'Design Matters': Debbie Millman Talks Her Long-Running Podcast

The groundbreaking series' 13th season has just begun

February 19, 2018 by Rodrigo Perez
a smiling blonde woman with glasses
A woman sits in a chair with her feet on the desk inside of a recording studio.
Debbie Millman. Photo by John Madere.

SVA's Debbie Millman resume isn't just impressive and inspirational for a multi-disciplined creative professional who wants to do it all; it's practically intimidating. In 2009 Millman co-founded with MFA Design Co-Chair Steven Heller the world’s first graduate program in branding—MPS Branding— right here at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. Eight years on, Millman remains its department chair as she continues her wide-ranging, even trailblazing career in the world of design.

She's written six books—Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Interaction of Life and Art, Essential Principles of Graphic Design and How to Think Like a Great Graphic Designer, to name a few— and her illustrations have appeared in publications such as The New York Times, New York, Print, Design Observer and Fast Company. For more than 20 years she was president of design and chief marketing officer at Sterling Brands; she is currently president emeritus of AIGA, the largest professional association for design in the world.

Amidst all this, Millman has maintained a critically acclaimed podcast, Design Matters. Created in 2005, many years before podcast was a household word, Millman is a pioneer of the form. She has interviewed all kinds of artists, thinkers, do-ers and creative types that run the gamut of inspired expression; people like performance artist Marina Abramovic, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, SVA faculty member and acting chair of the board Milton Glaser, renowned thinker Malcolm Gladwell, Obey Giant creator Shepard Fairey, conceptual artist and collagist Barbara Kruger, Dresden Dolls musician and singer Amanda Palmer, author Alain de Botton and hundreds more. There are more than 400 Design Matters episodes and the show boasts more than five million downloads a year. In 2011 the series won a National Design Award, one of the design profession's highest honors and Design Matters was recently named one of the 40 best creative podcasts to liven up your commute by Creative Boom.

As this latest season of Design Matters begins—kicked off with investigative journalist David Cay Johnston and followed up by musician Kaki King—we checked in with Millman to hear more about her approach to the engaging conversations she's been hosting for 13 years.

Different magazines covers about design.

What inspired you to do the podcast in the first place? This was, of course, long before podcasts became a thing!
I started Design Matters in 2005. I often say that the show began with an idea and a telephone line. After an offer from the Voice America Business Network to create an online radio show in exchange for a fee—yes, I had to pay them—I decided that interviewing designers who I revered would be an inventive way to ask my heroes everything I wanted to know about them. I started broadcasting live from a telephone modem in my office in the Empire State Building at Sterling Brands.

After the first dozen episodes, I began to distribute the episodes free on iTunes. I realized the opportunity to share the brilliance of my guests with an audience I never expected was the gift of a lifetime, not only because I had a built-in permission slip to ask some of the greatest designers in the world questions about how they became who they are, but also because I could freely offer this to others as well. Design Matters inadvertently became the first ever design podcast and is now one of the oldest podcasts online.

As both podcasting and Design Matters grew in popularity, in 2009, I recognized that I needed to upgrade the sound quality of the show. After 100 episodes on Voice America, I was invited to offer Design Matters on Design Observer's website by [publication] co-founder William Drenttel. I hired producer Curtis Fox and began recording the show at the specially built podcast studio here at the School of Visual Arts.

The show has transitioned from a show about design to a show about how incredibly creative people design their lives. I’m still endlessly fascinated by the arc of a life, and I’ve interviewed nearly 400 designers, artists, writers, business leaders, musicians, poets, playwrights and more. Some of my favorite episodes include interviews with Chris Ware, Chip Kidd, the 12 interviews I’ve conducted with Steven Heller (we have an annual show, it’s become our ritual), Simon Sinek, Amanda Palmer, Elizabeth Alexander, and so many more! In 2011, the show won a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award and after 11 years, iTunes designated it one of the top fifteen podcasts of 2015. We now have about five million downloads a year, which blows my mind.

Ironically, I started Design Matters when I felt like I was in a bit of a creative slump. This was before I had started teaching at SVA, and at the time, all of my work had veered to the commercial. I felt my creative spirit was dying. I thought the opportunity to create a little internet radio show with Voice America, if nothing more, could be a fun, creative experience. It’s ended up profoundly changing my life.

What do you look for in a subject? How do you choose them?
My first guests were mostly friends. As those friends began to send the links of the early shows to their friends, word spread in the design community. By the time Voice America renewed the show and I wrote another check for the airtime, I began to invite designers beyond my circle of friends and, mercifully, most said yes. By the end of my second "season," Milton Glaser, Paula Scher, Emily Oberman, Michael Bierut and Stefan Sagmeister had been guests. Now, I reach out to almost anyone whose work I admire.

A board showing eight magazine covers with designers standing in front of their signatures.
Design Matters website via DebbieMillman.com

What's the one constant thing you're trying to glean from each subject?
The one constant thing I try to glean is how a person has navigated the trajectory of their life. I am endlessly fascinated by how people become who they are and how the decisions in their lives impact their work. I am also interested in trying to understand how they have overcome the obstacles or challenges that they may have faced in their lives. I am hopeful that if my listeners can learn about how truly successful people have faced and overcome difficulties, they might be inspired to reach for more in their own lives.

Tell us a little bit about your guests this season: who are you excited to talk to or what conversation can't you wait your listeners to hear?
Some of my amazing upcoming guests include investigative journalist and author David Cay Johnston; guitarist and composer Kaki King, Nick Law, vice chairman and global chief creative officer, R/GA; artist [and SVA faculty member] Edel Rodriguez; Ghanaian British architect Sir David Adjaye; Harvard professor and author Steven Pinker; writer and Lapham's Quarterly founder Lewis Lapham; billionaire philanthropist and sexual assault survivor Sukey Novogratz; theoretical astrophysicist and Princeton University professor David Spergel; illustrator Richard Haines; author and newspaper columnist Anand Giridharadas; Barneys creative ambassador-at-large Simon Doonan; and designer, author, and artist Edwin Schlossberg. And that’s just a start! I am particularly excited about my interview with Steven Pinker; I think it is one of my best.

After 13 years, what keeps the podcast fresh for you?
Doing Design Matters is a gift. The opportunity to speak to some of the most creative people in the world and to be the recipient of some of the most heartfelt letters and emails from my listeners is miraculous.

Is there a 'white whale' guest that has eluded you thus far? Do you have a dream guest or guests you hope to have on the podcast one day?
There are a few people I’ve invited to be on the show that have either said "maybe" or "yes, but not now" or "yes," but I don’t have a date confirmed and I am so hopeful they will eventually join me. They include Junot Diaz, Roxane Gay and Elizabeth Gilbert. Other people I have yet to invite but would love to interview include Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miranda July, [SVA faculty member] Marilyn Minter, Jenny Holzer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Art Spiegelman and Matthew Barney.

This conversation has been condensed and edited.

New episodes of Design Matters are available now on iTunes, Soundcloud, Millman's website, Stitcher and other platforms where podcasts are made available.

For more information on SVA's MPS Branding program, click here.

A woman with blonde hair and glasses in a black dress leaning against a white wall.
Photo by Catalina Kulczar-Marin.