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The Great Discontent

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Liz Danzico

Liz Danzico

  • designer
  • editor
  • educator
  • writer

Liz Danzico is chair and cofounder of MFA in Interaction Design at School of Visual Arts, one of the world's top art and design schools. She is creative director for NPR, whose mission is to work in partnership with member stations to create a more informed public. She is on advisory boards for schools and accelerator programs including the NEA Studio, Thiel Fellowship, and Austin Center for Design. She writes for publications and her own blog at bobulate.com.

Tina: Describe your path to what you’re doing now.

The path to what I’m doing started with not knowing what I wanted to do. I had to make a decision about what I wanted to do as I was graduating college, and I could not figure it out. I majored in English because I couldn’t figure out how to express my love of language and writing, so I went into the most general of majors. The only possible option that appealed to me in all the careers that I could attempt was leaving the country altogether and taking more time to figure it out. (laughing)

A friend of mine taught English as a second language (ESL) in Japan, and hearing her talk about it made it sound like the most magical experience I could have. Teaching ESL involved thinking about language and audience; designing curriculums on the fly; reading people; and learning how to design something that taught people how to understand grammar or conversation.

I thought, “That sounds pretty close to what I want to do, and I get to travel.” I had never even been on a plane before; I hadn’t ever traveled anywhere. Growing up, we had always been a camping family.

Tina: Where did you grow up?

Scranton, Pennsylvania. My family only went anywhere we could drive a station wagon full of camping equipment. (laughing) So flying to Asia was the first time I had ever been on a plane.

Since then, pursuing that feeling of not really knowing what to do, and choosing what doesn’t quite seem like the logical next step, but feels right at a gut level, is how I’ve pieced together where I am today. It’s about that combination of anxiety about going into territory where I’m totally unfamiliar, and not knowing a big chunk of it. In the case of teaching in Asia, there were so many pieces to that experience: I didn’t know the local language, I didn’t know a single person, I didn’t know the culture. Everything was different. I’ve definitely made that same decision-making process again and again and again.

Once I came back to America, I went back to a more traditional path. I went to graduate school, and it was there that I found a program that combined design and writing. I thought, “That’s the combination I’ve been looking for.”

From there, I was hired at the then design studio, Razorfish, in New York. Karen McGrane was my first professional boss: she took a chance by hiring me, and she is the reason I’m even in New York in the first place.

At the time I interviewed with Razorfish, I think there were only 25 people working there, and I admired every single one of them. They were all amazing people with huge CRT monitors on their desks—in those days, the bigger your computer monitor was, the better your job was. (laughing) There was something magical about looking out over that cool office of huge computers. That was the future; there was something interesting about it. Throughout the time I worked at Razorfish, I watched them grow from a small-scale agency to three thousand people in 2001. It was interesting to be a part of that process.

Ryan: What was your role there?

I was hired as an information designer, but we quickly started thinking about what that meant: what was information design, and how did that overlap with user experience? The term information architect was being thrown around somewhere outside the building, and we thought, “That sounds about right.” It was Karen’s decision to name us “information architects” as far as I remember.

That was my role for a while, but I eventually started to manage a small group of people. I liked that; I liked leading and nurturing people; I enjoyed people being able to walk in and talk to me, maybe more so than thinking about buttons and design. That was an interesting realization at the time, but I’m logical about those kinds of situations.

Tina: What did you do after Razorfish?

I started writing out my skill set in an Excel spreadsheet: management, information design, UX, and consulting. I wondered, “What is it like to work for a company in-house?” I built out grids in the spreadsheet, and every two years or so, I worked for different companies to gain more technical or product experience. What was it like to ship a product? What was it like to lead a team? What was it like to work for a nonprofit? Every time I tried something new, I realized that I had no experience in it, so it felt like the right move. There is a data line that suggests a connection between all of those experiences: whenever something made me uncomfortable, I would give it a try. So I moved around a bit, trying new things out.

There was a time when I was in the nonprofit sector, but all the while I had been doing side projects. Side projects have celebrated a total renaissance, but I think it’s the first time they’ve ever been so popular. You can say, “I have a lot of side projects,” and there is a respect and a value for them now. I’m not sure that that was the case before: we used to call them hobbies. Previously, when someone said they were going to go work on their hobby, it wasn’t given as much respect.

There was a time when I was working on so many side projects that they were getting in the way of my day job. I was teaching on the side, as well as picking up publishing and editing projects. I loved doing that type of work because I wasn’t taking care of my writing habit in the design space: I needed both of them.

At one point, I was the editor for Boxes and Arrows, which was—and still is—a pretty popular information architecture magazine. While working there, I had an interview with one of my favorite authors, Paco Underhill. I was excited about it because I was a nobody, and I had immense respect for him. I only had one chance to talk to him, but I was at my day job. I wondered, “How do I take this interview away from work?” Of course, I couldn’t tell him that I was at work. Instead, I walked into a broom closet elsewhere in the building—there was a mop sitting in a soapy water bucket and everything—and closed the door, and recorded an hour-long interview on the phone with Paco. All the while, I was looking at the mop in soapy water. I thought: “Why am I shoving projects that I love into a closet, and why can’t I make them the feature of what I love to do every day?” Within a few weeks, I resigned from my full-time job and went freelance full-time.

I stopped working for a company and worked for myself for about seven years. It wasn’t necessarily side projects that I liked; I just enjoyed doing a variety of work. The idea of filling out a grid of subjects I liked—education, design, writing, editing—and figuring out how to keep it all going was what I liked to do. I didn’t necessarily like doing one activity consistently.

I had a studio in DUMBO, Brooklyn, and that’s where I met Tina Roth Eisenberg and Zach Liebermann; we shared that studio with an architecture firm called nARCHITECTS. That studio was a great place for me to start thinking about how to form my own voice and what kind of projects I wanted to take on. It was the first time I was able to feel confident that everything I had been pulling behind me was actually all of the cool work.

I did that for a long time until 2007, when Steven Heller—author of 150 books, wise person, kind soul, and co-chair of the MFA design program at the School of Visual Arts (SVA)—found me and said, “We’re thinking about whether or not we should have a digital design program at SVA.” He asked if I would be interested in putting something together, just for exploration. I agreed, but informed him that I had a lot of side projects and was probably moving to Europe and probably going to write a book, so he couldn’t pin me down. (laughing) But the more I talked to people and thought about it, the more I realized that doing an academic program that I was able to invent from the ground up and create in a space I was working in is kind of like a collection of the best side projects you can imagine. The more I researched it, the more I realized that it had the potential to be something that was absolutely needed on both the student and employer sides, which is pretty cool. That was about seven years ago, and I’ve been doing that ever since.

I feel like something similar happened with New York City. I thought, “I’m not going to stay,” but once I arrived, I realized, “Oh, it’s pretty cool here.”

Liz at home with her dog, Penny, the Vizsla
Liz at home with her dog, Penny, the Vizsla; photo by Smriti Keshari

Tina: You also recently took on a new role at NPR, correct?

That’s true. There is a continuous pattern of me taking on extra roles. (laughing)

There are side projects, and then there is all the other work that one must do. SVA is an entrepreneurial school: that’s in its DNA, and is partly how it was founded. Since the beginning, they have not only promoted, but encouraged and supported both students and faculty to work in jobs or careers or freelance outside of the classroom. I knew that coming in, so I continued my work at the DUMBO studio, although I scaled back quite a bit. At SVA, having different clients and projects became harder to manage in their multiple states. It was the switch that was significant: not the doing of the work, but switching teams and people. I started realizing that when I only worked with one set of people, it was much more fulfilling on both sides. I began looking around for one set of people and one project to work on, but I didn’t know if that was a full-time job or not.

I spent a good year and a half with my ears open until I heard about an opportunity at NPR in Washington, DC. I’m not quite sure if a friend of mine recommended me as the person who should take on the position or as the person NPR should talk to about who should fill the position. I was totally intrigued. It’s an interesting opportunity for NPR, but it’s also an interesting opportunity for me because it fit the exact pattern I look for in a new project: a completely new space with a dotted line to types of work I’ve done before, but a whole lot of new work I haven’t done yet, with the added challenge of being three hours away.

Ryan: What do you do there as the creative director?

I lead a team that creates and builds new or existing products and thinks about NPR’s digital design in general, of which there are many instantiations. There are a lot of design teams at NPR. Some are sort of formal, like the Visuals team in the newsroom: they work on visualizing stories, creating tools, and thinking about what NPR looks like. Then there design teams embedded in the desks, like the Science desk. And then there is a Marketing and Communications group that serves as the caretaker of the brand. There is design happening in a lot of places at NPR.

Ryan: So you’re kind of overseeing all of those teams, but focusing largely on the products?

No, I’m not overseeing all the teams directly. I only oversee one team—the Digital Media product team. I am asked to think more broadly about how NPR is expressed digitally, which touches all of those places, and where appropriate, I work with those teams closely. I’ve only been there since the beginning of this year, but it’s interesting to see how often my work shows up. I have already worked in spaces I never thought I would have had input on so soon. I’m enjoying that opportunity.

Tina: Do you ever travel to DC to work on-site?

I do, quite a lot. I am rather familiar with Amtrak: I know which seat I like in the quiet car, and I’m opinionated about which meal I want on the train. (laughing) I go to DC once a week, although I’m trying different approaches. I’m involved day-to-day with the team when I’m physically there, and I’m on video chat the rest of the time, basically. They all have insight into my calendar and know when I’m available or not. One of my main focuses is figuring out how remote working works.

Ryan: It’s a good challenge.

Yeah. I have found that being honest with my away messages is an important practice. Do you know the signal people use by putting their headphones on at their desks? It’s like that with away messages: do you have your headphones on or not? Do you want to be disturbed or not?

Tina: You mentioned piecing your career together and not knowing what your path would evolve into. Did you know that you’d be doing what you’re doing now based on what you were interested in during your childhood?

You can make any story work. I read something the other day about James Franco’s mother talking about him being creative from the time he was three years old. My parents probably wouldn’t say, “Yes, Liz was X or Y,” but I have always been super organized. Being in a profession where organization is important traces back to that. My family stuck Post-It notes everywhere, put charts on the refrigerator, organized what we were supposed to do every day, gave us gold stars—all of that. (laughing)

I did have my own newspaper growing up, but it wasn’t a part of the student newspaper. I sourced and wrote all the stories, and I was taking a calligraphy class at the time, so I made the masthead as well. It also had two comic strips, one of which I outsourced to a friend across the street.

Tina: What was your distribution model for it?

(laughing) The distribution model was not as well thought out. The newspaper was six pages long and I copied the pages at my dad’s office. Then I sold it back to the people I interviewed for a quarter.

Tina: So they could show it to their friends and family?

Exactly. I don’t know how that worked, but that’s the one element from my childhood that has any relationship to what I do now—not just design and not just writing, but a little bit of both.

Actually, I was actively not involved in any extracurricular activities in either high school or college. Many people are in the arts club or president of an organization, but I wasn’t in a single extracurricular activity—I was almost anti-involved. The only sport I did was skiing because you didn’t have to join anything and you could do it by yourself. That was it. When I think back on it, I was the opposite of how I am now, which is involved in everything.

Ryan: Making up for lost time?

Yeah, I’ve thought about that.

Tina: You have found your people.

I think so. When I moved to New York, I suddenly became involved in lots of endeavors and projects. I’ve been slowly putting on the brakes over the last couple of years because I became a little too gung-ho, but there was maybe a hint of making up for lost time.

Tina: Did you have an “Aha!” moment along the way when you realized what you wanted to focus on?

There have probably been several. I think about this quite a lot, but can there be “Aha!” moments if you haven’t followed up on them yet? (laughing)

Tina: Yes!

We all have instincts, but we rarely know whether to trust them or not. Something I feel 100% good about is writing on my blog. The feedback I receive from people about it, whether it’s the person sitting next to me or in an email, feels positive. There is something about the type of writing I do on my blog that is in harmony with everything else that I believe. Do either of you play instruments?

Ryan: Yes, I play guitar.

It’s the same feeling as playing music. When the instrument is in tune and you sustain a note, you’re not just hearing a note in tune: you can actually feel it. It resonates and almost vibrates your body in a certain way. It gives you as close a feeling as you can have to instinct as you can recreate it.

I get that feeling when I write. It’s only a certain kind of writing, though: I don’t actually get that feeling if I’m commissioned to write an article, unfortunately. The “Aha!” moment is the feeling you get when you’re totally in sync with what you’re doing and there is no difference between the note you’re playing and the note you’re hearing; or what you’re making and what you’re trying to communicate. The closest feeling I’ve found to that is with writing for my own purposes instead of for other people.

A close second for my “Aha!” moment was when I was designing the interaction design program with Steven Heller at SVA. I thought about the curriculum and the space; I thought about how the students could be hirable and what their skill sets should look like; I made more spreadsheets. But during one of our student’s weddings this past fall, I realized that all of that doesn’t actually matter. At the wedding, I sat at a table of 10 people who were all former students from different years: some of them were living with or married to one another, and all of them had formed a community over the past few years. I looked around the table and realized what we all built together: we created these relationships and this community. I was so focused on the pedagogy in the beginning that it didn’t occur to me that what matters is the community that these students are building together. At the end of the day, people are what matter. We sort of know that when we’re designing products, and that is what we talk about all the time, but I kind of forgot about that in putting together the program.

Ryan: Speaking of your blog, I used to read it religiously back in the day. I haven’t done much “Internet reading” over the past couple years because I’ve been so busy making stuff for it, but back when I had time for it, your blog was on my must-read list.

Thank you. That’s what happens. I used to be an editor before I wrote anything myself, and I remember editing people’s writing and thinking, “How could they possibly have missed that semicolon?” Or, “Why did they use a serial comma here and not over here?” But as soon as I started writing, I stopped paying attention to that altogether. You’re basically in one mode or another: reader or writer, consumer or creator. You can do a little bit of both, but if you’re going to go deep on something, you can only go deep on one of them.

Ryan: Definitely. Have you had any mentors along the way?

I’m bad at asking for help, so my mentors have had to force themselves upon me. (laughing) For example, Steven Heller has been an enormous help to me and is always there for me when I need him. I certainly am just astounded at how he operates and what he has been able to accomplish. I’m constantly telling him that I don’t understand how he gets everything done. I interview him with questions like, “What time do you get up in the morning?” And when I send him an email, I wait to see how long it takes for him to respond. I watch his whole workflow in action. Whenever I have any kind of professional question or conundrum, Steve is the person who I talk to. The reason I say that he forces himself upon me is because he is good at checking in with me on a monthly basis, if not more. He checks in to see how I am and if I want to get together. I haven’t been the kind of person who is good at checking in with people, which is why I love designing the SVA program. It is designed to help people have mentors and people who they trust, and I’m so impressed when people come up to me for advice. I haven’t ever been good at that, and it’s such an important aspect of learning and moving forward.

Tina: Students are pretty good at asking questions. They’re at a time in their life when they want input from others.

Yeah. It’s hard to do. There was a time in my studio in DUMBO when a woman outside of New York wrote me a letter asking if I would be her mentor. I have received a lot of those types of emails over the years, but this was a particularly nice one. She organized our time and said, “This is what I expect from you, this is our agenda, and this is what I want out of our relationship.” We ended up being close and we had a good relationship for a period of time. She has gone on to be successful in her own right, but it is rare for someone to specifically call that out and structure that time for you rather than asking you a bunch of questions.

“…I feel good when I see something in another person that they don’t see in themselves, and I’m able to tell them about it; and it’s even better if I can help them figure out a way to attain that.”

Tina: Has there ever been a point when you’ve decided to take a big risk to move forward?

Every day when I leave my apartment. I live in Brooklyn, and I used to bike to work every single day, so every time I arrived to work alive, I’d think: “That was huge! What else could possibly go wrong today now that I’m alive?”

Taking the job at NPR was a risk for me. It’s a little easy to hide in the freelance world. As a freelancer, you can be as public or private as you want to be; you get to blog and tweet about the projects that go well, and you don’t have to say anything at all about the ones that don’t go so well—although, sometimes other people do the latter on your behalf. But most of the time you get to control the volume. When you attach yourself and dive into the deep end with a company and a group of people, you don’t control the volume anymore. When you take on that kind of responsibility in a public way, it’s a risk. There were a lot of red flags in that way, and letting go of the volume button after having control over it for many, many years was huge for me.

Having a job outside of New York City was also a risk. I’ve lived in New York City for 16 years and I love it. I’ve memorized every word of E.B. White’s Here Is New York. This is the city I know well, so I was excited about working in Washington, DC. But it’s also a risk to get to know a new group of people as well as a new city.

Tina: Are your family and friends supportive of what you do? Do they understand what you do?

Yeah, definitely. When I took the job at NPR, my dad told me, “Thank you so much for taking a job with a title I finally understand.” (laughing) Both of my parents are huge NPR fans, and my brother works for the BBC, so now the whole family can have a conversation about what we do. We just got together over Skype for Mother’s Day, and my mom asked my brother and I: “How did this happen? How did you two end up working for these companies?” She wanted to make sure that we understood how interesting our jobs are, and that we’re appreciating the emotional aspects of it.

Growing up, my dad was always the one bringing home new technology and helping us hack something. He was always building something in the basement or taking something apart in the garage. Technology is definitely something my parents understand, even if they don’t completely understand what I do. My dad came to the thesis festival we put on each year, and afterwards he said, “I finally understand what you actually do!” They are so supportive. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

My friends are also supportive, although I work with a lot of my friends. We celebrated the five-year anniversary of the program, and I was astounded by how many people have been with it since the beginning and have helped build it together. They are all incredibly supportive.

Tina: Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something outside of yourself?

My dad gave me a personality profile test when I was in high school, only because he used them with the organization he worked with, and had them on hand. When you took the test, you were given an oral translation of it, a chart, a report, and everything. He said, “You’re thinking about what you want to do for the rest of your life, so it couldn’t hurt to take this test.” The test results for every one of my answers was that I should dedicate my life to a purpose that is larger than myself, and that what I mainly want to do is to be in service of other people. It listed careers that matched my results, and I was so insulted. (laughing) I was so sad and insulted that I couldn’t even talk to my parents about it. I couldn’t begin to understand what I had done wrong in my life to get to that point.

But it’s true. Everything I enjoy doing, and always have enjoyed doing, is like that: I like editing more so than being on the front cover; I like putting together a program rather than teaching it. I don’t know why that is, or where it came from. What my purpose is, I don’t know. Selfishly, I feel good when I see something in another person that they don’t see in themselves, and I’m able to tell them about it; and it’s even better if I can help them figure out a way to attain that. For instance, in an editorial role, I might say, “If you restructured your article to put this point at the beginning, then people will see it more clearly.” I get excited about doing that. It’s not a great, socially innovative purpose, but on an individual level, pulling something out of someone that they don’t see and helping them realize that is awesome. You see people’s eyes change: they get a little sparkle in their eyes, and it’s pretty cool. I live for that.

Tina: Are you creatively satisfied?

I’m not creatively satisfied, but I feel like a jerk saying that because I couldn’t be in a better position to be creatively satisfied. I take full responsibility for that.

I definitely want to write more: that’s the one area where I feel like I’m not satisfied. I used to feel energized by starting new projects. Every time I had a new idea, I’d make a project out of it, but I’ve gotten over that. I have left a whole pile of projects behind me, but I can’t think clearly if I’m not writing. Therefore, I want to get back into that habit. I have stopped reading as much online, so I don’t quite know the right place for my writing. Maybe that takes a different form than a blog.

Ryan: Print your own newspaper again.

Tina: Yeah, you can distribute it in the subway this time! That’s a much better plan.

Exactly! There is a ton of opportunity for that.

Ryan: Is there anything you’d like to do in the next 5 to 10 years? It sounds like more writing, perhaps?

Yes, absolutely. I’ve spent my creative life working with people, but I do work well by myself. I haven’t ever actually given myself the freedom and license to do that. Work, especially design work, means collaboration, so I have surrounded myself with people, even when I was in the studio in DUMBO. I thought, “I must be with people.” I’m super social and I love people, but I do my best writing when I’m by myself. Hopefully it’s going to be within 10 years, but I’m going to try to give myself the space and look at writing as a serious endeavor instead of something on the side. I don’t want to make it too public, though; I don’t want too much pressure, necessarily.

Tina: What advice would you give to someone starting out?

There was a Humble Pied project that Mig Reyes did where he asked me a similar question. On there, I said, “Don’t have a plan.” I still believe that, and I believe in instinctually feeling your way through life. There is still something to that, but recently I’ve been thinking that when you’re younger, you need to say yes to everything; then, when you’re older, you need to learn how to say no to everything. I don’t mean younger in age, but as a step in your profession. Accept every invitation and meet every person: you never know what opportunity could be at that event you were invited to. Go, meet people, put yourself out there. After you’ve done that, and have flooded the area, then you have to learn how to close the flood gate and focus. The easy part is opening it up, but closing it is very difficult and probably a lifelong skill.

I think the misconception is that young is tied to age chronologically or biologically, but it’s actually tied to steps in one’s career. As you switch to new opportunities, if you’re the low person on the totem pole, you have to keep doing that over and over again.

Also, we live in an age of sound bites, and there is something about learning how to speak effectively and in small ways that is important. Say big things in small ways. Twitter has helped hone that a bit; it’s important not just in writing, but in communication of all kinds. That is not to say that long-form writing isn’t important, but if I were to give advice to my younger self, I would say that it’s important to learn to communicate succinctly.

I read something that Richard Feynman said about describing what you do. To paraphrase, he challenged people to think about what they did in an atomic sentence. Can you think about what you do in a single sentence? I used to think it was cool to explain what I do using commas, but now it’s exhausting and I no longer think that way. I began thinking about how interesting it would be to think about our days that way. What is the atomic sentence of your day?

Tina: How does living in New York City impact your creativity or the work that you do?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a dream of living on a farm. I used to take trips upstate to look at farms that I could potentially buy. About three years ago, a friend of mine owned such a place upstate, and she told me, “I’m thinking about selling this place. It’s available to rent for the summer.” I took the opportunity, and went up to her place in the middle of the deep woods on the river. The house is beautiful: my friend is a lovely person and a designer with great taste, and the farm looked great on paper.

What I didn’t realize was how New York City affects me. I lived in the middle of the woods for about two months, and on the first day I commuted down to the city, I was caught in a tornado. The weather conditions up there were harsh because it just so happened to be in a perfect hurricane and tornado region between mountains. It could not have been more stereotypical: I was driving in a tornado, two trees fell down in front of and behind my car, there was no cell phone service, and I had to wait hours and hours for some guys with chainsaws to cut down the trees and move them out of the way. As I was sitting in the car with lots of time on my hands, I contemplated the rest of the summer, thinking, “I might be a bit unprepared for this.” (laughing)

As the summer went on, I realized that the city did not do what I originally thought it did for me. What I need is the ability to watch the motion and noise of people. Just the observation of something happening is all I need in order to create something. Without that, I have nothing. I had no idea that in the absence of motion, sounds, and people to react to, I’d find myself with nothing to say. That summer, I read a lot, I played with my dog, and I played music, but I did a lot of thinking about how I work. New York City is like a low white noise machine that allows me to work, and I had no idea.

Ryan: Is it important to you to be a part of a creative community of people?

Yeah, for sure. Back when I first moved to New York, a group of us started talking about how there was no creative community in New York—which is not the case, but it was the case within our tiny circle. We wondered, “How can we make something happen?” A bunch of us started an information architecture salon, which was the most nerdy of the nerdiest events. (laughing) I actually formed some great professional relationships through that. We all met up once a month to work and compare notes, and I still have some great friends who were a part of that original circle.

Back then, it was important for me to make a creative community since there wasn’t one there. Since then, a lot more have sprung up. Being a part of AIGA or any other of those organizations—whether you’re actively involved or just showing up to their events—feels important. It’s like being part of a neighborhood: it’s the same reason we feel close associations when we meet other people who also live in Downtown Brooklyn or Carroll Gardens—there is something that happens in your heart. It’s a little hard to explain why that is. I know that AIGA has a three-fold mission statement explaining why that’s important in terms of support for the business community, tools, and the life cycle of a designer. That’s all true, but I also feel like it’s something more emotional that touches your heart: “I’m here because these are my people.” Likewise, when you’re ready to relocate to a new neighborhood, you think, “It’s about time to move on.”

Tina: Ryan and I have found the community in New York to be tight-knit. I think the city is so intense that you cling to your community as though it’s a lifeline.

I agree. I suspect that it’s because this particular size of city is so hard to get your head around that you find more solace in the groups you associate with. If you lived in a smaller place, you would have your group, but you would also have your city. Cling is the wrong word: we love our communities a little bit more than we might otherwise. I don’t want to make any grand associations because my sample size is small, but I’ve found that the communities in New York are supportive, awesome, and easy to fall in with.

Tina: What does a typical day look like for you, if you have one?

No two days are exactly the same, but they usually involve something that has to do with the present, the past, or the future.

“The worst insult I could ever suffer is to be frivolous or make something that isn’t helpful…If the program I designed at SVA, or anything else I do, helps other people get to where they want to be, that is what makes me most happy. It’s not about me.”

Ryan: Do you have any favorite music right now?

We’re building a new audio-listening experience at NPR, and it’s literally all I’ve been listening to. I’m not sure if I can say what it is.

NPR has something called Tiny Desk Concerts that was started by Bob Boilen, who has been there for many years in various roles. They are live concerts in the desk area, and it’s one of the greatest perks of working there. Within a few weeks of me starting, the Pixies came and played right in front of us. I was able to see Suzanne Vega perform during my first week, and one of my two favorite classical pianists came and played a few weeks ago.

Before I started working there, one of my friends had turned me onto NPR music, and they continue to introduce me to music that wouldn’t have ever been on my radar otherwise.

Tina: What are your favorite movies and TV shows?

I’m a serial TV show person. I just finished watching the first season of The Americans, and I just bought a season pass to True Detective, but nothing has compared to the crime thriller Wallander. It was written by Henning Mankell, and holy shit. The episodes are about an hour and a half long, so they each feel like a short film. There are two versions: one that is Swedish and one that the BBC made—I recommend watching the Swedish version first. The BBC version is a little more cinematic and beautiful, but the story in the Swedish version is just incredible.

Ryan: Do you have a favorite book?

I have two favorite books. Here Is New York by E.B. White is absolutely my favorite book. It’s a small book, and it is kind of a love story to New York. He wrote it in 1949, in a sweaty hotel room in Manhattan. It is absolutely beautiful and holds up so well. If you’re ever having a bad day in New York, open that book up to any spot and just read a few pages. It makes you appreciate New York by thinking, “How does the water get from the reservoir upstate down to my faucet? That is amazing!” It makes you step out of yourself and appreciate the city.

The second book I love is also about New York. It’s called The Power Broker, and it’s Robert Caro’s history of New York told through the eyes of city planning.

Tina: That sounds interesting.

I read it at the same time I was watching Ric Burns’s six-part PBS documentary series, New York: A Documentary Film. It’s good if you read The Power Broker and watch that documentary series at the same time. There is something powerful about reading that book while I’m riding the subway or hanging out in the city that I appreciate. I think I read it within a few years of moving here. I’ve tried to read books about Chicago and Los Angeles, but it doesn’t hold the same fascination—they’re well-written, but not quite as powerful. There is something special about standing in the place you’re reading about. I love it.

Tina: Do you have a favorite food? Or a favorite spot in New York?

There is an ice cream tradition in our family, so ice cream is the answer. There is a long-standing tradition of my brother and I taking photos of ourselves eating ice cream all over the world. I don’t know if that’s my favorite food, but it’s the most iconic food to me. I wouldn’t turn down ice cream, ever. If I said anything else, my family would call it a lie.

Ryan: What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?

I suppose I would just like people to say, “That Liz Danzico, she was really helpful.” (laughing) The worst insult I could ever suffer is to be frivolous or make something that isn’t helpful. If we’re having a conversation, I don’t find myself being the entertaining one: I find myself wanting to help people. If someone wants to be funny, be a star, or disappear somewhere, I just want to help them be that person. If the program I designed at SVA, or anything else I do, helps other people get to where they want to be, that is what makes me most happy. It’s not about me. Someday, maybe when I go off in isolation and write my book, that will change. I so believe that what you want changes over time a bit, but right now that’s what I want.interview close

photos of ice cream
Liz and her brother, Matt, have a long-standing tradition of sending each other photos of ice cream cones from around the world