Dan Mall and SuperFriendly

Dan Mall is an award-winning designer, a father, a husband, a musician, a speaker, an all-around nice guy, and now the founder of SuperFriendly. Dan was kind enough to talk with me over the course of several months, answering some questions about starting your own thing, designing a business, tackling burnout, and what he’s looking forward to in 2013. Enjoy.

First of all, congrats on everything that has happened over this past year! It’s just incredible. Was the decision to go out on your own more difficult with the birth of your daughter Sidda?

Thanks! It was definitely difficult to venture out on my own so quickly after just having a daughter, but it was even more motivating. One of the biggest reasons for starting my own studio is the prospect of being at home more with my wife Emily and daughter Sidda.

I’ve never been one to shy away from big life changes all at once. Shortly after getting married, I left a great job at “Happy Cog” and a city I grew up in (Philadelphia) for another great job at Big Spaceship in a city I’ve barely visited (Brooklyn). I’m really blessed to have a wife who’s always up for the newest adventure with me.

Your new endeavor has a great statement: “envision and design wondrous places for human connection.” Can you talk a bit more about what it means to build a meaningful experience that makes one feel connected to another?

I think the most successful and authentic brands are ones that make real connections between themselves and their customers, and—even better—between customers themselves. A lot of brands think that good digital advertising is simply broadcasting their own messages through digital channels like Twitter and Facebook, but that’s a really old school mentality.

As SuperFriendly, I’m really interested in working with brands that are looking to make interesting connections. Digital affords a great opportunity for instantaneous connection, and it’s a shame when brands don’t take advantage of that.

As an example, one of my favorite connections recently is SPENT, a wonderful site created by friends Nick Jones, Able Parris, Karla Mickens, and others at McKinney. The site allows you to role play as if you were homeless. It’s one of the most engaging experiences I’ve had online in a long time, and I think this kind of emotional connection is really few and far between online nowadays.

If I can do my part in the work that I do to help create these kinds of experiences, I’ll consider myself very fortunate.

From a design standpoint, what do you think makes that experience engaging? How does a designer approach addressing that powerful of a message? What do they have to consider?

For me, engaging experiences are all about people and the powerful connections made between them. Cave painters, musicians, marketplace vendors, and countless historical professionals have know that for centuries; we’re getting good at figuring out what that means in pixels, but our medium is still so new that we still have a lot of room for exploration. As designers, it’s easy to get so caught up in the craft—choosing the right typeface, color scheme, markup—that we sometimes miss that small moments that create the whole experience.

What experiences from Happy Cog and Big Spaceship will you reflect upon and use in your new endeavor? For instance, we all suffer from burnout from time to time. How did you handle burnout back then and how do you handle it now?

I’ve always strived for a 40-hour work week. Sometimes that’s not possible, but I try my darnedest to make it happen. I think it’s easy to believe that throwing more time at a problem will birth a solution, but I’ve found that some of the work I’m most proud of has come from the fact that there was no time available. For me, burnout happens when something in my life goes out of balance. If I’m working too much, then I’m doing something else too little, like spending time with family or rehearsing with my band. Avoiding burnout means maintaining the balance I’ve established and not allowing one thing to dominate my time.

I have to agree that spending too much time on a project can definitely turn into a burden. I also believe that striving for perfection falls into that same camp, but coming to terms with imperfection in our design work is often easier said than done. What are your thoughts on chasing the perfect in our work?

It’s a small distinction, but I prefer to strive for perfection in order to achieve excellence. Maybe it comes from my Christian perspective, but the idea that we humans can create anything free of flaws is a difficult notion to stomach. I do believe that it’s important to do the best job that we can for our clients and for ourselves. I think that’s a worthy standard.

You mention that rehearsing with your band helps to alleviate a bit of burnout. Is it simply the act of stepping away from your profession that helps, or is it engaging in another creative outlet? Perhaps both? Have you ever considered taking an extended hiatus from design?

Wow, interesting question. I’ve never seriously considered taking a sabbatical, both because I love what I do and it’s a way I can provide for my family. During a Q&A session at a conference, a student asked me what I do to overcome creative block. Completely unprepared for that question, I tried to answer honestly and was actually surprised as what I said. I said I don’t believe in creative block. Huh.

I’ll caveat that. Our industry (and related ones) often herald the powers of “the creatives” as divine inspiration waiting to be channelled, like we sit around waiting for a moment of eureka! Pfft. I don’t know about anyone else, but design is hard work for me. Creative block definitely happens, but it needs to be worked through. Take a break, get some water, read a book… then sit your butt back down at your desk and get to work! For me, conquering creative block is about encouraging and creating multiple failures to create success.

When taking on new clients – how do you approach educating them about how a creative project unfolds? Demystify it in a manner of speaking. Do you find that clients like to know about the various phases of a project and what’s involved in each?

I prefer to think of client education in terms of collaboration. I don’t have a typical process. Sure, there are things I gravitate towards, but they’re more like weapons in my arsenal as opposed to steps I follow every time. For every new client at SuperFriendly, part of our first conversation is to tell them that we don’t have a process that we make every client go through. We have a framework, a list of possibilities for what we might do, but we really love working directly with our clients to figure out the best process for that particular team. On some projects, wireframes are exactly what’s needed; on others, we shun them completely. Some projects start with visual design; others start by diving right into HTML prototypes. I think it’s unfair to blindly try and mold clients into a process. I’d much rather create the right circumstances to make my team and theirs more successful.

I’m always fascinated about the stories behind starting one’s own business or leaving a job to start a studio. Do you mind talking about what led up to you taking the plunge? Had you been considering the move for a while or did a series of events present themselves that just made the decision easy?

My daughter was really the motivation for going out on my own. I remember leaving the house one day for work when Sidda was about 2 or 3 months old. When I got home that night, she looked directly at me, a skill (focusing and following one specific thing) she had seemingly developed that day. I asked my wife when she had learned that, but, being a stay-at-home mom, it was something she had noticed for a while already. I realized I was missing things about my daughter’s life, and I didn’t want that to happen anymore. I started to look for ways that I could work from home so I could be around for Sidda as she grew.

Visiting home for the holidays, we mentioned to my parents that we were thinking about moving back to Philadelphia to be closer to family. My dad mentioned that he still owned some property from a personal care home he and my mom ran before my grandparents passed away. He offered us the property, an old 3000 sq. ft church-turned-house. It was more than enough space for us to live and even had some potential for me to create some studio space if I needed it. The idea for SuperFriendly was born that day.

For those considering venturing out on there own, what are the top five things they should do first?

Everyone’s different so what works for one might not work for others, but here are a few things that worked for me:

  1. Prototype your business. As designers and developers, we love to prototype; it’s in our nature and our work is made better for it. But it baffles me when we don’t take that approach to other aspects. I knew that I’d someday run my own business. For one year, I prototyped that business: I worked a full time job, came home to eat dinner, then worked another full-time job moonlighting. It was a decision that Emily and I made together, knowing that the sacrifices would be worth the effort. Knowing that I had a full-time salary to rely on gave me tremendous liberty to experiment with how I would bill and charge, the way I liked to work, and what things would make me most successful. When the opportunity presented itself to finally start that business, I was ready. Day one to the world was actually year one.
  2. Hire people that whose talents offset your weaknesses. My project manager, CPA firm, and lawyer help me take care of things I don’t do well but have been crucial for me to run a successful business.
  3. Decide whether you’re a freelancer or a design business owner. Both have their pros and cons. Freelancers have the advantage of being scrappy but give off the connotation of always burning the midnight oil and having discounted prices. Being a design business owner can be more lucrative and earn you bigger projects, but it often means more administrative tasks and being more strict about your business operations.
  4. Fail on someone else’s dime. If you’re a student or new to the design field, I highly recommend getting some experience working for an established studio before venturing out on your own. Gain a wide variety of experiences for how business runs. See what things you like about how others start run their businesses, and be critical about the things you would change if you ran your own. It’s much less costly to learn from others’ mistakes and victories.
  5. Do work you enjoy. While I’ve always maintained a hybrid skillset of both designing and coding, I found very quickly that there’s a point where coding sucks the life out of me. By recognizing that and hiring people that are good/enjoy it instead of trudging through myself, I find that I have more satisfaction in my work, and I can really focus on attract work that I love to do.

Each new year brings with it new opportunities. Many look at the start of the new year as a chance to shed old skin, start new habits, and outline overly-ambitious goals. What are you most looking forward to in 2013 and what do you want to accomplish in the next 12 months?

Lots! I’ve got a whole range of things to accomplish this year, both professional and personal (I’ll likely turn it into a blog post eventually). It ranges from finding more time for myself and my family, eliminating student loans, getting a better bed, traveling more, building a product that’s been on my mind for the last few years, more date nights with my wife, planning a conference, learning to swim, and lots more!