Alumni Q+A: Joey Pitt MDes ’08

Joey Pitt (MDes ’08) represents a new breed of GSD graduates who have leveraged their design education in pursuit of alternative futures. Currently living with his wife and two year old daughter in Seattle, Joey is a Senior Design Lead at Microsoft’s Xbox Music & Video group. Joey comes from a family of scientists, “There was a cultural inevitability to me becoming a scientist, but it was a high school history assignment that randomly redirected my interests and opened up my world.” Joey was assigned American architecture as his research topic—he found it fascinating, learning everything he could. “It snow balled from there. It has always been a good fit. I think systematically and analytically—the type of problem solving that is part of architecture makes sense to me.”

Armed with an undergraduate degree in architecture from the University of Oregon, Joey returned in 2002 to his native San Diego to work as a designer at Tucker Sadler Architects. While he had always dreamed of teaching, he felt that it was critical to get real world work experience under his belt. Then, in 2005, recently married, he got a slap in the face—he was diagnosed with MS. He recalls thinking, “What are we doing? We’re in our 20’s—we should do those things we dream of doing, not get tied down. The first thing I wanted to do was to go to graduate school.”

Joey selected the MDes Technology & Design concentration for its flexibility, and for the accessible faculty, especially Martin Bechthold and the late Daniel Schodek, who directed MDes at the time. “There were about 35 people in my class, but my concentration had only eight. It was filled with non-architects—we had a couple engineers, a structural engineer, and an industrial designer. It was a diverse group.”

Joey was kind of enough to chat with us via phone this month about his career, his education, and his reflections on the GSD. His thoughtful responses follow.

Where have you lived? Where do you call home today? Where will you retire?
I was born in Southeast US, but moved to San Diego when I was two. Lived in or around San Diego until I went to college in Eugene, OR. We currently live in Seattle. My wife is from the Northwest. I am from the West Coast. I assume that we’ll stay in Seattle—we love it, and tech is here.

Describe the best trip you have taken to date?
We traveled more before we had our daughter. In fact, after I finished at the GSD we spent two weeks in Spain. We visited the Alhambra in Granada. It was truly a religious experience—it was unbelievable. That was a monumental trip.

Describe your work today?
I actually still identify as an architect, but I have worked longer as a software designer. My education cemented in my head how I think about design. I love architecture—I always tell people about the hidden gems in Seattle, but it is tough to be an architect in the US today. The kind of work you do leads to the type of work you will get in the future. I have seen very good architects not get good work. It is a challenging cycle.

After the GSD, I joined Microsoft to become a design manager for Xbox Music & Video. I manage a team of 10, creating the first party media experiences for Xbox. We design applications for the console, Windows, compatible phones, tablets, all the modern platforms. When I was at the GSD, a fellow MDes classmate in the Technology & Design concentration was on sabbatical from Microsoft. He felt that it would be a good fit for me professionally and made introductions when a Windows manager was on campus speaking at the Harvard Business School in 2007.

At the time, not many schools offered programs in interaction design, so recruiting for designers was tough. Many of the designers working in software were graphic designers who would make the work of the engineers “pretty.” In the 2000s, software is more consumer driven, it’s more about design. Companies have hired designers who think differently. This provided an opportunity for me.

Describe a typical day?
Our days are pretty heavily dictated by our daughter. She wakes us up at 6 a.m. I try to spend time with my wife and daughter before I leave. I am lucky to have a pretty regular 9-5 day. Because tech firms are constantly looking for ways to make people happy, we have a great work/life balance. I don’t have to work crazy hours, and it’s pretty consistent day-to-day.

Professionally, I am at an interesting point in my career—I am spending a lot more time helping teams than designing. A huge part of my job is design evangelism. I actively pitch the importance of our design work to other parts of the company. All this is fairly new to me.

I have had to learn a whole new skill set in speaking to engineers here about design. It also helps being an architect— it has helped to be able to converse. When I speak with engineers about software design, it reminds me of speaking to structural engineers about a building design.

The MDes program is unique from other GSD offerings. Briefly explain your area of study and why you chose the GSD?
I was drawn to the GSD to study technology. I felt that the program was very open and not driven by the interests of corporate sponsors. I was able to engage with faculty—I owe a great deal to both Dan Schodek and Martin Bechthold. My specific interests were in technology around manufacturing, rapid proto-typing and CAD CAM. After taking a seminar at the MIT Media Lab, things shifted for me. As my interests shifted to social media, Antoine Picon became my advisor.

In 2006, My Space was declining and Facebook was accelerating in popularity. While people like urban designer Bill Mitchell were studying the impact of technology on Wi-Fi enabled cities, no one was looking at online spaces. Modern social networking was creating authentic public spaces online. I saw a good opportunity to transfer what we know about public spaces into mediated public spaces. That was my research focus.

What is the value of your design education in the work you do at Microsoft?
It’s all about systems and scale. When you design a building, you learn to draw diagrams to simplify information and concepts into systems. Architects have the ability to jump scales, from curtain wall detail to a building section. Those two skills really help with software. We can never see the whole thing—Windows is huge. We need to be able to break complexity of systems down, to jump in and out of detail.

How is your work typical or atypical of other GSD graduates?
I suspect the content of my work is pretty atypical, but my work flow might not be that different. I see more and more students coding and working in technology. There has been an interesting convergence—young architects know a lot about software.

What is your biggest professional accomplishment?
Last year, Microsoft shipped the Xbox One game console. Being a part of shipping that product was really significant for me. It was a real accomplishment; I was part of the team from the ground up.

What’s your favorite memory of (or story about) the GSD?
The History Channel had a design competition about the future of cities while I was at the GSD. They mostly solicited submissions from professional firms, but a group of us submitted to compete. We were a team of eight—split between MDes and MArch II students. We were given a brief and two weeks to complete a design and exhibition piece to be displayed at the LA County Museum of Art. It was basically a narrative about the environmental and technological changes that might face Los Angeles in 100 years.

It was crazy, we were all asserting our wills trying to figure out how to create a clear presentation, worthy of competing with the work of flush, professional firms, to be overnighted to LA. We ended up using the CNT machines to build it, broke it down to ship it—like IKEA knock down furniture—and two of us flew out there to reassemble it. It was a sitcom. We did not win, but we held our own. We did a great job…I’ll always remember it.

Tell us about your current engagement with the GSD?
I am not really that engaged at present, but I would be happy to get more engaged. I am certainly in a position where I am able to hire people. I am always looking for people who are thinking about design in a different way.

What GSD faculty, critic, or fellow student had the greatest influence?
Dan Schodek, who has since passed away, ran the MDes program while I was there. I did some tech illustrations for him for his nano materials book, so I knew him well. He was just an amazing guy—he had a huge impact on how I think about design and engineering. Traditionally, there was a divide between two perceived career paths: design and project management. Designing was the sexy way to go, so you avoided being pegged as a project manager. Dan was one of those guys that challenged this stereotype, he showed that passion for one’s work is most important. He has had a huge influence on me, and on my work.

What is the most significant thing you learned at the GSD?
The world is full of incredibly intelligent and creative people. You need to make the most of the opportunities in your sites. In a building full of talented, creative and intelligent people, I came to see that creating opportunities for myself was my most important job.

What advice would you have for young GSD alumni?
Take advantage of the incredible pool of classmates that you meet at the GSD. The people that you work with in school will be professional peers, colleagues, and confidants throughout your career.