Debbie Millman’s “Why Design Matters” Is a Career Long Tribute of Lesbian Brilliance to Get Lost in on a Sunday Afternoon

It’s fitting that this review of Why Design Matters, a curated anthology celebrating Debbie Millman’s historic and sublime interview podcast Design Matters, is publishing on a Sunday. Sunday morning pancakes time is when I listen to all my podcasts. Hooking my phone up to the Bluetooth speakers in my kitchen and letting conversations wash over me like friends while I gather flour and sugar.

It’s fitting that it’s Design Matters, because falling into Debbie Millman’s significant backlog — nearly 500, episodes spanning 18 years, the longest ever in history — became my pandemic salve. It’s fitting that this review is almost a week late publishing due to my depression induced writer’s block, since Debbie Millman is someone whom I often joke has become my lesbian Brené Brown. In listening to her ask famous creatives about their practice, “how they design their lives,” I’ve found such solace and inspiration. In her curiosity, I’ve found comfort. Warmth.

And no one, and I mean no one, is as curious as Debbie Millman. Her open curiosity has propelled a career spanning writing, design, and branding for decades. She’s currently the president emeritus of the American Institute of Graphic Art, co-owner and editorial director at Print magazine, and co-founder and chair of the world’s first graduate program in branding at the School of Visual Arts in New York City — where she also currently teaches. In a time where “content creation” has become the buzzword of the day, you cannot step foot into elite creative circles and not hear Debbie Millman’s name. Did I mention (in case you didn’t know) that her wife is Roxane Gay? And this stunning career does not even begin to touch on Design Matters, which in its 18 years has gained a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award, six Webby nominations, and named best overall podcast by Apple podcasts. In the introduction to her anthology, a tribute to her life’s work, Debbie Millman writes that this is “a love letter to creativity, a testament to the power of curiosity.” Maybe Design Matters isn’t explicitly queer, but the longest-running podcast in history — with more than 40 million downloads and counting — comes from the mind of a lesbian, so I’m deeply invested in reclaiming it as our culture.

Which isn’t to say that Design Matters is not gay at all — far from it. There’s such exquisite rarity begging to be savored when queer women fall into conversation together, and the selections of Why Design Matters has some of the greats: Alison Bechdel, Eileen Myles, Carmen Maria Machado, and Maria Popova all are present for interviews, with Roxane Gay writing the foreword and Popova writing the afterword. The secret to becoming one of the greatest living interviewers? After “sixteen years consumed by the question of how to conduct a good interview, how to get interesting people to reveal the depths of who they are, how to earn their trust so that our conversation can go to unexpected places,” Debbie Millman has discovered a deceptively simple answer: You listen.

Listening doesn’t come easy, I know from personal experience it’s hard to quell the urge to fill every silence and sit in what’s perhaps uncomfortable to see what’s on the other side. But when your life’s already been defined by curiosity, making room in the silence for humanity is genuine, not forced. It’s in those moments that you discover Carmen Maria Machado, for instance, musing, “I want to believe in magic… I’m a ruthless pragmatist and yet I want to believe in magic more than anything.” Ironically, the magic has been sitting there in the small things all along.

Hours of behind-the-scenes research go into every interview, yes, but what has always made Design Matters beloved is the care Debbie Millman takes into every conversation. To quote Roxane Gay’s foreword, the joy of discovery is in the “tender vulnerability she elicits from [her conversation partners] with grace, care, and patience.” Why Design Matters combines transcripts of some of Millman’s best work with what must be said — especially for a book with roots in design — incredibly gorgeous photography, layout, and artwork. It’s a tactile experience, creating the kind of coffee table book that you’ll find yourself not only tracing in awe with your fingertips when no one is looking, but becoming a show stopping display for when your fanciest friend comes over for brunch (you know the one).

More than that, its depth of substance begs to be curled up with a blanket and reflection on a late winter/early spring Sunday afternoon when it feels like, just for an hour or two, time has finally stopped. New questions to roll over your tongue, the sturdy weight of the hardcover providing its own comfort. Why Design Matters is a book to get lost in suspension with.


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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 515 articles for us.

4 Comments

  1. Carmen, I wanted to say how I always really appreciate how you include the human behind the author in so much of what you write. Getting to read the incredible work you do is enriched by knowing that, though what I am struggling through at the moment is different in its particulars, it doesn’t have to mean failure or disappointment – not when I have writing like this to tell me otherwise ❤️

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