constant blur of modern life."

We are now surrounded by a world of activity that can’t be seen. The patterns produced by the splash of a raindrop happen too fast for our eyes to catch. Is it possible we could direct our brains to see more? Thomas Lewis, author of A General Theory of Love, believes “The scientist and artist both speak to the turmoil that comes from having a…brain. A person cannot direct his emotional life in the way he bids his motor system to reach for a cup. He cannot will himself to want the right thing, or to love the right person, or to be happy after a disappointment, or even to be happy in happy times.”

I recently gave up smoking and in the end, it was not nearly as gruesome as I thought it would be, though I still have a hard time jumpstarting my brain in the morning. Last week, as I was trying to get over a cold, I decided to take a bath instead of a shower before heading off to work. As I luxuriated in the bubbly hot water, I wondered why I didn’t bathe like this more often. It wasn’t until my walk to work that I realized that I never actually washed myself! I just lay there happily, lazily relaxing! Later, I laughingly recanted this story to my father. He chuckled and blamed my ailment on all my hard living. I paused because I didn’t understand what he meant. You know, hard living, he insisted. All that smoking and drinking! My jaw dropped as my eyes popped and I demanded to know how he knew. I recalled the efforts I went to in order to conceal it from him and I was incredulous. And then he told me this: The human brain is a mysterious and wondrous thing. Just because you don’t see something in front of you doesn’t mean that you don’t know that it’s there.


Anonymous Monica McGregor said...

What a great writer you are! I like that you write about things other than design. I'm quite interested in life as a designer, not just mechanics and shop talk.

4/13/2009 08:29:00 PM  
Blogger ABCDGreg said...


I always enjoy your writing and listening to your podcasts. It is not so much that I love the interviews and information , which I do, but you are a wonderful story-teller. You drive your points home by sharing humorous stories with which we can all relate. That is truly a unique gift.

Thanks for the smile and the lesson.

4/13/2009 10:28:00 PM  
Anonymous Billy said...

I agree with the above. I always love reading your blog posts. I, too, recently quit smoking and it was initially rough, the routines are hard to break! I am so happy though, I feel like I did a good thing that I should be proud of. Now if I only can get to the gym more...

4/15/2009 01:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Brian said...

I am a new listener to your show and have become instantly addicted.Been listening to back episodes all night. I too had an unfortunate incident with a door. Mine was with the behemoth revolving door at Ikea. I was not paying attention while walking towards the my gaze was fixed upon a 777 gliding off the tarmac at Newark airport just across the New Jersey turnpike. That gaze was abruptly interrupted with a cold hard thud and that millionth of a second delay when you experience the pain after impact. It was a beautiful plane though.

5/02/2009 12:57:00 AM  
Blogger justin said...

quitting smoking is one of the hardest things that i have ever done....

5/13/2009 10:29:00 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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