Laura Brunow Miner on using an open source mindset to build a collaborative community
Published on March 09, 2020
In 2008, Laura Brunow Miner was working as editor in chief at an indie photography magazine, JPG. Then came the global financial collapse. That’s when she decided to take time and rethink what kind of work mattered most to her. Here’s how the creative director/brand designer/community builder/event planner/Reiki practitioner reinvented herself as an influential cultivator of intriguing creative projects.
You seem to draw inspiration from doing a lot of different kinds of work. Can you talk about the importance of boldly going where you've never gone before?
Some people talk about T-shaped people, people with two main skills. Maybe an engineer x designer or a writer x photographer. I've always been a star-shaped person. I think this is maybe a term that IDEO uses? I've always been someone who, even in high school, had no idea what I wanted to study because I liked all the subjects and I loved learning. I still do.
"That's been a big learning for me since then—there's no moving forward or backwards. It's all a labyrinth."
When I worked at Pinterest, I had to be less star-shaped and more focused as a brand designer. That was a great experience to specialize in a specific area and gain expertise. But after four years there, I was thrilled to leave and let all my star stems grow back in old and new directions. The Reiki came into my life right after that. It was a chance to expand back into my full shape.
When do you know it's time to break out of your comfort zone?
I think it's something the body tells you more than the mind. The mind can ruminate on something for quite a long time before it's ready to happen. I’ve observed when we try to make change—whether it's leaving a job, or leaving a relationship or any of the above—that there's a tendency to want to rush it. I think it takes at least six months for big decisions to process through. You know you're actually ready when your body just can't do it anymore.
Have there been times when you wondered what life would be like had you played it safe?
Not really! It’s not in my nature.
That said, in the four years that I worked at Pinterest, the safe option (to have a corporate 9-5 job) was exactly what I needed. I had small children. I had no ability to travel. I did not want a crazy schedule. I wanted a routine. I wanted to firmly learn the basics that I had skipped by having a crazy creative career in my 20s.
That time was super nourishing and expansive for me in its own way. So it was the right thing for that time.
As someone who was born in Texas and worked in both Kansas and California, how have those disparate work cultures influenced the way you collaborate?
I’ve noticed that in a lot of other cities, people are really guarded with their ideas and their knowledge. They feel like they'd be foolish to share what they know.
Something I love about California is the “open source information wants to spread” kind of mentality. It really has infiltrated the work culture in a way that someone will just sit down with you and be like, ‘Oh, you want to do this? Here's how to do it. Here's everything.’ I think there’s a common belief that it's better that more people know what they're doing than fewer people know what they're doing.
"It's funny how the goofy side project changed my life and my career trajectory much more than the serious one."
Maybe it’s because we've had such a wealth of opportunities in the Bay Area overall that we feel an ease of sharing, knowing that we're going to have plenty more interesting work coming our way. And that it's okay to be open.
I think it's going to be hard for any other city or region to be innovative in quite the same way unless they also can adopt that mindset around sharing and openness.
Of all your projects, which one is your proudest achievement and why?
Tough question! I think it would be a tie between two projects that were born at the same time. Let me start at the beginning.
In aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, like many people, I lost my job. I felt at that time that it would be moving backwards to take a design job because I had “moved forward” in my career to become an editor in chief. That's been a big learning for me since then—there's no moving forward or backwards. It's all a labyrinth.
In any case, there were no design jobs. There were no editor jobs. Everything was frozen. I had very little choice but to work on things from a desk in my kitchen. It was a fruitful time to come up with my own ideas, for me and a lot of other talented creative people with time on their hands during that time.
The big idea that I was most focused on then was an online magazine, Pictory, which did win awards and get acclaim. It’s something I did happily for years. But sometimes when you're focused on something like that, something else comes up on the side.
In this case, I was feeling a little under-socialized, working at home with my cats every day. So I decided to throw a camping trip, Phoot Camp, for the cool-seeming photographers I had published when I worked at the photo magazine. I thought, ‘Well, it seems like Paul and Steph will get along and Ryan and Rob should know each other.’ So I emailed dozens of strangers and invited them to go on a camping trip with me. It was the most terrifying email I've ever sent. It took every bit of courage to press send on that.
Why were you hesitant?
Because I had no idea what I was doing. Because teaching yourself event planning will take years off your life! I'm on the other side of it now, but there were some serious lessons learned. Driving up to the first Phoot Camp, I had to roll the windows up in the car and just scream at the top of my lungs because that was a terrifying thing to go be the leader of 20 strangers.
I discovered though that events with a curated group of people—particularly retreats or other multi-day events—are incredibly powerful in terms of community building. I put a lot of thought and intention into who was going to be there, and how they could help each other in their lives, and how they could be a support system for each other.
It's been a decade since then, and I'm still working with those people, and they’re still working with each other. I literally just got off the phone with one of them because we're collaborating on the design of a conference with [redacted celebrity]. The gifts from that experience have continued on and been so much more than the sum of their parts. It has been a really powerful thing.
So that was Phoot Camp. It was this crazy group of photographers, just having pure creative play together. They might do a scavenger hunt with photos or a big crazy group shot in the water with kayaks or just any number of insane, goofy things that were just for the pure fun of friendship and joy and photography and creative play.
Phoot Camp was sort of an accident that happened while I was working on the “serious” online magazine project that I collaborated with NPR and the New York Times on. It's funny how the goofy side project changed my life and my career trajectory much more than the serious one. But maybe there’s something there, about what happens when you're trying to be the person that the world will respect, versus following the joy.
What motivated you to try something like Phoot Camp? Had you been to something similar?
My inspiration was Foo Camp (Friends Of O'Reilly), put on by O'Reilly Media, the tech publisher. They had done an event—gosh, it must have been 15 plus years ago—where they invited a curated group of people in the tech industry to come into their empty offices to connect and learn from each other. They made it an “unconference.” Anyone could say ‘I'm going to teach about C++ in this room at this time.’ I heard about it and thought it sounded like the coolest thing ever, and modeled Phoot Camp after it. Fun fact, I later got to attend a Foo Camp for journalists, NewsFoo!
When you're looking for collaborators, how do you recognize when somebody will be a good creative partner?
I try to only spend professional and personal time with people who play well with others. Whenever possible, I curate my events and the team of people I work with. It’s a huge value of mine to work with people who are enjoyable to be around. That's part of why I call my creative studio Buddy Buddy. It about the process for me, just as much as it is about the end result or the outcome. It's about having fun all the way through, feeling respected, feeling appreciated, and working with people who reciprocate that.
You met Ryan Schude for the first time at Phoot Camp?
Yes. I had published him in the photo magazine before that, so we knew each other over email. He's been a huge part of the event. He’s wonderfully strange, in a very lovable way, and extremely talented. He epitomizes that sharing and mentoring concept that I think is a such an important part of California work culture.
He loves to teach other people how to do what he does or how to do what they do better. He never comes from a place of ego. He has a gentle leadership style that people love. People can tell he's comfortable in his skin. They love his mentoring and teaching spirit. Ryan and I have been through a lot together, along that journey of teaching ourselves event planning the hard way. Venues falling through at the last minute, and all kinds of funny messes we got ourselves into in our 20s due to wishful thinking.
But it’s funny how that played out with the SFMOMA project. Our third collaborator, Dylan Hosey, our set builder, had his entire studio and workshop burn down two and a half weeks before the SFMOMA event. Obviously, we were so bummed to see such a life-changing, tragic event befall a friend. It also left us without our set builder, who had been working at cost and not charging for his design time. We didn't have money to replace him, yet we had a commitment to create something worthy of the SFMOMA a few weeks later.
In that moment, I was so happy for everything that came before and having had all those experiences in the past where we had to hustle and find a new venue or figure something else out at the last second. This time, it wasn't our fault. It wasn't our own irresponsibility that landed us in a crunch. But we had learned how to handle the crunches through those other experiences together!
How has technology changed the way you work over the past decade?
Something I've loved is the way Adobe has done Creative Cloud. Things like Libraries have been a great way for me to share color palettes, logo assets, and all sorts of things. I love having access to it. The other thing that's been really useful is Slack. I love being able to have a good history of messages of things organized by thread.
I also love the way sharing has gotten so much easier with Dropbox. I used to think, ‘Wait, am I sharing the link or the folder?’ I used to get confused, but now I think it's kind of effortless to share Dropbox folders through links. I just hit that button that says, ‘Share’ and copy the link.
I use Dropbox every day. I think selective sync is really easy to use. I love being able to toggle folders off on my Dropbox when my computer gets full.
What's next? Any new projects in the works?
I still primarily do “physical brand” design—events, installations, and print materials—through Buddy Buddy, but I am also building a business, Reiki Patio, on the side as a practitioner of the Japanese healing art. I do that one day a week, and find it really awesome to connect one-on-one with people on a little tree-lined patio.
I'm also really excited about a green schoolyard project that I'm working on with my kids’ public school, to bring the therapeutic power of gardening and plants to an inner city population that can really benefit from it.
Laura Brunow Miner and Ryan Schude are our newest Dropbox Brand Ambassadors. In August 2019, they worked with the SFMOMA to create a live art event celebrating the creativity of SFMOMA staff. We invited them to join our community of Ambassadors because of their pioneering vision and expert ability to use Dropbox to collaborate and create something completely original. To learn more about Laura's work, check out lauraminer.com and follow @lbm