News & Opinion

Debbie Millman: Look Both Ways Q&A

December 08, 2009


As hinted at previously, I finally caught up with Ms. Millman with some questions about her super interesting and smartly crafted book, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. It is no surprise to me that her answers are also very good.

As hinted at previously, I finally caught up with Ms. Millman with some questions about her super interesting and smartly crafted book, Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. It is no surprise to me that her answers are also very good. Check them out, and check out her book. It's inspiring content in a totally interesting presentation. What are "both ways" that the title refers to? "The "Both Ways" refer to several things. First, it refers to the ways in which you can experience this book--both as a literal book you can read, as well as a "picture" book you can view. The phrase "look both ways," comes from an essay of the book with the same title, and reads as follows: "And it occurred to me, as I stood there, that I could simultaneously, vividly look both ways—backward and forward in time, 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." In this excerpt, I describe returning to a place where I had once spent a lot of time and recall the many hours I spent in that very spot wondering where I was going to go next in my life and what my future would bring. In the moment of returning, I experienced something I had never experienced before--I remembered wondering about the future and experiencing that future as my past. It was an exquisite, bittersweet, extraordinary experience, and one that I will never forget for the rest of my life. 25 years suddenly compressed into one distinct, memorable, breathtaking moment. How did you decide on the layout for the book? What was your intention with this style? In many ways, Look Both Ways is the culmination of 25 years of working, and probably took its first shape when I began my radio show on design and culture, "Design Matters," nearly five years ago. "Design Matters" first aired in February, 2005; I started it with a wish and a telephone connection to the Internet. My hope was to create a radio talk-show with brilliant designers and creative intellects from all disciplines and ask them lots of personal questions about why they do what they do and how they do it. Since then, I have conducted over 100 interview with business leaders such as Malcolm Gladwell, Seth Godin, Grant McCracken,Virginia Postrel and Jonah Lehrer; artists such Barbara Kruger and Lawrence Weiner; designers including Milton Glaser, Stefan Sagmeister and Paula Scher, and even Nobel Prize winning scientist Eric Kandel. The format for the show is pretty consistent: I start with a monologue in which I try to weave a personal anecdote that relates to the guest in some small way. I then begin the interview itself, and ask lots and lots of questions. Since the beginning of the show, listeners have been urging me to collect the monologues and try to publish a book. But I felt that the essays were already "out there" and I wanted to do something different and unexpected. Also, my former editor-in-chief at Print Magazine, Joyce Kaye, thought it wasn't a strong enough idea on its own. Since I am also a painter (and have been painting and drawing for nearly my whole life) I decided to connect the two disciplines and try and create one holistic, unified experience of art and language. As I worked on the book, the words of one of my best friends played over and over in my mind. She is both an artist and an art dealer, and insisted that when creating art with words, the quality of every illustration must to be comparable to the quality of the writing, and visa versa. Neither could overwhelm or dilute the impression of the other; they needed to be fully integrated. This became my mantra throughout the entire journey of this effort as I tried to create a landscape of a life lived in and shaped by brands and design. There is a re-occuring theme in the book with the idea of feeling inferior (clothing brands, social status, etc.), and everyone has experienced this on some level. How do you see design addressing that? How do you see people addressing that? We are now living in sensory overload: we determine our beauty factor by comparing ourselves to airbrushed super-models and surgically enhanced celebrities, our intelligence by answering questions correctly on game shows, our sports acumen by watching and applauding steroid abusers, our bravery and leadership by war-obsessed leaders. It is a really perplexing time in our universe! This mass consumption of products and information has changed the way we relate, perceive and live. I write at length about how a polo shirt or a pair of dungarees or a hair barrette and could make me feel better about myself. But I quickly learned that the feelings were elusive. After acquiring the polo shirt and dungarees and hair barrette, I moved on to other things. Better living through consumption doesn't stop when you've consumed everything you covet and still long for more. Unfortunately, these "things" are elusive and don't keep you happy for very long. Wouldn't it be amazing if marketers and designers could figure out how to create opportunities or methodologies or programs to allow for measurable, sustainable self-esteem that go beyond consumption? Memory is also something you discuss a lot. How strongly do you think memories are shaped by external input vs. internal observation? What does that say about advertising, media, etc.? I think the strongest memories are created by symbols and images, rather than words. Symbols tell a better story and solicit an audience's internal projective imagination, and these symbols become embedded in our memories. But our memories change and are impacted by the sheer nature of remembering every time we remember something! Words suffer from misinterpretation and a literal (or illiterate) audience, though they are better at conveying a specific message, for a time. In terms of impact, the most reliable way to engage an imagination is to show rather than tell, which is why advertising doesn't always work. The most effective messages are visceral, and touch on our most basic needs as humans: to be loved and accepted by others. In your opinion, what is the most important consideration companies should have as the economy crawls back? Five things: 1) Bigger is not always better. 2) Consumers are people that shop. 3) Most people want to be happy and things only help you feel happy for a little while. 4) Most people want to be safe and secure and things only help you feel safe and secure for a little while. 5) Yes, brands are "a promise of an experience." But people also frequently use them to project an image to the world of who they hope, wish and fantasize themselves to be.

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