Meet The Expert On Why Design Matters

Some people know Debbie Millman for her long-running podcast, Design Matters, in which she gracefully interrogates a mind-expanding range of guests from Anita Hill to Alaine de Botton to Beeple.

Others may know Millman for her creativity. An award-winning designer and author of eight books, she was named “one of the most creative people in business” by Fast Company.

Her new book, Why Design Matters: Conversations With The World’s Most Creative People, ties the podcast and the creativity together in a candid, deep, playful work which is an anthology of some of the best moments and guests from her podcast. From these discussions, you get little portraits of her her most intriguing and inspiring guests.

Millman expands the concept of “design” to its broadest form. When she started her radio show-turned-podcast 15 years ago, she focused initially on designers. As the show developed, she began to interpret “design” to mean living intentionally and the interviews began to embrace writers, artists, performers, musicians and others–all in service of unpacking what it takes to design a creative life.

This evolution of the show “happened really organically,” she told me. “I started to invite non-designers onto the show and over time I discovered that the arc of a creative life is a circuitous one. I am endlessly fascinated by how any creative person becomes who they are.”

Like Millman’s interviews themselves, the book is in no way linear. The interviews are divided into five categories: Legends, Truth Tellers, Culture Makers, Trendsetters and Visionaries. They are accompanied by photographs that Millman calls the connective tissue of the interviews. Some nuggets from her book her include:

Marketing guru Seth Godin on embracing chaos: “What we say we want is a regular step-wise progression from here to exactly where we want to go. But the stories we tell ourselves about our pasts are never that. It’s not what we actually want in a life well lived. It’s all the things that were nutty, that happened too fast or with little foresight, or just by the skin of the teeth—those are the things that we add up. In the moment you say, ‘Oh, my goodness, I wish things were calmer.’ But, in fact, when we look back and ask, ‘How did this happen?’ it happened because of the things that were chaotic.”

Novelist Anne Lamott on the human capacity for change: “I think one of the reasons I have so much hope is I see that, against all odds, we can change. We do change. Our hearts soften. We start to be much, much more affectionate with ourselves and forgiving. We learn radical self-care. And we change.”

Author/podcaster Tim Ferriss on the effects of a 10-day silent meditation: “Whatever you think you have locked away and compartmentalized, whatever damage you feel you have safely exiled to a place where it will never return—surprise, it’s right there waiting for you. You become very unlayered in a process like that. You end up dealing with everything.”

Pentagram design partner Emily Oberman on fear as a driving force: “Fear has always been a very good motivating factor for me. It’s been a driving force in my life. Being nervous or worried about something gets me out of bed in the morning, and it helps me go to sleep at night because I’m afraid that if I’m too tired, I won’t do well the next day. I think it’s a healthy kind of fear.”

Relationship therapist Esther Perel on infidelity: “When people describe aliveness, they’re not talking about sex. It’s that sense of ownership, freedom and agency you feel when you do something that doesn’t exercise responsibility toward everyone else in your life. It’s less about infidelity and more about the power of transgression.”

Not coincidentally, Millman has also become an expert on life design. Renowned designer Milton Glaser used to encourage his students his, including Millman, to apply design principles to life. Millman borrowed the idea and made it her own. She has taught “Your Ten-Year Plan for a Remarkable Life” both in her class her at SVA as well as at Kripalu. In this exercise, students are encouraged to think through and dream, in detail, what they want in their lives.

“What I’ve learned from all my work is that courage is more important than confidence,” Millman said. “When you act from a place of courage, you are saying that no matter how you feel about yourself or your opportunities or the outcome, you are going to take a risk. You are not waiting for the confidence to mysteriously arrive.”

Why Design Matters is as beautiful as any coffee table book should be. More than that, it uncovers the beauty in the souls of its subjects and its author. Like Millman’s life-design class, it inspires everyone who reads it to keep dreaming.


About the author


Leave a Comment