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Tiny Miracles
Our need to believe

by DK Holland

He 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.

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.

Consciousness (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 be compassionate.

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). And 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.”6

You 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.

Then 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 This had 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.’”

Millman, 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 some.”

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.” CA

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.
7. Holland
DK Holland writes about design and teaches in two MFA design programs in New York, one at SVA and one at Pratt. She is an advisor to Project M and Design Ignites Change. Holland has been the editor of Design Issues since she started it in 1990. She is the author/producer of many books on design as well as Branding for Nonprofits. She is the producer of CitizenME, which creates transmedia tools that engage students in understanding how to become proactive citizens. Holland lives and works in her tiny nineteenth-century restored Italianate house and garden in Fort Greene, Brooklyn.