Dialogs: Podcaster/Designer Debbie Millman Talks About Why Design Matters and What We Can Do About It

Alison Cuddy (left) and Debbie Millman. Photo by Nancy Bishop.

Debbie Millman has been podcasting since before there were podcasts. She has produced more than 500 interviews over the 16+ years she has been talking about why Design Matters. She started interviewing graphic designers, illustrators, typographers and others whose lives revolve around the printed word and printed imagery and soon went on to conversations with actors, musicians, playwrights, photographers, public intellectuals and writers of all sorts. Her goal is to get people to talk about “how they have designed the arc of their creative lives.” They are people for whom design—in the broadest sense of the word—matters too.

From her vast accumulation of research and recorded interviews, Millman has created a beautiful, coffee-table-style book, titled Why Design Matters: Conversations With the World’s Most Creative People. She was in Chicago last weekend for a Chicago Humanities Festival event at Columbia College at which she was the interviewee, not the interviewer. Alison Cuddy, CHF artistic director, explored Millman’s work and her book.

Why Design Matters is made up of 56 essays organized into five sections (Legends, Truth Tellers, Culture Makers, Trendsetters and Visionaries); the essays are condensed from her podcast interviews, maintaining the question and answer format.  The book includes Millman’s preface, “How and Why Design Matters,” in which she writes about how her own career as a graphic designer and brand manager led to her interest in interviewing other creative people. Her wife, writer/professor Roxane Gay, wrote the foreword and the introduction is by Tim Ferriss, tech investor and host of his own podcast.

Cuddy asked why the quintessential Design Matters interview begins with the who/what/when/where/why of the subject’s life. “I find that part of life—how we found out who we are—is most compelling,” Millman said. It seems, Cuddy continued, that many of the subject’s biographies are about survival. “Everyone has their traumas,” Millman said, and how they survived “becomes a blueprint for others … and gives hope.” That was relevant to Millman’s response when Cuddy asked what she has learned through her many years of interviewing. “Everyone is insecure; everyone has had traumas; and all have put their whole heart into everything they do.”

An example of Millman’s expansive view of the meaning of design is in her interview in the Legends section with Milton Glaser, the famous graphic designer who created the “I (heart) New York” campaign and an iconic Bob Dylan poster. Their discussion explores what it means to have a principled practice that does no harm and avoids working for clients whose products might cause harm. Millman and Glaser discuss a list of questions about work you might reject to avoid doing harm. In closing, Glaser says, “I think designers can do only what good citizens can do, which is to react, to respond, to publish, to complain, to get out on the streets, to publish manifestos and to be visible.” Designers do have one great advantage, he adds. “They know something about communications.”

In one of her earlier interviews, Millman described the “narrative arc of each episode” as a game of pool. From one of her earliest interviewees, she learned to really listen to where her subject is going with an answer and build her next question off that direction, rather than just asking the next question on her own list.  To do that requires deep research into the subject’s  background, life and work. That’s why Millman’s pre-interview research typically will total 50-pages of research notes boiled down to 10-12 pages of questions. The hard part, Millman says, is to know when not to ask a question, but to go with the flow of the interviewee’s responses.

Millman’s book—368 pages, 10×10-inch hard-cover, weight almost five pounds, published by Harper Collins—will not be available for purchase until February 2022 because of supply chain delays. The ebook version is available now.

You can also get acquainted with Millman’s work by listening to some of her Design Matters podcasts, which are available here and from other podcast sources.

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Nancy S Bishop
Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.

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