In Part 1 of this interview, we followed Michael DiTullo's career path from unruly student to principal of his own firm. It wasn't an easy-breezy path; you don't rise to the position of Design Director at 30, then Chief Design Officer before your 40s, as DiTullo did, without encountering difficulties and setbacks. And just like when you're designing an object, when you're navigating a business environment you have to understand how things really work and how the parts fit together in order to achieve a successful outcome.
Here in Part 2, DiTullo speaks frankly and honestly about some of the BS that designers have to face and how he dealt with these issues.
Core77: Another topic I wanted to touch on is the setbacks designers encounter, and how to get around them. Can you talk about some of the more difficult setbacks you've run into and how you solved them?
Michael DiTullo: Yeah. I think I learned early on--we talked about that one from school [in Part 1 of this interview]--that I'm going to have to take things into my own hands. There is no benevolent force that's going to help you. You've got to do it. And you have to seek help; [no one's going to bring it to you,] you yourself have to get it.
I'm always open to feedback from other people. And if somebody has a good idea, I'm going to steal that idea. I have absolutely no problem with being like, "I'm going to use that," and I credit that person. I don't have an ego, it's about making the thing as good as it can be.
But on the flip side, I also have absolutely no problem with rejecting input, if I think it's wrong. I think that's one of the biggest challenges that a lot of designers face. Early in my career at Nike, I saw this shoe the company had produced, and it was a freaking disaster. I was curious and went to the guy that designed it, he was a Senior Designer. I'm looking at his original sketch, which was cool, and I compared it to the real thing and asked him "What happened?"
"Oh, marketing made me do this, and marketing made me do that," blah blah blah, he said.
"But how did they make you do it?" I asked.
"What do you mean, how did they make me do it? They just tell me to do it."
"Yeah, but you report to the Design Director, who reports to the Creative Director, who reports to the Head of Design. You don't report to Marketing. How did they make you do it?"
"I don't understand the question."
"Well, did they threaten you? What did they do?"
So it dawned on me: I don't have to listen if it's not a good idea. He knew that Marketing's suggestions weren't any good but still felt compelled to listen.
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What can you do if you're that guy, in that kind of situation?
I remember being in a similar situation where a marketing guy was like, "Okay, you have to do this, this, this and this to the shoe."
I said "I don't think those are the right things to do to the shoe. I don't think that's going to make the product better."
"Well, you have to do it."
"Well, if you can prove to me that it will sell more, I will certainly do it. But that's really your value in this equation. If it's just like you want it this way, that is a design decision, and I'm going to make that decision, because I went to school for it."
He turned bright red and said "Fine, I'm going to cancel the whole program."
He says "So you would be okay with canceling this program just because you won't make a change I want to make?"
I told him "I'm not canceling the program. You're the one that wants to cancel the program over a design decision that you won't let your designer make. If you cancel this program, please do, I will set up a meeting with us and the VP of Product. And please bring a box, because you will explain to him why, over a grudge, you canceled an entire program that revenue was assigned to. And you will get fired. And then I'll never have to listen to your input ever again. If that's what you would prefer to do over this design decision, if you'd prefer to lose your job rather than listen to the expert that you have working with you, I'm totally fine with it."
In the end he was like "Okay, we'll keep it the way you want to do it."
And the shoe went into production and sold well. You have to know when to dig in. And I wasn't trying to be a jerk about it, but was just trying to frankly lay out the situation. I'm like, "Yeah, you do have the power to cancel the whole program. But that comes with a consequence. And I'm not going to be threatened by that, because, guess what, I've designed a shit-ton of shoes. And next season, I'll design more. My whole career doesn't rest on this. But yours might, if you lose this much revenue over a grudge."
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I had this thing with an engineer, we were developing a new cushioning technology. (That's a big deal in the industry and was another one of my goals.) The testing was coming back with good results, and Marketing had put an aggressive timeline on it to bring it to market. But the lead engineer didn't feel comfortable, he was really nervous. To his credit, he had worked on cushioning technology 15 years prior that had been rushed to market, and it failed because it had been rushed.
But this [iteration] was going fine. And I was pushing hard for it and siding with Marketing's aggressive timeline. I told the engineer "Dude, it's testing and performing great. There's no issues. And there's strong utility patents on it."
He felt I was really pressuring him, so he typed up this letter that said "Michael DiTullo is going to take full responsibility if this thing fails," that it was 100% my idea to bring it to market on this timeline.
I signed it right away and told him "This is freaking awesome."
And he's saying "What?" I think he thought I was going to back down.
I said, "You just gave me a document that says if we bring this to market and it succeeds, that you had nothing to do with it. And guess what? It's going to go to market, and it's going to succeed. And this says that you don't have anything to do it. Put me down." And he took the paper back and ripped it in half.
There's going to be uncomfortable moments in the process when you are trying to push a boundary. You just have to make it not personal. You have to be willing to have the uncomfortable conversation, and then immediately say "Hey, let's go get a beer." And make sure people know it's not you versus them. "I understand we both want the best thing for the project, but maybe we have some different views on how to get that done."
And in some cases I have been wrong. And that has resulted in product just sitting in the warehouse, and that's not a good feeling. I try to do post-mortems and learn from that, and talk to people who disagreed with me. There have been times where I have gone to an engineer or a marketing person and been like "You were right and I was wrong. And I'm sorry." So you've got to own that stuff too.
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Sure. Speaking of tough conversations, when you are working with a team of designers under you, do you consider it their responsibility to inspire themselves? Or are you leading them and trying to inspire them from your position?
I'd say it's 50-50. I expect the designers I work with to want to be immersed in culture. I expect them to inspire me too. I expect them to bring me things like "Hey, have you seen this?" Awesome. And I will do that in return. I will mentor them, I'll expose them to something I've seen that they may have not because I've been around a little longer. Helping them understand that the work we're doing, it's part of a continuous stream of work, from before World War II until today, and we'll go beyond.
I think when you understand that it's not about what happened last year and what will happen next year--it's about what happened 40 years ago and what will happen 40 years from now. Then you can chart the trends very differently.
When designers work for me, I think the hardest thing for some is that there's this point in time where we're teammates. We're both designers working on a project together, I want your ideas, I want you to challenge me. But then there's another point in time where now we're reviewing the ideas, and I will make the decision.
Some people really get that, when to treat me like a peer and when to be deferential, because it's my name on the door. Some people struggle with that.
I became a director really young, when I was 30. I had a team working under me and this one designer happened to be a millennial. I don't believe in the millennial myths, but in this case he fit the type. So I tapped his input, and made a decision that went a different way.
He was like "I thought we talked about this, and I wanted to do it this way," and blah blah blah.
I was like "Dude, it doesn't work that way. I'm the director. You're the designer. You see that door over there? The other side of that door is where people that disagree with me get to stay, and they don't get paid. And on this side of the door is where I get to make the decision, ultimately. And those people get paid. Because at the end of the day, it's my ass on the line. If it doesn't work, I can't tell the CEO or the client 'Hey, it was a junior designer's idea. Sorry, it wasn't my fault.' I can't pass the buck. So I have to only go with things that I feel hold up to my scrutiny. It is why I only ever show concepts that I would feel comfortable with the client selected. We do not show filler. And I have to have a conversations with my team to let them know, "I was happy for your input, I want your input on a continual basis. Just know that I won't always go with your idea. When the time comes that I do, we will celebrate that."
I could share some horror stories here, but I better shift gears or I'll be accused of Millennial bashing. Can you tell us what you're working on next, or is that still under wraps?
I can tell you what's coming out soon. In February, there will be a line of pet toys that will be designed. I love dogs, and I know you love dogs too! Our studio dog, Enzo, is right next to me as a matter of fact. So that was a super fun project, never worked in that space before.
In April, a new e-bike is coming out that I worked on. It's a really cool bike, it was designed in collaboration with a legend and innovator in the mountain bike space from the '90s and early 2000s. It's got some really crazy geometry. The electronics are provided by a German electronics company, and it'll be the first e-bike with this German drivetrain, so that'll be exciting.
And then, I'm not sure when it will come out, but we did four vehicles for a Hollywood sci-fi movie that's currently in development. That was just bananas.
And then a really innovative concept vehicle for a large Chinese car brand. So, super diverse stuff.
Being honored by the Del Mar School district for volunteering with their Design Thinking program.
It sounds like no two projects are alike.
Yeah. From pet squeaky toys to sci-fi movie vehicles, and everything in between. And that's exactly what I wanted to work on, when I started the studio.
I was bouncing some ideas off of people. I told a really good friend of mine, who is on the business side at Nike, that "I want to go with the tagline of 'Design Everything.'"
She said "I don't know, it's kind of confusing. What's your specialty?"
I said "My specialty is applied creativity. My specialty is I will bring influences from all these different industries to your project."
So I was concerned about [her reaction], because I feel like some people in business might not grok it so well, because they want specialists. But I've found that the people that get it really get it, and really see the benefit of, say, that phenolic material that's in the knife handle, now I'm introducing that to the automotive clients that I'm working with, thinking maybe we should start using this in instrument panel trims, instead of wood or fake carbon fiber or the aluminum that everybody's using. And I would never have learned about that material if I hadn't worked with the knife company.
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That's interesting, how the work feeds itself. Is there any category of object or space that you want to design that you haven't been able to yet?
Yes. My goal for 2018 is to do a furniture project. I've never done anything for production in the furniture space. So I would love to work with a Herman Miller, or a Hayworth or a Knoll or somebody to do a production piece.
Another category I've never worked in is aerospace, so I'd love to do something, ideally the interior of a hypersonic, stratospheric jet or something, but anything in that space would be amazing.
Lastly, nautical. Those are the three categories that I'm targeting next. But the next one is furniture. You've got to have that big goal for the year.
Speaking of big goals, congratulations on starting up your own firm.
Thank you for the support! The relationship I've had with Core77 over the past, almost 20 years has been so helpful. I remember reaching out to Stuart [Constantine, Core77 co-founder] when I was thinking about going out on my own, just to get his advice, as a business owner. He asked me, "What's your exit plan?"
And I hadn't thought about it, but I immediately realized I didn't want one. I guess my exit plan is death.
I've always looked up to and studied the paths of people like Raymond Loewy, Frank Lloyd Wright, Walter Teague. They worked until the end because they loved what they do. I don't think Frank Gehry has an exit plan. That is why I named the studio my name. It struck me that every firm has their super-cool, irreverent word, "fill in the blank" design. I have nothing against that, but I feel like that space has been mined. I wanted to give a nod back to our founders and our originators, the Loewys and the Teagues of the world. It's my name on the door, and what you get is me and my experience. I'm not going to pass the hard work off to some intern!
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Well folks, that wraps up our interview with Michael DiTullo. It's kind of funny--DiTullo has written for Core77 nearly as long as I have, but never in the same office and I'd only met him once. Prior to this interview I never actually sat down and had a one-on-one with him about his career. So it was great to hear these stories.
We started the intro to Part 1 of this interview with a story of DiTullo going out on his first date with Kristina, his now-wife. So it's fitting that we'll close Part 2 with this relevant anecdote he shared after the interview:
"On about our third or fourth date, Kristina asked me what I wanted to do when I got of school," DiTullo recounts. "I thought about it for a second and replied 'Remember learning about Frank Lloyd Wright and Raymond Loewy in art history class? I want to be like those guys.'
"She laughed in my face, loudly!
"I must have given a look that spoke volumes, because then she said 'Oh, you're serious. I can get behind that.'"
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