It was turning out to be a bad Valentine's Day for Michael DiTullo, rebellious design student. Having pissed off the wrong people one too many times, he learned he was being kicked out of the Industrial Design department at RISD. Furious, he confronted the department head and told him he refused to leave. A screaming match ensued.
Hours later DiTullo, now calm, showed up at a Greek restaurant called Andreas carrying a red rose. It matched the deep red of his date Kristina's hair, which was cut assymetrically. It was 1996 and this was their first date. It went well and the two of them spent hours talking over a table in the back of the restaurant.
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Now, 22 years later, Kristina and Michael are married. They both have BFA's--from RISD, Michael's in Industrial Design.
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Over the past two decades Michael has done work for clients like Burton, Converse, Google, Hasbro, Honda, Intel, Nike and Sephora, to name a few. He's worked on auto design, consumer electronics, footwear, interior architecture, kitchenware, medical instruments, retail design, robotics, technical apparel, transportation, toys. He's got the sketching skills, the design skills, the presentation skills, the business skills. DiTullo is the entire package. (And yes, he's worked on package design too.) He's also one of the rare designers to have made it into the C-suite.
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Last year DiTullo left his job as Chief Design Officer of Sound United, of his own volition and without any screaming matches. He was the one calling the shots now. He knew precisely what he wanted to do, and opened a full-service design firm with his name on the door.
So how did he go from failing student to owning his own firm? Here in Part 1 of our interview with DiTullo, we'll unspool the story of how he made this all happen.
Core77: I'm looking at your resume here and it is long. You're a guy who has made a lot of moves in his career. What inspired you to take each leap?
Michael DiTullo: Well, in a way, I think my value to any project/process/client/group is in being the least knowledgeable person on a subject matter. I always felt like my best work at Nike over my eight years there was in my first two years, because I just didn't know enough to box myself in. So I could ask things like "Hey, can we make a shoe that folds up and fits in a woman's purse?" Questions that might seem kind of stupid if you've been doing something for ten years. But if you've been doing it for ten months, it seems like "Why can't we do that?"
So I always get a little scared when I start to know too much. When I sense that I'm starting to close off avenues of investigations, because you have that doubt of "Oh I tried that before," or "this won't work," or "so-and-so will just fight against it." But if you're new to a category, or have a fresh set of eyes, or are working across a bunch of industries, then you don't have that. And you have the courage to say, "What if we tried this?"
So I always gravitated towards that. When I started off at Evo Design in Connecticut, we were doing work across so many categories, and I noticed sometimes projects with corporate clients were canceled, or things would come through the corporate process and really change. Which made me think "Why is that happening? I don't know. And I want to find out why it's happening. So I'm going to have to go work corporate."
If I'm going to go work corporate, I want to work for one of the best brands in the world. I want to work for Nike. So I flew out there, and they were like "We want you to work here too."
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After two years of working at Nike, I was like, "I want to work with Michael Jordan." John Hoke (the Head of Design) was like "Why should we let you work with Michael Jordan? There's like a hundred other designers here, and you've only been here for two years." And I said, "I just think I'd be good at it. It's true that I don't know anything about basketball, but I will work harder than anybody, because I want to work with Michael Jordan."
I talked to the Design Director of Jordan at the time, Dwayne Edwards, he's the founder of Pensole. And he gave me a test project to work on at night. He liked the project, he had me present it to [CEO] Mark Parker, and next thing I knew, I was working at Jordan.
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What was it that made you say, I want to work with Michael Jordan?
It seems audacious, but I was like well, if I'm working at Nike, I want to work on the best product Nike makes. Not from an ego standpoint, but from a challenge standpoint: "This seems like it'd be really hard, and I want to go do that. The Jordan team must be the best team, so I want to go work with that team so I can learn from them."
Then after eight years at Nike I'd learned a lot about the corporate process. And [I wanted] to take what I've learned back to the consulting side. And so then of course [laughter] I was like, "I'd like to work for one of the best consultancies in the world. I want to work for frog." And they were looking for a creative director for San Francisco.
And it's interesting, being in that consulting world where people had never worked corporate before: I found there's a lack of understanding of, for example, with a deliverable--the consultants say, "Okay, we need a decision in 24 hours." And the corporate client will be like "No problem." And I'd have to tell my team "Guys, we're not going to get a decision in 24 hours. He's got to go talk to guy above him, and then that guy's got to talk to his lateral guy, and it's going to be like two weeks before we get a decision on that."
Design review at frog. Leading a workshop at frog.
You have to know what it takes to navigate through that corporate world, and how you can structure the deliverables like "Hey, what do I need to give you for your people to sign off on it?"
You mentioned that when you were at Evo, you decided you wanted to learn corporate. And then after Nike for eight years, you decided to bring this back to the consultant side. Did that decision just come to you one day, or did it slowly build up over time?
I think I actually made that decision before I even went there. When I went to Nike I thought "I'll be here two to four years, and then I'll bring what I learned back into consulting." But I liked it at Nike a lot, I had a good time, and they didn't want me to leave. So they kept giving me newer and harder challenges, and I ended up staying there twice as long as I'd planned to stay.
So this was a long-term plan that you laid out, then executed.
Yeah. Sometimes young students talk to me about making like a five-year plan, and I would say "Fuck that, make a 20-year plan."
What was the rest of your plan?
When I started at frog, I was like, "I'll learn how a world-class consultancy works, and then I'll make my own studio." In between that, the Sound United thing happened. That was not part of the plan, but [Sound United] wanted to create their own internal version of frog, so I was like, "This is a fantastic dry run to starting my own practice." And it's a mutually beneficial opportunity.
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When I took that position, I gave myself five years to set up the design principles and processes, scale up a team, design and build out a facility, and bring as much product to market as we could. And basically I had my own studio with total creative control over multiple brands, from brand positioning, innovation pipeline management, and branding through to industrial design, packaging, retail displays, web presence, and even product photography and launch videos.
After that five years, it had now been 20 years since I graduated and it was time to get back to starting my own consulting studio, my long-term plan all along. I feel like I've done enough in enough industries, in footwear, consumer electronics, transportation, to open up a studio that can do a diverse range of projects.
So what is the next challenge level now that you finally have achieved having your own firm?
It's going to take a while to build this. Right now, it's fluctuating in size from like three to five people, depending on our project load. We have some good clients. So for the next few years, I want to focus on building this.
And then I've been teaching a little here and there. I'm 41 now, and I think my long-term goal after I do this for several years, is I'd like to really tackle design education. Whether that's starting a program at an existing university that doesn't have a design program, or just starting my own school, like Frank-Lloyd-Wright-slash-Bauhaus style. I really want to take on the question of "How do we educate designers?" Because I really believe that design is not an academic activity, but we try to force it into an academic setting.
Reviewing student work at Cleveland Institute of Art. Doing an innovation workshop with 6th graders at The Del Mar School. Running a workshop at UIC's Innovation Lab.
I think design is something that's really learned better in an apprenticeship kind of scenario. I think a couple of years of academic-type courses would help; me going to RISD gave me a good focus on art, architectural and design history. And 2D, 3D theory was immensely helpful in the first two years. But after that, it could all have been apprenticeships.
Did you have any influential internships when you were at RISD?
You know, I didn't. I had some influential experiences. I did a term abroad, which was really helpful. I did a term at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where a lot of the projects were sponsored by Chrysler Design. And then when I came back to RISD, I actually had my senior year sponsored by Nike and later by Nissan.
I think I've always been thinking about design education, because I almost failed out of school sophomore year.
How did you almost fail out?
So, I was a nerd: I knew I wanted to be an industrial designer since I was 13 years old. Pre-Google days in the '80s, going to Brentano's bookstore to get Dick Powell books and every book about industrial design I could possibly get. So I came into school probably a little bit more well-read on what industrial design is than my classmates, and I felt like what the instructors were teaching us didn't live up to what I'd read.
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There were four ID instructors in that year, my first year of ID. And they were all good people, but two of them had just graduated from the grad program, one was a graphic designer, the other was an architect. And I was like, "As well-meaning as they are, I don't know if these people really know enough about industrial design to be teaching it."
I didn't react well. I reacted really poorly, in a very 19-year-old rebellious way. I pretty much stopped going to class. I'd show up on crit days with a totally different project and they'd go "Michael, what the hell is this?" I was like, "This is the project. Not what you had assigned, because you don't know what you're doing."
So, rightfully, they failed me. I had to go through this whole academic probation, and I remember having a shouting match with the head of the department at the time, who was Bob O'Neil, he passed away recently. He ended up becoming one of my biggest advocates, but we were standing there just yelling at each other.
There was this visiting professor there from Domus, I can't remember his last name, his first name was Giovanni. And after two hours of us yelling at each other, Bob goes "Giovanni, what do you think of Michael?"
Giovanni says, "You don't want to know what I think."
Bob says, "No, no, tell us what you think about Michael."
And Giovanni says "Okay, well, I think Michael's probably your best student. And you don't know how teach him, which scares the hell out of you."And then he had a frank conversation with me. He let me know that I was good, but I was going about it the wrong way. I was just trying to hammer these guys instead of working with them.
So that was a turning point, probably for both Bob and I, and we worked out a plan. Because prior to that they had basically told me "Get out, we don't want you here." And I had just met a girl. That meeting was on Valentine's Day, and that night I had the first date with the girl that would become my wife. So in my mind I was like, I'm not going anywhere.
Michael and Kristina at RISD.
Bob O'Neil and [ID professor] Micky Ackerman came back from sabbatical, and we worked together and made a learning plan, basically, where I could do these educational exchanges study overseas, work on industry sponsored projects. And ironically I ended up graduating with a faculty award, however that works.
I stopped fighting them and started working with them. And I learned that this whole system is all made up.
Can you elaborate?
My last semester, I was busy doing sponsored projects for both Nike and Nissan--but I had three liberal arts electives I still had to get out of the way. And I couldn't do these projects for these two huge companies, do the liberal arts stuff too, and not die.
So my second week of class the last semester, I set up one-on-ones with the liberal arts instructors and said "Look, here's everything else I have going on. I need your credit to graduate. But I don't care about your class. So what's the minimum I could possibly do to pass your class?" And all of them...they loved it.
What do you mean? That they appreciated your honesty?
Yes, I guess no one had ever said that to them. So the English professor was like "Read this book and write me an essay, you don't ever have to come to class." The CAD instructor was like "Here's the final for the CAD class, if you can just do the final, you don't ever have to come to class the whole rest of the term." I worked out a deal with each one individually, because I realized this is just a somewhat made-up system to help you learn.
Now that you've long been out of that system, where you find inspiration for individual projects?
I almost see everything as one project. I have different clients, and they send me on different inquiries, if you will. But I feel like I'm a sponge in the world all the time. I'm always gathering stuff and jotting it down. Even if I don't have a project in a particular industry, if I see something happening in that industry I'll jot down my thoughts on it.
Sometimes I use the Core77 discussion forums for that purpose. I'll start a topic on "Hey, I noticed this is going on," and then I'll get a bunch of other people talking about it, and kind of formulate an opinion on it. I feel like I'm building up these reservoirs all the time.
Do you jot these down into an organized system?
No, but I probably should. It's very free-form, just a constant stream of notebooks. I also use Pinterest as a way to collect a lot of that stuff. I'm also a really big believer in immersing yourself in culture that's not directly design-related. My wife's an artist, so we're always going to art openings, museums, or even traveling to L.A. or New York for museum openings. Seeing how curators put shows together and what they're talking about. Gallery shows, music, concerts. Trying to mix with those people as much as possible, because artists and musicians are very sensitive to what's going on in the world. And I feel like that's a big part of my continuous inspiration and research, it's pretty natural and fluid.
Then when I start a client project, now I have to formalize it. For example with the project for Leucadia, I had to pull all of my ongoing research and inspiration together in a way that is easily understandable to the client. Usually when I present initial concepts, they will be shown alongside an emerging trend. And these trends won't be on the level of "orange is cool". The trends are broader and more macro, for example "People are staying home and cooking more."
There's a higher value on that, so in the case of that custom chef's knife, I helped the client double their retail prices. I was like "Hey, there's more of a premium being put on these home experiences. Here's all the different trends pointing to that, whether that's from streaming video to the rise of Whole Foods as a viable national grocery chain. And so because people are spending all of this time and money at home, I think the brand can raise retails." That in turn gives me more money to play with in the design of this knife, and I can help make a better product.
So these things comprise a sort of creative diet. Are there other inputs?
I'm a very extroverted Type-A person, and talking to people is how I figure out a lot of things. So at least weekly I pull two or three designers together for lunch or coffee. Just bouncing all this stuff off of them and also sucking up all the things they're looking at. "Oh cool, I'm going to write that down and go check that out."
That's really important to me. Because if I'm just on my own, thinking things that I perceive, it's very limited. So I want to know what you think, and I want to know what other creative people think.
Our studio is located a block from the Pacific Ocean and there's a bunch of other businesses around us that are totally different. There's a furniture company, there's a few apparel companies. I like reach out to the people that own those businesses with a "Hey, let's get lunch. What's going on in your guys' world? What do you think?" Trying to collect all these different perspectives. Because otherwise, the solitary designer's perspective can be off. Because we're not normal.
There is that danger, where if say, architects only hang out with like-minded architects, their work can start to alienate regular folk. It reminds me of those two AIs talking to each other and inventing their own language that no one else could understand. Anyways, earlier you had spoke about a sort of fear that you were not challenging yourself enough when you were starting out. Is that something that only happened when you started design school, or was that a trait that you always possessed?
Dissatisfaction is the best tool in my toolbox. I'm just never happy with anything, so--you see this wall of stuff I've worked on behind me? [Gestures.]
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I don't like any of it. For me, every single one is a reminder of something I did wrong, or a battle I lost, or something I learned but couldn't apply in time. That's why I keep them. It's my work, and I own that, that's part of it. And I'm proud of the diversity of the things that I've worked on, but I don't love them, if that makes sense.
I love what I've learned, and I'm trying to apply what I learned on the next thing always.
Coming up in Part 2:
DiTullo's clever solutions for dealing with the setbacks, obstacles and bullsh*t that all designers face, plus what he's working on next!