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In January 2014, Liz Danzico became NPR’s first-ever creative director for digital media, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across NPR-branded digital platforms and content. She is chair and co-founder of the MFA program in interaction design at the School of Visual Arts and is a lecturer as well as an advisor to startups, nonprofits and global companies. Danzico serves on advisory boards for initiatives that bolster design and technology, including R/GA Connected Devices Accelerator, NEA Studio, Thiel Fellowship, Austin Center for Design, and SXSW Interactive. Recent collaborators have included Teach For All, the New York Times and This American Life. She has written for design-minded publications including Eye magazine, Fortune and Interactions, and writes regularly on her site, Bobulate.


Passageways to Information

How did you get started as an interactive designer and learn the necessary skills? I was living in Japan, teaching English, when my younger brother told me about something that had changed in the United States while I’d been gone. I distinctly remember him describing a URL as words that would appear after a commercial, like a passageway to more information. I returned to the United States to attend graduate school and started learning about digital design, from user research to information design. I had to know about these magic passageways! Then, and ever since, I’ve gotten the necessary skills by finding the smartest people I can, and learning from them.

What is the importance of a creative director for NPR as the organization moves forward? As NPR continues to show up in more and more places, a creative director ensures that its story is respected and cared for in all its instantiations. I’m asking how design can present stories both beautifully and transparently, which is a content question as well as a platform question.

Do you see the creative director role becoming increasingly significant for newspapers, magazines and radio? Zach Brand (NPR vice president of digital media) and I thought a lot about this. If companies are creating products and services that are increasingly media-rich, then having a steward (no matter what the title is; titles are a bit of a sham anyway) of the design of those products and services is helpful. For NPR, this was a meaningful shift.

You have described your new role as figuring out what NPR looks and feels like. How do you approach such abstract ideas? Matt Webb of BERG, referencing John Thackara’s idea of the “macroscope,” once said: “Designers, in order to see the very big, in order to see culture, which is much bigger than any one of us personally, have macroscopes,” or “something that shows you where you are, and where you are within something much bigger ... so you can comprehend something much vaster than you suddenly in a human way, at a human scale, in the heart.” So as a start, I’ve been having a lot of conversations with as many people as will talk to me. If I were a scientist, the tool I’d use would be a microscope, inspecting those conversations closely. If I were an astronomer, I would use a telescope, perhaps looking at conversations I can’t see up close, to understand the story at a distance. But I’m a designer, so perhaps I use the only tool I know: understanding how people use and want to use things. To understand what NPR looks like, to understand the match between head and heart, I use a macroscope.

Some of the most interesting interaction design we’ve seen recently uses digital capabilities to mimic misunderstood experiences: autism, Tourette syndrome, insomnia. Can interaction design be a force for social change? It not only can, it already is. Look at Jon Kolko’s Austin Center for Design, which is an academic institution squarely focused on the intersection of social change and interaction design. Or more globally, the Gates Foundation’s recent Records for Life competition, which challenged designers to redesign global child health records, which track vaccination information, and make the documentation easier to interpret and use for health professionals and families alike.

What is the most exciting work in interaction design that you've seen recently? As of March 2014, Spritz, which promises to re-imagine reading.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given in your career? It’s easy to say no if you love something. No matter what it is—a business, a person, a piece of art, a career, a song, a family, a way of life, a pursuit of any kind—if you love something, it’s easy to say no to all the other choices that will present themselves. Every great story is surrounded by white space of some kind; it’s is part of the story being told. What we choose to leave out defines our story. Finding the thing you love is the hardest part.