BOOK REVIEW: ‘Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People’
By Debbie Millman | 2022 | Hardcover, $60 | Nonfiction, design | Available at the Seattle Public Library
“Why Design Matters” — the much-anticipated new book by Debbie Millman, designer, brand consultant and creator of the wildly successful podcast “Design Matters” — is not, in fact, all about design. A better title might be “How and Why Famous Creative People Live Creative Lives.” And much can be learned from the 56 interviews (and additional pull-quotes) from some of the most well-known contemporary cartoonists, writers, artists, entrepreneurs, commentators, musicians and, yes, designers.
It’s an extraordinary gathering of insights from an extraordinary group of people, who often come off as quite ordinary and relatable, which is lovely. But for anyone hoping for a revealing synthesis of how these individual thoughts reveal something larger about why design matters? Well, that is work you’ll need to do yourself.
The writers of the introductory essays are Millman herself, Roxane Gay (author, social commentator and Millman’s wife) and Tim Ferriss (entrepreneur and author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”), but they don’t really set up the broader contexts into which this book — with this title — is being released. How does design function, create meaning and affect change during an era marked by a global pandemic, racial reckoning, political and economic divides, rampant misinformation and the infinite circulation of image and text?
To be fair, some of these interviews go back as far as 2005, when Millman started her radio show about graphic design, which soon morphed into a podcast. But one wonders why there wasn’t an attempt to dig into the titular question when framing the book. Instead of plucking out and weaving together common threads about why design matters, the overview essays focus on why Debbie Millman matters as an interviewer and why the podcast was begun and how it has evolved. This is interesting backstory — Ferriss’s description of Millman’s recording studio glowing within a larger classroom is telling and impactful — but the title of this book is not “Why the Podcast ‘Design Matters’ Matters.”
Still, Millman herself has been clear that, early on, the podcast veered away from a strict design path and into meandering conversations with folks such as writer Anne Lamott, painter Amy Sherald, chef Gabrielle Hamilton, author Malcolm Gladwell, researcher Brené Brown, composer Nico Muhly and actor Amber Tamblyn (all of whom are included in this anthology). Millman writes, “In June of 2005, when the radio show became a podcast, it evolved from a show about designers talking about design, to designers, artists, writers, performers, musicians, and public intellectuals working in any discipline talking about how they have designed the arc of their creative lives.”
As such, the book is absolutely worth reading all the way through, or even flipping through, to hear from your favorite creative people or discover new ones. The longer interviews — punctuated with short quotes — are aptly excerpted to highlight the voices and practices of these famous figures.
As for the big questions, about why design matters? You’ll find answers here and there, as people unspool their own personal, professional and creative journeys, following the prompts that Millman deftly drops in along the way.
Part 1, titled “Legends,” presents interviews and quotes from figures like graphic novelist Alison Bechdel, marketer Seth Godin, writer Elizabeth Alexander, designer Paula Scher and artist Marilyn Minter. But the very first interview is with the iconic designer Milton Glaser, who passed away in 2020. In discussing the importance of understanding one’s role in a capitalist system and considering dissenting positions, Glaser said, “I think designers can do only what good citizens do, which is to react, to respond, to publish, to complain, to get out on the streets, to publish manifestos, and to be visible. They can’t do more than citizens can do except they have one great advantage: they know something about communication.”
Jumping to Part 5 — the last section of the book, which is titled “Visionaries” — we find interviews with figures like performance artist Marina Abramovic´, musician David Byrne, street artist Shepard Fairey, fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi and writer Ira Glass. Also included is Thelma Golden, Director and Chief Curator of the Studio Museum in Harlem, whose insights about curating suggest how design can be thought of in broad terms and in inclusive ways, in real and metaphorical spaces. Golden says that curating is like “making a narrative in a public space” which “allows for something profoundly powerful, and that is creating space — intellectual space, emotional space, I dare even say spiritual space — for us to engage with ourselves and each other.”
The chapters in between are titled “Truth Tellers,” “Culture Makers” and “Trendsetters” — and, indeed, the book is permeated with a celebration of the creative power of the individual. This makes sense, of course, given the one-on-one interview format of the podcast, which is the foundation of this book. The book also captures the conversational tone and stimulating dynamics of the podcast.
So, why make a book out of a podcast? What does this book do that the podcast can’t?
Well, of course, it has transformed an auditory form into a visual and tangible one. As you might well expect, the book’s design — by Alex Kalman and What Studio? — is highly engaging and easy on the eyes, with ample negative space and a modern black, white and red scheme. I particularly love the little squiggle at the end of each interview, signifying that the thread is wrapping up but leaving room for playful, messy open-endedness.
We can also see what the interviewees look like, via the nicely selected images taken by a variety of photographers over the years. We don’t get to see examples of the interviewees’ creative practices — you know, the stuff they actually make — but that choice does keep us tightly focused on their words.
And the focus on words is what this book does best, from the overall design to the selection of short quotes. The editors have sorted through hours and hours of podcasts, excerpted longer exchanges and individual sentences and re-presented it all as a kind of bouquet of inspiration.
As a designer and interviewer, Millman has clearly thought about different ways of assembling and re-packaging. In her interview with Maria Popova — creator of Brain Pickings, the online platform that offers curated readings and images — Millman asks, “You believe that we create by combining and recombining existing pieces of knowledge with insight and information that we gather over the course of our lives, and that our capacity for creativity hinges on the breadth, diversity, and richness of that mental pool of resources. Do you feel that all creativity is combinatorial, or that a certain kind of modern creativity is that way?”
To which Popova replies, “I absolutely believe all creativity is like that. I think every idea builds on what came before, consciously or unconsciously.”
It is our turn, perhaps, to build on the idea of Why Design Matters.
Read more of the Mar. 2-8, 2022 issue.