Fellow Awards 2012 Interview: Maria Giudice
Interviewed by Nathan Shedroff

Maria Giudice isn’t your typical designer. Though she has the skills, particularly in calligraphy, information design, book design and cartography, she’s the first to say that her portfolio is inconsequential. Maria’s greatest design projects are solutions to complex problems, successful collaborations with partners and team members, and two successful design consultancies.

Maria pioneered digital prepress techniques that we take for granted today but the challenges she gives herself, now, are strategic and organizational. The things she’s proudest of have little to do with the craft of design and stretch into the design of organizations and relationships. She’s built a system of growing her company and the people in it. She takes a long view of design and designers.

NS: You’ve been in the design industry for a fairly long time.

MG: Yes, I’m a dinosaur.

NS: You’ve watched it transform radically in that time. Did you always know you wanted to be a designer?

MG: No. I never thought I would be a designer.

NS: So what did you do that was so bad that you had to be a designer?

MG: As far as I can remember, I wanted to be a painter. I grew up in Staten Island, New York. I started taking painting lessons at 8 years old on Saturday mornings at 10am with Frederick Sklenar. I’d pick out a book from the Robert Foster series—seascapes, sunsets, still-lifes. Art was my destiny and my uncle Frank Frazetta was my idol. He was a famous artist and his work was amazing.

NS: I assume he supported this. Did the rest of your family support it?

MG: I was always pushing the boundaries of whatever I did. When I was in high school, I remember meeting someone going into graphic design and I thought it was a useless career. I was going to be a fine artist. That said, I was really getting into lettering. I used to copy letterforms out of a Speedball lettering book I bought at my neighborhood art store, but I didn’t equate that with graphic design at all. When I went to college at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, I went in as a fine artist but I ended-up taking a lot of graphic design courses. In my sophomore year my painting teacher told me to rethink my career in fine art, and that’s when I decided to diversify and take a wide range of classes.

NS: Do you have paintings from back then?

MG: Not now, but I have pictures!. My mother was teaching cooking classes in our basement and I had all of these paintings up. Her students would see them and ask me to paint portraits of their dogs—for $35 a painting. That took-off like wildfire. Also as an early entrepreneur, I would babysit for kids on my block and hand-paint jean jackets at the same time. Essentially, I was doubling my hourly rate.

NS: Double income, with kids! Would the dogs sit for you?

MG: No, I would work from photographs. But I really struggled in graphic design at Cooper Union. I was a slob and graphic design meant you had to be neat and clean. Your boards had to be impeccable. I took a diverse set of classes including photography, calligraphy—even one engineering class—but it was still separate from “design” in my mind.

NS: Aside from the neatness, I have the impression that you didn’t like graphic design because it was so appearance-based?

MG: Yes, it was so formulaic. People would learn about Helvetica and Garamond and Bodoni and if they just used those fonts carefully, with the right picture and white space, they would have a great design. It was boring.

When I was in my senior year in college, Peter Bradford was my teacher and he made us come-up with our own design problems to solve. So, I came-up with these big projects. I lived in Staten Island and commuted into the City every day and there was no wayfinding whatsoever. I wanted to do this giant floor map of Staten Island to give commuting directions, points of interest, etc. but I didn’t think of this as information design. I didn’t connect the dots. The other thing was that I looked like the woman from Working Girl. I felt like an outsider. I had the high hair and the accent. I wasn’t wearing black, and Vignelli would never hire me. I didn’t fit the mold.

Then, I met Richard (Saul Wurman). He came into Peter’s class and he didn’t fit the mold either. He cursed up a storm and I fell in love with that. I felt like he was my people. He told us “You’re all full of shit. You’re all designing for yourselves. You have to help people make sense of the world and design systems that help people understand.” This was the guy I had been waiting for and I just absorbed it all in. So I went to interview with him. I brought along all these wayfinding systems I had been doing in calligraphy, including a map of the Garden of Earthly Delights. I did all of these weird things in calligraphy. He saw something in me and he hired me on the spot. I became a graphic designer unknowingly.

Richard was really championing human-centered design before anyone else in the graphic design field. I had worked for sign painters and other designers but I didn’t get good at it until I worked for him. There were less than 10 of us at Access Press in NYC. He said, “You’re Italian, you do Rome ACCESS.”

We had a tumultuous relationship. I felt like he had a great mind but we didn’t agree on design aesthetics. In my mind he didn’t seem to care so much about execution so we constantly clashed. He was dictatorial back then and didn’t listen to you and I hated it, yet I had tremendous respect for him.

NS: So how did you get to San Francisco?

MG: In 1987, he got the gig to redesign the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages. He opened an office in SF to do this work and called it TheUnderstandingBusiness. I sensed that if I didn’t get away from Richard, he was going to fire me. My friend from Cooper Union, Sandra Kelch, was moving out to SF—which I had never been to. I volunteered to go out and help set-up the San Francisco office. I think he saw it as an opportunity to get rid of me, so he agreed.

NS: Did you know what to expect out here?

MG: Not at all. I had never been to San Francisco before. It was just an adventure. I thought I was moving out for 6 months. I had no intention of staying. I was a die-hard New Yorker. I had a job but I didn’t have a place to live so I stayed in a youth hostel for a while. When I reported to work, there was no there there. There was no one to report to and Richard went radio-silent. That’s when I met Nancy Cech, a friendly face who was sitting in a cubicle at Pacific Bell Directory. She welcomed me and took me under her wing. Mark Johnson was hired to run the office. He showed-up a week later. Greg Galle was hired as the Art Director and followed about a week after that. At first, they didn’t know what to do with me, so they treated me, basically, as a secretary. They didn’t have a whole lot of faith me and didn’t think I was going to last. I was warned in an elevator once that if I didn’t shape-up, I was going to get fired.

NS: Shape-up how?

MG: I was obnoxious and loud. I was used to New York. I didn’t understand the culture out here. So, I took a class in interpersonal communication at City College and it helped amazingly. I learned about listening techniques and I learned to use non-threatening language…it saved my career. They cast me off to the side as this weirdo but I carved-out my own thing that worked and I gained power. “Oh, we’ll give her maps.” Low and behold, over time, I had 20 people working for me in the map department who believed in what I was doing and building.

We pioneered the digital prepress techniques with the Macintosh and desktop publishing. I remember taking densitometer readings and doing dot-gain experiments. We invented how to trap with Illustrator and other programs in order to take these files to a real 4-color press. We did that on the USATLAS project and when we went to MacWorld that year, every booth that had anything to do with publishing had a copy of these files and were showing off the book and film separations even though they had nothing to do with the project. It was hilarious.

I worked at TUB for 2 years when I decided it was time to leave. I went traveling through Southeast Asia in 1989 with friends and missed the earthquake in the Fall. When I came back, I had no job and no place to live since my loft had been condemned in the quake. I consulted a bit for Mark Johnson at TUB on process but I also started working at DPI (Digital Prepress International) on the first Agfa Prepress Guide. That became an overnight success and we had more books in mind.

In 1992, I started my first company with a colleague I had worked with at TUB. I started getting more work and I needed help. We were on a press check for one of the Agfa books when I asked her to start a company with me and we were discussing possible names. I remember thinking of the name YO because it was fresh and didn’t take the design industry too seriously. My colleague was resistant, so we asked one of the press guys what he thought of the name. He liked it and she was open to it so YO began right there.

We went in very idealistically—we were young so we never thought about what could possibly go wrong. We didn’t think through all of the ramifications. We were both designers with similar skills so there was no natural tie-breaker and we clashed over aesthetics. Our skills weren’t complementary, they were overlapping.

I took a course on Entrepreneurism at the Renaissance Center here in SF (an early start-up non-profit) and that helped me learn about accounting and the basics of running a business. My partner and I were mismatched in terms of where we were in life and what our goals were. We were going in different directions.

The other thing happening then was the Internet. We had been working with Peachpit Press designing books when they asked us to design their first website. They said, “You know, Maria, you think of design differently than any other designer we’ve ever worked with. Can you design our website?” I didn’t know what a website was but I was sure I could do it. We applied the principles of information design to the Web and it worked perfectly.

I avoided the whole CD-ROM thing because I really didn’t understand it but I remember you saying, in 1994, “We’re not doing CD-ROMs anymore, we’re going to work on the Internet.” I remember thinking: “Pthh. That will never last!” But, here I was in 1996 and not only had it not gone away but it was the accelerating opportunity to do information design. It was during this time when my partner, along with Darcy DiNucci and I, coauthored the book, Elements of Web Design, The Designer’s Guide to the New Medium.

After five years, my partner and I decided to go different ways. In 1997, we split up the assets, and moved on. She took her clients and I took mine. I like to say, she took the Y and I took the O and started HOT. I walked into the bank with a $20,000 check and opened a banking account. Fifteen years later, the same guy in the bank who took my check, Ali Ansari, is my banker today.

I had just started dating my now husband, Scott Allen. We had met in 1996 and I tried to pick-him-up during the weekly Friday Night Skate but he didn’t bite. One evening during the Skate, he mentioned that Prince tickets were going on sale the following day and I stopped in my tracks and said “I need to go now.” I was going to go sleep in line in San Jose, CA for Prince tickets. He said “I’ll go with you.” I thought he was crazy and I told him he didn’t know what he was getting into but we went, slept in line, and that was our first date. When it was time to think of a new name for the company, I began looking in the dictionary for words that were a little risqué, that would be memorable, and that people were either going to love or hate. He jokingly said “how about Hot?” I looked-up and said “Maybe!” Later that day, in a postcard store in the Castro I noticed a postcard with a photograph of a neon sign that said “HOT”. I said to Scott “that’s the sign.” So, I named the company Hot Studio and opened for business on July 25, 1997.

My first employee was Ben Benjamin, who was a freelancer for YO. Then, Ben Seibel. My third employee, Renee Anderson, joined Hot, and worked with me on and off up until last year— for over 10 years! I was really timid about hiring people but there was a certain point when it became necessary to grow. Back then, it was still 80% print, 20% digital. Sam McMillan wrote an article in Communication Arts about YO and our unique design process. We were diagramming schematics of pages, and we called it “page architecture,” which is now called information architecture and Richard’s book, Information Architects, came out about then, too. By the end of 1999, our work switched to more digital than print. Now, we rarely work in print.

The other thing about designing for the Internet was that it was so collaborative. I fell in love with collaborative design back at TUB but didn’t realize it then. When we started doing Web work, it was the same thing. It was art and science combined. You had to work with people with different skills: engineers, coders, writers, and business people. It wasn’t just about design anymore.

We started growing quickly and we didn’t have enough processes in place. By the end of 2001, when the crash hit, we had to lay-off 5 people. Companies were dying around us overnight. But, I had steady clients, like Schwab. My bookkeeper was telling me to sell the business while I could. I called Rajan Dev, from the TUB days, who had a business background, for guidance and advice. He came over during his lunch hour, and asked me two simple questions: How much can you confidently make every month and how much are you spending every month? I told him and he matter-of-factly explained, “Based on my calculations, you need to cut your expenses by 20%, which is five people.” I was completely blown away by that. Rajan joined Hot Studio in 2005 and is now President, and second in command at Hot Studio.

That’s when I realized that your company is not family. You need to be able to make hard choices or you lose it all. I made strategic choices and was able to rebuild with those who stayed. We had to manage those severe dips three times throughout the years: in 2001, 2005, and in 2008 (and a little bit last year).

NS: What’s remarkable to me is that, at every point, you not only survived but you thrived.

MG: I learned that when it’s REALLY bad and you’re at the lowest low, you can shrivel up or you can find something deep inside you, get over the initial shock and embrace it as an opportunity. You have to look at your situation and ask how you can do things differently. I think that one of my superpowers is resiliency. At the end of the day, I can always get a job as a back-up plan. Then I ask myself, “where do I need this company to be and how are we going to get there?” I feel like, after four downturns, they still totally suck but I’m not afraid of them. It also comes down to reputation and integrity. I definitely have a few people who don’t talk to me anymore but I feel like I’ve always been honest and fair. I believe in my own abilities and staying relevant as a practitioner is important. It gives you a lot of strength. If we have to downsize again, I know we can survive.

NS: You’ve never really spoken a lot or published articles but that’s changed recently.

MG: Hot now employs about 75 people and we’re in NYC, too. I’ve always brought-on people who are smarter than me and I trust them to make great decisions. Every year, at every scale, I reevaluate my job and what I can bring to the table. I think about what I can delegate to others. I always challenge people to go beyond what they think they can achieve. I no longer have to work in the business, I can work on the business. I think of building the business as a series of design problems that I continuously have to solve.

NS: Tell me about the TED Prize sites.

MG: We helped two wishes come true: Once Upon a School for Dave Eggers and the Open Architecture Network for Cameron Sinclair. Richard (Saul Wurman) founded the TED conference and I’ve been attending the conference every year since 2002. At first, it can be really intimidating. You sit in this theater next to people who have made these huge accomplishments and you think “What the fuck have I done? I’m just a designer and I haven’t made any significant contribution to society whatsoever. What am I doing that’s world-changing? I’m a tiny company with 20 people.” In 2006, Cameron Sinclair won the TED prize and they were asking for people to help get the network off the ground. I sent a simple email to Amy Novogratz at TED saying “We can help create the website” and much to my amazement and surprise, she emailed me back immediately.

It was the first time we didn’t feel like we were working with a client. We approached the project as their partner, along with Sun Microsystems who stepped-up as their technology partner. It was our first true project where we were all empowered to envision what the future might be like. We delivered it within a year and it brought us credibility. It made me realize the power of design—the power design brings when you’re treated like an equal at the table. It doesn’t matter how big or small you are. If you are willing to come to the table feeling like an equal, you are going to be rewarded as a contributor. It was a time in my life when I realized that design doesn’t have to be subservient. With the right people, together, you can create things that are world-changing.

NS: That leads me to where you are today, with a book and a new message about leadership.

MG: The next generation of leaders will be designers.

NS: Do you mean that leaders will have a traditional design craft background?

MG: No. I don’t believe that design should live in design schools. We need to liberate that word. It’s really creative thinking. I hate the term design thinking. It’s really about creativity.

NS: But it is a certain kind of creativity, don’t you think? Art is creative but it’s not the same kind of creativity you’re talking about. One good thing about the term design thinking is that it drew a line between design craft (which was very much about typefaces, colors, form, etc.) and design process (which could be applied to anything, including business models, etc.

MG: Yes, the best design is 50% thinking and 50% doing. You learn through doing, they’re codependent. Designers can get shit done: GSD. They know how to drive towards a deadline and get to a conclusion. Without the doing, you get nowhere.

There are many designers in this world who look at the world differently. You have to be open to the idea of exploration, of divergent and convergent thinking, of looking at as many ideas as possible and then zeroing-in on a strategy that can be built over time. The best design is when you have an engineering point of view, a business POV, a human factors POV, a visual POV. At Hot Studio, we have so many different types of creative people. Everyone provides a lens onto the world that’s different than others. We tell the same thing to clients—they bring a collaborative lens and an appreciation of their customers. When I say that the next generation of leaders are designers, I think of it in broad strokes.

I’m talking about Design Executive Officers—CEOS that are creative leaders. When I think of DEOS, I think of Ray Anderson, Emily Pilloton, Robin Chase, Yvonne Chouinard, and Chip Conley, for example.

We are at both the shittiest point and the best point in life. Everything is breaking and the world is at its worst but what a great opportunity because everything has to transform, has to be reinvented. Things have to die in order to be reborn and we’re witnessing the death now. Not a lot is salvageable. We need the people who are able to create new models. Technology is continuing to change so I feel really excited. It’s not a done deal. We can make a huge impact if we embrace it. Then, you have to have the confidence to feel like an equal participant in helping to solve the world’s problems.

NS: How do designers develop that confidence, because they almost never feel like an equal.

MG: We’re seeing that metamorphosis now. In many cases, the younger generation of designers are more engaged. They see themselves as responsible for changing the world and that they have a stake in it. Generationally, that’s going to work itself out.

Aside from giving birth to my two amazing children, I feel like my biggest contribution to society has been leading two companies for over twenty years (Hot Studio turns 15 this year). I started out as that Working Girl with the accent who never thought she was going to be successful in graphic design. I now have 75 employees, most of whom are younger than me, and I’m teaching. My job, now, is to inspire them and tell them, like my own kids, that anything is possible. I don’t care what you do in life, just love what you do and try to do it better than anyone else.

I try to be a role-model at Hot Studio. I think about my time spent at TheUnderstandingBusiness. It was a magical time, just like you had at vivid. These were some of the best years of my life when we grew as designers, as people, as friends. I want Hot to be that kind of place. I want people to say “That was an amazing time where I met life-long friends and grew as both a person and a designer and I was doing stuff that really counted.” That’s my responsibility now. When they leave Hot Studio, they’re going to do something amazing.

I can tell that people LOVE being at Hot Studio. That’s why I enjoy coming to work every day. I think of my own portfolio as insignificant, as a contributor. I think we’ve done some really great work and we’ve broken barriers but I hate when people measure you by your clients and stuff that you make.

In five years, how many of those websites are even going to exist? The greatest work I’ve ever done was creating the map department at TUB, by creating YO and creating Hot Studio That’s my project: making sure Hot Studio continues do important and meaningful work, continues to evolve, and continues to thrive.


Nathan Shedroff is a car designer turned information designer turned interaction designer turned experience strategist turned business strategist turned educator. He is currently the program chair of the ground-breaking MBA in Design Strategy at California College of the Arts.