Ghost Rider: David Gross on Remaking a Motorcycle Brand
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 company.
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.
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.
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 favorite.
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 designed box.”
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 world.”
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.