Badass Lady Creatives: Interview with Liz Danzico, Creative Director at NPR

Photo of Liz by Smriti Keshari
Photo of Liz by Smriti Keshari

It’s hard to believe Liz Danzico has as many hours in the day as the rest of us. She’s the founding chairperson of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at SVA; has held various UX-leadership positions with the likes of Happy Cog and the AIGA; maintains a smart liberal-arts blog; and has served as a design consultant, advisory board member, and jury member for various organizations.

Liz’s latest gig is the first-ever Creative Director of NPR (National Public Radio). This week in the Badass Lady Creatives series, Liz and I talk public radio, creative leadership, and the persuasive properties of a feature on pizza.

MR: You joined NPR this year as their first-ever Creative Director. I’m sure a lot of people will want to know, how’d you get that awesome job?
LD: Ha. My friend and former colleague at The New York Times recommended me for it actually. I thought he was recommending me as someone who would *find* the right person. But in fact, he was recommending me *as* the right person. Much to my surprise. And delight!

Stars kind of aligned there, as you’re a longtime NPR listener. When did you first start listening to NPR?
I imagine it was when my mom brought me home from the hospital. So, about four decades ago, around November. (And by hospital, I mean the one I was brought home from as an infant. I’ve been listening for my whole life.)

That’s wonderful, I’m pretty sure all I ever heard growing up was Elton John, Billy Joel, and Pink Floyd.

As CD, you “oversee and guide both the visual and user experience across all NPR-branded digital platforms and content”. I’m curious what that means in terms of quantifiable tasks.
There are two significant areas NPR considers, at least: content and platform. And to make sure they work in unison, or at least complement one another, the digital media team considers the experience. Experience is necessary in order to support and distribute the story.

So my quantifiable tasks have to do with a lot of conversations—both planned and unplanned—about the projects that are in progress to support and extend both the content AND the platform.

Some days, this just means I am in a lot of meetings. Other days, I’m in sketching sessions with the team. And other days still, I’m having conversations about where we want to be with people in all parts of the organization.

How does your time or focus tend to be distributed from platform to platform?
It depends. If you’re asking if NPR is focusing on a particular platform right now, the answer is no. We are looking at customer behavior, how our customers are using different platforms, and where we have planned on our own product roadmap. But more generally, how I focus my time depends on the magnitude and intensity of any one project. Some projects, like our work on making our website responsive, is really cross-platform, so often we’re considering more than one at a time.

Who do you collaborate with on a regular basis?
Project teams (product owners, project managers, UX and product designers, and developers), the leadership team, senior management, the newsroom.

How do you decide which projects you or your team works on?
As a larger team, we determine a roadmap for the year. Of course, content and culture changes that roadmap, but we’re usually thinking a bit longer-term, while acting and working in smaller cycles.

What are you working on this week?
My number one priority this week is hiring. Know any stellar designers? We’re building a team!

What’s the most rewarding project you’ve overseen so far?
We’re at a significant place in NPR’s history for digital right now. And while I’ve only been there for eight weeks (and it just feels rewarding that they keep letting me in the building), I am tremendously enthusiastic about the possibilities for radio at this moment in time.

Generally speaking, what excites you?
Words. In any form—visual, aural, textual. 25 years ago, I wrote my college application essay on my love for words, and have been working on my long-term relationship with them since.

You’re also the founding chairperson of the MFA in Interaction Design Program at SVA. How has your professional work informed your role as an educational leader?
It’s built into the DNA of the school. More than 60 years ago, Silas Rhodes and Burne Hogarth founded the “Cartoonists and Illustrators School” with three faculty members and 35 students, creating a model whereby faculty were working professionals and courses were held at night. This model allowed students to work during the days, brushing up on professional skills if desired. By blurring boundaries between the profession and academia, the founders set pace for art education going forward. That school changed its name in 1956 to the “School of Visual Arts,” and in 2013 to “SVA,” but the tradition remains unchanged. This blurring of the lines between profession and academia still holds true today—more than 60 years later, SVA is a multi-disciplinary institution with more than 1,000 faculty members predominantly still professionals in the field.

What are your favorite NPR programs? Has that evolved over time?
There are too many public radio programs I love to name. NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. WNYC’s On the Media and Radiolab, WBEZ’s This American Life, and the things I’ve learned about interviewing and humanity from Terry Gross are innumerable! So let me try a story.

When I was a graduate student myself, we had at least two public radio stations that played NPR programming. Mornings, I would put one station on in the kitchen and a different one in the bedroom—both loud enough so I could hear them simultaneously from the kitchen table. There, I would read the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, our local paper, and compare how news was unfolding across all three sources.

So, I don’t know really: my favorite is the one that works with my routine; the one that’s on; the one I need right now. Over time that’s changed, but in a way that’s seemed as natural as growing itself.

Can you recall an episode or feature which left a profound impact on you?
About a decade ago, I overheard one of the programs, Morning Edition if I recall, do a story on the “best pizza in the world.” They named at least one in Italy, and one in the United States in New Haven, CT. Almost without hesitation, I rented a car that day and drove from New York to Connecticut to have this pizza.

Now pizza isn’t profound. But as I drove, alone, two states away from home in search of something I cared not much and only half overheard, I couldn’t help but think how powerful radio was. NPR mentions something, and…clear the calendar, I’m going to have pizza?

This medium was powerful; these stories were powerful. What else could they be capable of?

What do you do when you need a brain break?
I don’t wait until I’m stressed out or overwhelmed; I try to do one thing for myself every day. I find if I can do just one thing for myself every day, there is less need for a mandatory brain break. So I run. I play cello. I write. On a GREAT day, I get to do all three things. But on a typical day, I make sure to do at least one, kind of like calisthenics for the mind.

Do you have any advice for creative types who aspire to leadership positions, but might not know how to get there?
I could tell you all the important things like “accept every invitation,” and “say yes to anything, then learn how to say no to almost everything,” “don’t have a plan,” or “don’t say you’re busy (we all are).”

But if I could give one piece of advice, it would be to find what’s been there all along. What was there when you were seven that you still care about today? What keeps you up at night? What do you find yourself thinking about during the meeting when you’re supposed to be thinking about something else? What just feels right? Because in that is the drive to do something you care just enough about to make change. And when you find that, don’t let go.

Thanks for chatting, Liz! Looking forward to all that you do with NPR in the months to come. (Work with Liz at NPR: they’re looking for designers!)

Design Work Life

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