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Cassie McDaniel

Design Director at Mozilla Foundation

Cassie McDaniel has been the Design Director for the Mozilla Foundation for the past two years, working remotely from her home in Paris, ON. In addition to her full-time role Cassie and her husband Mark have been running and hosting an event series called Paris Lectures, focused around creativity, technology and highlighting local professionals. They are also behind Women&&Tech, which they began 3.5 years ago while living in Toronto. Preparing for her second child, due to arrive any day now, Cassie shares what she's learned throughout her design career so far, the importance of building community and balancing a strong family life with a fulfilling career.

Tell me about all the different roles and initiatives you’ve been a part of over this last year and what those have involved for you?

I’m the Design Director for the Mozilla Foundation, which is the main thing that I do. It’s a team of 7 including myself. Our team is responsible for building sites and applications to further Mozilla’s mission – protecting the Internet as a global public resource – and we have various initiatives to do that, both in education and advocacy. My role was to lead that team of designers responsible for all the production elements of what we were doing. Every designer on the team has a whole lot of freedom and we work collaboratively to make sure that we’re shipping the best design that we can.

Can you tell me a little more about the differences between the Mozilla Foundation and Mozilla Corporation?

More and more the work has become mixed between the two but I would say overall that the Corporation is more focused on Firefox, and the Foundation supports all the other non-profit, mission-driven work that Mozilla does. In terms of how we are organized as a design team, the Foundation is small, tight and nimble. We do all kinds of design tasks from branding, UX/UI, illustration, and front-end development, whereas the Corporation has much larger design teams often divided by specialty.

The differences aren’t really known to the public and aren’t actually important for the public to know, but it’s a curious phenomenon when you’re working inside the system. For example, we were recently doing a huge branding audit and the same thing was happening on the MoCo side. How do we make sure we’re not repeating work or losing efficiency or overlooking important details that the other side knows more about and vice-versa? For designing holistically, it’s a challenge for sure.

“Letting go of the idea that I have to make something or create something in order to be relevant was a difficult transition.”

I'd love to talk about your side projects. Paris Lectures and Jane & Jury, how did those come about?

Paris Lectures came first, which began as a series of monthly meet-ups and workshops centred around creativity and technology, created by my husband Mark and I in our little hometown, Paris, Ontario. It’s a lot like Creative Mornings in that we feature a local creative for a short lecture, but we put our own spin on it. Jane & Jury, a blog, came about a year later when we realized that no one outside of Paris knew anything about the extraordinary people and places here because none of it was online. Jane & Jury has also become a way for us to share our design work and other interests, documenting our family outings and such.

We’ve only been in Paris since fall of 2014, but we were so excited to move here from Toronto and see the greater impact of our work. In the city, you have so many people with similar skill sets and ideas, so people are generally doing the same things. Out here, with our specific skills and experience in technology, what we’re doing feels pretty special and unique. And people have been really responsive to both. What we’ve seen happen over the last year has been really, really exciting. We’ve had people knock on our front door to tell us to keep up the good work. It’s incredibly rewarding to feel like we are contributing something here that likely wouldn’t exist without us.

Having Jane & Jury has helped Paris Lectures because it gives more of a face to the lectures; we post our event recaps there and it’s space for us to share broader content about the creative community. The two really support and compliment one another. We just started Jane & Jury three months ago too so it’s such a baby, and we’re excited to see how it develops.

“It’s incredibly rewarding to feel like we are contributing something here that likely wouldn’t exist without us.”

With side projects like that, what are all of the things that are involved that you don't think people realize?

For our last Paris Lectures, there were 18 speakers and 13 different projects which involved so much coordination. Emails to everyone (I have a thread with around 200 emails in it), coordinating logistics of getting people there on time, making sure they have all they need, collecting their slides. I spent hours putting people’s slides into a cohesive deck. Part of our mission is to make sure it’s a high-quality event, so we spend a lot of time on the presentation and how the event flows. We argue about what the creative warm up should be – we’ve had people draw each other’s portraits for 30 seconds or draw the ABC’s in the air with a partner and see who can finish first. Those warm-ups are so important to get people out of their comfort zone and relaxed and laughing. We spend a lot of time thinking about those details. None of that is visible but hopefully, it results in a good time.

The other piece is convincing people to speak or participate in the events. There are some people who are automatically on the same page and immediately see the benefit of being involved in a community and contributing but there are others we have to spend more time with. And then all the post-event work is insane – editing photos and videos, staying up ‘til 2am the night of the event because we make a big effort to post a timely recap.

So when people ask, “How come you don’t have a bigger venue? When’s the next Paris Lecture?” There are about 18 things I have to do before I can answer those questions. It’s a lot to juggle when you have a toddler and a full-time job (and you’re mega pregnant). Luckily, there are a lot of people who realize that and who are incredibly supportive.

A packed room for a recent Paris Lectures event

Jumping back to your full-time role, what was the transition from a designer to a design leadership role like for you?

I feel like I'm still figuring that out. It took me a long time to let go of seeing myself as a maker. I’m not a fan of titles – I started at Mozilla as a UX Designer but I never did just that. In my role as Design Director at Mozilla, I don’t make a lot of tangible things. I direct people, offer support and give feedback. That's huge, and something I really enjoy, but not something that immediately manifests into something tangible.

I recognize that part of what I do is solve problems creatively and visually. My strategy has always been to take a set of problems and use the best tool to solve them. Does that mean having a conversation? Showing something? Writing something? Making an event series?

Letting go of the idea that I have to make something or create something in order to be relevant was a difficult transition. I think that’s why I have side projects like Jane & Jury and Paris Lectures, because they are tangible, and they make me feel like I still know how to make things.

I remember my first annual reviews as Design Director. There’s a section where people can give feedback on their manager, and none of my feedback was about my design; it was all about being a manager. It was a nice surprise because it’s not really how I thought of myself, but obviously it was important to other people, making sure they had what they needed and helping push projects forward. Helping others grow their careers. It’s a totally different job.

“I’ve worked from home since our first daughter was born and balancing breastfeeding with ad hoc meetings is a real logistical challenge. I think in general there should be more conversations about the reality of being a parent as well as a professional.”

You're about to become a parent for the second time. I'm curious what some of the challenges have been preparing for that and for the next stage of your career?

Yes, I just began a one-year maternity leave about three weeks ago. There are so many unknowns at the moment. The other day someone said something to me about how pregnancy for a woman is such a personal experience but everyone can see it. I read the part of Jessica Hische’s interview where she said she had to edit what she’d say online because when she posted a lot of photos of her daughter people assumed she was still on maternity leave and weren’t contacting her about work. I hate that. I’m actually quite private online, but I just don’t think that women should have to edit what they do or say.

Luckily, even though not a lot of women on the Foundation side of Mozilla have gone on maternity leave, people are genuinely nice and want the best for you. A lot of planning a successful parental leave is figuring it out as you go, figuring out what’s best for the particular individual. For me, it’s being able to focus on the work and not on my private life.

Granted those lines have become more blurred. I’ve worked from home since our first daughter was born and balancing breastfeeding with ad hoc meetings is a real logistical challenge. I think in general there should be more conversations about the reality of being a parent as well as a professional.

In terms of organization, do you have any particular routines or processes that you use to manage your time amongst communication and the other kinds of work that you need to do?

When we were doing the hand off for my position, we had two people on my team step up and divide the labor amongst themselves. My biggest advice for them was to viciously guard their time. Sometimes you are pulled into all kinds of meetings and you just need to say “No” or ask to make it a 15-minute meeting.

It helped me to have 1-on-1’s with everyone on my team for half an hour every other week, which coincided with our sprint schedule. We also had team-wide demos and planning meetings every Friday. Design critiques every Wednesday. From there I just tried to be strategic about who else in the organization I needed to talk to on a regular basis.

On a more specific level, what are the main tools that make up your workflow?

Adobe Creative Suite – Half my team works on Sketch and the other half doesn’t, and personally I’m still an Adobe person. For a while we considered all getting on Sketch but discovered that not everyone liked using it and instead it was more important to use whatever that person felt helped them get the job done the best and the fastest.

Keynote – I’ve been using Keynote a lot these days, especially through Paris Lectures stuff. I really like Keynote’s interface and find myself wishing some of the specifics of it could be translated to Photoshop (and vice versa).

Google Apps – Our team uses the collaborative tools a lot, especially Google Presentations for benchmarking or mood boarding.

Github – We use Github for all of our project management, which is an unusual use of it but seems to work well for the distributed culture at Mozilla.

Vidyo – For face-to-face meetings with people across Mozilla.

Red Pen – I really enjoy using Red Pen. It’s a great, specific design feedback tool. I also often use Evernote’s Skitch to mark up comps or QA a design.

Self Control app – In some of the hardest days of trying to balance family with working remotely, I would find myself drifting off into social media. Even though I don’t really use it anymore, Self Control helped me regather my concentration and get back into the habit of getting things done.

“I think being successful in anything is 90% tenacity. Just keep going. Keep trying. If that’s what you want, don’t take no for answer.”

What would your advice be for young designers who are looking to make that transition from a designer into a design manager?

I think it’s important to stand up for yourself and to have an opinion. Those are the biggest things. Particularly with women, I find who are little more soft spoken or don’t get heard the first time so never repeat themselves. That happens with men too, for sure. And obviously it’s not just up to them, we are all responsible for a systemic culture of valuing loud voices over soft ones, but the soft ones need to do their part to grow outside of their comfort zone.

I think being successful in anything is 90% tenacity. Just keep going. Keep trying. If that’s what you want, don’t take no for answer. Someone can say no, but you can go and find a yes somewhere else.

I don’t have the most impressive resume behind me, I really don’t. I graduated from University of Florida, and they have a great Graphic Design program but it’s not well-known. I didn’t have a well-known internship behind me. My first job was in England for a company that was willing to pay me under the table. What was important to me was the international experience, understanding the different parts of the industry, and exploring my interests. I think the way you interpret your experiences and how you present them is so much more important than the names associated with them.

In Toronto, for example, people bounce around from the same companies, it’s the same names over and over again. To be honest, it’s boring. When I’m hiring, I look for somebody who took a year off and went travelling in Asia or had some interesting, personal side project that shows they were passionate about something.

On top of that, I don’t think design management is for everyone. If you’re not someone that’s into facilitation, communication and helping other people find their way, you’re probably not suited to a management role. You might be someone who is laser focused on your craft and really value shipping the best design possible and that’s important too. I don’t think they’re necessarily mutually exclusive, but they can be. There are so many ways to grow as a designer rather than just into management.

Why do you do what you do? What makes it so meaningful to you?

I didn't know what design was until my third year of University. I really had no background in it. I had always been a visual person and always artistic, but I wanted to be a painter or a writer. When I finally took a design course the idea of combining words and images innately appealed to me. It seemed to massage both sides of my brain. It’s cool looking back now that I've been able to write and publish as well as design.

I think what makes me more suited to design than “pure” art or writing is that I like being able to solve problems with people. When I was in school, design – and particularly graphic design – was framed as a service. I do still like thinking about it that way but more and more, I think of it as collaboration. I have a tool set that I can use to help you solve a problem. You have information and perspective that can help me solve a problem. I like when it's mutual. I think that's my favorite part. I like design as it manages to solve problems with people rather than for people.

Who would you want to see on Ways We Work?

Mark Staplehurst - I’d love to see Mark on here. He’s one of the best interactive designers I’ve ever worked with and is often hesitant to share his work. I would be eager to see what he pulls out of the archives to share with you.

Jack Cheng - I met him at Brooklyn Beta several years ago, he wrote and published his first novel These Days through Kickstarter. I’d like to see the perspective of a writer who understands design as well. I know he must have some deep insights on the industry.