To design anything useful, you need to understand how the world works. You need to be curious, you need to be observant, and you need to ask questions—about everything.
Developing new ways to optimize the tools at hand has been in Wilson Miner‘s blood from the time he could read—which he learned how to do on the computer. He said, “I’ve been playing around on computers since I was old enough to use one. My dad used to get these educational kids games for the Apple II, so I say I learned to read from computer games.” But Wilson was less interested in the game itself, than the software it was built on. He said, “I had this game, Cosmic Osmo that was made with HyperCard, this amazing software for the Mac that was kind of a precursor to the Web. Everything was based on a metaphor of a stack of “cards” and you could build all kinds of things—from databases to games—by linking the cards together and scripting all kinds of actions. My dad bought a copy of HyperCard, and I spent hours making half-finished adventure games with terrible jokes and really bad art. But, that’s what got me started in what we now think of as interaction design.”
Since the early days of HyperCard, Wilson found a way to customize the way he interacted with the screen and personalize the content, and he has made a life’s work out of doing that just that. He has redesigned existing platforms, like Apple, that connect emotionally and sell products, and he has built functional frameworks like Django, a web framework that encourages rapid development and clean, pragmatic design. He is now Head of Design for Rdio, a ground-breaking digital music service that reinvents the way people discover, listen to, and share music.
We are especially interested in new platforms for designers to share meaningful dialogue, share their perspectives, and engage the design community. We asked Wilson his thoughts on what some of these new platforms could be. He said, “I love that we’re writing and publishing physical magazines and journals about digital design. Kickstarter has been a huge part of that, and I think it’s also been an interesting platform itself for design “dialogue” in the form of building actual physical products and putting them out in the world. That’s a really articulate way to share a perspective on design: make something. Kickstarter creates an opportunity for new voices to participate in that kind of exchange of ideas by enabling people to create and share something they couldn’t have otherwise. It also lets a whole community of people, who are all really interested in that thing existing, participate in the process.”
Wilson has been at the helm of many products at their start, including EveryBlock, a site that gathers local news and public information and filters it by location to provide “a news feed for your block,” where he was the founding the designer. We asked him if he considers himself an entrepreneur and how he views design’s role in the foundational stages of a product. He said, “I don’t think I have the entrepreneurship gene. I’m not good at pitching things, and I’m not fueled by the excitement of risk the way some people are—I’d rather focus on what I enjoy, which is working on a product.” For Wilson, everything that happens in the early stages of forming a product is design.
He said, “You make choices about what a product is, how it’s going to work, and how it’s architected that will fundamentally shape the product. These choices aren’t only made by the sacred realm of people with “design” in their job title—a lot of the most important design decisions happen in code.” Wilson acknowledges that we’ve crossed over a threshold in the startup world where there is now an assumption that it’s a good idea to pay attention to design from the very beginning. But, he thinks we have to work to make design’s role a substantial one. He said, “There is still a big gap in understanding what design means, and how to find designers who can contribute in a meaningful way in the early stages of product design. We have a responsibility as designers to step up to the plate here. We’re invited to the table, now we need to bring something to it.”
Wilson also believes that we need to think broadly about the world, what we build, and how we learn the skills we need to create meaningful work. When we asked him if designers should be educated in business, he said, “To design anything useful, you need to understand how the world works. That’s not limited to business. You need to be curious, you need to be observant, and you need to ask questions—about everything.”
Wilson began his design career as a curious kid that shuffled around “cards.” Even then, he was empowered—he could control the content to create something new. Today, he’s still excited about the opportunities that technology provides to creators. He said, “So many things are possible that weren’t possible two years ago. Not just on the web. Screens are everywhere, and we can do so much with them, and our opportunity to have an impact is multiplying very quickly.”
We have to disagree with Wilson when he says he’s not good at pitching things. We watched his talk, When We Build, (and we think most people agree) that they too were moved by Wilson’s words. By the end of his talk we truly believe that we have the power and the tools to change the world. We think that’s a pretty good pitch for empowerment, passion, and excitement for the time we live in. He’s sold us.