Interview with Michael Ditullo – Brand Jordan Designer
Interview by Thomas Bradley
Produced by DAN H.
What type of role did Michael Jordan and his “Air” Jordan sneaker line play in your life growing up?
I grew up in a pretty modest family. My parents would not let me buy AJ’s, even when I got my own job, which instantly made them that much more attractive to me. I remember going to the mall when the V’s, VI’s, and VII’s came out and trying them on just to study them in person. As a kid, looking at something so crazy and futuristic, I had a gut feeling that there had to be some kind of job that involved drawing these things. Now I get paid to do what I got in trouble for in math class and my mom can’t stop me from getting my J’s.
When you were in school did you feel as though you might design sneakers one day, or is this a surprise?
From a young age I was pretty infatuated with things and how they could be better. My dad wanted me to be a pro baseball player. Everyday I would come home from school and train with my dad, and then stay up all night drawing. One day my dad came home and I told him I didn’t want to play ball anymore, I wanted to draw stuff from the future. I was 13! I wish I could have captured the look on his face, but he respected I had my own path. A month later my pop found an article about Giorgio Giugiaro, and Italian automotive and product designer, and I learned my future was called design. That Christmas I asked for a drafting table and a set of Prisma Color markers (a popular brand designers use) and I pretty much spent every day at it.
I still have a sketch I did when I was 14. It was half Jordan VI, a little Huarache Trainer, and some Mowabb in Red, Teal, black and grey. Hand written at the bottom it said “It’s gotta be the shoes!!!” I still look at it every once in awhile because it keeps me honest.
When designing products for such a respected line, can the tradition and notoriety of the brand affect how liberal you might be with certain design ideas?
The most difficult part about our tradition is that we have a legacy to uphold. Walking in the footsteps of Tinker Hatfeild, Wilson Smith, Tracey Teague, Tate Kurbis, and D. Wayne Edwards is not easy. Our current team absorbs their wisdom and carries the torch. MJ is the most dynamic role model of our time, and upholding his principals is something we do in every shoe, from the AJ to team products. Everyone on our team understands that, so I have the distinct honor of working with developers, marketing people, engineers and other designers who won’t go to sleep unless we feel like we did the best we could. Just like Michael was the best in the game, we are the best at our game. There is not a lot of down time, but no one said it would be easy. When I seek kids trying my stuff on, they get that look that I used to get, and all the heartache and long hours are worth it. We do have one very unique thing working for us. For 22 years Jordans have been the craziest, yet most sophisticated sneaks out there. Our consumers expect that from us. We have a huge tradition to uphold, and a large part of that tradition is being an iconoclast and doing things no one else has done.
Nike recruited auto designers for their successful SHOX line, several pairs of the hallowed “Air” Jordan line have been modeled on opulent vehicles, and you have a design background that involves some work in the auto field. Nike has seemingly found a reservoir of design talent in the auto industry for sneakers and sports-related products. Why is this transition so fruitful and what parallels might you draw between the two realms of production?
A lot of us have wondered about this same thing and I can give you my own speculations as a Nike designer. As a punk kid, two things I could identify by name from a hundred yards were a hot pair of hard to get shoes, and a sweet ride. They occupy the same mind space in that both are culturally appealing and symbolize human potential to do things you couldn’t normally do. In this way, performance athletic footwear differs greatly from fashion footwear. This brings me to my second reason; there are no schools for performance footwear design. The closest is a degree in industrial design, which most performance sneaker designers and car designers also have. Being industrial designers gives us the creative thinking skills to solve functional problems and to investigate people’s lives to design products that perform and are culturally relevant. It also gives the designers the flexibility to work on multiple projects. Since becoming joining Jordan design, I’ve designed footwear, but also collaboratively designed several bags, including the Air Jordan DJ bag and the AJIII bag, with Alan Strack. I’ve also collaborated with Jason Martin on several watch concepts for Nike, as well as freelancing for several high end home electronics manufacturers and housewares companies.
Your wife being a painter must have some affect on your work as it progresses and evolves. Describe where youï¿½ve been pulling inspiration from recently and how living in a creative relationship affects your ideas about design and creativity.
My inspiration all boils down to people. Whether that is talking with our professional and college athletes, people watching in key cities like LA, New York, and London, or tapping into friends who are doing amazing things in product design, graphics, and music. I’m always checking up on what my brother, Matthew, is doing in film and the amazing things my wife is doing in painting.
I couldn’t imagine not being married to a creative person. Kristina understands my crazy hours and when I wake up with an idea at 2am and run to my home studio. When the lighting is odd in a coffee shop, I take comfort in knowing its bugging her just as much and we can agree never go back there again. I try my best to get away for a day here and there and work at Kristina’s studio. It is in an old warehouse, converted to artist’s spaces, in downtown Portland. A variety of painters, sculptors, video artists, custom furniture makers, and fashion designers work from her building. When there I get the feeling that everyone in under that roof is dedicated to making things that inspire others. That is really the ideal, I observe the world and get inspired, and I try to give back something that inspires others to do their thing. Kristina and I have that every day with each other. At this point in my career I’m not interested in designing anything that doesn’t give back to that cycle. Balancing that with creating products that continue to be successful in the marketplace is the tightrope act.
What product have you designed that brought you the greatest sense of satisfaction?
I got this one on my desk, I can’t say much about it, but its gonna be hot, the close second I would say is seeing my AJ XX1PE featured in Slam for the 100th issue special edition. Next in line would be a limited release watch I designed right out of school. I went to the IDSA (Industrial Designer’s Society of America) national convention and saw several dudes rocking it, but what really blew me away was when I brought my car in for service and my mechanic had it on. That is a kind of satisfaction you just aren’t prepared for. I’ve gotten that many times with the Nike Barrettas, Zoom Street Milers, and other shoes, but because that was the first time, it is particularly memorable.
Where would you like to take the design of athletic footwear and apparel in the near future concerning materials, cushioning and overall performance?
Personally I like to keep it basic. For me it is all about distilling a product down to its simplest and most essential elements. From there I look into how I can improve each of those elements. A part of that is throwing ideas around with other talented designers and friends here like Jason Mayden, Scot Hull, Scott Patt, and Marc Dolce and mentors like Tinker, Mike Avini, Steve McDonald, Eric Avar, Aaron Cooper, John Hoke and whoever else will let me bug them. Our greatest resource here is our wealth of talent. Nest, I take to take each of those minimal and functional elements and make them as beautiful and honest as possible. If something is light, I want it to look that way. If something gives you added support, I want you to know that as soon as you look at it. Le Corbusier once wrote:, Clearness of Function. The worlds miseries are due to the fact that functions are nowhere defined or respected. I truly believe that. There is a coded visual language among our species and good design speaks to us in that language. That is the secret sauce. I look at what really works, and keep it there.
Where do I think it is all going in the big picture sense? If you look back at human creations for the past several hundred years in art, music, and functional objects, the turn of every century brings a return of the familiar. At the height of the industrial revolution the public was buying floral pattern wrought iron toasters as World Wars were waged. Mid century brought a return to the future as we could look forward with optimism once again. We no longer needed to take refuge in the past. We are going through the same transformations now. It’s no surprise that retro shoes are huge, they bring us back to a time when you could catch Ed Lover on Yo MTV raps, Michael J Fox did kickflips on a hover board, and Marc Walberg kicked it with the funky bunch. I’ll still hold onto my collection, but I think we are reaching the time when the public will start wondering what the future will be, coincidentally I happen to have these sketches I’ve been cooking up.