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Around Design Podcast — episode four: Michael DiTullo

Episode four features renowned industrial designer Michael DiTullo. Having worked with some of the world’s largest brands such as Google, Nike and Converse, Daniela explores his career so far and where his passion for industrial design began as a child drawing “stuff from the future”. They also take a look at his approach to designs and favorite ways of working.

Gravity Sketch
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Drawing stuff from the future

Michael DiTullo is a renowned independent designer, who has designed for some of the world’s biggest brands. Having built up decades of experience in-house and at agencies he now runs his own design practice, working with clients across multiple industries to bring their iconic products to life. 

At the age of 13 Michael’s dad asked what he wanted to do when he grew up, to which he answered that he “wanted to draw stuff from the future” – an apt description even today. He’d regularly run in from school and flick through the Sears catalog, landing on a random page to ruminate on the future of an object, and then set about drawing it. He didn’t know which career this process aligned to until seeing a Wall Street Journal article on Giorgetto Giugiaro, showcasing an array of things he had designed: a cruise ship, a tennis racket, a car, and even a variety of pasta, all solving problems and creating a better version of what existed before them. It was from this article that he understood what it was he was drawn to do, and it was called industrial design.

Michael DiTullo’s career

Michael studied at Rhode Island School of Design, with additional study at the Cleveland Institute of Art, and in Italy. Out of college he worked as a designer for an agency, before going on to work at Nike and Converse for 8 years. It was here that he designed for the Jordan brand, working directly with Michael Jordan, Derek Jeter, and Carmelo Anthony on footwear, bags and apparel. 

This experience paved the way for Michael to work as a Creative Director at the renowned Frog Design, before becoming Chief Design Officer at Sound United. His rise to Industrial Design notoriety wasn’t necessarily down to him being the best sketcher or drawer as a child. Michael acknowledges that he was probably as good as other kids at sketching and drawing but just relentlessly kept at it, and never stopped refining the way he communicated and collaborated on ideas.

Jordan Nike designed by Michael DiTullo

Some of Michael’s best-known work is from his time designing for the Jordan brand

Little-known industrial design

When at a conference for medical professionals, Michael was part of a team debuting a new medical product along with a keynote from him. In a room of doctors and practitioners, Michael asked who knew what an industrial designer did, and only a few people in the room knew. However, when posing the same question about architects, nearly everyone raised their hand. Even though industrial design is so prevalent across the objects we interact with daily, little is known about it as a profession. What an architect does for buildings. an industrial designer does for everything else; the chair, watch, glasses you have on. All of them have been touched by an industrial designer.

In the 60s and 70s Raymond Loewy, and Frog Design founder Hartmut Esslinger could be seen on the cover of Business Week, giving the world exposure and understanding as to what industrial design is. Industrial Designers have more impact than ever, but they seem to spend less time in the spotlight. Michael explains that this current lack of awareness surrounding industrial design means many designers don’t find it until later in life, because they didn’t know what it was in terms of a career path. Some may have started as an engineer for a couple of years before realizing industrial design was where they wanted to be all along.

Being the expert in creativity

For every project Michael’s thought process is the same: the client is respected as the subject matter expert, and he is the expert in creativity. In this framing he can take their knowledge and show it back to them in a way they couldn’t imagine before. In terms of workflow process, this is adapted each time to the client. More time is taken up front to understand what will work best and be tailored to the project. For Michael this removes the additional steps that may not be needed from a cookie-cutter process, and doesn’t miss anything that is crucial to the success of the product.

He thrives on alternating between products in different industries, and his recent favorites to have worked on show the variety in his work; the Arc One electric speedboat, the Foot Defender leg brace, and Air Baffles (filled with recycled Nikes). After eight years of solely focusing on footwear at Nike he didn’t feel as creative any more. Some of the most innovative things he did there was in his first few years, when he didn’t know the rules so had an easier time breaking them. Working on a variety of unrelated products means Michael can continuously tackle new challenges that don’t necessarily fall into a particular category, leaving room for everything to be questioned in the design process.

Foot Defender - one of Michael's design projects

Michael spent four years working on the Foot Defender which helps alleviate pressure from the bottom of the foot so diabetic foot wounds can quickly heal

Visual communication

Michael likens sketching to a language, but with some unique attributes; most people can understand a language, and if you’re able to understand a language, the likelihood is that you can replicate it and speak it for yourself. With sketches the reality is a bit different – if you are able to view a picture and understand what it is, that doesn’t mean you’re likely to have the skills to create similar visuals. It’s a skill that needs honing and exploring as to how you can best communicate an idea.

A main benefit of sketching is that it’s low commitment. It gives designers the ability to throw an idea out to get ideas back. With more refined designs such as a CAD model, it can take 40 hours to produce and if a client doesn’t like it, it’s often too far gone. That gap constantly needs to be bridged to lower cost and increase experimentation. People need to be brought into the design process by being able to see and understand ideas quickly. 

Michael cites Raymond Loewy on what it takes to make great designs: “a little logic, a little taste and the will to cooperate”.

More from Around

You can listen to all the Around Design Podcast episodes, or watch previous sessions from the Around 3D Design Festival  all on the Around website.

You can subscribe to the podcast and listen on the go with Spotify, Apple podcasts, and Google podcasts

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