Dan Mall is an award-winning designer from Philadelphia. He is an enthralled husband to his wife, Emily, a new dad to his daughter, Sidda, Founder & Design Director of SuperFriendly, co-founder of Typedia and swfIR, and singer/keyboard player for contemporary-Christian band, Four24. Dan was formerly a Design Director at Big Spaceship, Interactive Director at Happy Cog, and a technical editor for A List Apart. He writes about design and other issues on Twitter and his industry-recognized site, danielmall.com.
We were super excited to interview Dan just before he announced his move from Brooklyn back to his hometown of Philly to start his design studio, Superfriendly. There’s no doubt that Dan has what it takes to make it happen—talent, experience, and drive. It was an honor to hear Dan share about his path into the world of design, mentors he had along the way, the importance of being humble, and why it’s a great time for design. Thank you, Dan, and best of luck on the next leg of your journey!
Interview date: January 25, 2012
This interview is sponsored by The Manual—a beautifully crafted journal with a focus on the discipline of web design and who we are as designers.
We’re big fans of The Manual. The content is spot-on, challenging, and beautifully laid out on the finest paper. If you’re a designer working on the web, this is a seriously invaluable resource to add to your library.
Describe your path to becoming a designer.
I used to draw all the time and have carried a sketchbook around with me since I was four or five years old. I took it with me to school and that was one of the ways I made friends because I was pretty introverted as a kid. I used to just draw and people would come up and say, “Hey will you draw me?” or, “Will you draw this?” and I would draw it. Growing up, I wanted to be an artist and more specifically, an animator. I had also thought about being a comic book artist because I used to read comic books all the time. I was and still am a huge Superman fan.
Around the time I was in ninth grade, 3-D animation started to become a popular thing. Since I already had a desire to do animation, I then wanted to become a 3-D animator. I took 3-D animation classes throughout high school and decided that’s what I wanted to go to college for. I applied to a few colleges that had a 3-D animation program and I was accepted into a few of them. I went to was Drexel University in Philadelphia because they had a really great digital media program, which was half interactivity stuff and half 3-D animation.
I was really excited about it, but when I got into the program and took the first 3-D class, I realized I was so, so terrible at it. I had kids in my class that were amazing—they’re now working at DreamWorks and Pixar. They were so good and I was so bad. I didn’t get it as well as they did; it took me a lot longer and it wasn’t as fluid. I realized I wasn’t a natural at it.
At that same time, I discovered graphic design. I didn’t even know that graphic design was something you could have a job doing. I’d never heard the term before, which is kind of weird, but I discovered that that’s what I really wanted to do. Even as a kid writing papers in school, I would change margins and pick different fonts to make my papers a little longer as a way of beating the system. I always had a fascination with how people use things and read them, but I didn’t know it was something I could have a career in.
I decided I was actually interested in design, although the whole time, I had thought I was interested in art. I sort of dual majored in college even though my school didn’t officially allow that. I took a ton of design classes in addition to the digital media classes and had really great professors in each area. Rather than focusing on 3-D animation, I focused more on the interactivity end and learned Flash and other interactive stuff as well as learning about graphic design through my typography and visual communication classes. The combination of interactivity, animation, and graphic design led me to my career.
When I was in school, I got a really good internship at a small place right outside Philadelphia called TMX Interactive. There, I worked with one of the best design teams I’ve probably ever worked with. The team was eight people and they were all rock-stars. In retrospect, it was weird that they were all under the same roof. It was people like Kevin Cornell, Jason Santa Maria, Rob Weychert, April Donovan, Chris Cashdollar, Steve Klein, Will Redmond, Andy Schulman, Dave Thompson—all these amazing people! And I was an intern there. I got a chance to develop relationships with these people, learn a ton from them, and I’ve also been able to keep in touch with them.
I really wanted to work at TMX after my internship was done, but it didn’t work out because they didn’t have it in the budget to hire me. I was really bummed, but I found another job in Philadelphia at a place called Electronic Ink. They worked on really big systems and weren’t specific to web design. They also did a lot of digital and usability work and decided to open a web division of that company. There was a designer there named Greg Hoy who was asked to start the web department. Greg asked me and another guy to come work for him in the web department and we said yes because that was what we were interested in—learning a lot about web standards and helping to pioneer that idea in the company.
From there, I talked to Jason Santa Maria and Rob Weychert and asked them to come on board, which they did on a part-time basis. Out of that, we formed a small company, Pixelworthy. In addition to Pixelworthy, we were all doing freelance work on the side with Jeffrey Zeldman, the Founder and Executive Creative Director at Happy Cog. Along the way, the conversation developed about us helping to open a Philadelphia branch of Happy Cog. We said yes because we all respected the brand and had done work for Zeldman. We opened the branch together and had a great time there working for Greg.
Then, about three or four years into working at Happy Cog Philadelphia, I got married. My wife Emily and I had both grown up in Philly and lived there for a long time. Once we got married, we asked ourselves what we could do next to challenge ourselves. Around that time, I had met Michael Lebowitz, the Founder/CEO of the Brooklyn based agency, Big Spaceship. I had always admired Big Spaceship’s work, even when I was in college. I started talking to Michael and it seemed like a great fit. Emily and I talked about it and decided we would move to New York. We had a good reason to move, do something different, and be challenged in new ways. We moved to Brooklyn about three years ago and I’ve been at Big Spaceship since then.
That’s quite the story.
I’ve got some fresh news though. At the beginning of January, I gave notice at Big Spaceship because a couple of random factors happened so that I could buy a house in Philadelphia. Now that Emily and I have a five month old daughter, Sidda, the prospect of being near family and being able to work from home is too good to pass up. I’ll finish up my last day at Big Spaceship on Friday [January 27th], we’ll move to Philly on Saturday [28th], and I’ll be working freelance at my own design studio, SuperFriendly.
[Post-interview Update: Dan and family have arrived in Philly and on February 1, 2012, Dan announced his new adventure—Superfriendly—on his blog.]
Congrats on SuperFriendly!
During that whole process of school, did you have an “aha” moment when you knew you wanted to focus on graphic design?
I don’t know if I had one big “aha” moment, but I did have a couple small revelations along the way. One revelation was discovering that graphic design was a thing—just looking through the course catalog and going, “Hey, what else is part of my school?” Investigating and learning about that by taking a black and white design class, color theory, and other classes led me to discover that that was my interest. I was never able to articulate that interest before that because I didn’t have a full understanding of what graphic design even was.
You talked about sketching when you were young. Was creativity a part of your childhood in other ways?
Totally. I learned to read when I was two or three and spent a lot of time reading as a kid. I was really fortunate because my maternal grandparents lived with my family when I was younger and my grandmother taught me to read really early on. I loved reading comic books, especially Superman. I had the whole outfit as a kid—the suit, the cape. The idea of pretending was really cool to me. Every picture of me as a kid is of me doing poses from the Superman movie with Christopher Reeves. I wanted to be Superman. The idea of make-believe and pretend and expressing myself in different ways—whether through drawing, acting, or reading—was a really big part of my childhood.
Are your family and friends supportive of what you do?
They’re very supportive. Emily is my biggest supporter. The thing I’ve learned most from her is to be confident in myself. After meeting her—she’s a very confident person—the growth we’ve had together has taught me confidence and how to balance that confidence without letting it become ego. Part of our relationship when we were first dating was me checking my ego because I believed that I was awesome and that I was better than other people. That came out in our relationship, in my work relationships, and with my friends. I had a few friends tell me that I needed to be more humble. I realized that I thought too highly of myself and it wasn’t healthy. I’ve learned how to be a better person because of my wife, which makes me a better worker and better designer.
My parents have been supportive in that they’ve never pressured me into doing anything. I’ve played the piano since I was three years old and now I play in a band. My parents never told me I had to practice or take lessons. I took lessons when I wanted to and when I wanted to quit, I did. I have Asian parents; my dad is from Pakistan and my mom is from the Philippines. The typical Asian stereotype is, “Oh, you gotta be a doctor or a lawyer and have a respectable career.” They never once told me what I had to be. When I chose a career in design, which was something they may not have understood at the time, they didn’t tell me, “Oh, you can’t do that.” The only thing my dad said to me was, “One day when you have a family, make sure you can support them.” They’ve been super supportive of me and I think that freedom has let me put my own constraints in place. Their support is a comfort to me because I know that I have that to rely on.
[Ryan] Is music still a big part of your life now?
I play in a band and I really miss it. That’s part of the reason I’m excited to move back to Philly—the rest of the band is there. Music is a huge part of my life and is a creative outlet. I play in church a lot and I like to arrange music. I don’t read music well, but I like to write my own. If you put a piece of sheet music in front of me, it scares me to death because I can’t read it, but if you sing a song for me, I can play it back in an improvised way. It’s a different kind of way for me to release creativity and a different way to think about things. It’s very different than design, which is why I like it. Those were my two major career paths growing up—should I be a musician or should I be an artist or designer? I was equally passionate about both, but I chose to keep music as a hobby and pursue design as the thing that supports me and my family. Luckily, that decision has paid off so far.
Did you have any mentors along the way?
Two people come to mind. One is a professor I had in the digital media program. His name is Jervis Thompson. I still keep in touch with him now. He’s one of those guys who—even if you’re good at something—he still knows more than you and can still teach you because of his approach and the way he thinks. He’s super sharp and was a great teacher. He not only taught me a lot about programming and approaching digital design, but he also taught me how to teach.
I love to teach. I like to speak and do presentations, but I really love being in the classroom. I think my love for teaching comes partly from how great of a teacher Jervis was. He let me TA his classes sometimes and he would say things to me like, “If you’re teaching somebody and you have to take over the keyboard, you’ve not taught well enough.” I remember that he never touched the keyboard. I’d have a programming problem and he’d come over and talk me through it, but he would never say, “Let me try something and then you check it out.” I learned a lot from him and I really respect him.
The other mentor was a teacher from the graphic design department, John Langdon, who really taught me how to love typography. He’s famous for doing ambigrams—logos you can read forward and backward. He was a great designer and is self-taught. He taught me to develop my own style by figuring out what I liked and then reverse engineering it.
Those two guys really helped me a lot in school and I still keep in touch with them. I owe a lot to them.
This might go along with where you’re at currently in life, but was there a point when you decided you had to take a big risk to move forward?
I think moving to Brooklyn was a really big risk for me. Philly was comfortable for me because I grew up there. It was tough for Emily and I to move to a new city where we only knew a handful of people. It was scary, but it was something that we knew we had to do and we grew together because of it.
I’m sad to leave Brooklyn because I’ve made so many good friends and I’ve learned so much working at Big Spaceship. It was a big deal to move to Brooklyn, to leave family, and venture out on our own for a while and now it’s an equally big risk to leave a job I really love and to venture out into running my own studio. Family is most important to me and this move will allow me to be near my family and create the best situation for my daughter.
Do you feel a responsibility to contribute to something bigger than yourself?
That’s a tough question. Yes, but it doesn’t have to do with design at all. The “bigger than myself” part is really about my wife and daughter. I want them to live lives where they don’t have to worry about anything. That’s what is really important to me. I would love to make an impact on the world with the design work that I’m doing, but even more important than that—even if I’m just doing odd jobs to get by—is for my daughter to grow up and say she had a good childhood and that her dad took care of her and for my wife to say that too. If that’s all I accomplish in my life, that will be a really good thing.
Are you satisfied creatively?
(laughing) I’m never satisfied creatively. That’s part of the reason for the move as well. I think I’ve had a great career so far and I hope it continues to be really great. I’m at that point now where I’ve redesigned enough websites and don’t feel the need to redesign anymore websites. I want to invest in something a little bit more than that and explore different things.
I also think the time is perfect for designers to do just about anything. The cost of entry is so low right now and we can make something in a few hours, put it out there, and thousands of people will see it immediately. I think people that have the skill to make something that others use, be cognizant of how it’s used, and make changes based on use in the speed we can do it—I think we could do so many bigger things than redesigning websites. I think redesigning websites is part of it for sure, but imagine the possibilities. We can do anything and it’s a shame if all we think we can do is redesign websites and make nice applications.
I’ve been inspired lately by the people that talk about this. I had a really great talk with Cameron Koczon recently—I have the biggest man-crush on that guy. He does a great job of spreading the message that it’s a great time for designers and a great time to be in a digital world because we can do a ton of stuff that impacts the world or even just a few people. We have control over that and anyone who thinks we’re just reduced to being good website designers has blinders on.
Is there anything you’d like to be doing in 5 to 10 years that you aren’t doing now?
If the majority of my work is redesigning websites in 5 to 10 years, I feel like I will have made a wrong turn somewhere. I’ve never been good at forecasting what my life or the industry is going to look like because it changes so much. At the rate that our industry is changing, if I haven’t changed that much by that time, then I will have done something wrong. So I don’t know what it is, but I know what it’s not.
If you could give one piece of advice to another designer starting out, what would it be?
I think the importance of humility is really understated. Like I mentioned before, I used to think I was awesome and it really set me back.
There was one point when I was working at Happy Cog and I asked Greg Hoy—one of the best bosses I’ve ever worked for—to give me a raise. I thought I wasn’t getting paid enough to do all the work I was doing and he agreed with that, but I asked him for a really ridiculously high raise. I came prepared to my review with all these surveys to show him what other designers were making. I said to him—and, in retrospect, this is so embarrassing—I said, “Greg, I write the best CSS on the planet except for maybe Dan Cederholm.”
He said to me, “It’s not your skill that doesn’t make you great or not a good fit for this request; it’s your hubris.”
That really stuck with me. I wish I had learned to be more humble earlier on. There are always people who are going to be better than you or who you can learn from. The sooner a young designer can realize that, the more inviting the path is in front of them. Be realistic in your self-worth and recognize what you do well, but be humble and be willing to learn from others.
“Be realistic in your self-worth and recognize what you do well, but be humble and be willing to learn from others.”
This next question we might have to split up since you’re in the process of moving, but how does where you live impact your creativity?
A ton. One thing I was really excited about in moving to NY is that the design community is robust and thriving. That’s something I don’t think I could find anywhere else in the world. There’s always stuff to do: a design meet-up, a CreativeMornings lecture, an AIGA event, somebody visiting town to speak, a workshop. There’s always something going on and there’s always a hundred people going to it. That’s something that I’m really going to miss.
I was talking with a friend about this. She said you come to NY and can join all these already thriving communities, but one thing that’s hard to do is start something up because there’s already so much going on. Instead, you can take that knowledge of being in NY, being part of community, and realizing what a thriving community means and transplant it somewhere else. Philly’s a pretty big town, but it doesn’t have the amount of stuff going on that Brooklyn does. I can hopefully take my experience from being in NY and start something new or pitch in to help something that’s already going on. I think that’s a really cool idea.
Is it important to you to be part of a creative community of people?
It is. That’s one thing that I’m interested to see how it develops in working by myself. I’ve always worked with teams and been surrounded by amazing people. There is so much power in collaboration and that’s important to me. Since I’m going to be working from home, I’ll be investigating ways to foster collaboration and see if there’s a way to make it happen. I’m excited about figuring that out.
What does a typical day look like for you?
I wake up at 5am just about every day. I check email. I eat a terrible breakfast, like cookies or something. It’s hard to deny cookies for breakfast.
Right now, while working at Big Spaceship, I do freelance work and side projects between 5–7am. Most people do that in the evenings, but I’m usually spent by the time I come home from work, so I prefer do it before work while I am waking up, rather than while I am falling asleep. I leave my house around 9am after getting ready and then work 10am–7pm. Work is some combination of sitting in front of my desk, Photoshopping, surfing the web, Tweeting, being in a brainstorming meeting, client meeting, or a call. And I always take lunch; I love to eat. I don’t think I’ve ever skipped lunch.
I have an hour commute and usually get home around 8pm. My daughter is in bed by then and my wife and I eat dinner and then watch something on Netflix and chill out. We usually go to bed around 10pm. I don’t do late nights. I don’t function well at night and I like to get a lot of sleep.
Of course, now that I’ll be working from home soon, I’m excited to figure out what a great new routine will be for me.
Current album on repeat?
Gungor. It’s between Ghosts Upon the Earth and Beautiful Things.
Do you have a favorite movie or television show?
I don’t know if I have a favorite movie. The closest thing for me would be The Usual Suspects. I really like Dexter. It’s amazing television. Season 4 with John Lithgow as the antagonist was some of the best television I’ve ever seen.
What’s your favorite book?
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas.
Your favorite food? Or we could go with Kyle’s suggestion and ask what you’d want for your dying meal.
Right now I’m really into sushi so it might be something sushi related, but overall in my life, a burger is the thing that gets me going. A Shake Shack burger would probably be my last meal request. Have you ever had Shake Shack?
No, but we will!
What kind of legacy do you hope to leave?
My legacy is about my family and my daughter. I want them to have good lives and say they didn’t want for much. I want them to say I did my best to take care of them. If that’s all I do, I think that will be a very great achievement.
“…it’s a great time for designers… we can do a ton of stuff that impacts the world or even just a few people. We have control over that and anyone who thinks we’re just reduced to being good website designers has blinders on.”