Liz Danzico has made a career out of what began as side projects. For the last five years, the creator of the MFA Interaction Design program at the School of Visual Arts—one of the first graduate programs in interaction design in the U.S.—has consulted, chaired, and advised dozens of projects. Her work includes stints at The New York Times, This American Life, and on the advisory board for the Thiel Fellowship, which offers $100,000 grants to talented students who want to skip college to focus on entrepreneurship.
As of January 2014, however, the proud multitasker has decided to settle down, as NPR's first-ever creative director. She will still retain her role at SVA and remain based in New York, but will relinquish all her other gigs and commute to NPR's Washington, D.C., headquarters once a week.
On her personal site, she describes the just-created role as follows: "In my new role, I'll work in the digital media team, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across all NPR-branded digital platforms and content. From NPR.org to news apps to multimedia reports, I'll work with teams to ensure that NPR presents an experience on par with the excellence of its content. I'll support NPR as we consider new standards in design and storytelling."
In short: she plans on ushering the public radio titan into a new era of journalism. Fast Company recently sat down with Danzico to discuss what she has in mind.
FAST COMPANY: You say you hope to shape NPR's user experience. What do you mean by that?
LIZ DANZICO: Everyone knows what public radio sounds like. If you switched the dial they would be able to identify what NPR sounds like and they would also have a number of words that they say when they hit NPR. But If you ask someone what NPR looks like, what it feels like when it's in the room with us here, people don't know. This job is thinking about those aspects. What does it look like? What does it feel like?
Do you have an idea of what NPR looks or feels like?
There are two responses that I keep getting when I tell people what I just told you. One is people say: There's this app I really like because it looks just like the radio that's on my table at home in my kitchen. Then, they will bring up an app that's the classic skeuomorphic radio on their piece of glass. Or the other way they'll describe it is: "Oh NPR, it's like red, blue, black—that's what it looks like." They’re trying to recreate the brand, or the logo. Perhaps it's somewhere in between those two, but I don’t actually think it's either of those things.
So what is it, then?
I certainly have ideas, but I think a lot more listening is required. I get very excited about radio. And I get very excited about the possibilities of the future of radio. I have no doubt that after some time I will know, but right now I don't.
How do you plan on getting to a place where you do know?
My first goal is to figure out how to build a team. I think it will be more challenging to find people in D.C., but not impossible. I’m excited about the kind of people who want to take on an opportunity like NPR; I think they’re kind of interesting, exciting people themselves. The people I have met so far have been absolutely phenomenal and into what there doing—mission driven—which is not something that I see a whole lot of day to day. So it’s incredibly inspiring to be around people like that, who are doing that as their full-time job.
Speaking of full-time jobs, before taking the role at NPR, in addition to running SVA's interaction and design MFA, you had your hands in an unbelievable amount of projects.
I realized something about myself. I'm very good at managing many, many things, which I always tried to curb. I have so many projects going on and I always thought: I'm doing too many things and I never realized that actually that's what I do well. I always thought that I’m doing something wrong, that I’m doing something badly. I made a multiplicity of stuff my full-time thing and that has worked out pretty well. The School of Visual Arts is a place that benefits from that. It’s a full-time job but also a place that needs its leaders to be out in the world doing lots and lots of things.
How did you handle it all?
For some people, it's really hard to do one thing. Maybe that sounds strange. But, if I have two things or three things or four things or five things, they inform one another. It's like: I have a dog, and I was just watching a second dog for the holidays while someone is traveling. It's a little more challenging to have two dogs physically. But the dogs entertain one another. Just like two kids entertain one another. It's this way with ideas and projects. All the burden is on you and that one thing to generate all those ideas. Where are all those ideas going to come from? If you put another project next to it and another project next to that and even better if none of the projects have anything to do one another, they actually inform the other thing. It actually makes every single one of the ideas stronger and richer as a result.
For me it’s really hard to do one; it's uninspired when I do. It's like Steven Johnson in his book Where Good Ideas Come From. He talks about the adjacent possible and spontaneity. If you put people who have nothing to do with one another in the same space it gives you the adjacent possible. Put disparate ideas that have nothing to do with one another next to each other, they create another new idea. If you put a scientist and a designer in the same room, even by accident, it creates potentially a new conversation that wouldn't have happened otherwise. That’s how I think these projects benefit one another.
Do you have any specific examples of the "adjacent possible" happening in your work?
A couple years back, I became interested in the topic of serendipity. Does it have a place in our creative process? How does it affect the work we do? The places we work? At the time I was invited to be visiting lecturer at RISD's Graduate Program in Graphic Design while chairing the MFA Interaction in New York City, where I oversaw the whole program while teaching a thesis class. I created a brief to inspire students to create an intentional serendipitous experience/intervention and spent the weekend with them, working through the project responses they created. Simultaneously, I had an article due for my role as columnist for Interactions magazine, and was asked to write a column for AIGA's new Design Envy website. So I used our experience at RISD, as well as my thoughts on serendipity to write the article. Then used many of the same projects mentioned in the article to turn in my assignment to AIGA, and later, present a talk to my own students at SVA on the topic of serendipity. Later, I used some of my serendipity research and writing as the basis for public talks I gave.
Everything is connected in this way. My job at NPR is a result of the people I met while working at the New York Times. People who are currently working at the Times are working there as a result of my work in education. And so on.
But now you're giving up all your idea generators to work at NPR. Is that going to be a problem?
The new role isn't just one thing—it's many. I'll work in the digital media team, overseeing and guiding both the visual and user experience across all NPR-branded digital platforms and content. From NPR.org to news apps to multimedia reports, I'll work with teams to ensure that NPR presents an experience that matches the excellence of its content. I'll support NPR as we consider new standards in design and storytelling. I'll be building a team, hiring an all-star group to join the already phenomenal team. And that's why I've always found working with news organizations so satisfying. Stories are never one thing, and the one thing you can be prepared for is the unexpected.
Were you an NPR fan before taking the job?
From the time I was born, we had NPR in the house all the time, including when we went to bed, it never went off. It was literally always on. I was thinking the other day when waiting for the train, there’s this myth of the 10,000 hours, I was doing a little math and I think I may have listened to about 300,000 hours of NPR in my lifetime, which I feel kind of prepares me for the subject matter. I’m definitely an avid listener of NPR and member station programming. It’s really exciting to have the opportunity to work with content that you really care about.