Vienne, Veronique

Veronique Vienne, author of The Art of Doing Nothing.

Veronique Vienne is the author of The Art of Doing Nothing, The Art of Imperfection, The Art of Growing Up, The Art of Expecting, and The Art of the Moment. Her essays on design and architecture, published in numerous anthologies, are now available in her book Something to Be Desired. She is working on a monograph on designer Chip Kidd, and has edited, with Steven Heller, a book of essays on design responsibility, to be published in 2003 under the title Citizen Designer.

Veronique Vienne photo by Dwight Carter.

[For book links, see the end of the interview.] asks …

I want to talk about two things today. I want to flash back to 1994 when you’re mentioned in Tom’s book, Crazy Times Call for Crazy Organizations, and then move ahead to the book that I’ve read, The Art of Imperfection, which I think is part of a series.

VV: Yes, It is part of a series published by Clarkson Potter. Actually, the first book of that series, the one that’s selling like crazy is called The Art of Doing Nothing. I find myself branded by The Art of Doing Nothing, which has sold close to 500,000 copies and has been translated in half a dozen languages, including Japanese and Hebrew. That’s amazing to me. There’s been practically no publicity, just word of mouth. And I’m quite pleased with that because I am weary of success—of what it does to you. If you have success, it becomes something that stops you because you’re afraid you’ll make a mistake and lose it.

So I’m glad that this book has legs. It sells by itself without my having to promote it.

I’m going to have to go read that one then.

VV: Yes, The Art of Doing Nothing. Then I wrote The Art of Imperfection. And that sold well, too. So the publisher thought, oh, we have a brand here.

Then I did other ones, The Art of Growing Up, The Art of Expecting, and The Art of the Moment. So I hope my readers will be patient with me and not think I’m just milking it for all it’s worth, because that’s not what it is.

This isn’t a marketing gimmick, like the Chicken Soup for the Soul books. And how I’m doing that is by not talking about the brand, not making the brand a fait accompli. The brand is invisible in a way. Even if the books are similar in format to each other, I hope that the brand is not something that becomes a bad habit.

I want to talk about that in more detail. As an editorial aside, I want to let our readers know that you are quoted in Tom’s 1994 book, The Pursuit of Wow. I believe you say, “My only career strategy is to plan what I can learn specifically from each job.”

VV: Absolutely.

Which, looking back on it, I guess seems rather unique, and then in time Tom has taken that concept and it’s become one of the tenets of what he calls Brand You, which has got, as you say, good legs in the corporate world, and a lot of people are catching on to the idea. But one of the reasons we’re speaking today is that we’re going to consider you the inventor.

VV: Brand You?

But let’s talk some about brand in general and what it means to you, and about your interest in it.

VV: I used to be a magazine graphic designer, and a magazine art director, and in doing so I was presented with a problem: What is a magazine? Is it something people read or is it a brand people go back to? So this has always been a part of my thinking. I was trained as a graphic designer, and branding is very much part of the discipline of graphic design, although a lot of people have different interpretations.

And when I switched from being a designer to being a writer, I took with me this idea that what was important was not what I had to say, but creating a brand that people believed in. You don’t buy a magazine to read about the 25 ways to seduce your lover. But you buy it because you want to know what Redbook or Cosmopolitan thinks about the 25 ways to seduce your lover.

People read magazines not because they want to learn more things. They want to know what that particular brand, that particular magazine thinks about the specific subject. It’s always framed in the context of the brand. You want to know what Oprah thinks about 25 ways to seduce a lover, but you may not be interested in Popular Mechanics take on the topic. The brand is really what people go to.

When I became a writer I realized that if I wanted to survive (mostly because English is not my first language, it’s an acquired taste), I had to develop a style, or brand that people would respond to. And it didn’t come to me easily to write. To write for me in English is a process, if you will.

You don’t write in French?

VV: I never write in French. Writing for me is an exercise. I love the English language, although I have an accent, and it was a hard thing for me to get to the point where I felt comfortable enough to write in English and to write about the culture. The language is one thing, but it’s the culture that’s important. You have to write things people want to read. If people don’t read you, you’re not writing.

It is the reader that makes me a writer. I’m very aware of that relationship of the brand and why a reader would even want to read me because they feel there is more to it than the subject matter; there’s a point of view on the subject matter. The Art of Doing Nothing and the rest of the series have an internal logic which has to do with what we can call the brand, or which is that other thing, that point of view, which is really the brand. Which is something that has to be reinvented each time. It’s just like a magazine. Each issue is the same magazine, yet it has to be completely reinvented. If not, you know. Some magazines, you don’t know the difference between issues, and it gets very boring, because you think, “Oh I already read this one,” when in fact you haven’t. That ability to reinvent yourself on a monthly basis is something I learned as a magazine art director.

We’re all certainly familiar with magazines that we stop subscribing to because, as you say, they all begin to say the same thing issue after issue.

VV: For fifteen years as art director, I always asked myself, why would people go to the newsstand? What is that fervor that people have at the newsstand? I look at people there and they’re quiet, it’s almost like a church. They’re flipping through those magazines. I have great respect for readers, basically, even if they don’t read, because eventually, maybe, a reader will look at a magazine, look at the headlines, look at the table of contents, read the captions, and say, “This was great, I read it cover to cover.” You know, they just looked at it. But that’s okay. They think they’ve read it cover to cover, that’s their right. I learned to respect that a reader is somebody who will not necessarily read.

Do you still work in design?

VV: I teach a graduate course at the School of Visual Arts for designers. And one of my concerns is teaching them how to be their own brand. Tom Peters, of course, is required reading. I try to give them the tools that will help them, as designers, to brand themselves and to deal with the contradictions of the business, so that they can survive with their enthusiasm intact. Which is not easy, because graphic designers very quickly become absorbed by the corporation or the client they work for or with. And for them to be memorable, they have to learn to know where their values are, because their values will be challenged by the corporate values they will deal with.

You point out that with a magazine, you have to have a consistent brand from month to month, but you also need to be different enough to keep your readers interested. Do you coach your students in how to deal with these contradictions?

VV: One of them is the challenge of being true to yourself, and one of them is that you have to not be anti-intellectual; you have to use the tools of the moment; you have to know about post-structuralist and situationist theories. We read a lot of authors, sometimes with Marxist tendencies. Such as Thomas Frank, who wrote The Conquest of Cool. Or John Berger, particularly his book Ways of Seeing. We look at consumerism and anti-consumerism ideas, so that they understand that the work they will do as graphic designers will be work on branding. Whether they’re in an advertising agency or in a graphic design firm, branding is now an important part of the profession. They will have to understand the dialectic of the problem-solving. They’ll have to solve the problem on more than one level.

We go into the detail of how brands are analyzed, we read things about different theoreticians on branding. But also I give them the tools to be able to deconstruct the problem they’re confronted with.

Deconstruction in the sense of what is “not-said.” When a client tells you about his brand, you have to listen to what he or she tells you, and you have to listen to what he or she doesn’t tell you. What is not said is as important as what is said. And that’s something I learned from designing magazines. There’s a lot going on between the lines. Sometimes people don’t say things because, first, they cannot for political reasons, or maybe they don’t even know what they are not saying, and that’s just as important. And to solve a client’s problem and to help them, you have to know what they are not telling you.

In fact, I was just at a meeting recently, and ended up, after the meeting and going outside and talking with somebody and saying just that. My question of this other person was, “Did you hear what they didn’t say, or were you reading between the lines?” But I think this is critical as well, and I don’t think people really understand that. Out there in corporate America, it’s like they’re learning how to listen, but they’re listening in a straightforward fashion.

VV: You’re absolutely right, I couldn’t agree more.

Is this something you can learn?

VV: Absolutely. We do exercises all the time to learn to analyze. We actually took Tom Peters’ The Brand You50 and we deconstructed it, and what it was that Tom Peters was not saying and what he was saying versus what he was not saying, or what he didn’t want to say, or what he didn’t think about saying.

We do many practical exercises where we deconstruct text and images, not in a traditional French academic manner, but more in a way of understanding what message exactly is being conveyed by words and by pictures and how they are used.

So that’s how I help my students, give them specific tools that we can use, and we do Dada exercises on text and on images. We study images, and we look at what’s happening in every quadrant of the grid and we put a name on it and we look at that word that we choose. There are a lot of things you can do to help yourself understand the language of images-basically, that’s my course.

Sounds very intriguing.

VV: And that comes out of my experience as a graphic designer, and I’m still very much part of that community. Because they give me so much, I feel I have to give back. Also, I have a book of essays out called Something to be Desired, which is a collection of my essays on design in the last nine years.

You’re obviously well aware that Tom Peters is out there, extolling the virtues of design to corporate America.

VV: Absolutely. That’s why we deconstruct the bejesus out of him. Anyway, my students were very puzzled by The Brand You50, designed by Chip Kidd, because it’s over-designed. Design is a double-edged sword. Things are often over-designed to look cool for marketing reasons. Cool-looking products make you feel un-cool in comparison. You buy them in order to boost your self-esteem.

That’s why I mentioned Thomas Frank and his book called The Conquest of Cool, because he has deconstructed, if you want, the cool phenomenon and what it all means.

There’s a lot of anti-consumerism current out there, that I think should be understood for what it is, because it’s very emotional. I love design, but I’m aware of the message, how it’s being co-opted by consumerism. In fact, I think design is wonderful for totally different reasons. Design slows you down. A beautifully designed thing? You spend more time with it. So the function of design is, to me, to slow you down and give you time.

It’s the same thing with beauty, or elegance: it is a way to slow you down so that you can luxuriate in it. If the carpet is very thick, you’re going to walk across it a little more slowly than if it was a concrete floor.

So, I don’t like the way Tom Peters designed his books, and particularly The Brand You50. I thought the design was sending what I call an “interrupt-driven” message. It put the accent on the superficial, which says that to survive in this culture you have to be quick, to be interrupt-driven, which is a term I like, because we all are interrupt-driven.


VV: Meaning, we know how to take interruption, we know how to function in a world where we’re constantly interrupted. The design of The Brand You50 is very choppy and moves very fast, yet its message is about being able to find your soul. It’s a contradiction I understand, one I explore in The Art of Doing Nothing—in which I suggest ways to find time and stillness in the middle of many interruptions. And I think, in a way, the design of The Brand You50 addressed some of that: It says, “Don’t be ponderous, don’t resist, go with it-but still find your soul.”

Tom was playing with font sizes in his Word documents, and so, in effect, Chip Kidd only designed the cover, and the inside-all of the text inside basically reflects Tom’s desires for how he wanted the text to look.

VV: That’s the way the text looks when I give a talk and I have to have my notes, that’s exactly what I do.

Tom, in his writing, is getting closer and closer to the way he talks when he’s on stage. That’s the deconstruction of his writing style as far as I’m concerned. I look at this and I think, Tom makes his living out there talking, and in some ways he’s really a performance artist. So, over the years, his books are drawing closer and closer to his public persona.

VV: I’m glad you said that. I’m reminded of what my students said, which is that there is a contradiction between the message and the way it’s being delivered. One component of this is the spectacle. This spectacle has in it a contradiction, and we all live it, and I’m not saying that Tom Peters is not aware of it. We have to make a spectacle of ourselves, which is part of the brand. And yet we have to also deliver content … while making a spectacle of ourselves. I think that contradiction was visible in the book, where he was encouraging readers to be true to themselves. While it seems to me that the book was actually very superficial, it’s as if the content is being delivered right there in front of you, in his style. I can show you my notes, they are just like that, with big type and small type and things underlined and things in different colors, so that when I speak I can entertain people.

One of the things I tell my students is that my problem as a teacher is that I have to entertain them, because they pay a lot of money to be in that program. And yet at the same time, because I have to entertain them, I cannot teach them as much, because sometimes teaching does not include entertaining. You cannot always entertain people. You sometimes have to allow them to … reach into themselves.

And so, sometimes you have to do that, you know. But of course, I am part of the culture of consumerism, so I’m very entertaining.

I’m sure of that. I taught for a while, so I understand exactly what you mean, because I felt, too, that I had to first of all be entertaining to keep the students’ attention. But you can’t only entertain. You need to build in that moment for everybody to take in the information and to process it and deal with it. And without doing that, there’s no sense in presenting the information in the first place.

VV: That may explain why The Art of Doing Nothing is doing so well. Because people want to be given permission, for a moment, to stop. What I tried to do there, not knowing if it would work, is to give people who were too busy permission to look out of the window for two seconds or three seconds, or ten seconds, and not feel guilty. The meter is always going. And telling yourself that the meter doesn’t have to go all the time, and accepting that, is already a step in the right direction.

It seems to me you’ve got to have a certain amount of self-awareness to appreciate what you’re writing. Like your opening line here, where you write, “Our innate idiosyncrasies are actually more endearing to others than our most glorious personal achievements.”

VV: I agree, but one thing I do with my books is to assume that my readers are just as self-aware as I am. And the fact that the books are selling is the proof that they are.

And so I have to work on a topic and come to the point where I sincerely feel that I am and that my readers are self-aware, and then I can talk to them and find the tone of voice or the tone of writing that will let them know that I know that they are there with me.

But somehow, I have to fight my own pompousness first, because I’m very pompous, and I’m very judgmental, and I’m very cynical. So writing is a way for me to learn to break through my own bigotry, because, you know, like everybody else, I’m a bigot.

So how did The Art of Doing Nothing come to be?

VV: Because I’m French, people assume that I know stuff, like I know how to kiss, or I know how to relax, or I know how to put nail polish on my toes, or whatever. There are a lot of assumptions. Which is, I think, part of my brand. But I’ve learned not to flaunt my Frenchness. There was a point in my career when I was a spokesperson for Express, an offshoot of The Limited. At the time, ten years ago, the brand for Express was supposed to be French.

They needed some authenticity to their brand, so they asked me to become their spokesperson. I did some P.R. for them as such, and I wrote a book called French Style, which was published by Express. When I did a media tour to promote it I realized that Frenchness is absolutely not selling well in the fly-over states. “What do you mean, you’re French? Why do you think you’re so superior to us?”

I’ve learned to temper my Frenchness. But people assume, because they know me, that I know all those things. So I’ve been writing a lot about spas, about how to take care of yourself and pamper yourself, although I’m very bad at it myself. I had written an article in Town & Country, I think, on European spas. A photographer saw it and asked me to collaborate with her on a book on spas. I told her, I hate spas, frankly. I’m very bored when people are massaging me. I wish I could watch TV instead. Why don’t they allow you to watch TV while you’re being massaged? I don’t know why.

So I suggested instead we do a book called The Art of Doing Nothing, and we proposed that to a publisher, who loved the idea. Annetta Hanna, my editor at Clarkson Potter was very helpful with the overall shaping of The Art of Doing Nothing. Without her, I would have written something very intellectual. She taught me how to go directly to the heart of the matter.

We had sold the idea. We had received the advance. Erica Lennard was taking beautiful photographs. And I started to write. And of course, I wrote something very complicated, very obscure, very French. After I sent Annetta the first couple of chapters, there was no reaction. I didn’t hear from her. Eventually she called me, and she said, “You know, there is not one paragraph, one sentence, one chapter in this book that I can sell. It doesn’t work, it completely doesn’t work. I think we have to get together and talk about it.”

I thought, “Oh my god, it’s like being called to the principal’s office.” I said, “No, let’s not get together to talk about it; tell me, right now, what it is you want.” And she said, “It’s very simple. I want you to tell me how I can let go. I don’t want you to be smarter than the reader, I don’t want you to be intelligent, I don’t want you to have a chip on your shoulder, I don’t want you to be cynical, I don’t want you to be particularly funny. I just want you to tell me how I can let go of my grip.”

I was about to argue with her, but I thought better, and I said, “Okay, give me two or three weeks, and I’ll send you a couple of new chapters.” I hung up the phone and I took a mental gun and I put it to my head and I said, No, don’t argue, that’s what you have to do. And I kept the gun to my head all through the rewriting of the book. After I sent Annetta the rewrite of a couple of chapters, she said, “I love it, I love every word of it, it’s perfect, this is exactly what I had in mind.”

But, you know, between the two drafts, I had to come to the point where I was able to let go of my own grip.

But to hear you say that, I think of one man that Tom is quoting a lot, Dee Hock, who founded Visa. And he says the hardest thing for any organization is to let go of its own ideas. Learning is easy. Forgetting is hard. You, in that statement, said that basically you got some information that didn’t jive with what you’d done but you understood that there was something to be learned there and you forced yourself out of your mold.

VV: Absolutely. And I tell you, that gun to my head, I keep it each time I write a book, because my nature is to be pompous, you know, French, complicated, deconstructive, whatever. And so I have to come to the point, and I have to really work hard, to come to the point of where I let go and I alleviate my anxiety and in the process, the anxiety of the reader.

Legs are mentioned a number of times in your book and the cover is a picture of a pair of legs crossed at the ankles. Can you just talk to me a moment about legs?

VV: It’s interesting because actually you will see the theme. I didn’t know that. I didn’t notice that. But The Art of Doing Nothing has legs on it, and the legs of a woman are the theme that goes through all the books. The Art of Doing Nothing is two women’s legs up in the air, like putting your feet up. And The Art of Growing Up is a woman going up stairs.

I do think maybe I talk about legs because I talk about standing up. I think chairs are one of the problems with the way we live. I think we sit down too much. I work standing up or I stand up a lot. That way you think with your entire body. The brain is not just in the brain. And for me to write well, I have to feel the idea with my entire body, which is part of the resistance to writing. You wish you could just be in the brain. In fact, you have to relive, with your entire body, the emotion you want to translate in words,. And that’s why the legs are very often forgotten if you sit down. So I believe in standing or at least including the entire body.

So maybe that’s why I talk about legs. It’s true. I think there’s knowledge locked up in our legs probably.

There’s also the sex appeal component, right? You write, “If, for good measure, these weaklings combine ineptitude with charm—a dimple or two, an irresistible smile, a great pair of legs—they have the whole world wrapped around their little fingers.”

VV: You will see The Art of Doing Nothing has a lot more sex appeal for guys because there are some great girls in it with great legs. And actually, the babes we don’t forget. We’re not against babes. [laughter]

Yes, I do believe that being on the go, being on the move is very important. It’s part of my brand, if you want, not being static, not hanging onto old ways.

Well, there again there was something popular in management circles a few years back called management by walking around. Maybe there’s some relevance there to that.

VV: Actually, in the book of essays on graphic design I had one thing called the chair, and I rant and rave against chairs. I think chairs are actually a device to stop the body and give the mind the upper end, if you want. I think chairs and books were invented, if you want, at the same time. Because to read a book you need to stop the body. You need to quiet the body, to restrain the body in order to give the brain a chance to work. You read with only the brain maybe, but you think with the entire body.

Not to put you on the spot, but given all your thinking about brand I was wondering if you have your own brand statement?

VV: I do not. I’m always working on it. I can tell you one that comes close to it. It’s “give it time.” Whatever time you plan for a project, it is going to take more time, and you have to give it time. Sure, time is money, blah, blah, blah. But I think time is really part of the creative process. It’s our guardian angel maybe, or it’s our helper. It’s our secret helper. The Art of Doing Nothing is about simple ways to make time for yourself.

And now of course time doesn’t exist, so here we are.

Well, to be in a rush is fashionable, right?

VV: Yes. That’s why I think you have to be able to accept the breakdown of time, and then you have to be able to recapture and give it time. That’s what children want from their parents. That’s what lovers want from each other. And very often I think we cheat our clients by giving a lot of time to getting the account, and then we don’t deliver; when we deliver we don’t give it enough time. And if there was one thing that I think could start to heal a little bit of this problem we have with our culture is to just be more honest and give more time to our clients.

I love that.

VV: We cheat them. I don’t want to cheat my client with time. I’m going to interrupt myself. I’m going to give you the time. Then I’m going to move on. I’ll take my legs and move on. But while I’m with you I’ll give you my time unconditionally.

I think that’s a great summation for our time together. Thank you.


The Art of Doing Nothing: Simple Ways to Make Time for Yourself
The Art of Imperfection: Simple Ways to Make Peace with Yourself
The Art of Growing Up: Simple Ways to Be Yourself at Last
The Art of Expecting: Simple Ways to Make Room for the Future
The Art of the Moment: Simple Ways to Get the Most from Life
Something to Be Desired: Essays on Design