This interview is part of a series featuring the presenters participating in this year’s Core77 Conference, “Now What? Launching & Growing Your Creative Business” , a one-day event aimed to equip attendees with tangible skills and toolkits to help produce and promote their products or services.
Throughout his professional career, seasoned industrial designer Michael DiTullo has put an emphasis on designing everything instead of pigeonholing himself into a single category. This mentality has not only led him to work for companies like Nike, Frog and Sound United, but it has also exposed him to exciting side projects, like designing custom cars with ICON Motors. Michael has also been a key member of the Core77 community since the very beginning, moderating our discussion boards, contributing articles and even producing sketching tutorials to help our audience learn and grow as designers. In 2017, Michael took a leap he’s been waiting to take for years by opening his own design studio, Micheal DiTullo LLC, where he is already hard at work on a variety of exciting opportunities.
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We sat down with Michael, who will be leading a workshop at the 2018 Core77 Conference called “The 20 Year Plan”, to learn more about how to set goals and stick with them and when to deviate from your career plan:
How did your interest in design begin?
When I was a kid, we used to get this thing called the Sears Catalog that was like Amazon as a book. It came once a year and was just this massive catalog. I was probably 10 or 11 years old, and pretty much every day when I would come home from school, I’d get out the Sears catalog and open it to a random page. Whatever was on that page, I would try to imagine what the future of that object would be and draw it. I think what I do is really connected to who I am because that’s just something I was innately doing.
I didn’t come from a family that really knew anything about art or design per se—we’re pretty middle class. When my parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I said I wanted to draw stuff from the future. I still think that’s probably one of the most digestible descriptions of what I do.
I’ve always fought against being pigeonholed. I think working on everything helps inform you and make you better. I remember when I interviewed at Nike, one of the people that interviewed me said the hardest thing about Nike’s environment for me would be that there are so many designers. He could tell that it wasn’t enough for me to design the shoe. I wanted to work on the branding, the ad campaign, the retail installation and everything. I just tried to never lose that, and I really do think it’s fun to work across all those categories. I’ve tried to do that over my whole career.
That falls in line with your advice to make a 20 year plan versus a five year plan. Was planning your career so thoroughly something that happened naturally, or was it a very deliberate move?
I’ve always been really fascinated by designers like Raymond Loewy and Eliot Noyes, the first corporate design VP at IBM, because of their broad range in careers. I wanted to chart a course for myself where I could eventually make this studio happen. I thought, “What are the things that I need to do before I start the studio so I can have confidence in myself and feel like I could walk into a room and add value?”
I started my career at a really small five-person firm. It was really similar to what I’m doing now. I loved it. Then, going to Nike at the time, there were 300 designers. It was really easy to feel lost there. You get this sense of, “if I don’t come in this week, does it even matter?” Scott Patt, who is now the VP of Design at Cole Haan, sat next to me at the time and told me that I should create a career map for myself and pitch it to John Hoke, the VP of Design at Nike, to see what he says. I had been thinking about a lot of these things, but I had never really put pen to paper—or clicks to illustrator in this case—and really mapped it out.
“The way I look at it, people don’t pay you for what you want to do. People pay you for what they know you can do.”
I shared it with John, and he told me he had never seen anybody do this before. He said, “The weird thing is that you have it as this converging reality and in actuality, it will be the opposite. It will be diverging. The more things you do, the more things you can do, so the more discerning you’ll need to be to figure out the things that really align with who you are.” I’ve been adjusting that map over the last 15 years. I’ve been adjusting that mental vision for myself and making sure to control my own definition of myself because it’s really easy to accept other definitions that people put on you.
So this is an ongoing process for you—it’s never totally over?
No. No. The window keeps moving. Reality keeps happening. Different things come along the way. When I left Frog, I was considering starting my own studio, but the opportunity came up to go to Sound United and it was an opportunity to, in effect, create my own studio within an already existing company. I thought this would be an amazing additional experience. That was an example of an adjustment—I gave myself a five year window in which to extend what I wanted to do.
While you were at larger corporations like Nike, how did you balance those projects with diversifying your portfolio?
In that effort to never be pigeonholed, I’ve always been running my own projects on the side. I also just get bored easily. When I went from consulting to working at Nike, once in a while a project would come my way that wasn’t competitive in any way, shape, or form.
One time ICON Motors approached me about doing a project, so I checked in with the leadership at Nike to ask them if they would mind if I worked on the project. Their response was, “Well, technically you can’t do it, but in actuality, we know you’re just going to do it anyway, so just keep letting us know about these side projects so we are aware.” I ended up working on probably 15 or 16 different ICON vehicles. In fact, the first one that ever went to production, Nike asked if they could have it shipped to the campus so that it could be on display there.
“I think for creativity to flourish, you need that trust—you need that little bit of room to be able to go off on your own a little bit to explore.”
The way I look at it, people don’t pay you for what you want to do. People pay you for what they know you can do. While I was at Nike, I didn’t want to be pigeonholed as a footwear designer. Instead, I was trying to do everything I could within the Nike system—collaborating with guys that were working on watches and eyewear, working on branding, etc.
By working for ICON, I was trying to get experience outside of the Nike, where I could build my portfolio as well as become practiced in getting contracts drawn up and getting payment terms in place. All of that really accelerated when I went to Frog because I had the chance to experience what that’s like on a big scale, a 500 person firm. Then going to Sound United and bringing a lot of similar tracks to production. That gives me confidence to walk into a room and be able say, “Well, I’ve worked on something like that—let me tell you what worked and what didn’t work.”
Do you think it’s important for everyone to have experience working at different types and sizes of firms before going out on your own?
It works for me. That’s what I needed, but I think everybody is different. If you look at Hartmut Esslinger who founded Frog in the late ’60s, he did that right out of college. There are different paths for different people. For me, that diverse experience has been tremendously helpful. I think that working in the field for 20 years has helped me not only in terms of experience, but I’ve also had a lot of time to improve myself. I’ve made a good amount of connections over the years, and that really helps because people trust you. I think for creativity to flourish, you need that trust—you need that little bit of room to be able to go off on your own a little bit to explore.
Since starting your own firm, what have been some of the most exciting projects you’ve worked on?
We’ve only been in business for about 19 months, so unfortunately I can’t talk about a lot of the projects we’ve worked on. I think one of the most exciting projects that I can talk about was a new Transformer we worked on that was released at Comic-con. It was a childhood dream project. I had the 80s version of that toy, and then we were given the chance to define what that character looks like for this generation. It was incredibly exciting.
The very first project we signed isn’t built yet, but it’s an architectural project—a redesigned, down to the studs, rebuild of a mixed use building that’s actually going to be a couple of blocks down the street from our studio. To work on an architectural project right out of the gate was really fun.
We’ve also been doing a lot of what we call ‘future of’ work, for example working with some Chinese car companies on what the future of the automobile is. The work that really excites me is complex or forward-looking. I think we excel at helping companies figure out why are they making something, what the future of that something is, and figuring out how to make something that will help their industry produce something memorable.
What the main misconceptions people have about starting your own studio?
I think one of the interesting things about starting your own studio is that it forces you to work on yourself and really think about not only what kind of work do you want to do, but what kind of person you want to be. What kind of boss do you want to be? How do you want to run your team? What kinds of people do you want on your team? You also have to decide how you want to run your business. Is your business just about paying billable hours or selling widgets, or is it about something bigger? What is that something bigger, and how are you going to build it?
“If you want to be successful, the first thing you have to do is define what success means to you.”
Those things for me, have been fun to think about and work on. When you’re working somewhere, you can easily assign blame to everyone else if you’re not having a good time. When it’s your company, whether it’s your own studio or your own brand, it’s all you. If you’re not having fun, you have to sit down and think about, what what you’re doing and what you need to change.
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For me, it’s important to stay small. We turn down probably 50% of the projects that come to us, and of that 50% that we don’t turn down, we don’t get all of the projects. I would rather stay below five people and only work on the right projects for us than just say yes to everything so that we can staff up and get bigger. I want this to be meaningful. So the most unexpected thing is that if you want to be successful, the first thing you have to do is define what success means to you.
You want to start a creative business. Now What? Come to our 2018 Core77 Conference to learn more about launching & growing a product line or design studio of your own, October 25th, in Brooklyn!
If you’d like to learn even more about Michael’s design career, head over to this recent interview.