Podcast Pioneer Debbie Millman Shares What She’s Learned from 17 Years of Creative Conversations

Posted inDesigner Interviews

Podcasts are ubiquitous in our culture, taking up a hefty slice of the modern media landscape. Maybe their appeal comes from accessibility, since anyone with an opinion and an adequate recording device can take a whack at it—for better or for worse. But in 2005, most of us had probably never heard the term podcast, even interview veteran and PRINT’s own Editorial Director, Debbie Millman.

That year, Millman took a dive into the auditory unknown and launched her show Design Matters when opportunity came knocking from a small radio station. Fueled by Millman’s expansive background in the design world, it became not only the world’s first-ever design podcast, but one of the first podcasts in general. In each of her nearly 500 episodes from the last 17 years, Millman has spoken to some of the world’s most brilliant creative minds, ranging from designers to writers, curators to musicians, and all manner of artists in between. 

Now, Millman has released her favorite recorded conversations in print form with her latest book, WHY DESIGN MATTERS: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People. This illustrated anthology includes roughly 80 of Millman’s top interviews from over the years, each accompanied by a biography, a photograph by Millman, and a pull quote in her signature script. 

I had the distinct pleasure of turning the tables on Millman recently, interviewing her about WHY DESIGN MATTERS and learning more about her podcast journey. Just seconds into talking to Millman, her success as a podcaster makes perfect sense. She’s as friendly and warm as she is wise and honest– the ultimate cocktail for a great conversation. 

(This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.)

You launched your podcast way back in 2005, well before the podcast boom of the modern era. How was Design Matters born?

I didn’t even know what podcasts were. At the time I was writing for the first design blog, Speak Up, doing coverage of lots of different things—cultural musings, interviews—and I did a piece with Mark Kingsley in 2004 about election graphics, and how we were beginning to see purple. And it went kind of viral. 

After that, I got a cold call from a fledgling internet radio network called Voice America, and they asked me if I’d be interested in hosting a podcast about branding. It was an opportunity to pay them to produce a podcast about something that they thought I’d be interested in—so it was a vanity project, through and through. But at the time, I was beginning to feel that I had lost my creative spirit—everything I was doing was so commercial. I’d given up all of my artistic side projects that I had been unsuccessful at in an effort to feel good about being successful at something. So this sounded like a great opportunity to do something creative that was a little bit experimental. I had always felt like the radio kids back in college were the coolest dudes.

It felt like this could be a fun thing, although I had no idea what I was doing. So I paid them to do 13 episodes as a tryout. For the first year or so, I just asked my friends if I could interview them. It was live radio, so I had call-ins, we had commercials. Then Bryony Gomez-Palacio, one of the founders of Speak Up, was having a hard time making it to her computer at the time I was on. She suggested that I take the digital files that I was making and upload them to iTunes so that she could listen to them, as if I were an indie musician. 

We started the show in February 2005, and we started uploading to iTunes that April. Inadvertently, when I did that, I became one of the first podcasters.

17 years of constant podcasting later, you’ve spoken to 436 individual people, interviewing many more than once. That’s a lot of conversations! How do you keep it fresh as an interviewer? How do you avoid burnout?

Well, that’s assuming I don’t have burnout! Right now, I do. In 2021, I did 37 original episodes. And some of them were with Ai Weiwei, Rickie Lee Jones, David Byrne—it was mind-blowing pressure. So I am in technically a burnout period right now. I’m so exhausted. 

So you still get a bit starstruck when interviewing certain artists? How do you navigate that?

I just have to sit with it… I’ve done this long enough to know that the more nervous I am, the more important it is to me to do well. A lot of times, I’m intimidated by people that I’m interviewing, but with certain people it’s impossible to be intimidated because they’re so perceptive, like Ai Weiwei. He pushed me, and he wanted me to push back. He kind of egged me on until I did, and then it became more of an equal conversation. 

Certain people are cognizant of their charisma and power, so they’re extra nice. And then others test you with it, because they want to make sure you’re up for a real conversation.

Whenever I interview an artist for PRINT whose work I personally admire so much, I have to be mindful to tamp down my fan-girling. Continuously gushing praise just doesn’t make for a great conversation. 

I learned that too! The thing about putting your stuff out in public like this is people will tell you what they think, and I remember in the early, early years there were reviews on iTunes that were like, “Debbie gives good interviews, but she really fawns over her subjects.” 

When you do it for as long as I have, you certainly get a lot of feedback, a lot of criticism, a lot of insight into what you do well or not. And then you make the decisions about how you want to evolve.

You’re celebrated for digging deeper in your interviews, going beyond typical surface-level conversations. Where does this genuine curiosity and worldview originate? 

I’m really nosy. I’m endlessly fascinated by how people become who they are. It’s almost like a mystery to me. I’m looking for the grand blueprint of how to manifest creativity. The one common denominator in everyone that I interview is that they have a voice that they think is worthy of being shared, and they’re willing to share it. 

I’m just so enthralled with the idea that somebody’s personal voice feels worthy enough to them to want to share in some profound way, whether it be music, writing, art, design, performance. And I’m trying to understand where and how that manifests in the human spirit.

That innate sensibility is something that I’ve come to very, very late in life, and I’m still trying to crack the code. And I don’t know that I ever will, because I don’t know that there is one.   

If you could bring one creative back from the great beyond to have a conversation with, who would it be?

Albert Einstein. I’d absolutely want to talk to him about the origins of the universe—what’s more creative than that?