The Whole of It

We live in a world governed by complex systems — from organisations to computers to the human brain. And in that world, it is easy to feel like we are stumbling around in the dark: being affected by systems we cannot fully grasp, and cannot fully control. For Wilson Miner, a San Francisco-based digital designer, it’s about accepting the complexity, realising that we can never control each part, and making our impact on small parts of these systems.

Miner, who currently works at The California Sunday Magazine, and previously at Apple, Facebook and Rdio, talks to me about leaving a legacy, the role of the ego in design, and the importance of consumption.

You’ve described growing up in your house as like living in a museum — you were surrounded by collections of things. How was creativity cultivated in you as a child?

My dad was a historian and an author — he wrote non-fiction history books. He wasn’t, like, writing fantasy novels, or painting, but certainly, creative output was a part of my life growing up. I saw how it worked, but I also saw how difficult it was — the dedication and diligence it required of him.

From a young age, music was also a big part of my upbringing. It was something my parents really valued, and something that was instilled in me early on. I think I first asked for a violin when I was three — it took them a while to be convinced that it was something worth investing in for me, and not just something that I’d do for a bit and get bored of. Eventually they did sign me up for lessons though, and I played the violin for most of my childhood. So I think I’ve always had that background of practice. Not necessarily of creative output — that came later — but just the discipline of learning to play music that was foundational in developing how I work today.

In what ways?

I’ve always worked relatively independently, even when I’m working in teams. I’m often starting projects on my own, or developing things on my own. I think that’s a model of working that came from playing music. There’s a very personal discipline to developing your performance and skill in music. Even if you play with an ensemble, a lot of the work is done alone, before you come together and perform as a group. I think that’s affected how I approach work these days.

And now that you’re a parent, how are you cultivating creativity within your own family?

I think that’s something that we’re still figuring out as parents. It’s so amazing as a parent to watch him develop — to watch these tiny babies grow and establish their own interests. I’m often left wondering where the interests came from — what did this tiny creature see in the world that made them like this particular thing? Is that thing now going to be a part of them for their whole lifetime?

Our oldest is three now, and he comes up with all these scenarios, and loves making up and telling stories. He’s captivated by theatre and music. When they’re so young, it’s hard to tell if that’s going to stick, but for us, it’s just about being aware, paying attention, and listening. He’s young, so he’s not asking for specific things, but we’ll just have to keep an eye on what he gravitates to, and make sure he has the support to pursue whatever that is if he wants to.

You quoted Robert Irwin in your talk, When We Build, saying that design is about being “available in response.” Parenting requires a similar approach, it seems…

Yeah, a lot of parenting has been like that so far. It’s easy to get caught up in trying to control the situation, but that’s self-defeating, because you can never be in full control. It’s about finding that balance between handling the situation and letting yourself be controlled by these tiny tyrants. It can get pretty chaotic.

Aside from your kids, perhaps, what keeps you up at night?

I mean, there’s always an insecurity about money. That’s just part of the human condition, I guess. I’ve been fortunate enough in my career to have some stability, but I still always feel like I’m one step away from everything unraveling. My parents were both educators, and going after money as a goal in life was never a priority for them, nor was managing money particularly effectively. I never really had that model of financial discipline or responsibility, so it’s always a background stressor for me.

Beyond that, I think anyone who works in a creative profession goes through this kind of manic-depressive cycle over the course of a career. These peaks and valleys. There are times when you feel like you’re firing on all cylinders, when the ideas keep flowing and everything comes together easily, but there are also times when you question everything, when nothing’s working and you feel like a fraud. The big challenge is just to roll with it — knowing that if it feels bad now, it’ll get better soon, and if it feels good, it’s going to get worse. You can’t become too attached to any one state — you can’t let it define your attitude.

Does faith, or religion, or spirituality — just the sense of mystery or wonder, perhaps — play a part in your life?

I was raised in a casually religious family. It was definitely a part of my upbringing — I grew up going to an Episcopal church — but it wasn’t a prominent one. In high school and college, I really detached from that as a part of my life.

Since moving to California though, I’ve become exposed to a lot of writing and teaching about Eastern religion. I’ve really connected with a lot of Alan Watts’ speaking and writing, because he was an Episcopal pastor before he began to study Buddhism, so he’s able to explain things in a language that I can identify with.

Watts is really accessible, because he could distil challenging ideas into these little aphorisms — a short quote that can unlock a deeper meaning, or that can make a more complicated explanation of something accessible to you. Through more study, I’ve discovered that’s part of the ancient tradition of Buddhist teaching — these little bits of wisdom that begin you on a path to understanding something that is not necessarily communicable in a simple phrase. You have to go on the journey yourself, but these sayings can sort of trick you into starting the journey.

I think that’s one of the reasons I’m more able to connect with Buddhism. The ideas in Western religions are just sort of handed down, as accepted truths, but Buddhism is more like brain experiments. You try an experiment and see what happens. Nobody tells you what’s supposed to happen, you just try something for ten minutes, or a few days, and see how you feel. That’s comforting to me — I don’t feel like I’m being tricked or manipulated by any information. Nobody tells you that you have to make these certain choices in order to lead a good life, it’s just this progressive curriculum.

There’s a quote from E.B. White: “If the world were merely seductive, that would be easy. If it were merely challenging, that would be no problem. But I arise in the morning torn between a desire to improve the world and a desire to enjoy the world.” What do you feel more compelled to do: change the world or enjoy it?

There’s this predominant meme in creative industries, and in our industry especially, of maker culture — creative effort is measured by how much you put out into the world. There’s an implicit message that creating is better than consuming or appreciating, and I don’t think that’s true. The most dangerous message a young designer can be told is that you’re wasting your time if you’re not making something. You have to listen before you have anything to say — you have to pay attention and be influenced and find things interesting and pursue tangents and absorb everything. You have to do all of the things that aren’t making something if you want to have anything of value to make.

I’m a big defender of, like, low-brow entertainment. I really bristle at the idea that vegging out on the couch, reading comic books or playing video games or watching movies, is an inherently passive or wasteful activity. The most interesting and creative pursuits of my career have been dependent on that creative stimulation as fuel.

I can definitely identify with that push-and-pull between enjoying the world and improving it. I think that’s the productive tension. If you’re not torn between those two things, maybe you’re not really improving the world as effectively as you think you are.

Creativity is a system — there has to be input before there can be output.

I think about that with regard to self-improvement too. Some people can get really obsessed with, y’know, only reading non-fiction books, and always exercising, and always eating healthily, and optimising their days down to the minute.

The whole point, to me, is to put all this time and effort into work so that I can then have that fallow period — I can relax and enjoy my life and my family. I’m able to just be, to have no momentum or direction.

It’s about finding that harmony between enjoying life and working. If I just had one without the other, my life would be shallow. If I just sat around playing video games all day, they’d stop being fun, but if I purely devoted myself to work and self-improvement, I’d be miserable as well. It’s the balance of those two that makes things exciting.

You’ve written recently about the value in “boring” design solutions. And yet to design those requires a real suppression of ego. To what extent does ego play a role in your design work?

Design is precarious and sensitive and personal: it’s hard to stop your ego playing a part in that.

At the same time though, I think it’s important to separate the value that I may get from designing something, and the value that is brought to the product. You have to ask yourself if you’re doing something because it fundamentally improves the end product, or because you want to show off and get recognition.

My experience has been that the value a designer, or a company, or a product puts on ego is often at the cost of the actual end product. It’s not likely to be a small benefit to the product and a big benefit to your ego, it’ll be a big benefit to your ego to the detriment of the product.

I think, to some extent, my gravitation towards boring, straightforward ideas is partly as a defence mechanism. We all want to go for those things that are going to get you accolades and recognition, but there’s also a big risk there. By seeking out boring designs, in a way I’m protecting myself. I’m protecting my ego from being crushed.

Showing off is just the opposite of my personality. As a person, I don’t like to draw attention to myself, and I think that feeds into my design instincts too. I’m not interested in having people notice the skill of the craft, I just want things to be invisible and appropriate. There’s a kind of perverse joy in doing that — to hiding in the background.

Does that mean you are often left feeling under-appreciated?

Oh, totally. I feel the same way anybody does when you launch a project — you poured everything into it and you just want everybody to tell you how amazing it is. Design is an inherently insecure activity: there are no numbers that can tell you that you were right, and you’re constantly second-guessing the decisions you made. Having people tell you over and over again how great a piece of work is can make up for that, but you can’t put much value in it, because those people don’t have the context — they don’t fully understand the situation. The same’s true of those who tell you the work sucks — they don’t understand the decisions that were made, and the trade-offs that had to happen. So you can’t really value either the positive or the negative feedback.

If you’re only happy with a project when people tell you how great it is, you’re a slave to something that’s inherently outside of your control. A big part of the process for me is recognising that. I still really want people to tell me I’m great, but I’m also trying to recognise that whether they do or they don’t, it doesn’t really mean anything.

It is natural, I think, for our identity to morph over time. And as it does, we’re able to see the pillars of ourselves — the immutable parts of our identity. What are those parts of you?

As I get older, there seem to be more immutable parts. Earlier on in my life, as I was still developing a stable identity, I would adapt more readily to new situations, and was able to change my priorities. Maybe that’s just an evolutionary trait so that we’re able to survive those early years. I’ve definitely become more set in my ways, the older I’ve gotten. Career-wise, I think I’ve just, over time, developed a clearer picture of the environments and conditions I need to work at my best, and those that are inhibiting.

And what are those environments?

Well, I’ve sort of developed a pattern of bouncing back-and-forth between large teams and smaller teams. Working at Apple so early in my career was both good and bad — I think it gave me a realistic picture of what it was like to work in an environment that I might otherwise have held out as a perfect ideal. I would have kept thinking “Oh, if I could just work at a place like Apple, everything would be so easy — everybody would care about the things I care about, and I wouldn’t have to deal with all the nonsense I have to deal with here.” But the truth is that, although a lot of the things you imagine about a place like Apple are true, it’s still a job. It’s still a company. It’s still real people running that company. And there are all the frustrations that go along with doing a job anywhere.

Being so young and idealistic, I think that gave me an exaggerated sense that big companies weren’t for me. I ran into a lot of frustrations there, and I think I overcorrected a little bit, and figured I just couldn’t make it at a big company — I thought I needed to be working more independently, in a smaller team.

Going to work at Facebook was me sort of testing that hypothesis. And in some ways, it was borne out, but it also proved me wrong in other ways. I found it incredibly valuable to work in an environment with a lot of other designers and being able to collaborate — I think I grew a lot as a designer from that experience. But it’s just not ultimately sustainable for me — it was very draining, working in that large an organisation. I would want to engage with all of it. When you’re in a small company, everything is your problem, and it was hard for me to get out of that mode in a big company. There’s so much going on that no one person could possibly take on everything, so you have to disconnect from things.

This seems to be a recurring theme — desiring control over things, but ultimately needing to cede that control.

Yeah. You can make yourself really panicked about your lack of control, or you can accept that you’re not capable of being in control, and that frees you up to focus on one thing at a time. It’s self-defeating to try to constantly wrangle the whole system and all the variables at once.

I think that’s one of the challenges of product design in general — there are a lot of branching decisions, and you’re trying to hold a lot of interdependent decisions in state at once so that you can see the whole thing. Everything is interconnected, and you’re not always aware, immediately, of what the second and third order effects are of a decision. The whole of it can never be visible to you. You have to just focus on a smaller subset of the system, make that tiny part better, and have trust in the rest of the larger system.

How would you define success?

I don’t really believe in any universal definition of success — I can only really evaluate it on a micro basis. Did I get something out of this project that was commensurate to the effort I put in?

With Rdio shutting down recently, I’ve had the chance to think about projects I’ve worked on in the past that haven’t lasted, and whether, if I had to do it again, I would invest as much effort in them, knowing how they’d turn out. And for the most part, I would — I’d fight the same battles I fought, I’d spend the same long hours working as I did. I think there are just certain things that I value, and that I want more of in the world, and I’m happy to continue putting effort into those things. Even if that means spending the rest of my career working on things that only reach a small number of people. I’m okay with that now.

Finally: legacy was something you talked about in When We Build, and something that’s come up in some of your other writing. How do you want to be remembered?

It’s not something that’s been on my mind as much lately. When I was writing and developing When We Build, I was thinking about it a lot more. My father had just died — he’d spent his life writing books. He was relatively young — in his sixties — and still in the middle of a productive career: he was working on a book when he died. As he was getting sicker, and less capable of writing, he struggled a lot with whether or not it was worth spending that effort on creating something, when his energy was so limited. He questioned if the world really needed another book from him — if it brought any value to the world. And I think that caused him to think through his whole career — was any of it worthwhile? Did any of it matter? Did any of it have an impact?

That really gave me pause at the time — to see someone I was so close to still have the same question at the end that I have at the beginning. That we all have. Is this worthwhile? I think it’s easy when you’re younger to look forward and assume that it will be. By the end, it will have been worthwhile. That you’re investing in your future, and in your future, you’ll do something that will be your legacy.

That experience really changed how I think about my legacy. I’m now trying not to look forward to something I’ll do in the future as what I’ll be remembered for, and instead just focus on whatever is in front of me right now. The bounds of my legacy is that I put the best into whatever was in front of me. There are two ways to do the work: the right way, or not at all.

Interview date: March 10th, 2016
Images: Filly Campbell, Internet Archive

Wilson Miner

You might like…

Engaging the Senses

with Samin Nosrat

Unearthing Questions

with Susan Carey

Running Towards

with Ky Anderson

Always Poetry, Always Play

with Kath Bloom