A chance meeting in New York by her parents decades ago lead South African, Lorien Miller, to move to the city where her parents fell in love. Here she discovered her passion for user experience design and she shares with us the journey she took to get to where she is today.
How did you get to where you are today?
Um… Fuck. [Laughs]
Well, a lot of why I’m here is because my parents fell in love here. My dad is South African and my mom is American and they met on a blind date in the city in 1972.
Dad was here on business and they had a mutual friend who they were going to go out with but the friend got sick that night. So, it was just the two of them, they hit it off and had a two week romance. After that dad went back to South Africa, they stayed in touch for two years, then lost touch for two years. Then dad came back, to cut a long story short [laughs].
This is amazing! Tell us the whole story.
My dad was married at the time they met. When he came back four years later he was still with his wife (who came with him). They were both miserable though and had an amicable divorce. Mom and Dad started getting serious, then they got engaged and moved to South Africa. The idea was to go for just three years, this was ‘79, but she fell pregnant and they stayed.
How does your mom find living in South Africa?
She is South African now, well she’s both, but it’s been about 35 years. She’s found her groove in education and having a seriously positive impact there.
Do they think of coming back?
They do. They love the States. They have friends here. They’re actually coming next week. We’re going to go on a trip and visit all the family. My mom’s sister lives in upstate New York, my dad’s sister lives in Ottawa. Most of our family is in Canada and the States.
Is your mom from New York City?
She was born on Long Island and grew up in Great Neck.
Do you have siblings?
I have a sister in London. She lived in New York for seven years before moving to London a couple years ago.
It’s always been part of my plan to be here. When I was visiting four years ago it struck me that if I want to live here I’m going to have to do it. That was in 2010, so I went back home and left a year later.
You obviously knew some people here when you came.
I had a great set up. My sister was here and we had family and close friends here. It was an amazing landing pad. I was really lucky to have such a huge support system.
I was working in technology in South Africa. I was a business analyst and project manager for a consulting company. I was doing a lot of travel for that. I lived in Bahrain for a few months working in a bank. I was in Namibia for a bit and travelled all around South Africa. A lot of bank stuff, redesigning business processes or helping banks get started.
How did you get into User Experience (UX)?
I knew leaving South Africa I wanted to explore UX, or at least the design side of things. I don’t even know if I understood that word, UX. I might have just uncovered that word and thought ‘that sounds good’ [laughs].
When I came here I met a friend that was working for the digital agency, Huge. She was telling me that they needed business analysts. I freelanced for a while and in that period one of the UX designers that I was on a project with asked, ‘Have you ever thought about getting into UX?’ I said, ‘Actually, yes!’ He connected me with other UX people at the company and I applied to the Huge UX school. That’s a ten-week internship at Huge.
I had to submit a design exercise and that was my first wireframe.
For our non-design readers, what is a wireframe?
A wireframe is a diagram that shows the structural and functional elements of a webpage. The way I describe User Experience designers is as the architects of the website, or anything digital. We need to figure out what needs to happen on the site, who’s coming to it and why, what they need to do and we figure out how to help them do that as easily and delightfully as possible.
Are you happy you made the move to UX?
Definitely. I feel like what I did before is all part of the same thing, it’s just the other side of the coin. It’s not just tech, it’s solving problems, that’s what I do. It’s just different ways of approaching the problem and wearing different hats. I feel like I’ve added another hat and I’m learning more and more.
The biggest learning curve has been a new vocabulary. I now need to speak visually, where as before I would write notations and explain how things are working and now I need to use drawings, literally.
It’s been awesome learning a visual vocabulary. It’s a big challenge. I didn’t even know it was a thing.
Where do you see yourself going with this position?
I don’t know. Because I’ve done so many different roles from business analysis to project management to this, I’m still unpacking and understanding how they all tie together. That will define where I take it.
At school were you the same, that you followed one thing you liked which lead you to another and then another?
Yeah, that’s kind of how it’s been. I really look up to my parents. My mom’s in education, and my dad’s in technology. Right now my mom is working with teachers in South Africa and teaching them how to teach literacy at schools. We have a major education crisis in South Africa. A lot of teachers are using old traditional techniques to teach students. Children are coming out of school not being able to read, they might be able to read the letters and words but they won’t necessarily understand the meaning of them. That’s a skill set that needs to be taught and nurtured. Growing up in an educated household, that comes with the family. You’ll read together and you’ll naturally be learning comprehension. But in poorer areas where parents may not be working or may not be educated you’ve got nowhere to learn those skills. So, my mom teaches teachers how to teach that.
My dad travels a lot and consults with big technology projects that are funded by the government, World Bank or other NGOs who want to use technology to uplift their people. He goes in and works with the project people and helps them figure out to how evaluate and monitor the project.
Were your parents happy about you moving to New York?
Well, they both want to be here [laughs]. They love New York. I think they love both places. New York is just such an exciting place. They’re big theatre-goers. I like the theatre but I’ve been more drawn to music since I moved here. I’m hoping my mom will cook here at least once [laughs].
Is your mom a good cook?
Yeah, her cooking is influenced from everywhere.
What’s South African food? What did you eat growing up?
We didn’t eat that traditionally but sometimes we had traditional food like biryani. Sweet curry is quite traditional in South Africa, especially in Cape Town.
What was it like growing up in Cape Town?
Being white I was quite protected from the racial conflicts that were going on at the time. During the 1980’s when it was really bad I was really young. I didn’t know what was going on because I was lucky enough not to have to know or face it.
We had gardeners and helpers who lived with us. It’s a very South African thing to have your house cleaner live with you. When our helpers’ siblings needed a place to hide my parents let them stay with us. I had no idea what was going on. It was really dangerous at the time to be involved in the struggle and help anyone.
1994 was our first democratic election and leading up to that, schools were starting to get mixed. Aside from that it was still a segregated society. Structures were put in place to separate white people from black people from colored people. There were these terms used to define people and there were these ridiculous tests to classify people. To test if someone was black there was the “Pencil test” and they would put a pencil in their hair
and if it stuck they were black.
It would stick in my hair!
You probably wouldn’t have been put to the test being strawberry blonde and blue eyed [laughs].
There were families that would be split. Some would be “black” and some would be “colored”.
What’s the difference?
“Colored” people have a so-called mixed ethnic origin and generally have a lighter brown skin tone, for example from Indian or Indonesian descent.
The government treated everyone differently. Being “black”, according to the government, was “the worst” you could be, they had it the hardest. For the coloreds - sometimes it was good for them and sometimes it was bad. The government tried to turn people against each other.
At school were you taught about what was happening?
Yes, our curriculum changed when we became a democracy. I don’t remember the transition, I feel like I’ve always been taught the “right stuff”, in the sense of being honest about what was going on. I took history, which I’m really grateful for, so I learned about the laws that were passed and the resistance struggle that had gone on It was a crazy period.
At school we could pick a language to learn. We have 11 official languages in South Africa. The government and everything is issued in English, but then there’s Xhosa, Afrikaans, Zulu ... to name a few.
I took Afrikaans until grade 9 and then I took my second language as Xhosa.
You’re doing a click with your tongue when you say that.
Yes, there are a few clicks in the language. You pronounce the ‘X’ a certain way.
That’s blowing my mind. It doesn’t even seem like it’s coming from you.
It’s like with horses when you're doing the clicks at the side of your mouth.
Is a lot of the language made up of that sound?
No, it’s just a way of pronouncing certain letters. A ‘C’ is another click and ‘Q’ is another click but those are the only clicks.
Did you go to university in Cape Town?
Yes. This goes back to my parents, because my dad was in involved in technology and I saw that he was making a difference in the world and I wanted to do that as well. I wanted to use tech to make the world a better place.
I did a business degree majoring in information systems.
Did a lot of your friends from school leave Cape Town?
A lot left to London and Australia mainly. There’s also a core group that stayed. A lot travelled around Africa, Europe, some to the States.
When did you move to New York?
Have you lived in the East Village the whole time?
When I got here I stayed with a close family friend, Sue, in the Upper West Side. Then I stayed with another family friend for a month in Chelsea and then I moved here.
How do you like the East Village?
I love it.
What are some of your favorite places?
Well, my favorite bar is actually in Chinatown, Forgetmenot. I went there the other night for the first time in months and I thought, ‘Yes, yes, this is still my favorite place.’ It was started by a couple and it’s full of trinkets from their life. I can’t stop looking at the ceiling or the walls. I find that place really inspiring.
My other favorite place, my home-away-from-home, is my neighbors across the fence. I met them about a year ago.
Shortly after I moved in here I kept hearing live music coming from somewhere. I wondered where it was coming from and how would I ever meet the people playing it. One day, I had a particularly bad day, one of the what am I doing with my life? days and then I heard the music again. I didn’t even think, I took a kitchen stool and a flashlight and I went outside, it was about 9pm. I put the stool down in the corner of the garden amongst the bamboo, climbed up the stool with the flashlight in my mouth, hanging onto the bamboo. They stopped playing and must have thought what the hell is going on? The bamboo would’ve been shaking with the light coming through it. I say hello into the dark night and they say hello? I asked if they were playing music and they said yes and I asked can I join you? One of them said Yes! Hop on over! I literally climbed over the fence and I landed in their backyard. I felt like I was in another world. We jammed and drank for hours and we’ve been super close ever since.
So you play an instrument?
They’ve been teaching me a bit of ukulele. We sing and play the harmonica. It’s an epic friendship.
What a story! If someone climbed over my fence I’d be like ‘Ah, Police!’
So that is actually my favorite place. But in the East Village I absolutely love Jeepney, it’s a Filipino restaurant. Great cocktails and amazing food. I spent some time in the Philippines and it feels really legit.
Another amazing place is called Culturefix in LES. It’s also an art space.
There are just so many. That’s why I love living here. I just like walking around and knowing that I live here. Everyone comes here and thinks the East Village is so cool and I think ‘I know, I live here.’
Is that how you feel about New York as well?
Yeah, yeah I do feel that. I’m still excited about it. It’s an extremely challenging place to live. I can feel it takes its toll. When I’m walking down the streets, the rage I feel when someone is slow is not normal [laughs]. That’s just not normal behavior.
At the moment I feel like I will find my way back to Africa. I’m just not sure in what carnation yet and how that will all unfold. All I know is that I’m here now and it’s still great.
Is there anything you do in your daily/weekly life without fail?
I’ve got a few. I always write in my journal, I’ve been doing that for years.
In terms of weekly, I go to kickboxing twice a week.
To get your rage out?
I’ve got to get it out somehow [laughs]. Drumming is the other thing that I do. I take my Djembe drum, which I bought in Cape Town, up to Harlem to be taught by my awesome teacher Souleymane. We drum every Saturday. He teaches me rhythms. Some rhythms are used for fighting, some are used to get in touch with your ancestors so he shares stories about the rhythms as well as his own stories. He was a musician back home in West Africa and he travelled around a lot. It helps me connect to Africa.
Drumming and music really feeds my soul. It’s this thread that everyone can feel. Music is not exclusive at all. People have their tastes but I don’t know if there’s anyone who just does not like music.
What about dating in New York? Is that a nightmare?
Is this for your personal blog? [Laughs]
Our readers have written in, they really want to know (meaning me and Magda).
I’m not really in the dating scene. I don’t really like it.
Someone was telling me that apparently ‘dating’ is a very American thing.
I think it’s true. I never really went on dates before moving here. You just meet someone you get along with it and you’re in.
We send out cues and signals and what this dating scene has taught me is that you can’t take that shit for real.
What it comes down to, for me, is that the digital world has made us irresponsible with our actions. In a sense that we don’t need to deal with how what we do affects someone else. We can just ignore them, literally, ignore them and they go away. I’ve done it too. I now let people know directly when I don't want to pursue something. That's what I think digital does. We are careless with each other’s feelings and I don’t think that’s right.
Do you have any guilty pleasures? Like you’re addicted to chocolate and love the Backstreet Boys?
What always gets me is cheese. If there’s cheese around I can’t stop eating it and it’s kind of embarrassing how quickly I can go through whatever cheese is out. For that reason I don’t stock cheese.
That’s how bad it is that you don’t stock it.
I think it does get embarrassing when I’m out somewhere. That cheese is gone within minutes.
S: I can’t stop chocolate. Magda bought me an Australian chocolate, Crunchie, and I ate that for breakfast. I can’t have it in the house or I’ll have to eat it.
M: I’ve eaten salt and vinegar chips out of the bin. I’ve had half a packet and I’ve felt sick so I poured the chips into the bin and then I picked them out.
I used to waitress and I did sometimes eat food off the plates.
I would totally do that.
It was such a good restaurant. I mean you’re wasting a whole prawn!
You listed all these countries you’ve been to or lived in, is New York your favorite or is there somewhere else you’d consider living?
I spent a bit of time in Europe before I came here and pretty much every city I went to I thought Oh my god, I need to live here. The main two that stood out were Berlin and Amsterdam. I really felt like I could live there.
For a time I was contemplating living in the Philippines. I just had such an incredible experience there.
After college I travelled for a year. I came to the States and did a season snowboarding in Colorado. Then I just travelled around and the Philippines was one of my stops and I ended up there for two months.
But I guess I would probably live somewhere in Europe. The thing I love about Europe is that everything is so close. Such different things are so close.
What do you think of when you hear New York?
That’s a great question, I feel like I’m so in it that I haven’t stepped back in
a really long time and reflected what is this thing?
It is something that you’re in. It’s a constant hub and hum of stuff. It’s a complete interweaving of worlds.