April 29, 2016
'Dissatisfaction is a core driver that keeps me coming in every day'
As chief designer officer at California-based Sound United, Michael DiTullo oversees product design and branding for the company’s three audio brands: Polk, Definitive and Boom. His team is a collaborative where he keeps his skills sharp by making product sketches alongside colleagues and letting the best sketch win.
A 1998 graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design, DiTullo spent a semester of his senior year at CIA to broaden his education and focus on transportation design. It was a seminal experience, he said, that led to long-term friendships. DiTullo visited CIA during the 2016 Spring Shows, where he offered feedback to Industrial Design students and agreed to answer a few questions.
Give us a little biographical background, please.
When I was 13 years old, my parents asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up and I said I wanted to draw stuff from the future. And that was a very innocent but accurate portrayal of what I do now. I actually meant this. I figured somebody must have to draw things before they’re made. We have Amazon, right? Back then we had the Sears catalog. I’d get home from school and open it [and think] oh, OK, chainsaws. I wonder what chainsaws will look like in the future.
What was the impact of the semester you spent at CIA?
It was tremendous. It was much more than I expected. The connections and friendships I made here were very strong and lifelong. One of the strengths of RISD is that it’s a critique culture. At least when I was there, we were really taught to verbalize our decisions. Part of that is tearing each other down, which is good. But here, it’s more about building each other up. The professors were very tough here, but the students were more supportive of each other. And I think that translates into the alumni experience.
You’ve worked at a design firm, Evo, that designed across many product categories, and you’ve worked for companies like Nike, where the focus is more narrow. Is it nice to be able to concentrate on just one category?
The breadth of working in a consultancy is really fun, and the fact that you might be working on a toy in the morning and a wine glass in the afternoon is exhilarating. And I think certainly at the time, I was basically sketching 10, 12 hours a day for four years. No one can take that away from you. That’s some good paying-your-dues time. You just don’t do that working corporate.
Then to take that attitude and bring it to corporate – that’s why I was so effective. I don’t want to just work on the shoe, I want to work on the box, and I want to work on the branding, I want to make watches to match it. But certainly then, working in corporate and controlling it all the way down to the factory level, approving the metal tooling – that’s very fun.
What do you think is your core strength?
I think my best skills are that I’m never satisfied. I’m kind of perpetually unhappy with things and I think that’s an important trait in a designer, because if you’re happy with things, how are you going to make it better? I can’t look at a single piece in my portfolio and say I love it. I only ever see the things that I would do differently – the battles I lost, the mistakes I made, what I would do now knowing what I know now. I think dissatisfaction is a core driver that keeps me coming in every day.
What do people not understand about what you do for a living?
From the perspective of my first few years at the company as chief design officer, I was really chief design educator. The company didn’t know how to respond to creativity. The first thing I did was to remove all the cubicles and the carpet and the drop ceiling. It’s just a concrete floor and ceiling with a Ping-Pong table in the middle. People were like, “What are you people doing?” We’re working. “It looks like you’re playing.” That’s how what our work looks like. That’s what we do. We are actually perpetual 4-year-olds.
I think people have a hard time understanding that what we do is not linear. We describe it very linearly. Oh, first we research, then we go to concept ideation, then you go from concept ideation to down-selection and product ideation. Then we refine and we prototype. But it doesn’t look like that at all. I mean, those are the steps, but the path … is a mess. Sometimes this is a very short process and sometimes it’s a long one. It’s not predictable, it’s not repeatable, the hours are odd.
And yet because it’s different, that doesn’t mean it’s subjective. When you say I don’t like it like that, I’m going to say I don’t care. I’m not interested in what you like. I’m not even interested in what I like. I’m not interested in what’s cool. I’m interested in what’s right for who we’re designing it for, what’s right for the consumer, what’s right for the marketplace and moving our brand forward and being accretive to what we’re doing.
What are the products that are most interesting in terms of design?
Right now the interesting thing to me are connected products. We’ve been making speakers for 44 years, and for 42 of those year, speakers had no intelligence. They were something that took a lot of intelligence to design and engineer them properly so they sounded good, but they were like a really nice guitar – it could only do what you could make it do. A speaker was a nice instrument you plug into a receiver, and the receiver has all the intelligence.
Now we have the equivalent of a smart phone in every speaker that’s able to connect directly to the cloud, and 16 speakers can connect to each other inside of your home. So it’s the systems approach.
I think that’s where what has been called the Internet of things is the exciting space. Right now we’re seeing a heavy emphasis on app, but in the future we’ll see an emphasis on off-screen interfaces, so what’s called gestural interfaces where you don’t need to use your phone. Every industry will be a part of that. These very traditional products that haven’t seen a lot of change over the last 50 years are all of a sudden going to change in the next 10.
How do you reconcile what you do with that idea that materialism is a bad thing?
I think that two generations of telling us not to be materialistic has produced really bad results. I think that my grandfather was much more materialistic than my parents, in that when he bought something, he spent the most he could on buying the right thing and it would last him a very long time. He understood that thing was important to him. And so I think people aren’t materialistic enough. When Kristina and I got married, we got a Dualit toaster. And two people in their twenties probably didn’t need a $400 toaster. But we’ve had that toaster for 20 years. It doesn’t show signs of ever breaking down, and that’s because we overinvested in something that will never need to be replaced.
If people put more thought into what they were buying, and acknowledged that what they were buying had value, then maybe they would be willing to pay a wage that would support an on-shore factory. But because people are not materialistic, they want five T-shirts for $5 from Walmart. And that is not going to be a well-made product and sustain a living wage.
Advice for art and design students?
Don’t stop. I don’t like when I look at a portfolio and I see a collection of school projects. What I want is to see is, “Well, the assignment was to design this, but here’s the packaging.” Don’t show me one solution, show me 10. I need people with ideas just popping out of their ears.
What would the 13-year-old self think of what you’re doing today?
I think he’d be pretty proud. I think about that a lot – making my 13-year-old self proud. I’m always pushing myself.
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