Conversation with Michael DiTullo, Former Nike designer, Creative Director Frog Design

What’s up man? How’s your summer been?

Pretty packed! We moved across the country and I started as Creative Director at frog design’s San Francisco studio, but we are settling in quickly and loving the Bay area.

Michael DiTulloCool, cool. I’m gonna just get right into it. Can you remember the first time you realized you could draw well?

(Laughs) I’ve never really thought about that, but looking back on it, there were always a lot of kids that liked to draw in my grade school. We used to get together and have competitions at lunch to draw robots, and tanks, and space ships. At the end we would spread the sketches out and vote who was the best that day. It was super competitive and usually fights would break out… this was like first grade. Nicky and I were usually the best and it typically came down to the two of us. We always pushed each other to draw and I never stopped.

Did you ever use How to Draw… books?

Of course, all kinds. From How to Draw Pets to How To Draw Comics the Marvel Way. When I was a kid there was a TV show called Let’s Draw that I loved. My Uncle Mark also lived with us for a bit and he is an artist. He taught me perspective in the third grade.

Cheater. JK. No I totally did too. Did you watch cartoons or read comics as a kid? What were some of your favorites?

I was never a comic book kid, but I watched a lot of cartoons. My favorite was Robotech. That show was on weekday mornings where I grew up, from 7 a.m. to 7:30, and I had to leave for the bus at 7:15. Of course I would push it every day trying to just get in another minute or two. I think I only saw the end of an episode when I was home sick.

What kinds of artists, images, and/or things inspired you to want to continue to draw or make things?

As a kid I was always fascinated with who came up with the ideas for things, and I just assumed that was a known thing, so I’d be annoying people by constantly asking questions like, “Who invented the Phillip’s screwdriver and why is there still the flathead?”. These questions that were nearly impossible to answer before Google. Probably to keep me quiet, my parents got me subscriptions to Popular Mechanics and Popular Science. I always loved the cover illustrations to those magazines, and at the time these were typically amazing airbrush redesigns. I would spend a lot of time studying those and trying to make similar drawings of my ideas. When I turned thirteen I told my parents that I wanted to “draw stuff from the future” when I grew up. Later that year I stumbled on the work of Giorgio Giugiaro and learned what I wanted to do was called design. Shortly after I found a copy of Design and Rendering Techniques by Richard Powell of the British design firm Seymour Powell and I was set on my path.

I was fortunate enough to have some fantastic art teachers who pushed me. My junior high had an after-school art club and Mr. Kelso would take us on field trips down to NYC to the Met and The Frick. I also took a lot of drafting in high school which helped a lot. By the time I got to college I felt I could focus more on design because I had a jump start on the visualization side. Ironically, this hurt me a bit because instructors and classmates would sometimes dismiss my work as overly slick and not recognize my ideas, which pushed me to make my concepts more compelling and thoroughly thought out.

My wife, Kristina Bell DiTullo, is an artist. I’ve always found visual artists very inspiring in both their lives and their work. The form work of Noguchi and Brancusi in particular have been influential to me. Architecture also plays a key role in my influences, especially in terms of spacial organization and formal composition. Two of my favorites would have to be Eero Saarinen and Frank Lloyd Wright. A lot of people love Wright’s drawings and aesthetic, which are amazing, but what I love more than anything is the way he controls movement through a space. If you have ever walked through a Wright building you know what I mean. Design history is incredibly important to me, and I believe that having a grasp on the past helps us more accurately project and influence the future. Raymond Loewy, Walter Dorwin Teague, Dieter Rams, and Alvar Alto have been very important to me.

Can you tell me a little bit about your professional career path? Like, where did you go to school? Where and how did you get your first job out of college? What did you do there? What other companies have you worked for since then and what is your day job like now?

I graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in ID in 1998. I also did an exchange semester at The Cleveland Institute of Art and spent a summer studying in Milan through RISD. I stumbled a lot in school; I don’t fit into academic environments very well because I like to learn things my own way and I can be challenging. I don’t often miss a chance to provoke and question the status quo, and I’m also not afraid to work doubly hard in the opposite direction I’m told if I believe I’m onto something. These are not the characteristics of an A student, but not a bad set of traits for a designer. Authenticity and trust are very important to me and I would ask to see the instructors’ portfolios so I could get a sense of their experience and where they were coming from. I did make solid friends who helped push me and I found a few instructors who took time to mentor and guide me, and I am incredibly indebted to them. Especially Larry Brinker from Nissan, Dan Zimmerman at Chrysler, and Cliff Krapfl who is now at Teams Design in Chicago. By the time I got to my senior year I was doing more independent-study type work. One other classmate and I did a studio with Nissan, and I also did a studio with Nike with just two other classmates.

When I graduated, I had a hard time finding a job. I just had no idea how to go about it really. Core77 was literally a webpage back then, and coroflot just had a few posts. Luckily I got some onsite freelance work with a few small places around the Northeast which gave me a sense of what professional work was like. This tided me over financially, but what it really did was inspire me to redo my entire portfolio. Days that I wasn’t freelancing, I would spend 12-14 hours redesigning projects with what I had learned as a professional.

That new portfolio led to interviews with some great places, and I was offered a job at Evo Design, where I seemed to be a good fit for the young and fast-growing consulting group. Aaron Szymanski, then the junior partner and creative director, really pushed me to get to another level. He and I would get into the studio at 7:45 a.m. everyday and stay until about 7 p.m. I lived right down the street from him so we would often get together after work and chat about where we thought design was going and how we could progress our work, influence our clients, and build the studio. Ironically, Nike became a large client of ours and I got to work with some of the same people that sponsored me in school. After a little more than four years at Evo I decided to switch to the client side at Nike. To this day, if I need to bounce ideas around with someone, I call Aaron up.

Moving from the middle of Connecticut to Portland, from a 15-person consulting group to a 6,000-person corporate headquarters was both an adventure and culture shock. I became a sponge, soaking up as much information as I could, talking with the seasoned and legendary designers there for hours. I’m glad people like Tinker, Eric Avar, John Hoke, E. Scott Morris, D’Wayne Edwards, and Mike Avini humored me as I pummeled them with questions and eagerly explained how I thought things could be. There I learned some very important lessons about building a design and brand philosophy that was simultaneously relevant and relatable to people, while taking them somewhere new and giving them something to aspire to. I got to play with manifesting this for the Nike, Jordan, and Converse brands, taking three very different lenses to the task. Another key learning was getting a crash course on how a global, multi-brand corporation organized itself, and how I could navigate that to do work that was both accretive to the brand I was working for and had my own voice in it. This is a very difficult balancing act. The third lesson was learning how to work side-by-side with huge design and development teams, as well manufacturing partners. I traveled the world with my peers there, and many of my friends became like brothers to me. Too many to list. In 2007 I had an opportunity to lead a team at Converse under the global direction of my good friend Scott Patt, later for Phil Russo, and then for Brad Lacey. Leading, mentoring, hiring and keeping a good creative team is a difficult task. It is the ultimate design challenge in a lot of ways. It needs to be approached with a design mind.

Early in 2010 I engaged in some conversations with the leadership team at frog design. frog has always been an important lighthouse for me as a designer and I could never pass up the opportunity to be a part of its future. With over 500 people in 8 offices around the world, and an amazing set of clients who partner with us specifically to make tomorrow a reality, it is a dynamic place to work. As creative director I see myself more analogous to a composer/conductor, scribbling notes on sheet music, assembling an extremely talented orchestra of individual contributors, and together with our clients making symphonies that you can see, touch, and experience. The talent pool is very high here in both intellect and skill, and we tend to question everything. I almost can’t describe walking in the first day… it felt like coming home.

Why do you think a lot of people in the design industry change jobs so often (or more often then most other professions)?

In 13 years I’ve really only had 3 employers though I’ve had many roles. Every good creative has a healthy dose of dissatisfaction, which leads to the desire to innovate and design. When we have too many guidelines we complain our creativity is constrained, but give us a blank piece of paper and we complain there is nothing to push against! I suppose this extends to work itself…. That and many of us have light ADD and get bored easily…

I can remember being in college and wanting to get into footwear, and none of my teachers knew the first thing about what I needed to do. Most of what I learned about footwear came from other people who already had jobs. They were really cool and took the time to help me, and show me what I needed to do. Did you find this similar in your own career?

I always loved footwear, and still do! However, I never explicitly wanted to be a footwear designer. The important thing to me was to be a good designer, and let the challenges present themselves no matter what I was working on. What I love about footwear is there is a very defined set of functional and manufacturing parameters to innovate around and a limitless amount of aesthetic variation that is acceptable because people tend to love shoes. It is rewarding to work in categories in which the customer is looking for design.

Given that design has deep roots in a classical master/apprentice learning structure, what type of effect do you think this fast-paced sharing and quick access to information has on the new designers coming up today? (I’m talking about this 21st century internet, Web 2.0’s, forums, you tube, Google, Yahoo etc…)

Fundamentally, the practice of design is not an academic act. It is intellectually rigorous, but I do feel the bulk of it can only be learned in an apprentice-to-mentor fashion. What I feel is so important about the increased access the Web has brought to design is that students can see what is happening in the world outside of their specific academic bubbles. While it is important to have that safe bubble for the seeds of design to take root, it is also important to quickly realize it is a big and competitive world with a lot of talent globally.

I just remember scanning everything, printing out a ton of portfolios, and physically mailing them. Now we have all this awesome stuff like: New Wacom pads where you draw right on the screen, Adobe CS programs, insanely real and fast 3D rendering software, ftp sites and easy free access to a web domain. How do you think the art of the portfolio has changed?

When I graduated, scanners were very expensive and rare. We were still physically photocopying, cutting and pasting, then recopying everything… a lot has changed since then but the focus on content remains the same. You can have every hard skill in the world mastered and if you can’t think, you can’t design. On the flip side, you can have brilliant thoughts, and if you can’t articulate them with a core set of skills, you can’t design either. With today’s global talent pool, it is not enough to be able to do one or the other. To practice design effectively you must be able to think as well as articulate.

A lot of professional designers today say that they keep their workflow all digital, because of the ease of use and the speed at which they can get there ideas out and looking really clean and polished. Not to mention “Command (Ctrl) + Z”. Do you think that twenty years down the road, as the need for sustainable practices increases, the use of markers, paper and pens will be significantly less, if at all, in the design profession?

At the end of the day, the technique you use does not matter. What matters is how good the end product is. We don’t sell sketches, we sell design. The sketch is a tool, and if you do that on screen or on the page I really don’t care. What I care about is how effectively it communicates a good idea. I would assume it will go fully digital at some point, especially because the tools are becoming so sophisticated in their imitation of analog work flow.

You recently released Analog Dreams, a book of your sketches and renderings. What was the motivation for making this book? Is it like a “how to draw like Michael” book, or more of a sketching theory, inspirational art book? Do you give any of your sketching secrets away within the pages?

In a way, I give all of my secrets away because there are no secrets to being able to communicate well visually. The only way to get better is to practice, analyze, and study. The imputes for the book came from the fact that I learned so much from Design and Rendering Techniques as a kid, and I wanted to put something

Want to purchase Michael’s Analog Dreams sketchbook? Click Here to Buy Now

back into that space. The landscape has changed since then, and there are plenty of websites, DVD’s and books that deal with the
more specific how-to’s. What I wanted to focus on was the thought process. Why sketch at all when you could go straight to CAD? What makes one sketch pop off the page while a similar one falls flat? What goes through my mind as I sketch? I’ve been happy about the response to the book I think people tend to understand what I’m trying to say in it.

I have started some initial conception on my second book, which has the working title of Two Days from Yesterday… I like bad jokes. It is going to be more of a tribute to books like Design this Day by Walter Dorwin Teague, and the literature that would come with the old Futuramas of the 1950′s. I plan on taking segments of modern culture such as: cities, money, energy, transportation, work, time, and the home, and questioning where we are with those things and visualizing some possibilities I think would be provocative and thoughtful.

That sounds sick.  So, where can I find this book?

I’m not sure what the distribution will be on it just yet, if there will be a publisher, or if I will self-publish it again. I’m thinking this project may take a couple of years.

Have you sketched anything yet today?

Of course, but I can’t tell you what it is.

Where do you see the role of industrial design going in the next 10 years?

I see design evolving as a whole with much more permeability between the specific disciplines of industrial, graphic, and interaction design. Personally, I don’t just want to design an object, I want to work on a team that designs a collection of objects, the branding that ties them together, the brand campaign that gets the word out, and the retail and web experiences that bring them to people. I think it is more acceptable to be able to think this way, and if you have studied Loewy’s work for Studebaker, Lucky Strike, U-Haul, UPS, Shell Oil, and Greyhound, then you know there is a precedent of industrial designers working in this way. It’s not new, it’s just good design.

Thanks, Michael.

My pleasure. Thank you.

If you’re interested in purchasing Michael’s Analog Dreams sketchbook, you can pick one up here.