FrancescoCutolo (Product Designer at Wolt)

Born in Pompeii but in love with nordic culture since a young age, Francesco Cutolo jumped into the design system space after spending 12+ years building digital products for desktop and mobile across all of Europe.

He/Him • Stockholm, Sweden • June 9, 2023

What led you into design?

When you think of Naples, you immediately connect pizza, espresso and sfogliatelle but in the second half of '00s, Naples lived a cultural revolution that put the city on the contemporary art map alongside London and Berlin. For a brief period, around 2008 or '09 Naples was the epicenter of a never-seen-before revolution that mixed Mediterranean vibes and rave culture. Every day, I had the opportunity to see live and listen to artists from all over Europe and I've seen my friends' careers take off, producing today for David Guetta or Tiesto.

I was there, with good ears but not enough to be a DJ, with a good brain but not enough to be an artist, and somehow I started to do flyers and posters for events. That's when I discovered Peter Saville (the man behind Joy Division covers but also all the Hacienda posters) or The Designers Republic and Warp Records flyers. Today, with digital, these kinds of artwork are very disposable but back in the day it was fun to collect them.

I was only 18, playing with Adobe software and putting Richie Hawtin, Jeff Mills, or some other well-known DJ on posters seen by thousands of people. I was paid in exposure and free entries but I learned a ton only by observing others and eventually, I discovered how music and design are essentially the same thing.

What does a typical day look like?

I procrastinate a lot. I'm an early bird and get most of the work in the morning and, as opposed to the rest of the world, I do enjoy meetings and talking to people. Or listen to people. Being able to read the room and bring empathy to the day-by-day is what I consider my main strength.

Then Feedly, Substack and Twitter (but less and less) to catch up with the news. And family as well: as an only child that lives 2500km away from home is something you need to remember to not leave behind.

And eventually movies. I try to watch one movie per day since I was 16. I almost did it in 2021 (because of the pandemic of course) but my Letterboxd says I finished at 245.

What's your workstation setup?

Where do you go to get inspired?

How many times have we heard that teachers and students learn from each other?

Well, my first job was as an assistant teacher in an Adobe Training Center (I'm guilty, Your Honor, I used to run Dreamweaver classes). Students were slightly younger than me but we seemed 3 generations apart! The way they approached problems and solutions was very different (in the meantime social media and smartphones arrived) and I learned how to stay inspired just by being among people; using sociality as a recurring peer-to-peer masterclass.

What product have you recently seen that made you think this is great design?

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.

There are already plenty of games where you can craft, build and be creative as much as you want but the way Nintendo mastered this mechanic by designing the most incredible and user-friendly version of it; building it around fantastic emergent gameplay it's just crazy.

I'm not a fan of Minecraft or Roblox but I recognise the great thinking that is needed to create a system where you can mix a bird with a sword to create a flying weapon or combine trees with fans to create a speedboat and make everything seem so easy and natural yet deep and thoughtful.

What pieces of work are you most proud of?

It was an editorial design system for the most prominent no-profit association against cancer in Italy. Back in the day it wasn't even called a design system but I got the opportunity to elevate the content of their website from simple blog posts to actual e-books with color-coded covers.

I assumed that the client had great content but provided poor blog articles. And blog articles found on the internet aren't always... reliable. But medical papers and publications are a different story because we do judge books by their cover.

Personally, it was a great moment to restore my graphic design roots, going back to the Saul Bass / Erberto Carboni lessons. I was even able to convince the team to switch the website font to Garamond (the most popular font in Italy for printed books) only for the articles to push the idea of a printed book. And guess what? When we did a comparison test, people thought that ours was the most reliable source and we nailed the goal we set.

What design challenges do you face at your company?

Working with design systems, I'd say the main and constant challenge is always trying to be educational and not instructional to stakeholders both on top and below you. In the past 2 years I started to radicalize my views on design; encourage my teams to explore and learn, avoiding a purely instructional approach that hinders creativity and growth.

I hate every time I'm approached by someone that used a system I designed and they have to apologize for breaking it. I mean, yes, I have to improve it, not contemplate it!

So I started to ask myself: how a design system can be completely invisible? What is the fastest way to let designers be efficient and consistent at the same time? What overhead can I subtract from their brain and make it mine? These are the challenges that I'm facing at Wolt: mould a design system that won't denaturalize the amazing work that has been done so far.

What music do you listen to while designing?

Any advice for ambitious designers?

One of the most beautiful and famous Italian sculptures in Italy is the Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. It's located in the church of Santa Maria della Vittoria in Rome and it was done in the '600 by Neapolitan artist Gian Lorenzo Bernini. His client (of course) was the Pope, that rejected several proposals and themes before Bernini decided to go all-in with the scene of a saint having an orgasm. In a church. With Inquisition at its highest. And he sold the idea!

I have a tattoo with the representation of this statue that reminds me of this advice every day. Defy authorities. Defy structures and processes. Avoid compromises. Sometimes the boldest and craziest ideas will work. And try your best not to water them down.

Anything you want to promote or plug?

I don't have a podcast or a newsletter but please donate to the Ukrainian Red Cross :)