InspirationInterview

Dan Mall on defeating apathy

Designer and entrepreneur Dan Mall tells Tanya Combrinck about how he chooses his projects, the influence of mentorship on his career – and why he moved on from Big Spaceship to start his own venture, SuperFriendly

This article first appeared in issue 231 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

Visit the SuperFriendly website and you encounter a mission statement: “Defeating apathy and the forces of evil”. In keeping with this mission, there’s a list of current projects that includes “a product that fundamentally changes the way conversations take place”, and “a photojournalistic site about the human condition”.

“The ‘defeating apathy’ part is about the fact that a lot of people are bored with the things we make,” SF founder Dan Mall explains. “Lots of things we make are well executed from a craft standpoint but don’t do anything to excite people. They don’t make you laugh or cry, or produce any sort of emotional response. I’m trying to avoid that kind of work. The other thing is to defeat the forces of evil. I think it’s important to leave the world a little bit better than I found it, so I’m more apt to take projects that improve someone’s life or the world.”

Mall tells us his intention in moving on from Big Spaceship was to spend more time with his newborn daughter and extended family. “It was too difficult for me to do that with a full time job. I wanted the freedom to, say, take a three hour lunch and then work until midnight. That’s difficult to do when you have a team of people depending on you, and I think it’s irresponsible to try to work on independent schedules and expect to come up with something great. When the time came to leave Big Spaceship I thought I wouldn’t find anything else I liked as much, so I decided to start my own thing.”

Ad hoc collaboration

SuperFriendly is run out of Mall’s home, and is comprised of just himself and a project manager who also works remotely. “Teams are assembled on an ad hoc basis for the particular projects, and after the project everyone goes their separate ways. Sometimes we partner with small agencies, and we’re very transparent about that – there’s a lot of value in saying ‘these guys are really good, which is why we want to work with them and do great things for you’”.

Mall’s decision to live closer to his extended family has meant a move away from the web design nexus in Brooklyn to a new home in Philadelphia. “Brooklyn is an amazing place for design. When I left I was really bummed about it because it’s a place where there’s a group for everything you want to do. But I was talking to a friend and she put it in a different light. She said what’s great about Brooklyn is also what sucks about Brooklyn: there’s no chance to start something for yourself, because everything has already been done. It’s tough to leave that community like that, but all the stuff that I’ve learned about what makes a great community is knowledge I can take to a new place and apply it there, so I’m excited for that possibility.”

Brooklyn Beta Summer Camp is one initiative in which Mall still participates following his move. Summer Camp is a seed funding project that provides money and mentorship for people who want to make web products that will “change the world” – a goal that has something in common with SuperFriendly’s ideals.

“My role is to help to assess the projects and give them a good direction. Their scale is different to mine: they like things that will change the world. I had an internal crisis about this and I wrote a blog post on it. There are a lot of people who are really interested in changing the world right now. For example, charity: water is a great organisation that’s making a worldwide impact. That’s a huge thing, and really important, but balance is important too. I’m glad that there are organisations like charity: water, but I want to make sure that there are people doing good things for particular individuals. If everyone’s taking care of the world, who is taking care of Mom and Pops? There’s a balance in that, and that’s something I’m interested in.”

Much is being said about how now is a really significant time for design. “We’re at a stage now where the technology exists for us to build whatever we want – the challenge is having the vision to do new things. For example, there are things like Square [a device that enables people to make credit card payments using their phone], which are changing the way commerce works. The fact that you don’t have to pay with currency any more is a huge deal – that’s something we’ve been doing for hundreds of years. Now you can walk into a Starbucks, get a coffee and leave because you’ve already paid electronically. Technologically it doesn’t take much to make that happen, but it takes a lot of vision from people like Square’s founder, Jack Dorsey. Those people are able to see how things can work differently and execute on it. Right now we have all the tools to do whatever we want, we just need the vision to see it through.”

The last few years have seen the rise of art direction on the web, and Mall has been a thought leader in this area. “I think art direction is about emotion. Good art direction elicits emotional responses; I don’t think good design necessarily does that. It’s a component of good design, and design is a component of good art direction, but I think something can be really well designed and really poorly art directed, and vice versa.

“For example, imagine a birthday card that’s an animated GIF with sparkly, terrible typefaces. It’s really poorly executed from a design standpoint, but really well art directed because it creates the right emotional response. That’s how to separate art direction and design. It’s important to separate what is working and what isn’t because if I’m working with a team of designers and a piece doesn’t feel right, I have to be able to give them direction on what needs to change. Sometimes it feels wrong because the concept is wrong, sometimes it feels wrong just because things aren’t lined up. I think being able to articulate the difference between the two is really important, especially for people who are art or creative directors working with teams who report to them.”

Flexible processes

About 90 per cent of SuperFriendly’s clients come via word of mouth, and Mall builds a design process around the particular needs of each one. “We don’t have a special process every client goes through; every client and team is different, so our processes are pretty flexible. Maybe I’ll get crucified for saying this, but being a designer is often about selling a design. Sometimes we find a site we think is ugly, and think we could have done a better job.

"But I think often there was probably someone behind the site who was really good at selling that design through, and at some level it probably worked for the client in a way that I can’t see just by looking at it. I can’t look at a site and say that it solved a lot of their, say, workflow issues, but there was probably someone who was good at convincing the client it would help with workflow.

“Maybe they didn’t care as much about the visual design of it, or maybe they’re still working on it – there are all these factors we don’t know. I think a big part of being a designer is about salesmanship and communicating how your design solves the client’s problems. If there is someone who’s good at doing that, that’s a good design process.

At every stage of being a designer, there’s always someone better from whom you can learn

Mall credits mentorship as a key part of his success. “It’s a really important thing. I have a lot of people who have taught me really great things, not just about design and development, but also how to be a good, ethical person, how to run a business well, and what things are going to be pitfalls. At every stage of being a designer, whether you’re just starting out or you’re a seasoned pro, there’s always someone better than you from whom you can learn. I think mentorship at every stage is really underrated; I don’t think people talk about it enough, and I would love to see everybody either be a mentor to someone or get mentorship from somebody else – ideally both.”

This interview was held at the Reasons to be Creative conference in Brighton, courtesy of the streaming company Influxis

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