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It is not often that graphic designers have to protect
themselves with pseudonyms; their lives are not usually that
exciting. But in a new book by David M. Gross, graphic design is
not so innocent it can speak its own name. Fast Company: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Motorcycles in
Italy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux) is a quirky memoir of
Gross's adventures in turning around an Italian motorcycle
The company is Ducati, but it is never so named. And the
designers are given aliases. At first I assumed there must be a
legal reason for why Gross tells this story with pseudonyms (or, in
parts, the absence of any -nyms at all).
No, he told me, Ducati supports the book. “The idea was to
create a fictive distance,” he said. This approach might suggest
how seriously Gross takes graphic design—if it is important enough
to be disguised, then surely it must be pretty important.
In 1997 Gross left his job in Manhattan as a corporate finance
lawyer and moved to Bologna to oversee strategic planning for
Ducati, under new ownership. The company makes powerful, iconic
motorcycles, but only a few kinds. The new owners aimed to find
profit in leveraging the brand into other products such as
accessories, jackets and streetwear.
Double-lined logo from the 1970s next to Massimo Vignelli's
From an old-style manufacturing company founded seventy years
prior, Ducati would be transformed, presto, into a media company.
And in the late 1990s, as today, the stock of media companies held
much more value than the stock of manufacturing companies. The new
Ducati would not be about motorcycles, but about T-shirts with
images of motorcycles on them.
The job required building on an extensive design
heritage—especially a graphic design heritage. Ducati had several
wonderful logos spanning the decades, and Gross loved them all.
Inside the corporate lawyer, a graphic designer and art director
struggled to emerge.
“I imagined the marketing possibilities,” Gross writes of his
first enthusiastic response to the job. He thought of “vintage
leather motorcycle jackets in sky-blue and orange... collectible
fountain pens and reintroducing the glories of the double-line
motocross logo designed for us in the 1970s.”
Gross ordered up a redesign of the company's graphics from
Massimo and Lella Vignelli. Everything was redone. He introduced a
racy italic, sans serif house type, a new logo, retail fixtures and
graphic environment with images of 1940s Moderne factories and
1950s cycle races.
The Mostro and the Puma shoe it inspired.
Gross also commissioned a catalog using gritty black-and-white
photos of actual Ducati factory workers as models. Loyalists
derided it for resembling a Calvin Klein campaign.
Industrial design was also given new energy—for the sake of
image and brand. The Ducati Mostro, the Monster, a stripped-down
“naked bike,” become a chic icon. (It inspired the Puma Mostro
shoe, with its visible exterior cross straps.) The same freedom
enjoyed by the graphic designers was extended to the company's
industrial designer, the temperamental Pierre Terblanche. He in
turn produced the MH900evoluzione, a stunning but expensive bike
with a small-capacity gas tank that severely limited its range.
The company hyped Terblanche's bike as an image builder by
putting the prototype up for sale—it appeared on the cover of a
Sotheby's catalog. The MH900e was quietly auctioned off on January
1, 2000, on the web. Eventually, “an edition” of 2000 of the bikes
was announced; the entire run sold out fast.
C'N'C Ducati collaboration with Costume National.
The story emerges oddly in Fast Company. Thanks to his
unique approach, instead of Vignelli, we meet “Leonardo Leonardi.”
Gross writes: “I was there when Leonardo sketched the logo for the
first time on a napkin one night after rounds of red wine, Moscata,
grappa, and the small almond cookies called cantucci that are
served with vin santo.”
We learn that one version of the logo is rejected by lawyers
because it looks too much like the one used by Dunlop Tires. The
author continues: “So I nervously asked Leonardo to give it another
go.... 'There's your logo,' he said after five minutes of fast
doodling. 'Let's finish our drinks.'” Gross knew the cyclists
wouldn't much like it. “But how did I tell this to the towering
figure of late-20th-century graphic design?”
The reimaging program worked, to the extent that Ducati became a
chic brand again and sales were respectable. But the business plan
turned on an IPO that would harvest the added value of the new
“media” company over the old rusty “manufacturing” company. The IPO
came just before the dotcom bust, which dragged the stock price
down. Still, Gross remains with the company to this day.
“I grew up adoring graphic design,” Gross wrote me in an email.
“I worked closely with both Massimo and Lella. It was a huge
privilege for me to work with them.” Their use of bright red
chromotype made a splash in 1998, lending the old-fashioned company
a bold, high-tech approach. “I am in awe of the work and own many
of their original pieces,” he adds, citing the Striade suspension
lamp Massimo designed for Venini in 1956 as a particular
2007 ad campaigns for the Sport 1000 (left) and the GT 1000
(center, right) bolster Ducati's revamped look.
“My father is a graphic designer,” Gross says. “When I was a
child we spent hours and hours designing alphabets. He taught me
that the graphic experience (because it precedes the product
experience) should exceed it. I grew up in a world in which package
design was primary... it was the first thing that we looked at. We
didn't think of it as frivolous or secondary or masking the real
thing. Even today, I find it impossible to throw away a beautifully
So how did the lawyer-turned-graphic-designer come to embrace
motorcycles? Gross explains, “At Ducati I saw the opportunity to
get much more sophisticated... in a world run by engineers who
didn't care so much about how things looked, just how they worked.
So I applied techniques and styles used in fashion photography, in
interior design, in package design, to motorcycles. In doing so, I
think my team created new aesthetic standards in the motorcycle
Readers should also be warned that in addition to graphic
design, there is a great deal about Italian food, coffee and love
in the book. Bellissimo.
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