Design Code

Tom Giannattasio, ’06, earned his first few dollars for his art skill in second grade. The graphic design grad now develops products for other designers.

by Tom Speicher, writer/video editor.

As a second-grader in Williamsport, Tom Giannattasio’s tiny pockets were stuffed with crumpled dollar bills and tarnished change, courtesy of his classmates. The lunchtime loot and resulting classroom disruption necessitated a call home.

The youngster’s parents were surprised but not angered when notified of his newfound wealth. Their son wasn’t a dreaded schoolyard bully, confiscating cash from other kids. Instead, he was an enterprising artist, selling original drawings of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for a buck apiece.

Giannattasio laughs at the irony of that memory. He’s matured from a kid peddling depictions of anthropomorphic turtles to a professional designer, working for the likes of Apple and Twitter before selling his own entrepreneurial creation to a company boasting worldwide clients.

Giannattasio’s Macaw Scarlet, a “live design environment,”.

Giannattasio’s Macaw Scarlet, a “live design environment,”.

“I look back at that sometimes and it all makes sense,” said the 2006 Pennsylvania College of Technology graduate. “Second grade was my first experience of putting artistic talent and business together. I eventually grew into a life of creating in this art form and trying to make money, as well.”

The art form in question is web design, specifically creating intuitive tools that connect design and development. Thanks to Giannattasio’s work, designers can draw and manipulate on-screen elements, and the code required for publishing the web page is automatically written for them.

In other words, it’s like drawing the four Ninja Turtles on paper and having the pencil’s movement dictate animation instructions to bring the renderings to life. Although as a child, Giannattasio did the opposite.

“I have fond memories of sitting in front of the TV on Saturday mornings not just watching cartoons, but trying to redraw the cartoons,” he said. “I loved the art of drawing. I was just naturally drawn to creating things. It’s something you feel inside.”

Giannattasio’s Macaw Scarlet, a “live design environment,”.

Giannattasio’s Macaw Scarlet, a “live design environment,”.

Giannattasio credits his mother, Donna, an avid painter who teaches computer networking at Seneca Highlands Career and Technical Center in Port Allegany, for cultivating those feelings.

“My mom has always been really creative, and she encouraged me to be that way,” he said.

Today, Giannattasio is designing on his Mac Pro in a 400-square-foot, glass-enclosed space in a WeWork office building shared with other creative types and entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C.’s Chinatown. Giannattasio is product manager for InVision, which bills itself as the world’s leading design collaboration platform with more than 1 million daily users, including Adobe, Twitter, LinkedIn and Uber.

“Second grade was my first experience of putting artistic talent and business together.”

Giannattasio obtained his position after selling his company and acclaimed web-design tool, Macaw, to InVision in January. He describes his role as a “mini-CEO,” interacting with InVision’s 200 employees scattered across the globe to develop products and bring them to market.

Penn College’s graphic design classrooms and labs are far removed from Giannattasio’s present-day reality, but he still relies on the principles embedded in his bachelor’s degree.

“The way I learned to think about design in college holds true today,” said Giannattasio, who, with short black hair and neatly cropped beard, resembles tech guru and “Big Bang Theory” actor Wil Wheaton. “I developed taste. I learned how to process ideas. And I learned to put all that together to make something meaningful in the world.”

The burgeoning internet served as Giannattasio’s first medium to showcase his design ability. As a preteen in the mid-1990s, he badgered his parents to buy him an HTML book so he could teach himself to build websites. Countless after-school hours spent pouring over the text resulted in a series of sites dedicated to video games, music and skateboarding.

The design work impressed skateboarding pioneer Tony Hawk, whose marketing team contacted a stunned Giannattasio and requested banner ad placement on his site in exchange for product. Giannattasio obliged.

Tom Giannattasio, ’06, translates ideas to pixels in a WeWork space in Washington, D.C. He is product manager for InVision, working with the likes of Adobe, Twitter, LinkedIn and Uber.

Tom Giannattasio, ’06, translates ideas to pixels in a WeWork space in Washington, D.C. He is product manager for InVision, working with the likes of Adobe, Twitter, LinkedIn and Uber.

“I was like, ‘Wow, I’m building a site and getting stuff for it,’” he said. “‘Maybe this is a career option?’”

It was.

Attending high school in Coudersport as a result of his father’s work transfer, Giannattasio decided to return to Williamsport and formally begin his career quest by enrolling in the four-year graphic design major at Penn College.

“The student portfolios coming out of there were pretty solid. The technology all seemed in line with what it should be. The coursework seemed in line with what I really needed to get started in the industry,” he explained.

That was true despite a focus on graphic design rather than web design.

“When I started at the college, I had sort of the folksy skills. I taught myself design up to that point. I understood how the web worked, but learning taste is totally different,” he said. “I gained an appreciation for clean, modern aesthetics, very functional type of work. A lot of the principles and things I developed in college translated to the web.”

According to Patrick Murphy, retired associate professor of advertising art and one of Giannattasio’s favorite teachers at the college, that translation was by design.

“When theories and principles are creatively applied to projects, they enhance the process and ultimately the finished projects. It takes time and practice to successfully apply theories and principles,” he said. “These are abstract concepts concerning space, proximity, marks, numbers, repetition, direction, position. The principles apply to multiple media, including drawing, illustration, print layout and computer web design.”

A dean’s list student, Giannattasio employed those principles professionally before he graduated from Penn College. He worked part time for a Williamsport advertising agency before serving as a production artist and creative director at the firm following graduation. Two years later, he moved to Washington, D.C., to be a designer for Sabre Hospitality Solutions, a marketing agency geared to high-end hotels and resorts.

Giannattasio advanced to senior designer at Sabre while writing for Smashing Magazine, a major outlet for web designers and developers, and teaching part time for Boston University’s Center for Digital Imaging Arts in Washington.

“When you have to go to teach someone else what you know, you realize all the things you don’t know,” he said. “You have to fill so many holes. I learned the material at a much deeper level.”

Brian Flynn, assistant professor and department head for art and design at Penn College, wasn’t surprised by Giannattasio’s career ascension and dedication to his craft.

“Tom was a quiet, respectful, humble student. He is very intelligent. I think Tom is successful because he listens to what he is told, does a great job processing the information, works very hard and is always trying to learn.”

After learning all he could about designing for hotel clients, Giannattasio searched for a new challenge. He found it as art director at nclud, a creative design firm engaged in experimental work for top brands. Giannattasio primarily worked for two of nclud’s biggest clients: Apple and Oracle.

“That is where I really found my knack for product design,” he said. “Before that, I had been doing designs to help people market their products. Once I started working with Apple, I realized that I enjoyed building tools and actual products to help people do something.”

Apple was concentrating on different HTML-based platforms and authoring tools. Giannattasio’s task was to innovate and develop features for those tools.

“It was a higher level of design thinking,” he said. “It wasn’t so much how do I make something that is beautiful, it was more how do I make something that other people would find useful. It really broadened my eyes to what was possible through design.”

On this warm spring day, Giannattasio is considering design possibilities for InVision. Attired in a dark shirt and jeans, he seamlessly moves his right hand from the keyboard and mouse to a pencil that he adroitly twirls before opening a sketchbook.

“There’s something about putting pencil to paper that you don’t get on a computer that is invaluable,” he said.

“I know I can iterate ideas much quicker, and I can get feedback on those ideas a lot faster. My professors encouraged the process.”

That comment pleases Murphy.

Beer camp

While at nclud, Giannattasio helped throw an annual party for designers and developers called “Beercamp.” “To promote the party, we always did some experimental site,” Giannattasio says. “This was one of those sites. The goal was to create a 3-D interactive popup book, which at the time had never been done with CSS. This project was a blast because I got to design, illustrate, build, write and even design custom typefaces for it..” The site was named one of the top CSS sites of the year by .net magazine. “The coolest thing to happen, though, was that I received a personal email from the Google Chrome team saying that they loved the site and pushed out updates to Chrome to better support the site. Probably lame to most people, but that was a cool geek-out moment for me.”

“Training students to develop hand skills, the ability to see and to develop concepts, is important,” he says. “Students who develop these skills become better designers in all media.”

Giannattasio clearly sees the concepts he gives life to in his black-and-white sketchbook. When colors appear on his computer screen, it becomes more of a challenge. The designer suffers from red-green colorblindness, a condition discovered in elementary school after he used the “wrong color” while drawing acorns.

“I can’t differentiate between reds and green hues, which means purples and blues look alike, and oranges and reds and greens get muddled,” he says.

Coping with colors on the computer is made possible by Giannattasio’s understanding of the numeric values of red, green and blue. By hovering over a color, the hue’s numeric value reveals where it falls on the color spectrum.

“I learned to think scientifically about color. I understand the way we perceive color. When you have two different hues, I understand how they interact.

“Working with color in the analog world can be difficult. I remember one painting class we had a model come in, and my instructor looked at my work and said to me, ‘You’re either a weird genius or you’re colorblind,’” Giannattasio says with a big laugh.

Some students shy from such blunt reactions. Giannattasio embraced the tough critiques that historically the graphic design faculty have dished out to encourage artistic growth and development.

“Critiques are a significant part of the learning process,” said Murphy, the 1989 recipient of the college’s highest teaching honor, the Veronica M. Muzic Master Teacher Award. “They require students to analyze their work. This involves the student, other students and instructor comments on concept development, the design process and the execution of the project.”

“You learn that design isn’t something that you just create and stick up on a wall,” Giannattasio said. “You learn you have to sell to your professors, you have to sell to your classmates. That holds true when you get out in the real world because you have to sell to clients or you have to sell to users. You need to be able to explain why your design will achieve its goals.”

Giannattasio’s personal goals began to change during his time at nclud. Twitter acquired the company, and while doing product design work for that renowned entity, Massachusetts Institute of Technology recruited him to Boston to help start edX, an ambitious project offering free online courses from some of the world’s top institutions.

Once edX got off the ground, Giannattasio fully embraced his entrepreneurial spirit. In his spare time, he had been working on a tool meant to bridge the wide gap between designers and web developers. The semi-complete product earned rave reviews from trusted industry sources. Giannattasio responded by resigning his post at MIT and moving his wife and infant daughter back to the Washington area so he could start his own company.

“I had always thought that I would own my company at some point. It was always a dream. It would be great to work for myself,” he said. “Our plan was to spend no more than three months developing the product and launching it.”

Fifteen income-deprived months later, the company and tool, Macaw, was a reality.

“I never built anything of that scale before. I never started a company before. It was trial by fire. It was very difficult,” Giannattasio said. “I was used to working with design tools, and here I was building a design tool, which meant I had to be inside a text editor 80 percent of the time.”

Encouragement from colleagues kept him motivated. An online campaign facilitated by Kickstarter that raised $250,000 kept him afloat. On March 31, 2014, Macaw hit the market.

“We named it that because a macaw is one of the only species in the world that can speak both bird and human,” Giannattasio says. “It speaks different languages for different species. That fits because developers and designers are often thought to be different species!”

Macaw quickly brought them together. The tool promotes fluid work as designers create on a blank canvas while the necessary codes are written for them.

“It’s got a very unique algorithm to think like a developer behind the scenes so that, as a designer, you can work the way you want, but at the end of the process, you still get the things a developer wants.”

The tool became an instant hit as the likes of Google and Adobe began employing it. InVision took notice and offered a price for Macaw that Giannattasio says made it in the company’s “best financial interest” to sell.

“It was a tough decision. This was our baby,” he said. “But we realized this was one of those opportunities to level up in terms of impact. Instead of impacting the 125,000 users we had, we could impact millions with one move. It’s been an amazing ride so far.”

The ride has allowed Giannattasio to go from 70-hour work weeks to a manageable schedule and enjoy more time at his Bethesda, Maryland, home with his “incredible” wife, Maggie, and “amazing” young daughters Ellie and Lucy.

But he still finds time to design.

“I’ve found that if I’m stuck in the middle of a project and I’m not doing much design, I need to go home and supplement. I’m so passionate about making things.

I get very excited about creating things.”

InVision’s current expansion into animation and advanced prototyping tools should fulfill Giannattasio’s creative needs for the next few years, but he expects to one day start a new company. When that time arrives, Giannattasio will surely reflect upon his Penn College background as he has at all the other stops on his impressive journey.

“I’m extremely thankful for Penn College,” he said. “Penn College really helped me find and understand my purpose in life. The college gave me the skills and the confidence to go out and achieve it.”

Just like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. ■

A second-grade Giannattasio sports his “Leonardo” Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles costume. Photo courtesy of Donna Giannattasio.