How have you come to have the success that you’ve had?
It’s only through God’s grace. He’s really just put me in the right places at the right times.
I can’t honestly say it’s been anything I’ve done on my own. I’ve been really blessed to have met some wonderful people, and doors have been opened through them that I never could have expected.
Tell us one thing we don’t know about you.
I’m a sneaker fiend. Working at Foot Locker and its subsidiaries all through high school afforded me the luxury of having a new pair of sneakers every day for a few months.
I’ve cut down to about 25 pairs nowadays.
Name the top tools of your trade. Go!
A sketchbook and imagination. I love to sketch because it’s one of the only mediums where I’m more concerned about getting an idea across than perfecting elements like alignment, colors, or typography.
As far as digital tools go, I’m in Photoshop every day, and probably couldn’t do what I do without it. I also just got into using a Wacom tablet, and I see no signs of turning back!
Name three people that you admire and why.
My wife. From the first time I met her—in fifth grade!—I knew she was a passionate person. Whenever there’s something she’s driven to do, you better believe she’ll get it done. She’s got a really fine sense of people: how they’re feeling, what their body language is saying, how to be empathetic. I’ve learned so much from her about how to love and how to live.
My dad. He’s a very smart man and many people go to him for advice. Whenever I go to him, though, he never seems to actually tell me what to do but instead points me in the right direction to make the decisions on my own. It’s a unique quality to possess both wisdom and humility, but my dad has a great balance of both.
Superman. Flight, strength, speed… What’s not to admire?!
Favorite 3 typefaces on impulse, even if it’s Comic Sans or Papyrus. Go!
Tell me a story about your favorite project you’ve worked on.
In December 2006, I had the chance to travel to Dublin for a project with Happy Cog for Comhaltas, an organization than promotes Irish music and culture. We went with all of our significant others to attend the Comhaltas holiday party.
One night, Emily—my girlfriend at the time—suggested a horse and carriage ride around Dublin Square. She had a chance to see the city already, but because I had been in a training session with the client all day, I hadn’t had the chance to see much of the beautiful city. I agreed to the ride.
About halfway through, I reached into my coat pocket, pulled out the engagement ring we had shopped for months earlier, and popped the question.
Her response? “Hell yeah!”
What is the most important skill to possess as a designer?
Open-mindedness. And some sick design chops.
What is your biggest passion in life?
Living, of course! As a Christian, I try to claim the promise that we should have abundant life. Although I love what I do for a living, I try not to work too hard. Instead, I love spending time with my wife, family, and friends.
Also, I’ve been a musician my whole life. My other passion is sharing the gospel through music. Until recently, I was a singer/keyboard-player for Philadelphia-based contemporary Christian band Four24. I’m not playing or singing anywhere right now (other than studio work with the band), but I’m sure it’s just a matter of time until it becomes a part of my new New York life.
Can you share any hard lessons you’ve learned being a designer?
I think the Art of Clients™ is a difficult one to master. Getting a client to articulate their thoughts in a way that gets you excited often seems like voodoo to me. Listening—not hearing, but really listening—and asking the right follow-up questions take a lifetime of repetition. Occassionally, there will be a client with exceptional communication skills, but interpretation and appropriate action are generally skills you’ll have to work hard on your own to hone.
What do you want to be when you grow up?
What piece of design work are you the most proud of?
Just yesterday, I started and finished a redesign of my own site that I’m finally happy with. So, new site coming soon! (But beware: I’ve been saying that for the last 4 years.)
Any advice to complete noobs on any subject?
Dear noobs: you can do anything. The end.
One thing I love about teaching is seeing students that think they can do everything. “No need to hire an illustrator, because I can illustrate. Why commission a photographer when I have a decent camera and a good eye?” That’s the kind of mindset that moves mountains.
I’ve been lucky to work on projects where it was feasible to commission illustration or outsource some 3D, but the danger is that it sometimes produces negative and siloed views at one’s own skills. I grew up drawing my whole life, yet because I drew less and less, I started to believe that I actually couldn’t draw anymore. There are definitely people that excel at their trades and there’s wrong with specializing, but believing in the fact that you can do anything can bring a confidence to your work that generates surprising results.
You’ve recently transitioned from Happy Cog, a very highly respected design firm to Big Spaceship, another highly respected design firm. Can you share anything that you have learned from Happy Cog and tell us what you love about Big Spaceship (other than the insanely cool name)?
The most valuable lesson that I’ve learned from working at Happy Cog comes in two parts. Part one: only do work that you stand behind. Part two: fight for work that you’re proud of.
I think the level of work that comes out of Happy Cog is top notch, and the only way to maintain that level of quality is to really be committed to every piece of work that is created. Happy Cog always strives to work with interesting clients doing interesting things, and that has its rewards. Conversely, they aren’t afraid to walk away when there’s a client disregards the fundamental values that make the work what it is.
An insanely cool name implies an insanely cool place, and Big Spaceship more than fits the bill. There were 3 big things that sold me on uprooting my established Philly life and moving to a new city:
- Big Spaceship’s work is what made me interested in web design in the first place. As you can imagine, being a huge fanboy made it impossible to turn down this offer.
- Everyone is creative. At Big Spaceship, the term “creative” isn’t reserved for people who know how to use Photoshop. Brainstorming and ideation are a company-wide activity. All ideas are treated as valuable, regardless of where they come from.
- The company culture is one of experimentation. A lot of our time is spent just figuring stuff out. When people are in this mode 24/7, it produces astounding results, whether it’s for clients or not. For instance, when we were interested in physical computing, we “hooked the Twitter API into a servo motor”, seen here. I’ve got a decent handful of new ideas between my sketchbook, my inbox, and physical objects sitting on or around my desk that will probably soon see the light of day.
Got any samples of your work you’d like to show off?
All the work that I’m proud of—and am allowed to show—can be found at portfolio.danielmall.com.
Dan Mall is an award-winning interactive art director, designer, and developer. He is an enthralled husband, Senior Designer at Big Spaceship, technical editor for A List Apart, and former singer/keyboard player for contemporary-Christian band Four24. Dan writes about design and other issues on Twitter and his industry-recognized site, danielmall.com.
First, follow Dan on Twitter. I do. You should because he’s awesome. Ok, phew, that is out of the way.
I first came to know of Dan through Twitter through my friend Jesse Gardner (another great designer). The first design I saw of Dan’s was Housing Works, which of course, I was blown away by. I loved it. I loved that it seems original and unique. I loved that it didn’t follow all the trends in the book. It was gorgeous and seemed to tell the story of Housing Works, an organization moved to help prevent AIDS as well as the people it helped. Great direction.
Dan has also been involved with designer-loved organizations such as Mozilla and A List Apart. He’s got a ton of amazing work in his portfolio, but the pieces that really stand out to me are his recent work with Preventiv (view in his portfolio), the website for Four24, Housing Works and Parc Rittenhouse. To me his art direction exudes such a timeless classic nature (a sort of holy grail for designers) with a focus on rich typography and photography. I think it’s safe to say that I’d like to be like Dan one day.
I absolutely loved interviewing Dan. He is such a kind and humble person, always giving glory to God and not himself. It is this quality that I think makes him so great, not good, but great at what he does. He truly is a stunning designer, yet he presents himself in a manner that encourages others at their level. He is careful not to step on peoples pride when assessing their designs, yet ready to give his own opinion when asked in a way which honors the designer. I say he has the Art of Humility™ down. I can’t wait to see what great designs he churn outs next.