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I'm Dan Mall. Ask me anything!

19 days ago from , Founder & CEO

Hi SuperFriends!

My name is Dan Mall. I run a distributed agency called SuperFriendly. We help in-house teams make better digital products with design systems.

I'm a CEO, a creative director, and a designer. I went to design school. I write code. I've been married for 11 years; my wife and I met when we were in 5th grade. We have 2 daughters. I've worked at agencies like Big Spaceship and Happy Cog. I believe in God. I'm half-Filipino and half-Pakistani. I wrote Pricing Design to help freelancers and agency owners make more money by doing a better job for their clients. I live in Philly. I co-founded SuperBooked to help people share work more easily. I've had 20 designer and developer apprentices in the last 6 years.

Since this is Designer News, the most interesting and relevant questions here will probably be related to the design and tech industry, but you can ask me anything!

34 comments

  • Zsolt Kacso, 8 days ago

    Hi Dan! I like your personal site, it's quite fresh looking.

    How is your time balanced nowadays between managing business / creative work and how did that balance change over time?

    Thanks!

    2 points
    • , 8 days ago

      Thanks for the kind words, Zsolt!

      How is your time balanced nowadays between managing business / creative work

      For the last 7 years of running SuperFriendly, my Harvest data tells me that my time is split just about 50/50 between project work (design and code) and business development/administrative work.

      how did that balance change over time?

      Being split 50/50 is a kind way to say I'm doing a poor job at both tasks. So, for the past year, I've changed things by offloading both of those jobs: I hired a few people to take over all of business development and I've also removed myself from projects entirely. Both project work and new business are better for it, and I'm free to do the things I care about more.

      4 points
      • Zsolt Kacso, 7 days ago

        Interesting. May I ask what are the things you care about more - unless they're personal?

        1 point
        • , 7 days ago

          They're both personal and professional, but I'm happy to share them both!

          During my work hours, I've given myself a few new jobs:

          1. Market SuperFriendly better to people at organizations that could really use our help.
          2. Grow the network of SuperFriends.
          3. Incubate and try out new services and products.

          By removing myself from projects, I'm finding that it creates more opportunities for others that would love to do the work that I was either phoning in or becoming resentful about.

          That extra focus for me leaves me generally more fulfilled in a day's work earlier in the day, which has a lot of benefits outside of working. I can spend more time with my family between the end of school and bedtime, and I'm playing more basketball and video games.

          4 points
  • Josiah DJosiah D, 3 days ago

    Hey Dan! Been following for a bit and appreciate your excitement for design systems.

    1) In your view, what is the difference between a set of brand guidelines and a design system?

    2) What is the best way to wade into design systems? It seems like there's a lot of poor frameworks and advice out there. A lot of it seems focused on design systems for giant companies. Is it even worth going down that path for a one-off website?

    2 points
    • , 3 days ago

      Thanks Josiah! It's an exciting time for design systems.

      1) In your view, what is the difference between a set of brand guidelines and a design system?

      I think there's a hierarchy to them. Brand guidelines belong within a design system. The design system is the whole ecosystem; it's the combination of guidelines and components, expressed as software.

      2) What is the best way to wade into design systems? It seems like there's a lot of poor frameworks and advice out there. A lot of it seems focused on design systems for giant companies. Is it even worth going down that path for a one-off website?

      Our industry is spoiled to see lots of exhaustive, mature design systems. But that's also intimidating! One thing I often encourage when starting a design system is to think small. What I love about product and software design is that it's never done. That means we always get to start somewhere and grow from there. We don't really have good example of this in the wild, but who says 1 component can't be the start of a design system? Even for a one-off website, if you create 1 card component that you can reuse multiple times, you have a design system!

      3 points
    • , 3 days ago

      Brand guidelines belong within a design system.

      I'm actually changing my tune on this. As my buddy Joshua Blankenship points out, "brand guidelines equate to 'how our brand represents itself everywhere' not just in the context of software." I agree with that. And, as I think about the design system work we've done at SuperFriendly, brand is usually managed by a separate design than the design system team and tends to have more organizational importance since it governs more than just software. That seems appropriate to me.

      So, perhaps a clarification: the pieces of brand guidelines that apply to a design system should be found within or adjacent to a design system. Combined with software principles, that combination can be considered the design system guidelines.

      3 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, 7 days ago

    We're coming up on the end of our allotted time here for our AMA. Huge thanks to Dan once again for taking the time to be here and answer our questions in such a thoughtful way.

    All questions from here on out are up to him to answer if/when he can. No expectations from our side!

    From all of us here at DN -- thank you Dan!

    1 point
  • Jim NielsenJim Nielsen, 5 days ago

    Are you a big book reader? Have any particular recommendations of things you've read as of late or all time favorites? (Can be design/tech related or otherwise)

    0 points
    • , 5 days ago

      Yes, I read a lot! Here's a mix of my current and all-time favorites, both tech-related and non-tech-related, in no particular order:

      • Leaders Eat Last, by Simon Sinek
      • We Are Legion, by Dennis E. Taylor
      • The House of X and Powers of X series, by Jonathan Hickman
      • Shoe Dog, by Phil Knight
      • The Culture Code, by Daniel Coyle
      • Profit First, by Michael Michalowicz
      • How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish
      • The Count of Monte Cristo, by Alexandre Dumas
      2 points
  • Jason Beaird, 5 days ago

    Hey Dan,

    Thanks for tackling some great questions today. Of the in-house teams you've worked with so far, I'd love to hear which design systems were the most challenging or interesting and why.

    Also, as a fellow parent of 2 young daughters, are your kids talking about trick-or-treating, costumes, and favorite candies yet?

    0 points
    • , 5 days ago

      Jason! Great to hear from you!

      Of the in-house teams you've worked with so far, I'd love to hear which design systems were the most challenging or interesting and why.

      Oh man, that's like asking me which one of my kids is my favorite. The answer is that they're equivalently challenging and interesting (both design system teams and my kids).

      Next time we eat burgers together, I'll tell you the real answer to which team—and kid—is my favorite ;)

      Also, as a fellow parent of 2 young daughters, are your kids talking about trick-or-treating, costumes, and favorite candies yet?

      Just this morning, my wife asked them if we should decorate generally for fall or specifically for Halloween. The answer was equivocally the latter. It's in the air!

      0 points
  • Rodrigo Soares, 7 days ago

    Hi Dan,

    I've been working in the tech industry as a product designer and front-end for more than 15 years, for both big companies to startups. I've finally decided that I want to go full-time freelance. Any tips or things I should be aware of?

    PS.: I attended your talk back in 2009 at Boston An Event Apart, it was such a good conference

    0 points
    • , 7 days ago

      Congrats on getting ready to take the leap, Rodrigo!

      Any tips or things I should be aware of?

      Lots! But I'll stick to one for now: before you do it, decide why you're doing it. Is it to make more money? Is it to spend more time on your hobbies and interests? Is it to do more fulfilling work? If you don't know, it'll make freelancing difficult. But if you can decide in advance, it'll make the decision-making part much easier.

      If you're trying to make more money, don't be picky about gigs and take as much as you can and/or the ones that pay the most (as long as they're not crossing any moral, ethical, and legal lines, of course). You'll make a fortune.

      If you're trying to do more fulfilling work, don't say yes to projects that aren't what you want to do. If fulfilling work is the most important thing to you, doing projects that your heart's not in will be more painful than, say, getting a bank loan or borrowing money from friends/family to pay the bills.

      It's ok if your decision changes year-to-year, or month-to-month, or heck, day-to-day. But you decide. Don't let it be decided for you. You're in control of your own destiny.

      Go get 'em, Rodrigo!

      3 points
      • Rob Williams, 6 days ago

        Do you have to decide on one of those? What if you're doing it to stay indie, work on fulfilling work and make a great living? Is that too greedy?

        0 points
        • , 5 days ago

          Not too greedy at all, and you certainly don't have to decide! But, I've found that the more variables there are, the more difficult the decision becomes for me. Without a hierarchy of priorities, what should I do if a mind-numbing project comes along that pays for my whole year? It's not fulfilling, but I can make a great living. Is that worth it? Or what if my dream project comes along, but I have to do it for free? Is that worth it?

          All I mean to say is that clear priorities have aided me tremendously in decision-making.

          2 points
  • Joshua Ariza, 5 days ago

    Dan, I wanted to say you're rad for taking my call for an hour once– just to offer advice about apprenticeships. It mentorship part of your weekly routine?

    0 points
    • , 5 days ago

      Josh! I'll talk to you any day.

      It mentorship part of your weekly routine?

      Currently, it's not. I stopped my apprenticeship program at the beginning of this year because I felt like I don't have much more to give there, or at least I'm not sure what it would be right now.

      But, I saw a tweet just yesterday that said, "Mentorship is not a role or responsibility, but rather an act that anyone can fulfill for you." While I've given up a mentor role, I'm actively looking for ways that I can practice acts of mentorship. Perhaps this AMA is one!

      1 point
  • Michael Suen, 7 days ago

    Hey Dan!

    Thanks so much for making your wisdom accessible today. Excited to be taking your workshop on designer-developer collaboration at SmashingConf in October.

    Can you speak about how you manage SuperFriendly projects when working across multiple projects across time and space with the Hollywood Model? I'm particularly curious about a few things:

    (1) I've inhaled all the writing about how to run successful remote projects from in-house teams (Doist, InVision, Buffer, etc), but I've come across far less with agencies. How is it different, if at all? I imagine the Hollywood Model adds another layer of complexity, as well.

    (2) Back when you did project work at SuperFriendly, how did you get involved with most of these projects? What were the outputs that you were personally responsible for? Did you still mainly spend your time hands-off, focusing on strategy and directing the team?

    (3) What are the most valuable tools or processes for running projects and developing products that you've found works for SuperFriendly?

    Thank you!

    0 points
    • , 7 days ago

      Looking forward to hanging out in NY, Michael!

      I've inhaled all the writing about how to run successful remote projects from in-house teams (Doist, InVision, Buffer, etc), but I've come across far less with agencies. How is it different, if at all?

      If the teams are parallel, I haven't seen a lot of difference between distributed in-house teams and distributed agency teams. However, I do see a lot more agency teams that are primarily co-located with one or two remote team members. My friend Mandy Brown wrote a wonderful article called Making Remote Teams Work, and one of my favorite lessons from there is to act "remote by default." If you have one or two remote team members, the whole team should act like they're working remotely, even if they're co-located. Otherwise, it's easy for the remote team members to be accidentally left out.

      I imagine the Hollywood Model adds another layer of complexity, as well.

      I haven't felt much difference here, but I'm sure some of that is confirmation bias, because it's what I do! The Hollywood Model—another way of saying that it's a team assembled ad-hoc for a particular project, the same way Hollywood makes a film—is really just a tax status. It means people have independent affiliations and choose to collaborate temporarily. If you have an invested team—whether or not they're full-time employees—that's the key ingredient for success.

      Back when you did project work at SuperFriendly, how did you get involved with most of these projects? What were the outputs that you were personally responsible for? Did you still mainly spend your time hands-off, focusing on strategy and directing the team?

      I tried many different configurations for myself over the years. I've done projects where I… - Designed and coded the whole thing - Designed comps and had engineers on the team - Directed other designers and engineers - Acted as principal or account person while someone else directed other designers and engineers

      One thing I've learned is that, like movies, every project needs a director and a producer. When I first started SuperFriendly, I was the de facto director on every project. As I've been hiring more directors on projects that aren't me, the work has gotten much better.

      What are the most valuable tools or processes for running projects and developing products that you've found works for SuperFriendly?

      I'm a big fan of this George Patton quote: "Don't tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results." I don't dictate any tools or processes to teams, but there are a few concepts and principles I try to communicate:

      • Follow your instinct. If you hire good people, they have good instincts. Let them do what they'd do anyway. Otherwise, why hire them?
      • Take risks. We have smart clients. They already know how to do the safe, easy stuff. Our job is to help them do what they can't do otherwise.
      • Learn something, and teach something. When I was directing projects, I tried to make it my job to create a safe place for people to try something new. I want every team member to do that for each other.

      I've only started to articulate these, but there are 4 working SuperFriendly principles:

      1. Work together.
      2. Play together.
      3. Eat together.
      4. Win together.
      1 point
  • Dexter W, 8 days ago

    Hi Dan,

    I have a specific question that pertains to how you would approach this problem in a small org. How would you maintain a design system as a team of 1-2 designers with 15 engineers that are remote in a different time zone?

    0 points
    • , 8 days ago

      That's a tough scenario, Dexter! I'm taking your questions as two separate problems to solve:

      1. How can you properly maintain a design system with just designers and no engineers?
      2. How can you properly maintain a design system with a distributed team of engineers?

      Regarding part 1, I'm a firm believer that design systems are software, so a design system team that consists of just designers with no engineers is missing a crucial part. My first suggestion would be to see if you could have at least engineer dedicated to the design system to round out the team.

      But! I know it's often a reality that it's difficult or implausible. So, what do you do if all you have is designers?

      One thing you could do is increase the designers' fluency with code. I'm not saying you need to become engineers. But, a little bit of knowledge in a few areas goes a long way with a design system. The areas I typically suggest to teams are:

      1. CSS, specifically colors and font-sizes
      2. The Web Inspector
      3. JSON

      If you're interested in why, I did a talk called "Should designers…?" that goes into more detail.

      Regarding part 2, different time zones complicate communicating but spreading it apart. To fix that, you need tools and processes that can bring it together again. With different time zones, real-time communication is more difficult, so people resort to asynchronous methods like documentation and write-ups. Unfortunately, this is also where things fall through the cracks.

      One method I've found to be really useful is sending videos back and forth. If you can't talk to each other in real-time, simulate it by having your video "talk" to the other person's video. I've been really surprised as to how many of the nuances of video make it feel like talking to the other person. Of course, it's not a replacement for an actual conversation, but it's a good runner-up.

      1 point
  • Alan Power, 6 days ago

    What would you prefer, be blind or deaf?

    0 points
  • Justine Shu, 1 day ago

    Hey Dan! What are some of the creative blocks you typically face and how do you overcome them?

    0 points
    • Dan Mall, 1 day ago

      My biggest creative block tends to be working unproductively, like I'm stuck in a loop and can't get traction. I've realized that working on two things at the same time has been really helpful for me. When I get stuck on the first thing, I switch to the second. Then when I get stuck on the second, I switch back to the first with fresh perspective, which is often a good solution in overcoming where I was stuck in the first place.

      3 points
  • Nick Sloggett, 6 days ago

    Dan. What does life look like in 5-10 years from an industry perspective and how you're serving alongside customers/clients?

    0 points
  • Matthew Hollingsworth, 7 days ago

    Thanks for being here Dan! Really appreciate it. I'll kick it off here with the first question : -)

    What have you done over the past 12 months that you're most proud of?

    0 points
    • , 7 days ago

      Thanks Matthew! Starting off with a tough one!

      Professionally, it's been moving SuperFriendly to focus primarily on design system work. I've always coached agency owners and freelancers to specialize, but now it's time to put my money where my mouth is. Narrow positioning is scary, as it means saying no to a bunch of other things. But we're already starting to see it pay off.

      Personally, I've been trying to be more present with my wife and kids. We had a wonderful summer of travel and being together before school started up again, and there's a noticeable difference in our whole family.

      1 point