Debbie Millman
March 2022

Debbie Millman has no time for small talk

In Why Design Matters, Debbie Millman dives deep into revelatory conversations from her groundbreaking podcast.
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Debbie Millman couldn’t have predicted that when she debuted her “Design Matters” podcast in 2005, it would so deeply satisfy her soul. Podcasts were brand-new in the early 2000s, so the show was a let’s-try-this-and-see endeavor, a creative experiment that she felt primed to conduct. “I had achieved a great deal,” she writes in the introduction to Why Design Matters: Conversations With the World’s Most Creative People, “but there was an echoing vacuum of meaning and purpose in my life.”

Certainly, Millman has an impressive resume as a design leader, serving clients like 7UP, Burger King and Star Wars during her 20 years at the helm of Sterling Brands; co-founding the graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City; writing six previous books; placing her art in museums as well as in the New York Times and Fast Company; and much more.

In its early years, the podcast was “very much a show about graphic design, graphic designers talking to graphic designers, very inside baseball,” Millman says during a phone call to the Manhattan brownstone she shares with her wife, author Roxane Gay. But as Millman shifted her focus from looking at human behavior through the lens of branding to instead connecting with individuals, people responded. They wanted in, both as listeners and interviewees, and her interviews quickly became a central element of her life and a pursuit that has been endlessly fascinating and rewarding.

“The show evolved in two ways,” she reflects. “First, my courage in reaching out to people increased. And then I also started getting publicists reaching out to me about their clients being on the show, or fans I didn’t know were fans wanting to be on the show.”

These interviewee-fans, more than 450 of them (and counting) over the course of 16 years (and counting), run the creative gamut. They’re standouts in the fields of design, writing, fine art, street art, acting, music, marketing, cooking—and the list goes on. Each guest is smart, thoughtful and, most importantly, game to join Millman on a conversational journey from childhood to adulthood, from past to present. They’re open to plumbing the sometimes painful events, decisions and emotions that have shaped what they do and who they’ve become.

“They’ve lived their lives so differently, and the ways they’ve coped with obstacles have been so varied.”

For Why Design Matters, characterized in its introduction as “a love letter to creativity, a testament to the power of curiosity,” Millman distills that library of interviews into 50-plus Q&A conversations in five categories: Legends, Truth Tellers, Culture Makers, Trendsetters and Visionaries. 

Choosing 50 interviews from more than 450 was a challenge for Millman. “I ended up going through all of them in one way or another, whether it be listening or transcribing and reading,” she says. “I wanted there to be a timelessness to what they were talking about . . . [and] an evergreen quality to the interviews, so they could be relevant whenever they were being read and experienced.”

The book’s veritable parade of fascinating, accomplished people begins with late design legend Milton Glaser (best known for his “I Heart NY” logo) and ends with Eve Ensler (who now goes by “V”) of The Vagina Monologues fame, with the likes of Alison Bechdel, Chanel Miller, Malcolm Gladwell, Amanda Palmer, Saeed Jones, Marina Abramović and David Byrne occupying the pages in between. Millman points to how each interviewee has shaped their career, life and body of work with fierce individuality. “They’ve lived their lives so differently,” she says, “and the ways they’ve coped with obstacles have been so varied.”

Why Design Matters

For example, James Beard Award-winning chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton (Blood, Bones & Butter) reveals that in opening her restaurant, Prune, she set aside her long-held dream of writing fiction. Shepard Fairey, known for his OBEY street art, talks politics and explains why he won’t call himself an artist. And in discussing her short stories, Carmen Maria Machado quips that “a novel is like being beat up over the course of a day, and a short story is like one punch to the nose.” 

There are full-page portraits and illustrations, playful type treatments and blocks of text that don’t always go in a straight line, just like in any good conversation. Millman has previously compared a successful interview to a game of pool, but through the design of this book, a new metaphor comes forward: the scribble. Striking hand-drawn scribbles scrawled by Millman herself appear on the cover and throughout the book, hinting toward the notion of interplay, of thoughts and conversational paths that ricochet off and tumble toward one another. “For me, [the scribble] really portrays conceptually the arc of a conversation,” she says. “You know it could go anywhere; it could be an infinite loop. It is an infinite loop!” 

Another infinite pursuit, of course, is creativity itself. But where does creative success come from? What pushes a person into the stratosphere of, per the book’s subtitle, the “World’s Most Creative People”? Millman believes it’s “faith in their own work, self-awareness of what they’re capable of and a relentless sort of restlessness, a real restlessness about constantly evolving and growing and uncovering new ground.” 

That restlessness is something Millman also possesses, whether she’s learning from her compassionate exploration of the human condition in her “Design Matters” interviews, working with students at the School of Visual Arts or pursuing her ever-percolating new projects.

“There are so many things I want to do,” Millman says, “including two more books I have in mind. Stirrings of a lot of different new things I want to try.” But she demurs at the thought of including herself on a “Most Creative” list: “I think I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to earn that title.”

Photo of Debbie Millman by John Madere

Get the Book

Why Design Matters

Why Design Matters

By Debbie Millman
Harper Design
ISBN 9780062872968

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