Designing Experiences

Filmed on December 14, 2017 in San Francisco

Memories are made through human experience. Think back to your favorite birthday or the day you crossed the graduation stage to accept your diploma. Those experiences were designed to be memorable. In this talk, we'll discuss what makes experiences noteworthy with some of the leading talent in this field. From big scale productions to intimate gatherings, we'll take a look at the recipe for getting experience design right.  

As luck would have it, this event will be our final show of 2017. We'll be pouring our favorite festive brews. So help us ring in a new year with Designers + Geeks with your ugliest holiday sweater. 

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Laura Brunow Miner

Founder & Designer 

Laura Brunow Miner is a serial entrepreneur when it comes to the intersection of brand, photography, and experience design. She has founded and developed enriching experience such as Eat Retreat, a creative retreat for leaders in food, and Phoot Camp, a retreat for the photography community. She is also responsible for founding Pictory, an award-winning online photo magazine where she collected and shared hundreds of moving stories of human experience. On top of that, she is a talented and experienced brand designer who has helped growing startups like Pinterest develop their own brand systems. Laura's world is filled with bringing people together, sparking creativity, and making this community a more beautiful place. Join us for her behind the scenes talk on experience design. 


I'm going to start off with a little story. It's funny that we're here in Yelp. I remember 11 years ago, when I moved here from a small town in Kansas. I didn't really know anybody. I was pretty extroverted and pretty social, so it was kind of killing me to have zero friends and to be super lonely. But it was like right around the time of Yelp Elite. I joined Yelp Elite and wrote around a hundred reviews. I went to all the parties at the new restaurants and learned the city and ended up with about a million friends. I could go around the city and see someone I knew everywhere. It was actually really formative to my feelings about community building and the way I interact with a lot of the events that I designed. Yelp made my transition into San Francisco so much smoother.

On the topic of loneliness I spoke on in my story, it's becoming more and more clear that there are real health detriments to loneliness. On, they say that indeed many nations around the world now suggest we are facing a loneliness epidemic. The challenge we face is what can be done about it? Why is loneliness a public health threat? It's a genuine health issue for a lot of people. Our communities are getting more and more isolated. People are interacting more online and less in person. It's actually a genuine health problem. I love this quote from Kurt Vonnegut. I think I put it in every presentation I give.

"What should young people do with their life today? Many things, obviously. but the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured."

The cool thing is, every single event, including this wonderful event that you're at, does a little bit to cure loneliness. Many of these events also create cultural change. I'm excited to talk to you about that. First I'm going to give you a little background about myself.

When I moved to San Francisco and was lonely on my couch, I worked for a startup called JPEG magazine that I'm sure no one has heard of or remembers. It was sort of a cross between Flicker and maybe like Dwell. I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It was user generated. I got hired as a senior designer, and then my boss got fired in the bloodiest internet hate storm imaginable. This was within a year of moving to Cisco. The work still needed to be done, so I was doing his work, and then got promoted to design director, and then editor in chief, and then I was laid off. It was the ultimate "Super shaky ground startup in San Francisco" story. I got burned by the startup that doesn't have its act together at all.

That was sort of a disorienting experience because I thought I was an editor then. I had made a career progression. I had been clearly an editor now, and not a designer. Also, my desk was really messy, and the designers' desks were really clean, so I felt I was obviously not a designer, but an editor. That was a funny time. It was right after the economy collapsed. I had no job options whatsoever. It was early 2009, when everything was closing, and publishing was going down the tubes.

So, I created my own online magazine. I wanted to stay an editor. I did the design on it, as well. But I still wanted to be an editor day to day. As I wrote here, I tried to be the Ira Glass of the photo essay, and the world noticed. I told human stories. People would submit a photo and a caption, just one photo and one caption, to themes like "the one who got away" or "culture shock" or about other meaningful moments. I would edit the photos and the text and work with some of the top designers. I worked with people like Nick Felton and Jessica Hish and Ryan Sims, and they would guess design and create these beautiful magazine-like showcases. I got to stay an editor. I got a ton of press. People were into it. I got to get all this wisdom from people's life stories and it was great.

However, I really hated selling advertising. I was the only person. It was just me. I really, really hated doing the business side of it. Cold calling and selling ads was just so miserable. I went back to design. I was super lucky that Pinterest brought me on almost 4 years ago today. It was a great experience to get to have a lot of fun creating events and having the loose and warm style with a lot of heart that I'm used to. I really appreciated that experience to learn. I got to design a Pendabego It crosses a pendant and piniata.

I made these posters about a year ago for the women's march, and I decided to put them on medium and to also make hundreds for my colleagues at Pinterest. I think it was downloaded thousands of times on medium, and it ended up all over the world. These are some shots that I pulled from Instagram. It was just really neat to do a little design thing and have an impact. You may have seen that if you went to the marches here in San Francisco or maybe elsewhere.

That's just a little bit about me. Now, I want to talk a little bit about what I said before about the power of events. Hopefully I hit home with the importance of loneliness. We all are on the same page there. I want to also talk about that social change piece. A few years ago, my friend Julie introduced me to a friend of hers and said,

"This is my friend Laura. She creates events that become movements.

I found that extremely flattering, but not really true at all. Those are big shoes to fill. It's maybe something that someday I'd like to say is true. But I realize that I have been a part of some cultural waves in the past. I started for this talk to really think about why that happened and what was going on there. I think what happened is that, when I was creating my own events or even for Pinterest, I was really thinking about a big cultural need, and I was really driven by a big cultural need.

I think when you are driven by a cultural need, you tend to ride with a wave of cultural change. I'm not saying at all that I created that cultural change, but I was just part of that ocean wave. I'm going to go through three case studies and explain what I mean by that.

Fruitcamp and Eat Retreat are sister events. I'm combining them together. These are retreats that I started. I wrote about it: When an ambitious camping trip turns into an annual creative retreat for photographers. I had that JPeg magazine job that was publishing photographers. They were amazing folks, mostly in their 20s and 30s. After I got laid off, I started blogging about some of them and kind of learning more about them, and I realized how similar they all were, and how they all worked independently as I was at the time. And, they didn't have a creative community. They didn't know other photographers and were more competing with each other than part of a community.

I sent the most terrifying email of my life. I had to just will myself to press send. That was an email inviting 80 strangers whom I had never met to meet me at China Camp State Park in the north. Bizarrely enough, 20 of them said yes and came. People came from England, Australia, and all over the world. I had seen that cultural need for this group of independent creators and designers to have a community and have a sense of community with each other.

It was an intimidating task to take these strangers and make them into a force of its own, but it was just incredibly rewarding. What happened was, we had amazing photos from the weekend, and I put them together into the story of Fruitcamp using my editorial and design skills. I got a lot of inbound interest and attention from the New York Times and folks who wanted to sponsor it. It was a really surprising thing. This is while I was working on my serious journalism magazine project. Oddly enough I totally burnt out on the serious thing, and the weird thing I was doing on the site actually is continuing to keep my interest and be a lot of fun.

I'm going to read this postcard to show what it has meant to people: Laura, I want to dearly thank you for the wonder and possibility that is Fruitcamp. I remember on the first night I said I thought Fruitcamp was going to be a life changing experience. It absolutely was. Fruitcamp is my forever. Full of growth, friendship, adventure, love, and kindness.

I have a dresser drawer full of letters like this, and that is just the best feeling ever. There's no amount of clipboards and spreadsheets that can take away the joy of that. It was just incredible to be a part of every time.

In terms of the hidden power of Fruitcamp, what it came down to was how replicable the bonding was. Basically you get 40 or fewer people- and I do believe it needs to be under 40- for two or three days out in the country to have beer, coffee, and something in common. You will have an amazing community form out of that. It's like physics or something. I have a theory about this. I think if you meet a new person, and you really like them and hit it off, you will either see them a couple more times within the next month, or you will not become close friends. When you can combine those first three or four conversations into one weekend, then you have cracked the code. And when you can do that with 40 people, you've really cracked the code, and you have people who will be addicted to each other and really support each other long term.

Another interesting thing comes up when I talk about movements. It's very strange. We were doing camp and the flicker days, and then Instagram launched, and we all joined within the first few days. We all got put on the suggested user list, and ended up with hundreds of thousands of followers. A side effect is that I think I maybe need to apologize a little bit for the hipster photography that were in the cultural beginnings of Instagram, because we had such an early effect, and we had so many followers.

I want to share some ideas to steal. There's way more demand for people to get to be part of experiences like this than there are people wanting to do the clipboards and spreadsheets of it. So please, steal my ideas. Ask me how to do it. I think having some kind of catchy invite or announcement to build buzz is obviously a stealable idea. The flag on the right is reusable every year. It's quick and Instagrammable, and builds momentum in real life to.

This I think is a really stealable and good idea. I'm a little mad at myself for giving this away. For folks who work with brands or do sponsored events, having worked on the brand side, I know how particular they are about how the logo is used and how the placement is. I think it's best to work with physical objects. Plus, it feels way more genuine to have these mugs that say Squarespace rather than a Squarespace logo in the image. I couldn't make it to this one today because I had a newborn, but I just sent vinyl letters and mugs to the event, and they made this. Then there were 12 posts of some variation of this, and the brand was super happy.

I'm going to talk a little bit about Eat Retreat, the sister event. This one was for leaders in the food community. It's attendee lead, meaning the people who come actually teach a lot of the workshops and determine the programming. I would just set the tone and the framework for it.

For example, at Eat Retreat, this was a food stylist's kit that she opened up. Here are some chefs flaying fish. This was the first night of the first one. Then on the right you can see some of the activities on the most recent one about a September ago, about Midwest food traditions and bitters and American cheese tasting.

I feel such a calling to help rebuild a food tradition and culture in America. I don't know who else here grew up eating Oreos and Minott rice and Richtel beans and food out of boxes and cans. I definitely did, and I don't feel like I can eat the way that my parents and grandparents did. So that's the social change that I really want to see out of Eat Retreat, is rebuilding food traditions for our children and grandchildren. I just feel like we're a little bit of a lost generation in terms of food traditions in America right now.

So, ideas to steal from Eat Retreat. I love this one. We didn't use a single disposable cup, plate, or fork. I'm really into the zero waste thing. We wrote everyone's name on a mason jar, and they had to keep it the whole weekend. Then they could take a yogurt starter or whatever home with them at the end of the weekend. I think that going zero waste for events seems like it's harder, but in some ways it's actually easier, and just way better all around.

Someone took some of the vinyl letters at one of these events and put "Love Is Real" up in the corner. That's what I was feeling there, just super full of love and acceptance from the people who I had so much in common with. It meant so much to me that someone put that up there. Again the vinyl letters on plates, and then these are actually chalkboard tablecloths which I highly recommend as a way to label. Food looks great on there. We just did portraits where people shared their food philosophy, and that made for a really fun portrait series every year.

Switching gears. I was really lucky about four years ago working with dropbox, to get to work on a women and design event. It was right after I had my first child. At the time I was freelancing with dropbox, and I was really confused about when to go back to work full time, and I put this on Quora. When is the best age range of my kids to go back to work full time? I just didn't really know up from down, and I knew that I was really bored and missed my computer and design. I was really sleep deprived. I needed an outlet. I was looking to the internet for guidance.

I got some terrible responses from people saying things like once they're 12, they should be ready. These are really depressing responses when you're in that mode. And I really felt such a strong need for role models. This was only four years ago. But I think even way more so then than now, mothers would not bring up that they had children. Certainly not in interviews, but maybe not much in the workplace, and not much in social or professional life. I can tell you from having been a mother of small children with a full time job, I did not have time to be writing articles, or giving talks. I'm a freelancer now, which is why I can do that. I really felt a lack of role models. One cultural need is a need for role models for working moms.

It's proven that they are discriminated against in hiring. One of the most discriminated against groups, mothers are. I felt so lucky to get to work on not only a women and design event, but I asked them if we could do it as moms and design, and they said yes. So I worked with the very talented Alice Lee. Alice was throwing out ideas, and she was just running through things, and she said,

"My mom is so talented."

That one just hit me like a punch in the stomach. It's something that we don't hear. It's something that isn't said about moms. It's something that gets so depressing.

But it was so much fun to get to do that work right then. They asked me to write a medium post about my experience and feeling really disoriented. It was on the editor's picks, and also later featured in a Facebook video. It was something that was really resonant with a lot of people. I also made these postcards that I took to xo xo in Brooklyn beta. They said,

"My mom is so talented she ___," and I had people fill them out and I put them all in a tumbler. Again, there was a cultural need for this, so it picked up steam, and was featured several places.

This was the event itself, and honestly it was kind of electric. A lot of women came who weren't moms, who just didn't know what their careers were going to look like once they had kids, and just had no idea what to expect. This was just like me when I had a newborn. Besides the panel, we also had a video booth where people could tell their own stories of their talented moms. We also had postcard stations where you could fill that sentence out and then send it to your mom.

This is my son on his first day of preschool. We had these lunch bags, which is really great, because I sent both my kids to school with these. I don't care what the other moms thought, because I got work to do for quality. There were these temporary tattoos, too.

I think you guys know the research. This is from Harvard Business Review. Even women think men are more creative. Both men and women rated creativity higher when told that their architect was a man. I find myself doing this all the time. I've been having that kind of bias. It is so ingrained in every little bit of us. That's what the "My mom is so talented" helps do to change people's perceptions about what a mom can be.

Some ideas to steal. These blackboards. We ordered them two hours before the event, and they showed up 45 minutes before. We chalked them up because we realized it's a panel, and we didn't have a presentation, and that if we didn't give people something to look at, they would be analyzing our every pore. We did not want that to happen. Besides the fact that we should have put our Twitter handles and whatnot on it, it was like a great last minute solve and something I highly recommend.

If you have moms coming to your event, the Lunchbox and the stickers were great pieces. Then the postcards were a lot of fun too, in terms of building buzz ahead of time, and having more of an impact.

Last case study. Again, I feel super fortunate to have gotten to work on this. Basically when I came back from maternity leave at Pinterest, they asked me to create a defining cultural moment for Pinterest. I got to help found and design Pinterest Internal. Conference. What is the cultural need there? I'm going to tell you a little bit about Pinterest culture to help you understand this.

I came in just thinking, 'I was in a magazine, I'm kind of a big deal. I've won some big awards and whatever, I'm hot shit obviously.' Then immediately it was like 'Oh no, I am not as cool or good as anyone else here. Everyone else is cool about it and I really need to get my act together.' That's true, there are McSweeney's published people in the writing team, and semi-professional athletes, and ballerinas. Pinterest is an amazing place. I heard once that Evan, one of the founders, said that'

"Pinterest is a place for people who have more passions than time." That made me feel that there were others like me. That was wonderful. While it's great that there are all these amazing people and that they have their egos in check, that also leaves a lot of their personality just kind of stuffed in the corner.

When thinking about how to meet a cultural need for a big cultural event for the company, it was really important for me to think about how to let people shine as their whole selves in an office culture. So, Nitcon was born, and let me explain Nitcon.

There's a value at Pinterest called Knitting, and that means it's not a design culture or an engineering culture, it's more of a cross disciplinary culture. So, Nitcon would be the epitome of that happening. Nitcon was an event where anyone in the company could apply to teach a class. That could be about style, intersectional feminism, drag makeup, kitesurfing, anything.

I saw this pin on Pinterest. I actually designed a custom alphabet for the event the first year using those overlapping shapes and the idea of something new being created when two things merge. That became so useful. The first year I created a skylight install out of laser cut acrylic in these nine foot skylights that I was super super pleased with. Then the second year, I did it again in the next building. Who doesn't love some one inch buttons? Here's the alphabet the second year, coming in again. This is the third year of the event where we broke it down to more geometric shapes, and these are the stickers that went on the cover of the Notebook.

There was just so much passion and so much talent in that group of people that they didn't get to express themselves every day. There was also an open mic night where you got to see your coworkers kill it and be themselves. I'm really happy to say that it's been a huge hit at Pinterest. It's a lot of people's favorite thing about working there. It had something like a 99 percent approval rating. I think it also really helped people understand why Pinterest the product is amazing, because it helps people tap into their passions and their feelings about creating things. The CEO mentioned it in a talk as one of the fundamental moments in the company's history that kept it on track.

Some ideas to steal from Nitcon. Who doesn't love a little Madlib? This was an insane amount of work, but I loved it and insisted upon doing it. Each name tag and tote bag had the first letter of the person's name, and there was no Pinterest branding on there whatsoever.

If you know you're going to have a several year event, designing an alphabet can be a great way to make your life easier in the long run. These are really fun. This is a laser-cut eco board. It's a half inch thick recyclable foam core, and this is really an inexpensive way to create a super large sculpture. These have been reused several times. This was just an instance where we needed to make a big splash. We couldn't damage the walls. It was just a great solution that made the workplace team really happy. Also, motion graphics on TVs like this are a great investment because they really change the mood of the room.

My takeaway in closing is that, thinking about those cultural needs and meeting them is just a great way to have a lot more impact, and propel yourself forward. Organize something. For example, there's this big rural and city divide. Maybe you do some kind of gathering. It doesn't have to be a retreat. Maybe it's a dinner party or a happy hour, combining people from different backgrounds. It's just really powerful stuff, to get people in the same room together.