Our curated list of design podcasts from today’s top design podcasters will hopefully fill your ears (and commuting hours) with ample goodies. Talking with these podcasters piqued my curiosity further about the why’s and how’s of design podcasts. What’s process that yields these final products? Why make a podcast at all?

For the podcasting-curious, we’ve gathered lessons learned and other advice from design podcasters actually doing it.

Josh Miles, host of podcast Obsessed WIth Design, with his business partner Daniel Herndon.
Josh Miles, host of podcast Obsessed With Design, with his business partner Daniel Herndon.

Why make a podcast?
Two truths are universally acknowledged among podcasters: making a podcast is a ton of work, and one-episode wonders don’t exist. Podcasting is a marathon, not a sprint, so it’s best to know your goals (and stamina) going in.

Some goals, like self-promotion, are more measurable than others. Podcasts can raise your agency’s profile, attract new clients, partners, or staff. Josh Miles, host of Obsessed With Design, acknowledges his show is a “great platform for our company [branding agency MilesHerndon]… but if it wasn’t such a blast, I don’t think I’d stick with it.”

It’s unsurprising that Prescott Perez-Fox, host of The Busy Creator podcast about productivity for creatives, outlines his goals crisply. “1. Because I was bored and needed a self-initiated project which could perhaps… 2. Get more client work [at graphic design agency Starship Design] by building a reputation of my own control. And in time… 3. Escape client work by moving into publishing, teaching, coaching, online products, and other business opportunities.”

Podcasting can also expand the audience for other content you’re producing. Take CreativeMornings, who use their podcast to mine an archive of 3,000 talks from 142 global chapters. “We know it can be challenging to find the time to sit and watch a talk,” says CreativeMornings community manager Lisa Cifuentes, “so the podcast is a great way to listen on the go.”

Fun and self-education are the bright line connecting our interviewees. “From a purely selfish perspective,” admits Brandon Schaefer, co-host with Sam Smith of The Poster Boys, “it’s an excuse to spend time educating ourselves further about our profession.” Dave Curry, host of Say Something Worth Stealing, agrees: “This may sound corny, but my primary goal was to learn something new (how to make a podcast), and my secondary goal was to have some fun. On both counts I can attest to enormous success.”

How much time and manpower does it take, really?
Blake Eskin, executive producer of The Observatory, describes a typical flow for shows whose hosts outsource production. This twice-weekly show consists of a freewheeling, yet highly informed conversation between Design Observer founder Jessica Helfand and Pentagram’s Michael Bierut. “Between shows, the three of us collect ideas to discuss,” Eskin says. “Then I synthesize those into a prep, which is more an outline than a set script. Michael and Jessica study the prep and spend an hour taping. Then it takes me about five or six hours to distill, edit, and mix, and write show notes and social media posts.”

Hiring a producer (as CreativeMornings, The Poster Boys, and Obsessed With Design have) cuts down on the time commitment—at an expense, of course. The lone-wolf approach to production takes much longer. “All in, an episode takes about eight hours” to produce DIY, says Perez-Fox. Curry, who’s also a one-man production crew. “There’s prep time ahead of recording, the recording itself, and then the edit, which is by far the most time-consuming part. Once the mixdown is complete, I prepare the mp3 for distribution, write up my blog post plus some social media snippets, and keep my guest informed on when it’s going live. Let’s just say it takes more time than it should.” True to its productivity focus, The Busy Creator’s guide to starting a podcast breaks this down in more detail.

Illustration by Martina Paukova, martinapaukova.com
Illustration by Martina Paukova, martinapaukova.com

What gear and software do you need?
For some podcasters, optimizing gadgetry is central to the project. To Luddites, it’s anathema. We polled the extremes and found a few basic requirements: good-quality USB external microphone and headphones; audio-recording and editing software like Garageband or Adobe Audition; and a podcast hosting platform like Libsyn or Soundcloud. Many podcasters like to record on Skype with eCamm Call Recorder as either a backup or primary method. Plan on investing several hundred dollars in equipment if you’re producing yourself, less if you’re working with a producer, though again, you’ll pay for those services each episode.

An avowed gadget-lover, Curry has developed both a studio and on-the-road setup: “In the studio, I record… in a room with decent sound insulation (meaning it’s carpeted and has a big, sound-absorbing couch). I have a few Shure SM-57 microphones which feed into a Focusrite Saffire Pro 26 which then feeds into Adobe Audition running on my 13” MacBook Pro. For monitoring, I have a few Sony MDR7506 headphones routed through a Behringer HA400 amplifier. It took me a while to figure this setup out, but I’m 100% happy with it. I use Audition to edit and mix, so it’s great for me to record there too. On the road: I use one Shure SM-57 and a Zoom H5.” Perez-Scott likes his Audio-Technica AT2005USB mic and relies on “virtual mixing devices using the Mac’s built-in MIDI controls—this allows me to record both sides of the conversation on separate tracks, which makes editing much, much easier.”

So what have you learned by doing it wrong?
“Probably the biggest surprise was finding out just how much we couldn’t stand listening to ourselves,” says Schaefer. That aversion can make you drag your feet on edits, but luckily it’s alleviated with technical fine-tuning. “Test your levels and record them, and adjust until you get it right,” advises Miles.

In an audio format, sound quality is king. “Try really hard to make it sound good,” says Curry. “Your idea could be the Citizen Kane of podcasts, but if it sounds terrible, people will not give it a chance.”

“If you’re interviewing someone, give yourself enough time to chat with them,” suggests Cifuentes. “Not everyone is a great conversationalist immediately.” Eskin agrees, adding, “Don’t overthink exposition. You will deliver information over time, but that happens in the context of a fluid conversation that needs to keep a listener engaged.”

Self-professed data nerds like Curry might be surprised at what he calls “shockingly rudimentary” data for podcasters. Even though he loves Soundcloud, the popular podcasting platform only tracks “raw download numbers, general locations for those downloads, and…what app (iTunes, for example) they’re using. Some things I’d like to know are: did they listen or just download, how much of an episode was listened to, who are the return listeners [versus] first-time listeners, how did they find the podcast, and a million more things.” Traditional marketing tactics, like capturing listeners’ email for a newsletter, can close this gap.

What about the inherent weirdness of describing visual work in an audio format? “A little description goes a long way,” says Eskin. “Letting the listener imagine or visualize what’s being discussed is a way of bringing them in to the podcast, a form of participation and perhaps buy in.” The Poster Boys shares copious images via Tumblr and try to “[frame] conversations within concepts that require fewer visual cues: history, philosophy, or our own personal experiences.” For his process-oriented show, Perez-Fox uses metaphors to illustrate his points aurally. For instance, he likes the “Invading Army vs. Occupying Army” to contrast “the fast and dramatic nature of ideation versus… slow and methodical production work.”

“Get a few episodes in the can before you launch,” advises Miles. “iTunes seems to like your show more if you get lots of downloads in the first few weeks.” Promoting several episodes at once multiplies your total downloads, increasing the likelihood you’ll be featured on iTunes’ New & Noteworthy list, plus it encourages listeners to get hooked. Perez-Fox agrees, “A single episode is easy to abandon.” Enlist your guests’ networks to promote the show, too. Miles notes, “Send each guest a list of links, suggestions on how to tweet, and all the requisite image files to help them out.”

Perhaps the most pungent advice comes from The Poster Boys’ Schaefer: “Fail. Screw up. Fall on your face, and embarrass yourself… Only you can figure out what you want your thing to be.” Podcasting is process. At its best, it should resemble every creative act: messy, iterative, dogged. For game talkers, mistakes-enthusiasts, learning-junkies, media-pioneers or some combination of the above, podcasting may be the ideal pursuit.