realizes the response to his portraits tends to be superficial. “The
pictures travel more than the stories. People see the photos then they
dig down to find out the story. And to me, the layers are more important
than the pictures. The stories raise questions, get people thinking.
That’s what I do. I raise questions.” So JR has started making books and films so that people would see the layers. JR says that he was ready six
years ago to do what he is doing today—but that the time was not right.
Rosa Parks, for that matter, not the first black person to stand up to
the law in the South, and Barack Obama was not the first black man to run
for the highest office in our land. Timing, as any standup comic will
tell you, is everything.WE PLAN BECAUSE WE CAN
The fact that we
each have a brain that allows for memories of our individual past and
also of the world around us; that each of our minds allows us to pull
this all altogether to imagine and explore a future (however distorted).
This is a miracle.
We are all relatively new at this. It wasn’t
that long ago that humans had no sense of self.5
And not too long ago
that it was commonly believed the heart ruled the body: The brain was
thought to be the non-essential organ. The current revolution in
neuroscience has created an explosion of knowledge about how the human
brain developed, how it is structured and how it differs from that of
other primates. While there is much that remains a mystery, we know
that, for instance, humans (unlike any other creature) pass on learned
skills to their offspring, that we have both a conscious and subconscious
brain. We know that, unlike computers and other creatures, the human
brain can multitask (not well, mind you). The aesthetic center of the
human brain is very near the intuition center and we often “feel”
something is good or right, not really knowing why. We know many parts
of our brain are primitive—like the emotional center, the amygdala—and
reacts to input way ahead of any other part of the brain. And guess who
gets the info last? The prefrontal cortext (the language/short term
memory center). So we know that since our thoughts are mere
rationalizations, concepts of free will and self-analysis are shaky at
best. SO WHICH CAME FIRST: CHICKEN SALAD OR SCRAMBLED EGGS?
(awareness of self) came first, and then applications developed leading
to the continuing evolution of rational thinking. It is because we are
conscious of ourselves that we have become more mindful of others and
hardwired to “do unto others as I would have them do unto me” (the main
tenet of most religions and ethical codes). And so, as a species, even
though it may not feel like it, we tend towards the ethical over time.
We want to cooperate so that our lives will be better. It’s practical to
The recent acceptance of mental illness in the United States is
a good example of this. We may not be autistic but we recognize that
others who are, are like us in almost all other ways. And that we can
learn from people with differences, that they can play unique and
important roles in our evolving society (i.e., Temple Grandin
that, let’s face it, pretty much everyone has a difference that once was a
cause for shame (i.e., Glee
As social issues like this come up we
create projections through art (films, theater, literature) that help us
imagine the possibilities. The aesthetic distance that these vehicles
provide lets us edge closer to thinking about man with man or woman with
woman or people with learning differences or that there may be aliens
among us without freaking out. That’s how we explore “the other.” Art is
an important way we reframe our worldviews, our perspectives, in images
as well as words. As we encourage change, “way opens.”6LIFE CHANGES FOR DEBBIE MILLMAN
would never know it now but Debbie Millman was not always a happy
camper. About twenty-five years ago (1986) Millman says, “I was
completely lost. A close friend was dying of AIDS. I felt I should be
the one dying. Emotionally, there was no place I could go but down.”
Millman started to make radical changes in her life. She says, “I
changed because I wanted to survive. I unlearned and relearned. I
reorganized my neural pathways.”
She was already a success at the New
York agency Sterling Brands, providing her with a toehold in the design
world, not as a groundbreaking super star designer, but as a very
talented manager of design teams tackling mainstream projects.
Millman, who was somewhat of an outsider at AIGA in 2003, found herself
a target for spite and animosity in a nasty chain of Speak Up blog
comments led by designer Felix Sockwell (including comments by Scott
Stowell, Armin Vit and Tan Le) debating, among other things, how the
profession was being dragged down by the likes of Millman.7
been going on for over two weeks by the time Millman found out about it.
During this bullying session she had been called a She Devil, a liar
and the design work produced by Sterling had been referred to as “turds.” She went home and buried her head under the covers. Friends
said, “Ignore it. Take the high road.” The next day Millman went back to
the site and chimed right in, her usual affable, smart self. She quickly
turned the conversation around to the real issues of the profession.
She opened a door instead of slamming it shut. Armin Vit, editor of the
blog, who had himself been a detractor of Millman, asked her to become a
contributor. Millman reflects, “It helped me become a better writer and
learn about the power of the Internet. Luckily by the time this happened
I had age and lots of years of therapy to support me.” She had turned a
potential disaster into an opportunity by understanding what was going
on and not letting it destroy her.
“In 2005 I took Milton Glaser’s
week-long intensive Summer Program at SVA. I was open to anything.”
Besides being worshipped as one of the greatest graphic designers of
the twentieth century, Millman adds, “Milton’s a great thinker and
generous teacher. His class, which he’s taught for 50 years, is total
give back. He considers it his most important contribution. He quickly
became the catalyst for my inner guru.”
A lot of miraculous things
happen because of Glaser’s class but alumni are encouraged not to reveal
much. Let’s just say people write to Glaser for years about how this
program changed their lives. Why does Glaser choose to teach 28
strangers in the heat of August in New York each year when he obviously
has a world of options far more relaxing and indulgent? Milton Glaser reflects, “I have often thought that a disengaged life is a
meaningless one. Teaching connects you to others and to the world. It
creates a sense of purpose that protects us from isolation and the
sense that there is no meaning in the universe. It functions best when
it is not essentially a way of making a living. I suppose my mantra might simply be the phrase, ‘Pass it on.’”
who has always fostered a healthy, disciplined work ethic, made a list
of her aspirations after Glaser’s class: write a book, teach at SVA, get
elected to the National Board of AIGA, cultivate Design Matters (her
talk radio show), make personal art, have an art exhibition. Gutsy,
creative ambitions, many of which reflect a “pass it on” philosophy.
Millman has made all her goals, and has just finished her term as
president of AIGA National which leads me to ask her, “What's left?” She
reflects. She smiles broadly. “Everything is yet undone...and then
There are two types of people: optimists and pessimists.
Pessimists are known to believe “things will never get better,” but by
thinking this way, don’t they ensure they never will? Optimists (I count
myself as one), on the other hand, believe miracles are possible. That
even when faced with news reports of doom and gloom, together, we can
affect change for the better. We’ve seen it time and time again. Within
this idea is a mantra, a simple chant “Life will improve. I can help.” CANotes
1. Lyrics by Kris Kristofferson and Fred Foster.
2. George Bernard Shaw, Man and Superman (1903), “Maxims for Revolutionists.”
3. Jonathan Franzen, How to be Alone: Essays, 2003.
5. It’s believed the human brain’s sense of self emerged only tens of thousands of years ago.
6. Way opens is a Quaker term and refers to a path that has been closed but now is possible.