Why Design Matters: A book review by Bob Morris

Why Design Matters: Conversations with the World’s Most Creative People
Debbie Millman
Harper Design/An imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers (February 2022)

“Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.” Steve Jobs

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman declares

“Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

The same can be said of Steve Jobs and of Debbie Millman as well as of most (if not all) of “the world’s most creative people,” many of whom she has interviewed for her “Design Matters” podcasts since 2005. However different they may be in most other respects, all of them agree that form and function are not only important but in fact interdependent. In most cases (if not all), the personal lives and professional careers of those interviewed also seem interdependent. That is especially true of Millman.

In the film Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter (played by Anthony Hopkins) channels Marcus Aurelius when asking F.B.I. agent Clarice Starling (played by Jodie Foster), “What does Buffalo Bill do?” Pause. “He cuts!” I was again reminded of that scene as I worked my way through the 66 mini-interviews for the first time. Millman has a unique talent for collaborating with those interviewed to get to the essence of the given subject or issue. One significant difference: Lector is talking about someone else, a serial killer. Those interviewed are talking about themselves and their own experiences amidst their complexities and, yes, contradictions.

In or near the central business district of most large cities, there is a farmer’s market at which –at least until COVID19 –several merchants offered slices of fresh fruit as samples of their wares. In that same spirit, I now offer two brief excerpts from the book.

* * *

First: “It doesn’t take very long to design something, and the way I make my paintings, they’re very laborious and they take a very long time. And design is done quickly, running around with other assistants and help and it’s highly social, whereas I am painting by myself in a room. So they’re very opposite things.

“Designers have a hard time with this. They’ll say, ‘My work is art,’ meaning ‘My work is fine art.’ And they use it as a value judgment. I don’t see it that way. I think that the difference between fine art and design is financial. If you’re a fine artist, you go wherever you go and you make whatever you make, you determine what you’re going to make, and if you’re lucky you stick it in a gallery someplace or you just look at it by yourself. If you’re a designer, you more or less engage with a client and there’s criteria for the work. There’s a size for it. There’s a materiality that’s an expectation. There’s a series of set parameters. Design and fine art are not the same act and they’re not approached the same way, but they don’t require different value judgments.”

Paula Scher is one of the most influential graphic designers in the world. Described as the “master conjurer of the instantly familiar,” Scher straddles the line between pop culture and fine art in her work. Iconic, smart, and accessible, her images have entered into the American vernacular.

Scher has been a partner in the New York office of Pentagram since 1991. She began her career as an art director in the 1970s and early 80s, when her eclectic approach to typography became highly influential. In the mid-1990s her landmark identity for The Public Theater fused high and low into a wholly new symbology for cultural institutions, and her recent architectural collaborations have re-imagined the urban landscape as a dynamic environment of dimensional graphic design. Her graphic identities for Citibank and Tiffany & Co. have become case studies for the contemporary regeneration of American brands.

* * *

Next: “I’ve always had principles and I’ve always tried to do no harm. I don’t think it becomes easier as you get older or more successful. Quite the contrary, I’m a great believer in simply observing what is, and if you don’t want to change your behavior, at least you know what your behavior is. From that point, I think it’s necessary for designers to be aware of what they do when they are participating in misrepresentation or causing someone’s death. They should simply know that’s what they’re doing and not pretend that they have no role…The real question is, ‘What are you going to do if you are in the business, and you’re participating in a capitalist enterprise that serves to maximize profits above all else?’ What is your role in that?…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.”

The legendary designer Milton Glaser passed away on his 91st birthday on June 26, 2020. As the world mourns the loss of this visionary—who is best known for the “I ❤️ NY” logo—there is comfort in knowing that his influence will continue to live on in the creative world.

In addition to designing the inimitable phrase about the Big Apple, Glaser helped found the influential Push Pin Studios with Seymour Chwast, Edward Sorel, and Reynold Ruffins in 1954. During the 1960s, Glaser also produced a now-iconic psychedelic Bob Dylan poster (which he’d later revisit in ads for the TV show Mad Men) and co-founded New York Magazine in 1968.

* * *

Scher and Glaser are representative of those who, in Millman’s words, “create their lives.”  As she explains, “This book represents a body of work, a love letter to creativity, a testament to the power of curiosity. In these pages, you will find conversations with the world’s most renowned designers, artists, writers, and public thinkers. You will read about their most enviable successes, the devastating failures that almost derailed their careers, the joys and sorrows of their personal lives, and how they’ve given themselves over to the act of creation.”

I now re-read at least one portion of Why Design Matters every day, usually just before sunrise, my favorite time of the day. It has become an essential, invaluable new component of — a source of nutrition for — what has been my personal “design for living” for decades. Thank you, Debbie Millman, for what you and your friends so generously share. It is a precious gift. I feel blessed.

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