Look Both Ways by Debbie Millman

26 January 2010 | By Christine in books, design, designers, illustration, typography

The first book I’ve completed in 2010 is Debbie Millman‘s Look Both Ways, which Nina kindly grabbed for me at the Type Directors Club. I’d been eyeing it since it was published a couple months ago, and I was so ecstatic when she gave it to me last week during Typography class.

The book is subtitled ‘Illustrated essays on the intersection of life and design,’ yet I found the experience of reading it much more profoundly grounded in the ‘life’ part, much to my liking. Aside from the beautiful ways in which she designed and handlettered each essay, which instantly dropped me into Debbie’s world, or the constant connections she made with branding and art, I felt most moved by the stories of her life.

Part of it is that I’m always interested in the back story of any person, place or thing that I admire. You know — the Wikipedia syndrome, which is the curiosity that cannot be overcome, so your fingers automatically gravitate toward the keyboard before your eyes can even turn toward the screen.

Another part of why the book spoke deeply to me is that she writes in such a way that makes me feel like we’re very similar. Whether we actually are similar or not, the tales of girlhood, youth, uncertainty, and continuing thoughts and observation beyond those early qualities (which, I suspect, never really disappear completely no matter what your age) made each story feel so familiar, like reading my own forgotten journal. I think any thoughtful person who sees and thinks actively will have similar anecdotes and related ideas of what it is we’re going through in this world. Maybe I’m tired of hearing stories of success and listening to people who make it all seem easy — even if they claim that it’s not easy (and I’m sure it wasn’t), they make it seem easy by the mere act of speaking to us about it in large speaker-audience settings. Which is perhaps why the book lends itself better to telling such stories. Debbie’s carefully crafted essays and crafty illustrations immerse the reader into a world of memory and thoughts, outside of the conscious notion that this is coming from Debbie Millman, celebrated host of the Design Matters series, President of the design division at Sterling Brands, and AIGA President.

Many of the stories had me laughing out loud, but because they read a lot like my own feelings from the past, they also had me close to tears. While reading the chapter ‘Pick One,’ I was sitting at a Pret on 49th and Madison, and when I read that she had hopped off a bus on 42nd and Madison on her way to a Condé Nast interview right out of college, I downed the rest of my coffee and hurried down the avenue to get a sense of what that moment had been like.

Some of the stories, mainly the ones that address a stage in life I have not yet reached, had me wondering what other sorts of similar thoughts and experiences I’ll have in the future, and whether glimpsing hers have prepared me in any way for them.

But the biggest surprise was in ‘Fail Safe,’ in which she writes:

I am not profoundly unhappy with what has transpired in the years leading up to today; most days I consider myself lucky that I have a fun, secure job and a good paycheck. But I know deep in my heart that I settled. I chose financial and creative stability over artistic freedom, and I can’t help but wonder what life would be like if I had made a different decision on that balmy night back in the West Village.

The spot in the West Village she’s referring to is mentioned on the first page of this essay, which begins:

A few months out of college, I stood on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street in New York City wearing pastel-blue balloon trousers, a hot pink V-neck T-shirt and bright white Capezio Oxfords. I lingered at the intersection peering deep into my future, contemplating the choice between the secure and the uncertain, between the creative and the logical, the known and the unknown.

I dreamed of being an artist and a writer, but inasmuch as I knew what I wanted, I felt compelled to consider what was ‘reasonable’ in order to safeguard my economic future. Even though I wanted what my best friend once referred to as ‘the whole wide world,’ I thought it was prudent to compromise.

Living very close to the corner of Seventh Avenue and Bleecker Street (I am on Thompson and Bleecker), and about to graduate college (though I don’t own a hot pink V-neck, nor do I know what balloon trousers are, really), I feel like I couldn’t have read this essay at a better time. I guess nobody really considers the possibility that a highly successful presence in the design world would regard such a career as ‘settling,’ but standing on my own corner and brimming with hope and greed and enthusiasm for possibility, and dreaming my own dreams of being an artist and a writer, I, too, am hoping first and foremost for financial stability once I turn the tassel.

As Robert Frost wrote: a poem ‘begins as a lump in the throat, a sense of wrong, a homesickness, a lovesickness. It is never a thought to begin with.’

I recommend the following course of action for those who are just beginning their careers, or for those like me, who may be reconfiguring midway through: heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big, fat lump in your throat, start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickess, and run with it. If you imagine less, less will be what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love, and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

I will try. Now.

2 Comments on “Look Both Ways by Debbie Millman”

  1. I just couldnt leave your website before saying that I really enjoyed the top quality information you provide you with to your visitors… Will be back often to check on up on new stuff you post!


  2. That’s so kind of you! Thanks :)


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