Here on The Industry, we try to interview people with all kinds of work situations – We’ve interviewed lots of freelancers (Dann Petty, Kerem Suer) and plenty of in-house designers (Pete Lacey, Maykel Loomans), but today, we’re talking to Dan Mall, a man who has had an incredibly successful agency career. Dan has worked at Happy Cog and Big Spaceship, two of the biggest design agencies around, and now, he runs his own company, SuperFriendly.
Dan was kind enough to answer my questions, giving some fascinating and thought-provoking answers.
Hey Dan, thanks so much for joining us on The Industry. Tell us a bit about yourself and the work you’re doing.
Thanks for having me! I’m Dan Mall, founder and design director of SuperFriendly. I have an awesome wife named Emily and an awesome daughter named Siddalee. I love doing work that’s brave with brands that are willing to take risks and be adventurous.
How did you get into the design industry?
I originally went to school to be a 3D animator. I quickly realized 1) I was terrible at it and 2) I hated doing it anyway. Luckily, the program I was in — Digital Media at Drexel University in Philadelphia — was split between 3D classes and interactivity. I realized I was much better at the interactive work, and I enjoyed it a lot more. I also discovered graphic design while looking through the course catalog. I had no idea what graphic design even was at the time! Eventually recognizing that I’ve loved graphic design my whole life — I remember being in grade school, changing typefaces and margins on my essays to look better – I took independent studies in typography and motion to hone my skills. That combination of passion for graphic design and interactive work led me right to the things I enjoy working on most today.
If you hadn’t become a designer, what do you think you’d be doing now?
I’d likely be trying to make it as a musician. I’ve been the keyboard player for Philadelphia-based contemporary Christian band called Four24 for the last 10 years. Playing music has always been a big part of my life; if I wasn’t designing, I can’t think of another profession I’d love as much.
What does a typical day in the life of Dan Mall look like?
I wake up everyday around 4:45AM-5:00AM. I get to the gym between 5 and 5:30 where I’ll lift for an hour then play either basketball or racquetball with my brother, then head home around 7 to shower and get ready for the day. From 8-10, I’ll spend time watching Sidda while Emily goes to the gym.
My work day starts at 10AM and ends at 7PM. In between there is some mishmash of comping, coding, sketching, Skyping, scheming, brainstorming, playing with Sidda, eating, and drinking.
Either my wife or I will start making dinner around 7 (or we’ll get Chipotle), and the other will put Sidda to bed. Emily and I eat together every night and will optionally watch something Gordon Ramsay related on Hulu (MasterChef is the current favorite). We’re in bed by 9PM.
You’ve worked in some pretty high positions for some pretty great agencies, including Happy Cog and Big Spaceship, but now you run your own agency, SuperFriendly. How does this experience compare to previous work situations you’ve been in? What new challenges does it bring?
In a lot of ways, I wouldn’t have been able to do what I’m doing with SuperFriendly without the experience I gained at great places like Big Spaceship and Happy Cog. I’m of the school of thought that designers should do some time working for established studios/agencies/companies before venturing outing their own. I think it’s really important to be encouraged to succeed with a strong support team that has done it before and also be allowed to fail on someone else’s dime. I was pretty fortunate to be directly involved with a lot of business process at both places, which allowed me to learn the many ways that business happens. I observed firsthand what things I would do exactly the same and what things I would do drastically different.
Running SuperFriendly certainly comes with its own set of challenges. Working for someone else means that there’s always someone else you can run to that will have your back. Now, I’m the guy that needs to have someone else’s back. The people I work with—contractors, collaborators, clients, other roles at start with the letter “c” — need to know that I have the final word and need to trust that I can make the right calls.
It also means I need to be very forward-thinking at a higher level than a project basis. Things like cash flow, prospective projects, future growth, and workspace environment are just a few of the new things that take up my brain real estate. In order for me to keep a flourishing business, these things need care and attention too. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Having co-founded Typedia, you’re evidently something of a type nerd. What do you think of the current state of web type, and how do you see it advancing in the near future?
I love where web type is currently and I’m certainly excited for where it’s headed. I think it’s great that we have a lot more choices in type available to us. However, I also think it takes time to learn how to use a typeface well. I feel really comfortable with Georgia and Trebuchet MS because of years of experience with it. I think we’ll see a lot of inappropriate uses of typefaces on the web because of the lack of experience with newly available ones, and I think that’s great. It’s a wonderful time for experimentation and everyone being an amateur again.
I asked fellow type fan Elliot Jay Stocks this, so it seems only right to ask you too: If you could characterise yourself as a typeface, what would it be?
What is your workspace like? Are there any design tools that you simply couldn’t live without?
My desk looks like this (#12 in the list). My Wacom Intuos 4 tablet is my crutch. I’m not sure I remember how to design with a mouse.
And finally, for those looking to get started in the big bad world of design, what tips or advice would you give?
Find a mentor. Find someone local that you can spend time with. Take advantage of the knowledge that people are willing to freely share. Learn from their experiences, failures, and successes. Without countless people having done that for me, I have no idea where I’d be.