Design / Workplace culture

Why Dan Mall of says designers should get out of Photoshop

How does Dan Mall work? It involves Explosions in the Sky, a BOSS (Big Ol' Spreadsheet) and creating “crappy first drafts.”

Dan Mall's at-home studio. (Photo courtesy of Dan Mall)

If you’re a designer, resist the urge to spend all your time in Photoshop. In designer Dan Mall’s eyes, it’s the planning phase that really helps get stuff done.
“I find that I spend most of my time thinking, writing, and whiteboarding before designing anything,” he wrote. “The more time I spend planning, the easier and faster it becomes to actually design.”
Mall is the founder of SuperFriendly, a Philly design agency that’s worked on responsive websites for TechCrunch and Entertainment Weekly. We asked the former Happy Cog director how he works. It involves Explosions in the Sky, a BOSS (Big Ol’ Spreadsheet) and creating “crappy first drafts.”
Mall’s also talking tonight at 7 p.m., as part of Refresh Philly at Drexel.


Where do you work?
When we moved back to Philly from Brooklyn, my wife and I bought an old church. Our family lives upstairs, and I I have a full studio space downstairs.
Do you listen to work music?
I always have music on, though I can’t listen to anything with lyrics or complex chords structures. As a musician, it’s hard to ignore a 13th chord, a blues scale, or an odd time signature, so I tend to listen to ambient music that fades into the background. My go-tos are movie scores or the Explosions in the Sky Pandora station.

Dan Mall, founder of SuperFriendly. (Photo by Maykel Loomans)

How often do you check your email, and do you use any program to get to ‘Inbox Zero’?
I have email up all the time during the work day. I have a triage approach to email, which means anything that I respond to anything that needs a response immediately as soon as I see it. I use Mailbox on phone, laptop, and desktop for quick reading and archiving, and I use Airmail for composing, mostly because I can write in Markdown.
I don’t check email at all before and after work hours and I don’t open my email on the weekends; all of that is family time.
How do you keep track of your revenues and expenses?
Create crappy first drafts as quickly as you can. Then, iterate your way to a solution.

I use Xero to track revenue and expenses because my accountants and assistant work well in it. I also track that stuff like a boss with a BOSS — a Big Ol’ SpreadSheet — because I haven’t found a tool that does exactly what I want. I also use Cushion to help forecast income, which has been really helpful.
When you need to take a break, what are you turning to?
Wife & kids, TV, and video games, in that order.
Where do you turn for inspiration?
Everywhere! I’m a big believer in what author Stephen Johnson calls the adjacent possible, in that original ideas come from combining things that have long existed in innovative ways. So, when I’m designing something digital, I’ll rarely look for inspiration within the same medium or industry. If I’m designing an app, I might look to nature for inspiration. If I’m designing a process, I might read some science fiction to see what ideas come about that from.
What’s your gear?
27″ iMac for my eyes, large Wacom Intuos tablet for the right hand and Apple Magic Trackpad for the left hand, Harmon Kardon Soundsticks for my ears, and Herman Miller Embody for my back, butt, neck, and other important parts.
What’s one time-saving tip you have?
“It’s always easier to revise that create,” a lesson I learned long ago from my friend Jason. Create crappy first drafts as quickly as you can. Then, iterate your way to a solution. You’ll cover more ground and work faster that way.
How do you get your news? What are you go-to news sources?
I get news from the floodgates known as Twitter. I follow a lot of different people and organizations and don’t really stress it if I miss anything. I figure the good stuff will get to me because a lot of people will be tweeting about it. Whatever I catch, I catch. FOMO doesn’t really have a big effect on me.
What’s one way in which you believe your day-to-day work is better now than it has been previously? 
It’s tempting for designers to spend all their time in Photoshop. But, I find that I spend most of my time thinking, writing, and whiteboarding before designing anything. The more time I spend planning, the easier and faster it becomes to actually design.

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