It’s a pleasure today to introduce and share with you all an interview I was lucky enough to put together with esteemed Designer and all round creative mind of Frog Design; Michael DiTullo. Famous for working with such huge companies; Nike, Nissan, Converse, Chrysler & writing for industrial design site Core77.
Michael shares with you all his thoughts on the career path he has taken, working with huge multinational companies, writing online, the shape and technologies of industrial design today and so much more. For product designers, industrial designers and creative minds all alike you will take so much from this insightful interview.
What was the bigger turnaround in your education that made you take your first steps as a designer? Did you have an over riding influence in terms of teachers/lecturers which drove you into design or were you inspired by a particular designer or design movement?
When I was 13 I started telling people “I want draw stuff from the future” when they asked me what I wanted to do when I grow up. It is not ever something I decided to do, rather it is something that bubbled up from inside. Looking back, I was able to turn a series of chance events into what seems like a very scripted story in reverse!
I happened along an article about Giorgio Giugiaro later that year and discovered that “drawing stuff from the future” was called design. When I was 14 I happened upon a book called “Design and Rendering Techniques” by Richard Powell and I started internalizing everything in that book. I learned about the Rhode Island School of Design from a math teacher who spotted me drawing products in the back of class. By challenging my college professors I ended up doing sponsored projects with Nike, Nissan, and Chrysler, studying in Milan and at the Cleveland Institute of Art. These events shaped my life.
I’ve always a strong internal sense of direction. Having this is a blessing an a curse. While pursuing what I feel is the right solution I can unintentionally make ripples in the accepted norm in pursuit of that internal direction. This has caused friction for me many times in my life. in response I have learned to better explain to others what I feel so they understand why I am challenging the status quo.
Society influences all of us to adopt to the consensus of the tribe. This is a survival instinct which has served us well as a species, but innovation has always come from the fringes of a few rebels. There are two types of people who challenge the accepted behaviors of the tribe, destructive rebels, and constructive rebels. Destructive rebels tend to be cast out from the group, but constructive rebels tend to alter the nature of the tribe itself. If you are going to be a constructive rebel, you have to explain your intentions well so the group can understand and adapt.
“Society influences all of us to adopt to the consensus of the tribe. This is a survival instinct which has served us well as a species, but innovation has always come from the fringes of a few rebels.”
Back to your original question. My education has been largely the identification of constructive rebels that I can learn from. Design is not an academic activity, nor is it an act of democracy. Design is a positive reaction to dissatisfaction. The key to progressing is the ability to identify experts in this and get them to mentor you! In school it was a series of professionals who were also instructors, Larry Brinker from Nissan, Joel Baccus and Dan Zimerman from Chrysler, Cliff Krapfl from Teams Design.
My first full time professional job was working for Aaron Szymanski, who is one of the founders of Evo Design. Working for Aaron for almost five years taught me what it means to be a designer. At Nike, I had many mentors, Tinker Hatfield, John Hoke, Phil Russo, Scott Patt, each taught me different things about developing and evangelizing innovative design in a large global organization. Here at frog, I’m fortunate to have quickly found a trio of mentors in Paul Bradley, the global executive creative director of product design, Mark Rolston, the Chief Creative Officer of the entire 1600+ person firm, and Hartmut Esslinger, the founder of frog. Having a relationship with Hartmut is the completion of a circle for me. When I was in design school in the 90’s I would study frog, read the essays that Hartmut would publish in design books and magazines. The philosophy that Hartmut advocated for was very influential to me and it is an honor to be a part stewarding that.
“Design is not an academic activity, nor is it an act of democracy. Design is a positive reaction to dissatisfaction.”
In today’s design world (and across the board) coming out of university and into the job market is one of the most competitive times of your early career. Did you find your first job to come across hard & what key things did you do to prepare for your first interview?
Finding my first full time design position was very difficult. In the 90’s there was not a lot of available information on design. Core77.com had just launched in 1995. There were really no online portfolios, and very little online job posts. People would post positions in the back of ID magazine, or Innovation Magazine, and there was maybe 5 or 6 in each. So as a young designer in those times you had no way to know the level of work coming out of other schools but you did know everyone was applying to the same handful of jobs! This was one of the most difficult times in my career and my life. I was lost, especially once school was over.
Diploma in hand, I moved back in with my parents. After a few depressing weeks trying to get interviews, and having near misses at jobs, I simply started working on my own. I set up a small studio in the basement and worked on my portfolio every day for about 15 hours. I would put aside one day a week to send out new work to companies I was interested in, and to call professionals to try to get a conversation going. From this effort a few freelance jobs emerged and I began to get a sense of the level I needed to be operating at as a professional. I started working more, freelancing for about 8 hours a day, and then reworking my portfolio projects for another 8. From this interest started to percolate from firms like IDEO and Continuum, and even had a few offers from corporations, but nothing felt right. People thought I was crazy turning down offers after struggling for so long, and then a new firm called Evo reached out to me. Aaron, the founder I mentioned above, had me come into the studio, sat down with me and we had a long conversation. I had a sense that this was the right place to be and the right person to learn from. It was a good decision.
Aside from your own personal work and work on a wider scale working for companies such as Frog Design, you also write for the esteemed design blog Core77. How much of a commitment can you hold for writing for such sites? Does this not distract for other commerical work?
Designer is not a title, it is a type of person. It isn’t something I do, or even live, it is who I am, as a definition of self. I have no distinction between work and play, what I do for a client and what I do for the culture of design, it all comes from the same place. Cut me and I bleed in Pantone. The writing I’ve been doing for core77 since 2003 has only strengthened my perspective, developed my voice, taught me how to to teach, to advocate and evangelize. This informs my professional work, makes me more efficient, more empathetic to my clients needs, and more able to help them to produce the kind of work we can both be proud to be a part of. That professional experience then informs the writing, legitimizes it, and refines it. It is a symbiotic relationship, a type of professional therapy for me where I can hammer out more abstract concepts removed from a particular project.
“Designer is not a title, it is a type of person. It isn’t something I do, or even live, it is who I am, as a definition of self. I have no distinction between work and play, what I do for a client and what I do for the culture of design, it all comes from the same place.”
Frequently articles write themselves, born from a conversation with a colleague or sparked by an observation out in the world. I start to have a dialog with myself. I obsess over it and can’t let the thoughts go. That is when I know it is time to start writing, which often happens in cranny of time, late one evening, or early on a weekend day. Formalizing them and getting them outside myself helps me to internalize an abstract thought into something I can use in the studio as well as enables me to actually move onto the next thing.
It is not an easy thing. I have a packed schedule, I’m usually traveling somewhere every other week, sometimes, every week. Meeting with clients, designers, critiquing work, developing concepts myself, conducting immersive research, talking with contract manufacturers…. there is a lot going on. It would be easier to not do this “extra” work if it wasn’t such a key to who I am, if it didn’t’ feed me in some way.
A large part of credibility and authenticity, in addition to practicing what you preach, is being honest. This means that what I write is not always going to be easy to read for everyone. In some ways this might limit who would want to work for me professionally, but I see that as a positive thing. In a way it pre filters my collaborators. They understand the type of work we are going to do together. Having brought a few hundred products to production in the last 15 years I’m now only interested in working with those who have the same amount of passion for creating the very best. Excellence should be our lowest setting.
Are design blogs such as Core77 (and even the likes of Design Juices) important for student and established designers alike do you feel?
Yes. Period. The end! 😉 As we talked about earlier, there was a time that the only thing we knew about design outside of work and school came from a magazine or a book. Design is a fluid thing, it changes and moves very quickly. A book is an excellent place to archive something established, something eternal. For example Sophie Lovell’s book on Dieter Rams “As Little Design As Possible” is an awesome way to encapsulate all of that work. It is much easier to get a pulse on the global design culture online.
I read about two dozen blogs: core77, designmind, dexigner, design juices, grain edit, design droplets, the sartorialist, Flavorwire, MoCo Loco, Paleo Future, notcot, apartment therapy, The Selby, juncture, hypebeast, High Snobriety, In the Make… those are the ones off the top of my head. I’m always looking at portfolios, critiquing student work, trying to understand what is happening in different regions and in different disciplines. It feels a bit like surfing. By doing this you start to feel the waves, and eventually you learn how to catch them, ride them, and do something special and unique with them!
When I see portfolios I can see the ones from designers who are a part of that global community. Typically they are accustomed to direct feedback, their concepts are more developed, they are able to think on their feet, and respond with more articulate answers. There is no excuse not to do this that I can think of other than laziness or fear. Get out there. Put your work online. Seek advice and feedback. You will be better for it.
Your career to date has had some real high points looking from the outside, you have had the opportunity to work with some amazing clients and big name multi-national companies. Is it safe to assume that you have always thrived under the kinds of pressure working with those kinds of companies and brands?
Definitely. I love pressure. I’m a big believer in the larger the risk, the larger the reward. Within those organizations I will always seek the most difficult challenges, or the ones that have been ignored or overlooked. Those are where the opportunity to do something special lie. Mark Rolston, our Chief Creative Officer, was in the SF studio a few weeks ago and he remarked in the last year at frog I had lead three types of projects that frog had never done before, a difficult accomplishment to earn in a 40 year old firm with a global reach! Then he asked me what I was going to follow it up with this year? … no pressure 😉
Is there a company/brand that you would stay away from as a designer at all?
It is not so much about a particular company or brand, as a kind of person and organizational culture. Organizations that are adverse to change and risk don’t tend to mix well with my attributes. There are the kinds of places you might think that fall into that category, but also successful companies. If your organization is beloved and revered it can be difficult to change and evolve.
This is why I have so much respect for someone like Chris Bangle. He took a beloved brand that designers respected, and pushed them very far outside of their comfort zone. There where many people who thought it was the wrong thing to do, and yet BMW grew as a result in both revenue and global mind share, and almost every other auto maker is now influenced by the changes he helped bring about. There were a few almost shocking, even to me, and looking back at them 5 years later, it is easy to see they will be classics. To disrupt the marketplace, create an icons that will be future classics, and transform a brand into a global leader it takes people at the very top who are comfortable with risk. It can be a prestigious brand, it can be a brand that has been dormant or is seemingly staid but has new leadership, and it can be an absolutely new organization with no history at all. What matters to me as a designer is that I have access to the person who who has the ability to say yes or no, and that person be open to change.
I experienced this first hand at Converse. The brand had a 100 year rich history of making some of the most iconic pieces of footwear ever made. The Chuck Taylor is the Eames chair of that space. Yet the company had nearly shut down until a management buy out got it operational and back in the back before Nike purchased it. A few of us at Nike were very passionate about the history of Converse; John Hoke, Paul Tu, Dennie Wendt, Scott Patt, and others like myself came over to immerse ourselves in the culture of Converse. A new CEO, Michael Spillane came in with a mandate from Nike to do great things. All of us on the creative side were extremely passionate about where we thought the brand should go, and Michael had an open door policy toward all of us. I remember him coming into my office when he first started. I had a critique wall in my first office there where I had posted renderings my team had created to show a potentially different direction for the company. As Michael and I chatted I could see his eye keep returning to the wall. He got up and asked me to explain the concepts. As I walked him through the collection and how each related to a particular consumer, met a particular need, pulled on a certain emotive cultural quality i could see his face lighting up. Michael’s response was to green light almost the entire collection which included an entirely different take on the brand. That kind of intuitive leadership is what I look for.
Is there an end goal to your design career at all in terms of where you think you could walk away happy with what you have achieved? Or will you be working to change the world and improve it through design til the end?
I can’t fathom a reason to stop doing something I love. We talked about dissatisfaction earlier. I think a healthy amount of dissatisfaction is the most important tool a designer has. When I look back at my work, I don’t see a single project I wouldn’t do almost completely differently. I see that as a positive thing. That feeling means I am continuing to learn and grow as a designer and a person. If I ever became content with my work it would be a signal to me that it is time to stop, but there is just so much more I want to do that I don’t see that happening.
I’d like to continue to be a part of creating new levels of meaning and resonance in physical objects in the digital age, which is something that I call designing talismans over objects. A talisman is a physical object that has power beyond the physical. More objects contain fragments of intelligence, and are gaining the ability to talk to one another to better meet our individual needs. Twenty years ago a chip in your sneakers that talked to your phone seemed like pure fiction. Now that capability is capable with every Nike running shoe. This will only continue to grow more common. It is simultaneously amazing and a bit intimidating for people. I believe part of the role of the industrial designer is to humanize these technology, to make them self evident and accessible, and enable people to control them with ease. The ability to do this is one of the primary reasons I came to frog.
I’ll also continue to have my projects that sustain my personal creativity like my collaborations with Jonathan Ward at Icon. To create something with almost no boundaries, where the goal is to be the very best at any cost, teaches you the irrelevance of artificial boundaries. I’m proud to work for people at frog, and when I was Nike, who understand how important that is to me. In fact when the first Icon CJ rolled off the production line, Nike had it shipped up to the headquarters so that everyone could check it out. That is support.
Beyond that I’d like to continue to be a part of the fabric of design culture. I mentioned the many mentors I’ve had. I’ll never be able to repay them, but I will be able to pass on what I’ve learned. Wighting for core77 and designmind is a part of that. I’ll continue to speak about what I believe is important in design. This year I have spoken at the University of Cincinnati, The University of Illinois, at the Design Addict conference in Mexico with Karim Rashid and Don Leman, and at Swissnex with Yves Behar… I have to top all that next year. I’ve also been invited onto the Design and Architecture Accessions Committee at SFMoMA which is a small group of individuals who help decide how to grow the museums permanent collection. I’ve taught in the past, and I will do so again. I’d like to be the head of a design department at a university at some point in my career or leading a team as VP of design at a small, highly specialized company… There is simply too much to do to ever stop.
Sampling the world of CAD and 3D printing in industrial design, It’s obvious that this kind of technology and as a design element of any project is something that is fast moving and always looking to improve. Not only in the past 5 years but every few months it seems. Can we even imagine how much more advanced 3D printing and CAD are going to be in 5 years in the future?
The tools have always changed! When I was in school the first thing you did on day one was set up a drafting machine! When I graduated we were still drafting by hand about 50% of the time. We faxed sketched to clients! I remember writing about how Harley Earl never touched a magic marker when I was early in my career. My Earl was the first head of design at GM, though he wasn’t a traditional designer himself. I got a personal letter (in the actual mail, that is how it was done then) in response from Robert Cumberford, the design contributor to Automobile magazine, a former GM designer who worked for Harley, and a bit of an idol of mine as a great designer who also had a passion for critique and authorship. Robert told me I was correct, Earl never touched a marker, because they didn’t exist then! They only had pastels, pencils and Canson paper. Rapid change is a part of design. Heck, it is what we do for our clients! Why would we expect our world would be stable?
So, embrace change. No, seek it, or better yet, start it. Also remember, a bad design is a bad design no matter if it is sketched, modeled, or rendered in CAD. Never confuse a tool for a result, invention for innovation, or a process with a product. The goal is get great design into the hands of people and to love what you are making along the way! Work hard and have fun!
We must extend our thanks to Michael for making this interview possible. You can follow Michael on Twitter @michael_ditullo and his personal website: http://michaelditullo.com/ Check out his writing and more with Frog Design and Core77.