Make Mistakes Early – A Q&A with Maria Giudice
Interview by Christine Liao.

Maria Giudice- painter, designer, CEO, author, director, VP – and today, a friend, musing about design, her career, and that one time she completely bombed a client pitch.

Maria left her Director of Product Design position to become VP of Experience Design at Autodesk a little over a year ago. It was an overwhelming experience for her. “I’ve never worked in 3d before. My degree is in graphic design. So entering the whole world of 3D is brand new to me. And then Autodesk having 150 products… and your job being to unify them… it’s pretty overwhelming. But I love the challenge.”

“So why Autodesk?”

She moved to Autodesk for that challenge. She loved the problem to solve. At Facebook, she worked on microinteractions. The problem space was smaller. “The tiniest movements would have huge impacts on people. It was a gift to see that.” But the scale was small, and Maria wanted a new, bigger problem. Autodesk served the opposite challenge, in that it was moving towards from being just a software company to be user experience driven. To be able to impact culture change and drive a bigger, design oriented change was exciting. “I also know Carl. So to have a close relationship with the boss of a huge company, I knew I could drive change. And they believe in me enough to make this happen.”

“Was the transition from Facebook to Autodesk scary? Funny? Memorable?”

“What was really scary was actually the transition from Hot Studio to Facebook.” Maria gives a wide eyed look, leaning forward. “To go from a world that I had complete control over, and I had never worked at a big company before.”

She withdraws back into her seat, reminiscing. Maria hopped from Cooper Union to a smaller firm of 10 people working out of a loft. From there she came to California to work on the Yellow Pages, then finally started her own company. “All of that was like, working with clients, but certainly not the same as being inside of a corporation at a huge scale. It was really scary, and really out of my comfort zone, to Facebook.”

“But you took the leap anyway.”

“But you have to. You have to, to grow. The best way to take risks, here’s what I tell people: think of the absolute worst thing that could happen. And if you can live with that worst case scenario, which is if you’re not like… dead, or have damaged your reputation. If the worst case is you get yelled at, or knocked down, then you take the risk.”

“And was starting a company a huge risk?”

“The dirty secret about starting your own company, most people don’t even realize you’re starting your own company.” Most people start small, one or two people. A person could be working for themselves, then get busy and hire another person to help- now you have a company. Then you would hire more and more people. “That’s how Hot Studio got started.” She talks about how Hot Studio just grew and grew organically. It started off with a few people, but they were getting bigger projects, and with it they needed more people. They attracted a lot of talent. The challenges of running Hot Studio at its different stages were unique to its size. “You have to be mindful. At 10 people, you have a lot of control. At 100 people, it’s more of a system. We grew that big because we realized most of the design work was happening at the end of the cycle. We realized to be a true design agency, we needed to be multidisciplinary.” Maria herself is multidisciplinary. She started off as a painter.

“Did you plan on going into interactive design? Back then UX design wasn’t really big.”

Maria gives a knowing look. “You’re showing your age, my friend; UX wasn’t a THING back then.” Maria went to Cooper Union in the early 80s, studying painting, drawing, printmaking, calligraphy, sculpture, graphic design. The trajectory at the time was between architecture, art, engineering. She graduated in ’85, the Mac came out in ’84 – there was nothing in digital at school. Maria set out to be a book designer, then later became an information designer for Yellow Pages. “That’s where the connection to interaction design came from. An information designer, you’re designing systems that are in service to other people.

"So that whole idea of being human centered, that was there from the very beginning. And that’s the constant, my whole life, which is focusing on what people need, want, desire, and delivering it in a useful way.”

In 1987, Apple developed an application called HyperCard, what Maria described as a hyperlinked experience. From HyperCard, CD-ROMs came, and then came CD-ROM design. “I had no interest in designing for CD-ROMs.” At the time the technology was so new, engineers could deny a designer’s vision, because they didn’t understand the technology. “I hated that. So I stayed in print. I wanted to focus on control and collaborating with people, and seeing the results.”

Maria’s first interactive project was in 1993.

One day Maria was talking with her friend, Nathan Shedroff, about the future. Nathan was a cofounder of vivid studios, and built up a large company based on CD-ROM design. In the early 90s his company transitioned into web design. That was Maria’s first time hearing about the Web. “And I thought it was never going to take.” In the early days, the Web was non-designed, index pages that pointed to content. In ‘94, Peachpit Press came to her as a client, and asked her for a website. Maria didn’t know what that was, or how to do it, “But I just went for it. I said I’d give it a shot.” Most people at that time didn’t know what to do, because everyone relied on Lynda Weinman, founder of She had an email list, full of early adopters and pioneers, asking each other questions. “It was the secret way to download web-safe color palettes, that was only 216 colors. It was like a huge scavenger hunt trying to figure out how to design for the web.”

Maria went on to write a book with Darcy Dinucci and Lynne Stiles about her findings. It was called Elements of Web Design. It was the first real book that showed work and talked about IA and HTML- these were early ideas and it took very well.

“So you were pretty much a pioneer.”
“A good name for a pioneer is someone old who’s sat around for long enough. When you’re older, you’ll be a pioneer when you’re my age too because you’ll ride waves. As technology changes you’re going to be part of the adoption.”

“Was there ever a time where you thought- wow – I f*cked up?”

Maria grins. “Oh, so many. I’ve fucked up many times. Many.” She thinks back to her career and her mistakes. She says she can pinpoint every big fuck up at any point in her life. Every job. “I fully intend to fuck up at Autodesk.”

There was one mistake that has stuck with Maria, from the time she running Hot Studio. “I had the opportunity to pitch to Francis Ford Coppola. He has a ton of wineries in Napa. He wanted a web presence that unified those wineries. I was super overbooked at the time, I was going to do the pitch, right after the TED conference. I had assumed the people going on the pitch with me would do their homework. I didn’t make it clear that I wasn’t going to have any context. We get there, first thing I did was mispronounce his name over and over again. I clearly was not prepared for that presentation, I left feeling like that was the biggest fuck up pitch I’ve ever done in my life. I learned not to rely on people on your behalf. When you pitch you’re going to war. You need to have your research in place, if you’re going to win that business. Needless to say, I didn’t get that business, and now I carry that shame over my head- like I can’t believe I called him Francis C-AH-ppola.”

Another memorable instance was when she sold Hot Studio to Facebook. She was focused on her people, making sure that both those transitioning to Facebook, and those moving on to other things, were well cared for. But that left no one to take care of her and her Facebook transition. “I got there, I had never, never worked at a big company. I didn’t understand the politics, I didn’t think before I spoke. People didn’t know who I was, I would say things and people would say ‘Who is this woman, she’s crazy?’. There are things that I did at Facebook that I look back at and think oh, I could have done that much better. But when I went from Facebook to Autodesk, I was fully aware of those mistakes, I read up on company politics, how to have influence without shutting people down. I read this book, The First 90 Days. You should read it too! And so I was much more prepared for Autodesk than for Facebook.”

She takes a pause.

“And as long as you’re in it for the right reasons- as long as you’re doing good in this world, that you want to make a big positive impact- as long as those things are constant, you can make those mistakes and rebound."

"You don’t make rebounds well if you violate someone’s trust, if you’re manipulative. That shit comes out really fast, wherever you are. And nothing can be done in isolation anymore, your secret weapon is to find your tribe. Whenever you start a new job, find the people you can rely on, that are connected to you and part of your mission. They might be your superiors, the receptionist – and you build your influence and trust. Then go bigger. Coming into Autodesk, they hire very few people outside. So, there’s probably some skepticism with me coming in, and what kind of influence I was going to have. I’m sure there’s people waiting for me to fuck up. Persevere and align with the people that believe in you, and as long as you keep showing positive results those naysayers will go away.”

"Does it get easier?”

“The higher up you go, the bigger the mistakes you make. At Hot Studio, the mistakes I make as a CEO, that could kill the company. Selling my company to Facebook, that is a decision you can’t go back on. You have to evaluate the risks, make a decision, and you have to live with them. Which is why I cared so much about the people at Hot Studio. I wanted to make sure the legacy was intact.”

Maria smiles warmly, thinking of her Hot Studio family. “When I sold Hot Studio, I kept the website up. It’s still up. I kept the company, I kept money in the bank for parties every year. So that people can come back together and connect and share stories. Next year it’s our 20-year anniversary, it’s going to be big. It’s going to be like a prom. I’m very proud of that legacy and I really feel like I did right by my employees.  

Hot Studio remains a big community that Maria cherishes. “Besides being a great mom, Hot Studio was my greatest accomplishment — working with great people around me who created incredible, meaningful work for people. Now, I get to sit back and watch them all become great design leaders in their new companies. I feel very proud, very grateful, and very very lucky.”


In 2012, Maria was named an AIGA Fellow in recognition of her impact in raising the standards of excellence and conduct within the design community. She was recognized as Woman Entrepreneur of the Year by the Women’s Initiative, a Bay Area non-profit that helps provide economic opportunity and education to low income, high promise women.

Known for her candor and wit, she has spoken about design and the power of collaboration at conferences throughout the U.S. and abroad, including TEDxPresidio, SXSW, and AIGA’s Design Conference. She teaches regularly at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and in California College of the Arts’ DMBA and MFA programs.