Feb 16, 2020
My guest today is Maria Giudice. Maria founded Hot Studio, a design consultancy that was acquired by Facebook in 2013. After leaving Facebook, she served as VP of Design at Autodesk. In this conversation, Maria reveals how she found her purpose, and shares with us the exciting next stage of her career.
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Jorge: Maria, welcome to the show.
Maria: Thank you. I’m so happy to be here with you, Jorge.
Jorge: Well, I’m very excited that you’ve agreed to come on. So, for folks who might not know you, how do you describe what you do and what you’ve been doing; your trajectory?
Maria: Boy, that’s a good question because I feel like I keep changing and growing. So, I’ll go from one end, from being a child. I considered myself a fine artist and now that I’m a woman in her fifties, I am a, a design leadership coach and consultant. And a lot of stuff happened in between.
Jorge: I was about to ask. I think there’s a lot of… There’s a big gap between those two. I’ll tell you what I know, because we’ve known each other, but my awareness of you proceeds my knowing you in person. And I knew two things about you before I met you. One was that you founded a design agency or consultancy called Hot Studio.
Jorge: And I also know that at one point you worked with Richard Saul Wurman.
Maria: I did. Yes. Great, then you got two data points in a sea of many years of data points.
Jorge: I think that the first time that I became aware of you, I believe it was in the Information Architects book.
Maria: Yeah. I was sitting my twenties when I was featured in that book. And you know, Richard coined the phrase “information architects” back in the day.
Maria: I started out as a fine artist, went to art school. I went to Cooper Union in New York City. One of the beautiful things about Cooper Union as an art school was it was art, engineering, and architecture. It was founded in the 1800s by Peter Cooper.
And when I went to art school, I had no understanding of the interrelationship between art, architecture, and engineering. They just seemed like very discreet disciplines. But at Cooper, you could take an art class. I was majored in art, but I took an engineering class. I learned how to do Fortran; don’t ask me why decided to do that. I could take an architecture class. And so, this interconnection between art and technology was there at the very beginning, even though I didn’t realize it. And then out of school, I got to work with Richard Saul Wurman. And how I got to do that was Richard was a visiting professor in my senior design class.
And I was taking graphic design classes, but I had very… I was just… I hated it. I was a painter and I took graphic design essentially to learn how to be more organized. And also, my painting teacher suggested that I do that so I don’t become poor. So, I was taking graphic design for all the wrong reasons, really seeing no purpose to it.
I felt like it was incredibly formulaic. It’s like, “Okay, you got Bodoni, you got Helvetica, you got the classic typefaces, you got the Bauhaus. So, you create the grid. Everything should be flush left. And oh yeah, lots of white space. Throw an image out, slap it together, call it a day.”
That was my version of graphic design, and I was struggling for meaning and purpose. And then Richard walks into our class, he’s a visiting speaker for the day. He doesn’t look anything like all the graphic designers from the 80s. It is graphic design, and we’re tall. Men wearing black. Vignelli.
Everybody looked so polished, and I’m a girl from Staten Island. Okay? So, I look nothing like a typical designer. And he walks in, and he looks nothing like a typical designer. Short, chubby, big scarf, and more importantly, cursing up a storm, which of course I fell in love with.
And he walks in and he changed my life because he walked in, he looked at all of us. He said, “You’re all full of shit.” He’s like, “You’re doing design for the wrong reason. Design isn’t about you. It’s about helping people make sense to the world.” Now, I don’t know if he said that exactly, but that’s what I took away, and that was like the gods coming down from the heaven telling me, “Oh. There’s a purpose to this.”
You know, design is about being in service to others. Our job is a service job. Helping people understand, be entertained, make sense, you know, make clarity out of chaos, all of that stuff. And that changed my trajectory for the rest of my life. And that idea about design being in service to others, carried me through my 30 year career to where I am today. That focus, that we are here to help make clarity out of chaos. So, I worked for him right out of school designing guidebooks, because that’s what you did in the 80s.
And another big milestone happened where he got the gig to redesign the Pacific Bell Yellow Pages. Now, do you remember the yellow pages, Jorge?
Jorge: I sure do.
Maria: Yeah. I mean, I teach at CCA now and I, and I ask people about the yellow pages. They don’t raise their hands. It’s like generationally, a gone concept. But the yellow pages was the only thing that connected people in communities together through the telephone.
And he got the gig to reimagine what the yellow pages could be for all of California and Nevada, to rethink about what the value proposition could be for this. And I thought that was a) fascinating; a fascinating problem to solve at scale, and b) an easy trip to the Bay Area for a couple of months where I can hang out and enjoy the nice weather.
So, I drove cross country, my best friend came here. There was no office set up, so it was like ground zero. I land, a few other people land, and then we actually have to put together a company. So, I was at the beginning of understanding how you put a company together from the ground up.
And so, I worked on the yellow pages, and my specialty was cartography. I don’t know if you knew that about me, but I was a master cartographer. And that came through working for Richard. And so, my job in the yellow pages was to redesign and build all the maps in all the yellow pages.
And we’re talking about hundreds of different yellow pages throughout California, for all of California and Nevada. So, you know, I started designing maps and I had to quickly build a team, because I couldn’t do it all myself. So here I am, 24 years old trying to help bring a company to life and become instantly turned into a manager of people.
And it was the dawn of the digital age. A computer landed on my desktop in 1987, it was the Mac IIci. And it had Photoshop and illustrator 1.0 and it had Times New Roman and Helvetica. And Richard embraced technology really early on, and we all were at the beginning trying to figure out how to integrate this new technology into our workflow.
So, all these new things happened at the same time in my twenties. That entrepreneurial spirit was alive and well, I was part of this new horizon. And I flourished. I really took well to tech. I loved working with computers. I loved being part of the beginning of figuring out how this all works.
And I turned out to be really great at managing and inspiring people to work really hard. And so, I wound up staying in California and I had a team of like 20 people. By the time I was 27, I was managing a large, large team of people.
And then I got to a place where I could no longer grow. I hit the top of my game in that company, and that’s when I went on my own and started freelancing. And then, the short answer here is I started freelancing, I got busy, I hired people, I got busy, I hired people. Suddenly I had a company. I had a small company. Then I had a medium sized company. Then I had a really large company.
The other thing that happened was I was also part of the very early beginnings of the internet. So, my clients were like, “Hey, you think about design very differently than other people, and can you design a website?” And I’m like, “I don’t know what a website is, but I’m sure I could figure it out.”
And this was like 1993. Mosaic was there. Netscape was coming out. And again, we were all trying to figure out what is this new medium and how does it integrate with what we do? And that propelled my career to founding Hot Studio. Hot Studio grew to about a hundred people in two locations, New York and San Francisco.
And then we sold Hot Studio to Facebook in 2013, the year I turned 50. And then I worked at Facebook for two years and went to AutoDesk to be VP of Design, and that takes me to where I am now. Two years ago, I left Autodesk, and now I’m a coach where I get to help grow the next generation of creative leaders.
And that’s been incredibly rewarding. So that’s a long trajectory, long story. But the information design element, the design being in service to others is the consistent thread through all of those experience touchpoints.
Jorge: That’s great. I want to circle back on that, but before I do, I want to ask you about something you said. You said that when you were still a student, you got into it primarily because of a love for the arts.
Jorge: But it’s like visual arts, right?
Maria: Yeah. I started painting when I was seven or eight years old, and I used to go study painting every Friday… Every Saturday morning, I would go to Mr. [Inaudible] art studio and take a book out of his rack and paint seascapes and still lifes, and it was oil paint. My uncle is actually a very famous fantasy artists named Frank Frazetta.
Jorge: I’ve seen Frank Frazetta’s work. It’s astonishing.
Maria: Yeah. So, he was my uncle. And so, I was surrounded by this idea about, you know, art being something that you can thrive in. And also, the connection between painting and graphic design for me was calligraphy. I started doing calligraphy in middle school. My English teacher gave me a book on italic, and I was fascinated by the Speedball book that I bought in the art store that had all of these different, like… I wouldn’t say they were typefaces, but they kind of were. And I was really good at drawing letters and I used to design band posters. So that’s how I managed to peg with the cool kids, because I would design posters for bands. And also paint jean jackets. So, I was entrepreneurial at a young age, being able to apply my artistic skills to things that people needed.
Jorge: You said something when you were describing your career at Cooper Union, where you said that when you made the switch from visual arts to graphic design, one of the distinctions between the two was that graphic design was more organized.
Maria: Yeah. I was such a slob, and I thought that if I take graphic design classes, it would help me be a little bit more organized.
Jorge: Why would that be?
Maria: Because my impression of the graphic designers that were in art school, they seemed like they had their shit together. The fine artists, not so much. And so, I saw these graphic designers that were so buttoned up and I went, “Oh, I maybe could learn something about this.”
Jorge: When you came to California and started a company, was that The Understanding Business?
Maria: Yes, that was The Understanding Business. So, Richard had Access Press in New York, and he founded the understanding business, and the big client was Pacific bell yellow pages.
Jorge: So that is an awesome overview of your career, and I’ve learned so much just from this short conversation.
Maria: Yeah, we’re done now. Right?
Jorge: Yeah. No, but I want to focus on what you’re doing now because you said that… Well, you’ve had the experience, starting out as a freelancer, and I don’t want to say accidentally, but it’s almost like the business grew organically.
Maria: Yeah, it was accidental.
Jorge: Right? By the time before the step where you find yourself now, you were running design at a fairly large organization that makes tools for designers, right?
Jorge: So, you’ve been exposed to various different facets of the design industry, and in particular digital design, right? From being an individual contributor, all the way to being an executive in a large organization.
Jorge: And you’ve made the switch now to advising folks, is that right?
Maria: Yeah, I have had the good fortune of being exposed to growing businesses, working in essentially startups. Right? Because The Understanding Business was a startup — my own company was a startup from the very beginning — and being in middle-sized companies, also having hundreds of clients, when I worked at Hot Studio.
So, I’ve had this context about how people and organizations work at scale. And at Autodesk I was the VP of Design. I loved that job because I got to participate in culture change at scale, with 400 designers worldwide, and Autodesk had hundreds of products.
So, the last two years of working for others, I was in corporate America. So from 2013 to 2017, end of 2017, I was essentially working in two large corporations. And I loved pieces of it, but I also hated pieces of it. And as I got older, this is what I say about people who get older: the amount of fucks you give goes to zero, right?
When you get older, your priorities change. It’s so hard to play the politics game. But I was fascinated by that, and I like looking at how people in organizations work together from the outside in. So I left Autodesk and I resisted jumping into another VP job. And that was actually one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, because I’ve spent my entire life building my brand and reputation. And I have a great story to tell. I’ve worked hard and I’ve accomplished a lot, and then suddenly I don’t have a job anymore at the end of 2017.
And I remember running into Clement Mok. He’s an early mentor of mine. And he told me, “Maria, you have to promise me to take a year off.” I’d never taken a year off. Everything was one thing to the other. I had two kids. I raised kids; I have… I’m married. I did all of that nonstop. And it just, it stuck with me. He said, you need to take time to think and figure out what you want to do next.
And that year was brutal because I kept saying to myself, “Who the hell am I if I don’t have a name, a title, I’m not bringing in shitloads of money?” And it really made me question and challenge myself in terms of like, what’s it all worth? Why am I doing what I’m doing? What’s my purpose in life? All of these big, big questions.
So, one thing I did in that time off is I made a list of all the classes I ever wanted to take but could never take them. My kids are teenagers now, so they ignore me. So, I have plenty of time on my hands. And I took like an improv class. I hated it, but I know it’s important. I’m taking calligraphy classes again; I’m taking a watercolor class. I’m bringing back the fine art, but I also took a coaching class. And I took coaching classes because I, not necessarily wanting to be a coach, but I thought that, boy, those are great skills to have. I could always be better at listening and asking powerful questions.
I’m working on another book project and I’m interviewing people and I thought that these could just really improve my listening skills. And then over the course of the year, I realized I was really good at it. That, you know, people are constantly asking me for advice.
So, I said, well, if I’m going to be giving advice, I should a) be great at it, and b) get paid to do it. So, then I kind of committed and stepped over the line. I drew like an invisible line on the floor and I said, “What am I stepping into? What will I commit to?”
And I committed to getting certified as a coach, which is a pretty rigorous training program. It takes about seven to eight months to do. And I should be done with my certification at the end of February, I have like over 20 clients worldwide and it gives me great energy to help people. I get to help people lead based on where they are in their career.
So, it could be everything from emerging design, emerging leaders, all the way up to very senior leaders. And I get to support them without the bullshit of corporations and corporate America. I don’t have to deal with their politics, they have to deal with their politics. So it gives me that insight to stay relevant and fresh in the industry that I love without dealing with the corporate bullshit.
And that, that’s been great. But what I want to say is, from a meta perspective — and I find this to be true with people who are leaving jobs in their 50s and asking the same kind of questions that I’m asking…
There’s these two phases in life. David Brooks wrote a book called The Second Mountain, and he talks about this. And the first mountain is the mountain that you climb to establish your identity, build your career, generate wealth, create status, raise a family. You know, that’s the mountain. That’s the trajectory that we’re all climbing.
And then something happens to people in their 40s and 50s, when they start really questioning what’s next for them. They’re at the peak, and then they’re going to go down the mountain. Some of them retire, some of them get depressed, and some of them go into different careers. But what I’m finding is people in their 40s and 50s are staying in… are not retiring. They’re reinventing. And they’re reinventing through the context of purpose and meaning.
They’re starting to ask questions about what is worth doing in life? Why am I here on this earth? What can I do to support people, help people? You know, create a legacy that isn’t about wealth and title. And that’s the space that I’m sitting in right now. And it’s like going from the outer world to the inner world, and that’s been really satisfying.
So, I’m doing a lot of work on myself, sort of inner work, like identifying what brings me joy and fulfillment, and making sure that I’m spending my precious time on earth in service. And it’s exciting because I don’t feel like I’m marching towards death. Right? I feel like I have, like… I feel lucky that at 57 years old, I feel like I’m at the beginning of a new path.
Jorge: That’s great.
Maria: Yeah. What a gift, right? I mean, when I was in my twenties, I thought when you were 50, by the time you turned 50, you were like close to death, you know? And even though it sucks to get older, I have to say, the wisdom that you gained from your life experience is priceless. And then you have to decide how you’re going to use that wisdom in, in really helpful ways.
Jorge: It sounds to me like you had an experience when you were younger of someone coming into your life and helping you discover your purpose, right? You talked about Mr. Wurman and this idea that he helped you see that it was about helping people understand and make sense of things.
And to bring it back to the folks listening to the show, as you go about advising people now, and helping impart this wisdom that you’ve gained over the years and your experiences. First of all, I’m wondering if you ever find yourself advising folks who maybe have not yet discovered that purpose, that can motivate them and that can get them to another level. And if that’s the case, how do you move past that?
Maria: Well, that’s the part of coaching. The big part of coaching is not to give people answers, it’s to guide them so that they find their own answers that resonate with them. And through those coaching sessions, we unpack values. What are things that are important to you? What are your own guiding principles in life, and how do you use those guiding principles, those values that you have, to make decisions, and to live your life authentically?
A large part of the coaching journey is to help people uncover what they’re meant to do on this earth, and how they can live in authentic life, and bring joy and purpose to it no matter where they are in the process.
The other thing about finding Richard early in my life, who became sort of the linchpin to who I have become, we all have that. We just have to pay attention to it. I tell my students that all the time. Walk around life with your eyes wide open and pay attention to those moments. Be open to those moments that are going to… That may change your trajectory in life. And we all have them.
Jorge: That is a fantastic takeaway for folks. And I think it’s also a good summary of where you are now, and what you’re doing to help folks. So, thank you for sharing that with us. I’m wondering, if folks want to follow up with you and perhaps reach out to see if you can help them with this, where can they reach out to you?
Maria: Yeah. Well, if you go to hotstudio.com, which is still up, you could send me an email through there. Or you could just reach out to me on LinkedIn and send me a message that you’re interested in coaching. That’s how I found all my clients, by the way. I put out a call on LinkedIn and Facebook and I said, Hey, I’m doing this. And I got contacts from people all over the world, which was so humbling.
And this is the other thing that I love about this work, that I get to be introduced to people from all over the world who want help, want coaching, and I could help them no matter where they are, whatever geography they’re in. So that’s been lovely.
Jorge: We didn’t get into this, but you’re also the author of a book called Rise of the DEO, and I just wanted to mention it because I’m going to link that in the notes as well.
Maria: That’s great. Yeah. Actually, Rise of the DEO is my third book. The great thing about Rise of the DEO now is it’s all available on Medium. So, if you are a subscriber to Medium, you can get the whole book on Medium for free.
Jorge: That’s great. I didn’t know that. I’m going to link to that as well. Folks who are listening to this conversation, especially if they’re in the design disciplines and looking to move up to leadership positions, it strikes me as something that they would be keen to follow up on.
Maria: Yeah, it’s actually, it’s both for… I would say it’s for designers, design leaders, but it’s also for creative business leaders, because it talks about the interrelationship of design skills and qualities at the CEO level. And the rise of the DEO is about the rise of the Design Executive Officer. You don’t have to be a designer in order to be a creative business leader, a DEO. And it talks about how you can be better at risk-taking, intuition, system design, people-centeredness. All of these things that we were trained as, as designers, are now incredibly relevant skills and characteristics in today’s business world.
Jorge: Well, fantastic. I’m going to link to that. Well, thank you so much for your time, Maria. This has been fantastic.
Maria: Oh, it was great talking to you.