A Passion For Community: Cassie McDaniel of the Mozilla Foundation

Cassie McDaniel is Design Director at the Mozilla Foundation, an advocate for open practices on the web, and the founder of Women&&Tech, a platform for telling personal stories behind successful and up-and-coming women working in technology. We caught up with Cassie ahead of her upcoming appearances at An Event Apart DC and An Event Apart Chicago, to learn a little more about what makes this fascinating designer tick.

How and where did you get your start in design, web or otherwise?

I started out wanting to be a painter. My dad was a poet who tinkered with tech, my mom an avid reader and lover of art. As soon as I realized how wide the world of design could be–that I could be an artist, a writer, an illustrator, a technologist, an entrepreneur, and a responsible citizen, and that I could be all of these things under the umbrella of a legitimate career–I was sold.

I studied graphic design at the University of Florida, then extended my graduation by a semester to take advantage of a scholarship that sent me to Leeds, UK. I was twenty when I left the States for the first time, was living abroad by 22, and settled in Ontario at 25. I got my first job in London, England at the only place willing to hire me without a work permit, a little web agency, and have worked in interactive design since, flirting with different careers in healthcare, children's book illustration, and creative writing.

Sometimes I like to imagine how my relationship with technology will peter out. That sounds destructive, so let me elaborate! I don't like how tech can get in the way of relationships, how it can even wholly determine them without any human input, or how it can make life harder. I'm not sure the internet has ever had more potential than now, but there is a lot of work to be done. We need to make the web friendlier to the newest of newcomers, and to stop mistaking ease of use with “you don't need to know.” I aspire to craft that perfect balance.

You've created some great things, including Women&&Tech and Paris Lectures. What's the common thread that runs through those initiatives?

Community. They are projects I work on with others that impact my local life, and that I consider investments in things that matter to me. Also, I work on nearly all of my side projects with my husband and fellow designer, Mark Staplehurst. We met at our first job in England, and have always been good collaborators on creative work; I'm the starter, he's the finisher. I'm the opportunity-finder, strategy designer, and communicator. He's the limit-pusher and creative visionary. We tend to be equally ambitious. It's been one of my life's great fortunes that I have found a creative partner as excellent as Mark to work with on exciting projects.

What do you do at Mozilla, and what's it like working there?

I'm the Design Director for the Mozilla Foundation and it's a damn honor. My team is amazing. They work hard every day; they are very independent, driven, smart, talented. It's a privilege to work among them.

Mozilla has been my first foray into Open Source, and for me it has really felt like coming home. Open Source's values of transparency, inclusiveness, honesty, and directness very much suit my personality. That said, we are a remote team, which can be a magnificent challenge. It's difficult to develop trust and figure out how to get stuff done within the chaos of distributed teams.

People who know Mozilla know this, but it's a non-profit full of incredibly idealistic people who want to use technology for good. Within this framework, designers have unlimited potential to do something meaningful with their work.

You're giving a talk at several shows this fall called “Trees for the Forest.” What's the quick pitch, and will attendees take away from it?

I plan to share some no-BS advice about designing better user interfaces. It'll have useful, practical ways to think about design—all the way from the big picture down to the little details. I'd like to demystify what it takes to be a good interface designer for those who have been hesitant to try it; and for those who are a little more experienced, I want to provide avenues for getting out of design ruts. We'll look at bad examples, look at great examples, and we'll talk about classic design tricks, as well as trends. And context. We'll talk about what it means to be a contextual designer, and what UI and UX have in common.

What excites you most these days?

My daughter learning new words and ideas. Nasturtiums and blue potato plants. Weekend getaways. People who are passionate. People who are brave. Moments where time slows down.

I'm also pretty excited about the work we're doing at the Foundation to teach web literacy around the world. We've got a crack team on the case and all our efforts are so close to bearing fruit.

Cassie will be one of twelve amazing speakers at An Event Apart DC and An Event Apart Chicago. For more insight into what AEA is all about, enjoy the numerous free presentation videos on our site. And for your free monthly guide to all things web, design, and developer-y, subscribe to The AEA Digest.