michael ditullo

Everything Starts with a Sketch: Michael DiTullo

Michael DiTullo is an American Design Hero. He represents the cohort of American designers who have contributed so much to design and innovation emanating from America this century. A confluence of exceptional design schools like Rhode Island School of Design  (RISD) and a social and industrial ambiance which favours creativity and unshackled innovation, has contrived to produce a hotbed of designers in the US which have delivered concepts which really do affect 20th century culture and the way we aspire to live.

Multitalented and multidisciplinary designer Michael DiTullo has conceived innumerable products from footwear to automobiles to razors to speakers. But for DiTullo, everything starts with a simple sketch on a sheet of paper that he uses to rapidly communicate an idea, usually to a client or a manufacturer. From a sketch, a manager or business person can quickly grasp what DiTullo has in mind from a design standpoint, what it would take to produce such an item and possibly what the manufacturing costs and/or potential production obstacles might be.

Sketching is a quick and immediate way that DiTullo uses to get an idea across and to get a thumbs-up, thumbs-down or “in-between” reaction before the much more time-consuming and costly process of building a prototype or scale model begins. As DiTullo says, sketches are both a “conversation starter” and a means of collaboration.

An Education in Design

Even as a teenager, DiTullo would draw sketches of products he imagined from looking at illustrated publications such as the Sears, Roebuck & Company catalog. This led to his applying to and getting accepted to the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD), one of the best-known and most-respected design schools in America. It was there where he majored in industrial design, a field in which his sketches and visions could ultimately be transformed into products he envisioned in concert with a manufacturer’s business goals.

In a summer semester, DiTullo attended the Domus Academy in Milan, where he appreciably refined his craft. During his final year at RISD, DiTullo was enrolled in the Cleveland Institute of Art’s program in automobile design — a specific disciplinary niche he’d been interested in from a young age — where he learned the subtleties of conceptualization as they related specifically to creating cars for factory production. Nissan sponsored some of this work, paying for materials and helping him with his vehicular modelmaking. DiTullo also received other sponsorship from Nike, which DiTullo hoped was interested in hiring him after graduation.

Cars, Toys and Shoes

But in the immediate term for DiTullo, cars came first, and his first job after RISD was working for Gisser Auto Concepts, a company that made high-end, one-off sports cars for wealthy clients in Monsey, New York. After spending a year with the firm, DiTullo realized he wanted to design many other items besides automobiles, so he moved on to a design-focused company called Evo, in Watertown, Connecticut. At Evo, he was able to work on commercial production goods, such as shavers for Schick, watches for Timex, toys for Hasbro, speakers for Bose and shoes for Nike, among other products. DiTullo also managed the business’s university programs, helping young design interns find their way around industrial design in the real world just as he did during his RISD schooling a few years earlier. During this period, DiTullo also chaired his local chapter of the Industrial Designer Society of America (IDSA).

After four years at Evo, client Nike was able to pull DiTullo away to Portland, Oregon and set him up in its newly formed sportswear division. Here, DiTullo made use of company demographic data to guide him in the production of many new product designs for Nike apparel. As DiTullo says, much of the process consisted of envisioning “what athletes wore for the other 12 to 14 hours a day when they weren’t on a playing field.” DiTullo also conceived footwear for specific regions in Asia and Europe, traveling frequently to engage in trend and market research in those locales. He managed production cycles that lasted as long as 18 months from a shoe’s conception to its appearing on store shelves, creating radical new footwear products along the way — from a “fold-up Nike shoe” to a slipper designed for women that was sold exclusively outside the U.S.

Air Jordan and Converse

But as was typical for DiTullo, he wasn’t satisfied with these first projects for Nike; he wanted to design some of the company’s most prominent products — sneakers that were produced by the company’s Air Jordan division, which made premium shoes with their own distinctive logo. After working on a test project that was presented to Mark Parker (present CEO of Nike), DiTullo became one of four Nike designers out of a total of more than 350 to work in the Air Jordan division.

He began consulting with Michael Jordan himself, who DiTullo describes as a “normal person, but very product-centric,” on new Air Jordan shoes. DiTullo would make sketches and get feedback from Jordan on design ideas. DiTullo also worked with star players Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Derek Jeter on their personalized Air Jordan projects. DiTullo would also make trips to Nike’s factories in Asia to make sure his designs were being executed faithfully and accurately. In addition, DiTullo collaborated on items for Nike’s Timing and Vision group.

After five years at Nike, the company promoted him to be a design director of Converse, the business competitor it acquired in 2003. At Converse, DiTullo was responsible for half a dozen product collections as well as defining the footwear design ideology of the company. He guided much of the division’s conceptual development and worked with all of the brand and product groups to present a cohesive image of the company at a retail level; this included print and television promotional campaigns, as well as interiors of Converse stores.

Frog Design

In 2010, after a period of restlessness, DiTullo decided he wanted to branch out from the world of footwear, so he joined groundbreaking product design company Frog Design, best known for its work with Apple CEO Steve Jobs on the Apple, Macintosh and NeXT computers. DiTullo was the creative director of the company’s flagship San Francisco office, leading design efforts for major clients like Motorola, Intel, Google, Honda, Procter and Gamble, Harmon Kardon and Brooks Shoes. DiTullo managed teams working on industrial design, digital design, mechanical engineering, design research and branding. He also worked on designs for a car made by Chinese car company Qoros, in collaboration with legendary Italian car design company ItalDesign Guigaro. As DiTullo says, his goal was to “focus on the physical product design that happens at the intersection of want and need.”

During his time at Frog Design, DiTullo was invited to join a committee advising curators at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art on building a permanent design collection; he managed to convince celebrated Frog Design founder Hartmut Esslinger to donate a Yamaha motorcycle Esslinger created to the internationally renowned museum.

Sound United

In his last position working as a full-time employee for another company, DiTullo served as the chief design officer of Sound United (a business name he conceived). Sound United was a firm that owned the audio equipment brands Definitive Technology, BOOM and acclaimed speaker manufacturer Polk Audio. As the company’s top design talent, DiTullo was responsible for individuating these three brands and giving each its own identity related to how they were marketed (and to which audiences).

DiTullo was again in charge of all aspects of the company’s design, image and branding, as well as acting as a contributor to the overall product strategy, roadmap and positioning. He managed a team that conceived the firm’s products; created the packaging; designed the advertising, trade show and digital collateral; and devised various trade show exhibits. DiTullo even worked on interior design for the firm, conceiving the inside of the company’s San Diego headquarters from scratch, despite lacking a degree in architecture. During his five years with Sound United, the firm acquired additional audio brands Denon and Marantz, and DiTullo was ultimately responsible for bringing 25 new products to market every 12 months — roughly one every two weeks.

Entrepreneurship

In 2017, Michael DiTullo started his own consultancy to work on products and experiences for companies ranging from Hollywood movie studios to electric scooter manufacturers.

In his words, DiTullo doesn’t want to be a mere product designer; he wants to disrupt entire industries with his work. This means his company takes on not just the industrial design aspect of a brand’s products, but also components of the positioning, sales and marketing of an entire product range. This includes the OOBE, or “out-of-box-experience” that the brand’s consumer has when they first unbox a product, the ephemeral connection that brand needs to make with the consumer and how the consumer views the company after they made their purchase.

For DiTullo, design is just one part of a product’s appeal. As he sees it, good design must “a) solve a problem, b) be profitable and c) have cultural relevance.” In DiTullo’s eyes, consumers are not necessarily fully rational; they’re emotional beings who are driven by their own unique desires — desires which, in turn, can be activated via design.

As an example of this, Michael DiTullo works with Los Angeles-based low-run-production and customized car remanufacturer ICON. DiTullo knows that the company has three types of customers for its vehicles, each of which is looking for a different experience, but all of whom share a love of vintage autos. DiTullo takes the company’s well-known vehicle shapes and completely re-imagines the interiors as environments that look as if they’re from the future. Digital instrumentation and custom-machined control panels give the customer acquiring an ICON vehicle the best of both worlds — the old and the new. As such, DiTullo helps the company create out-of-this-world, hybrid products that look familiar from afar, yet are supercharged up-close and under the hood.

American Vision

ICON is an inherently American company; DiTullo sees modern American creativity as combining different aspects of European philosophies of design. He feels that American design lies somewhere between the idea of form following function — as practiced by distinguished German designer Dieter Rams, for instance — and the opposite approach, where function follows form — as typified by Italian designers like Giorgetto Giugiaro.

Michael DiTullo regularly gives talks on the craft of industrial design and serves as an evangelist of sorts for the discipline. He holds 13 design patents and is the author of a book entitled Analog Dreams, a compilation of many of his sketches.

As an American creative talent, DiTullo admires design heroes such as Frank Lloyd Wright, perhaps the country’s most-revered architect, and design legend Raymond Loewy, who worked on everything from Studebaker cars to the exterior of presidential aircraft Air Force One. DiTullo ultimately wants all of his conceptions to be useful and durable for as long as possible. While this desire may result in a more expensive product, such as the chef’s knife he’s currently working on for Leucadia, a high-end manufacturer of fine cutlery, DiTullo feels the end result is invariably worthwhile, especially if his creations do in fact last a lifetime.

Epilogue

Michael DiTullo has designed literally thousands of products over the course of the last three decades. Many of them can be reviewed by visiting his website, www.michaelditullo.com. Viewers can discover shoes, cars, speakers, phones, toys and many other items this prolific creator has conceived. DiTullo explains his DDRIVE (Discover, Design, Refine, Implement, Verify, Execute) design process and how he works with clients. He also offers a complete timeline of his career and a brief overview of his philosophy about what makes a design great and what makes a great designer.

Michael’s self-authored monograph of sketches, Analog Dreams, was published in 2010 by Blurb. He’s also been featured in the books Drawing for Designers by Alan Pipes, published by Lawrence King in 2007; Dieter Rams: As Little Design as Possible by Klaus Kemp and Sophie Lovell (with a foreword by Apple chief designer Jonathan Ive), published by Phaidon in 2011; Drawing for Product Designers by Kevin Henry, published by Lawrence King in 2012; and Breaking In: Over 100 Product Designers Reveal How to Build a Portfolio That Will Get You Hired by Amina Horozic, published by Tuk Tuk Press in 2014. Michael’s forthcoming book 365: One Year of Design Sketching, following his “one-a-day” sketches for the entire year of 2017, is due out imminently.

Michael Ditullo regularly gives design talks at conferences and trade shows around the country. His website has a list of past presentations he’s given, and many of them can be found on his and other YouTube channels, along with time-lapse captures of his sketching process for many of the items he’s created. Readers who have projects for Michael or who have questions about the process of industrial design are invited to contact him through his website.