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Why design matters more than ever


Design is more than aesthetics. It is an essential competitive tool for an age of perpetual disruption. PepsiCo Chief Design Officer Mauro Porcini shares his 5-point system for sparking creativity at scale. Author of the new book The Human Side of Innovation, Porcini explains how anyone can deploy a designer’s mindset to improve their business and organization. Sharing stories from 3M to Mountain Dew, Porcini emphasizes the imperative of excellence and why innovation is “an act of love.”

“A designer can help ignite the culture. But the culture needs to be spread across every single function of the company.”

— Mauro Porcini
About the guest:

Mauro Porcini is PepsiCo’s first ever Chief Design Officer. He joined the food & beverage corporation in 2012 where he is infusing design-thinking into PepsiCo’s culture and leading a new approach to innovation by design that impacts the company’s product platforms and brands, which include Pepsi, Lay’s, Mountain Dew, Gatorade, Sodastream, Doritos, Lifewtr, bubly, Aquafina, Cheetos, Quaker, 7Up, Mirinda, amongst many others. His focus extends from physical to virtual expressions of the brands, including product, packaging, events, advertising, fashion and art collaborations, retail activation, architecture, and digital media.

About the host:

Bob Safian is the host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, and the editor-at-large for Masters of Scale. He’s the founder of The Flux Group, a media, insights, and strategic advisory firm. He was previously editor-in-chief of Fast Company, where he won the National Magazine Award for Magazine of the Year in 2014.

Mauro Porcini is uncommonly clear and engagingly passionate about how any business and business person can benefit from a designer’s mindset.

— Bob Safian
Transcript of Masters of Scale: Why design matters more than ever

MAURO PORCINI: You need to build in-house the culture of innovation. You need people in love with people, obsessed with extreme quality, with excellence. A designer can help ignite the culture. But the culture needs to be spread across every single function of the company.

It may be daunting for you as a leader, but it’s about mindset. We should spend our life growing and bettering ourselves and seeing every single opportunity, every encounter, as an opportunity to learn.

You realize that what you know is very little, it’s almost nothing, it’s dust in the universe. And this is the beauty of the real innovators, and it’s the excellence you want to deliver to people that can create a better world and a better society.

BOB SAFIAN: That’s Mauro Porcini, the Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo, and author of the new book, The Human Side of Innovation.

Design has been a key component of business success for iconic companies from Apple to Airbnb to Nike.

I’m Bob Safian, former editor of Fast Company, founder of the Flux Group, and host of Masters of Scale: Rapid Response. I wanted to talk to Mauro because he’s uncommonly clear and engagingly passionate about how any business and business person can benefit from a designer’s mindset.

As an executive inside large enterprises like Pepsi and 3M, Mauro has deployed creativity as a force for positive disruption. And he has specific, systematic tips on what it takes to spark and maintain innovation inside organizations as they scale.  

Design is not just about style or about looking good, Mauro says, though he is an advocate for both. Rather, design is about aiming for excellence.

He uses the word “love” — for fellow employees and for customers — to describe what drives a truly innovative culture. 

It might sound soft, but as Mauro’s perspective unfolds, you understand the brass-tacks business gains that can flow from kindness, optimism, and empathy.


SAFIAN: I’m Bob Safian, I’m here with Mauro Porcini, Chief Design Officer at PepsiCo, and author of the new book, The Human Side of Innovation. Mauro, thanks for joining us.

PORCINI: Well, thanks for having me, Bob. It’s such a pleasure to be here with you today.

SAFIAN: Yeah, you and I first met, I don’t want to know how many years ago. I was back at Fast Company. I think you were at 3M, maybe.

I will say that you are always the most stylish person in any room that I’ve been in with you, the clothes, the shoes, the beard, everything. For those of you listening, Mauro is wearing a delicious black suit and a black shirt. What are the shoes today?

PORCINI: Boots, purple. It’s a touch of craziness in a very elegant and serious kind of outfit, because tonight I have an event that is kind of serious, so I try to match the tone of the event.

SAFIAN: Well, I couldn’t carry it off. Do you like people to look at you? Is that what it is?

PORCINI: I love to express myself. Clothing is a 360 approach to communication, and somebody could see in that personal branding. If I am in front of an executive team, a board of a company, and I’m asking for a lot of money, that day, I will dress up in a jacket, kind of serious. There will always be the touch of craziness, though. It could be the shoe, it could be the watch to remind them I am the creative person that you hire and that you want to disrupt things and everything, but you can trust me as well.

Outfits are so powerful. They’re part of that implicit communication that is ongoing 24/7. The reality is that we are communicating while we talk with the visual code, your outfit, your body language, the way you move is part of the communication. It’s so important.

SAFIAN: And you want to have a touch of craziness in that visual communication. You just want to let them know that you never quite know what Mauro’s going to do next.

PORCINI: These companies expect these people to have an unexpected point of view to bring creativity to the room. But the problem of our community is sometimes we cannot channel the creativity at the service of the business, or the business itself doesn’t feel comfortable with that kind of creativity. We should always be there balancing the two elements, the creativity, something that is unexpected, but with other elements that can be at the service of the business, of the growth of the company, of the financial goals that we have.

Chapter 1: The role of design in companies

SAFIAN: A lot of folks confuse design with style, particularly business people. Sometimes it’s like, oh, it’s just aesthetics, it’s color, it’s fabrics, it’s shapes. What is the definition of design?

PORCINI: Designers today in companies, big and small, are the ambassadors of the human being, of the people out there within these organizations. They essentially represent the needs or the wants of the people of the customers, and they’re able to translate those needs and wants into solutions that are fulfilling the needs and the desires of these people.

While in the past to have design in your company in many industries was a nice-to-have, but was not necessary. Many companies didn’t want to have designers in-house to remind the company all the time that the product was not extraordinary. With that non-perfect product, we’re making tons of money, so we don’t want you to tell us. And so you will keep the designers out — this was happening in so many industries.

You need to build in-house the culture of innovation. You need people in love with people, as I like to define them. People that are obsessed with extreme quality, with excellence, with creating meaningful solutions for the people out there. Designers are trained in this, but this is not just the design and designers kind of issue and opportunity. The entire company needs to have that kind of culture. A designer can help eventually ignite the culture. But the culture needs to be spread across every single function of the company.

SAFIAN: Yeah. You say in the book that we’re entering an age of excellence, which sounds promising, but also kind of daunting. Like we need to be consistently excellent or we’re vulnerable.

PORCINI: It was easy to protect your portfolio in the past. No matter the quality, the people out there were forced to buy whatever they could find. Today is a completely different situation. Anybody out there can access, in a much easier way, funding. And therefore I may have a product that is really good, a brand that is great, a service that is phenomenal, but maybe my product is not so sustainable enough, or is not healthy enough, and this is where competition will come in. So it’s enough, one area of weakness that a competitor could come in, in ways that were not possible.

Now, it may be daunting for you as a leader, as a person, as an entrepreneur, as an individual inside an organization thinking, oh, my God, I need to produce excellence. But it’s about mindset. The message is that we should spend our life growing and bettering ourselves and seeing every single opportunity, every encounter, every podcast, every project, every experience as an opportunity to learn.

At a certain point you realize that what you know is very little, it’s almost nothing, it’s dust in the universe. Socrates told us already thousands of years ago, the wise man or woman is the person that knows of not knowing. And this is the beauty of the real innovators, the real leaders.

They are in love with the people they serve. The consumer, the customer, and the love somehow synthesize the excellence of what you are trying to create for them. And it’s the excellence you want to deliver to people that can create a better world and a better society.

Chapter 2: Mauro Porcini on the three talents every company needs to nurture

SAFIAN: You say, we need to nurture three talents: entrepreneurial spirit, empathy, and enabling others to succeed. And that sounds kind of simple. What makes it hard?

PORCINI: The ability to dream, to think big, to have a vision. We think big when we are children. But then with time, we forget the ability to dream. They start to tell you that dreaming is a childish kind of activity. Dreaming is not okay, because society wants to normalize us. The norm, the dictatorship of the norm, is so important to stabilize the world we live in. We don’t want many dreamers.

Another Italian poet, his name is Giovanni Pascoli, more than a century ago, used to talk about the fanciullino, this little child that is inside ourselves. And then we lose over the years when we grow up. So it’s important that we protect that child. But then you need to combine that with the ability to execute as well.

One of the most complicated skills is the ability to balance the two dimensions: dreaming and then making things happen.

SAFIAN: There are other characteristics that you stress in the book: kindness, curiosity…

PORCINI: It’s so important to be open to what’s going on out there. Curious people love diversity by definition, because they see in diversity the precious gift of knowledge. They know the people that are different from them will add something to them. They don’t go from one meeting room to the other meeting room on a business trip. They get lost in the city. They bump into people, and they observe the way they are dressed, the way they talk, the way they communicate. 

Optimism. Another characteristic is so damn important. If you are innovating, by definition, you are changing the status quo. And when you change the status quo, you will get rejection. People will push back. If we don’t face any rejection, let’s worry. It means that we are not really changing anything. And when we face that kind of rejection, it’s important to keep that kind of positive mindset. I met so many people over the years, even in my own teams, that were great designers and great innovators, but they were pessimistic. And if you are pessimistic, it’s so tough to push against all those roadblocks all day.

SAFIAN: And what about kindness…? 

PORCINI: Often people are like, “Oh my God, why kindness in business?” I’ve been pitching the idea of kindness and using that as a filter in the creation of my teams in 3M, in PepsiCo for more than 20 years. And so, what happens when you are surrounded by nice people? You’re going to spend more time with the people surrounding you. You may spend personal time together. That quality time builds a bond, a synergy, that becomes so important, when, in the future, you face problems and difficulties. It could be a business problem, or it could be a personal problem.

In 2016, for instance, I had really serious personal problems. And I was a ghost. I was gone. My leadership team was there, and they all got together and united. They fill the gap that I was living in those months of personal weakness. Now multiply the kind of situation for 300,000 people. That is the number of people, for instance, we have in a company like PepsiCo. And you understand the level of productivity or lack of productivity that you may have, depending if you have kind, trustworthy people or people that are not. How many times do you hear companies talk about productivity and kindness together? And kindness as a driver of productivity? And the reality is that it is an amazing, amazing driver of productivity.

Chapter 3: How to create a design-driven culture

SAFIAN: Indra Nooyi was the CEO of PepsiCo, who hired you and brought you on. And as I recall, in those early days, PepsiCo didn’t really understand design or why it mattered or why she had brought you in.

PORCINI: This is something that I discussed with Indra Nooyi during the interview process. And I think it’s the key reason why she hired me. When I arrived at her office in Purchase, she had a pretty high dossier about me and everything I did and all my projects. So very quickly, the conversation moved from my projects and achievements from a design standpoint to how to design culture and how to change the culture and evolve the culture. And I shared with her five phases that I went through in 3M, in that effort to change the culture of the organization and infuse human centricity and design-driven innovation inside the company.

SAFIAN: Can you give us an example of one of those phases? 

PORCINI: The first phase is, what I call, the denial phase. It’s when a company doesn’t understand that it needs a different approach to something.

If you stay in the denial phase, it is going to be what happened to the Kodak and the Blockbuster of the world. You need somebody at the top to drive the change, to sponsor the change, to make the change start. In the case of 3M, they hired this young kid out of Italy to start infusing design in the company. And back then, obviously, it was a very safe bet.

I was 27. They asked me to start in Europe. It was the consumer business. If it was not working, whatever. And I remember taking my suitcase and traveling to Minnesota from Italy. I was still based in Italy, and pitching this idea of design to this tech company in the middle of the Midwest. And I remember the first meeting with the R and D leaders and with the marketing leaders, and they loved it. I was so excited. I was like, “Yes, they get it. It’s going to be easy.” I was 27, full of enthusiasm. And I remember going to the office of the executive sponsor of this initiative. His name is Moe Nozari. He was the EVP of the consumer business of the company, one of the most powerful people inside that organization back then.

And I go to Moe, and I tell him, “Look, Moe. It’s amazing. Our design vision is appreciated by everybody.” So he was there on the other side of this big desk. He looks at me and with a serious face, he says, “They’re all lying to you.” I’m like, “Moe, no, no, no, you were not in the room. I tell you they are not lying to me. There was enthusiasm.” And I was like, I was thinking, I didn’t tell him, I have this high EQ and emotional intelligence. I can really feel people. And I was sure that they were with me. And Moe looks at me again, and serious again, he repeats, “I’m telling you, that they’re all lying to you.”

He told me, “Look, imagine you are in a gallery. Well, Mauro, you and design, you are one of the paintings, and the people are not buying you. They’re buying all other paintings. I know, because I gave them the money, and I know what paintings they’re buying. They’re buying the latest HR initiative or the new plant in Florida or whatever. They’re not investing in design.” That changed my life. That really helped me understand a major blind spot that I have. And after that, I developed the technique to understand who was with me and who was not with me.

So the technique I developed is very simple. Every time I pitch something, I ask people for a sort of sacrifice, a commitment. Most of the time, I ask them for money, “Give me the money. Invest in people, in resources to run the projects.” I ask them the question: “Why don’t you want to do it now?”

SAFIAN: And if people commit, then you can build on that? 

PORCINI: There are the early adopters. Just one person out of 10 in society out there is willing to try something new. All the others are going to wait for others to try it first. The same applies to culture. In this phase, you need to identify, what I call, the co-conspirators.

When I arrive at PepsiCo, I map the co-conspirators in the company. There were the low hanging fruit, those projects where I could really showcase the value of design very quickly. I started to work with, what I call, the proof points — show the value of your initiative as soon as possible. Even if it’s not ideal, even if it’s not perfect, show progress. So speed in this case is very important. I call this the occasional leap of faith. Occasional, because there are few co-conspirators that you bump into and you can start projects with.

So you need to find the co-conspirators, and you need to build proof points. When you start to have a few proof points, more people will come to you, and they will be like, “Can I try? I want to do the same that you did in Pepsi, in Mountain Dew. I want to do the same.” And you tell them, “Absolutely. Give me the money.” A few will give you the money; a few won’t. The more projects you start to have, the more critical mass you start to have, the more the company, we start to understand that actually that thing called design or the thing called new culture, whatever you’re doing, makes sense. This is a very critical moment, because you are moving from a pioneering kind of initiative to something that requires risk and huge investments. And this is the moment where everybody in the company is like, “Yeah, that thing called design. It’s so cool. I want to have it in my business as well.”

SAFIAN: So you’ve been through the denial phase, and rejection, and made that leap of faith. But you’re not done, because you need…

PORCINI: The quest for confidence. You need to build emotional confidence in the organization that what you’re doing is the right thing to do. In the case of design, it’s so indispensable to have designers in-house. Because they need to work hand in hand with marketing, R and D, all the other functions, to drive that at scale.

If you succeed, you move to the fifth phase, what I call, holistic awareness. It’s when the company really gets it. It’s a phase that I wish to no company and no team and no leader to arrive at, because as soon as you start to get close to holistic awareness, the real innovator should already think about what else you can do. You want to keep pushing and pushing, because perfection doesn’t exist. You want to see your company out there in the world of ideas, and you have that dream and you want to push towards the dream all the time, moving the goal further and further to better yourself in the journey.


SAFIAN: Before the break we heard Pepsico chief design officer Mauro Porcini talk about the impact of creativity on business and his five phases for building an innovation culture. 

Now he talks about what businesses underestimate about design, and why some things labeled as ”failures” aren’t actually failures at all.

Plus he offers key lessons about linking purpose and profit, unpacking his mantra that innovation is an act of love.

Chapter 4: Are companies prioritizing design-thinking?

When you became chief design officer first at 3M and then at PepsiCo, I sort of anticipated there were going to be a wave of chief design officers that were everywhere. Yet in some ways, it feels like in the last few years, design, in that way, I don’t want to say it’s faded, but it’s not getting the same overt buzz, in some ways, that it did. I’m curious whether you feel any of that, whether that’s because some of these ideas have been integrated into other parts of businesses or whether people are just missing, they’re just making a mistake in not embracing it more.

PORCINI: Look, I think we’re still on a journey. There are companies that are implementing design-thinking without even realizing that this is design-thinking. It’s culture before anything else.

One of the issues that we need to figure out in the coming months and years is: what is the role of the designers in this new design-thinking culture or creative culture? This is something that I face myself. We designers talk about innovation as the focus on the needs and wants of people and society and the creation of extraordinary products or solutions. The companies talking about innovation, they talk about the financial revenue of innovation.

Let’s be clear, I’m not saying designers shouldn’t understand the business dimension of the equation. But at a certain point, we need to understand what kind of role we want to play.

Because some designers started to fail playing that kind of role, a variety of different companies started to step back and give that responsibility back to the business world. The more designers we show that actually can drive that kind value, the more I think companies will start to invest again in design positions. Look, as many people can imagine, I receive calls from recruiters all the time for chief design officer positions in industries that you’ll never think of, from insurances to banks. So it is happening, it’s still there. It’s just that the media and the CEOs are talking less about this because it’s not that trendy of a topic. It’s just more normal now, more infused inside the culture of many organizations. But there is so much more that these companies can do with design.

SAFIAN: There’s the creation of value, and there’s the extraction of value. Sometimes those are two different functions, and you have to decide where you want to live, right?

PORCINI: Your former magazine Fast Company recently published an article about design-thinking somehow failing in the world. They were mentioning, also, PepsiCo, some of our products. I was like, wow, they’re really not understanding the value we’re generating this company. To reduce everything to the next iWatch is not really understanding what we’re talking about. For instance, we launched a few years ago Drinkfinity, a reusable bottle that you fill with tap water, essentially, if you want, and then you have a pod and you can add functional ingredients or flavors and things like this.

Now, that effort was something that we were doing to push society, the world, to move away from plastic, use reusable plastic in that case, it was not received as we were hoping, not expecting, let’s be careful, hoping. But we generated so much insights that we used then in a very similar product that is super successful for us today, that is in market, that is Gatorade GX. Same technology, reusable bottle, pods. Then you have a wearable device that you put on your skin to monitor your sweating, the composition and amount of sweating, and suggest you the specific kind of concentrate of Gatorade that you want to use. It’s exactly the same thing.

We need to understand the big picture, and to change companies of this size takes time, and this often is incremental. We need to be very careful when we attack design-thinking in general when it’s not that visible; it’s not producing the next iPhone because it can change companies from within and move them towards the right direction, step by step, one product at a time. It’s in the nature of the design thinking to put products out there that are going to fail. Prototyping is not just the prototype you do in a laboratory behind the scenes. The companies that really get it, they put those products out there, they prototype ideas, business models.

When they fail, we shouldn’t look at them as failures. This is the wrong mindset. We should call them experiments within the companies, and the world out there should understand that that’s part of the change that innovators go through. To arrive at something bigger, it’s not just product-driven, it’s culture, it’s the way you communicate, it’s the way you build the brands, it’s the way you modify your portfolio over time.

Chapter 5: Mauro Porcini on where design and sustainability intersect

SAFIAN: I wanted to ask you about design and sustainability because there’s been some rethinking with some parts of the design community about how creating demand for things and driving consumption might not be the most responsible thing to do for the planet. Right? How do you square the ethics and the realities of climate change with the business imperatives of driving growth at a company that is as big as PepsiCo is?

PORCINI: We’re ambassadors of the human being. Since I joined this company, we started a series of projects in a proactive way that were all centered around the idea of sustainability. Those were proactive projects: the SodaStream Professional, the Gatorade GX, the Drinkfinity, and there are many others that will take shape in the future. I think we need to deal with the system, understand the system we’re in, and try to change it from within.

They drive me crazy, the people, they’re from outside of the system, they just complain about what’s going on because I wish it was possible, and if somebody can make it happen, wow, great. But if we don’t, then we need armies of people that think in a way that have purpose and sustainability and a better world and a better planet in their mind to join these companies, to help these companies move from within.

We bought, for X billion dollars, SodaStream, and we are pushing it as much as possible. We built SodaStream Professional that is all about customization of your drinks with reusable bottles, very focused on health and wellness. So we have these solutions, but we need people to buy them. So everybody has a role in this. The big companies, if those solutions are embraced, have the power to scale them up to the next level. But people need to love them and buy them.

SAFIAN: You say in the book that incremental risk is no longer enough, and it sounds like some of that is about the business reality and some of that is about the challenges that we face in the world.

PORCINI: Just not to be misunderstood, you need incremental innovation, incremental risk in your mix. But if you just rely on that, it’s complicated. So, the breakthrough changes and innovations are a way to shake the system. It is really a matter of looking at your financial algorithm, looking at your business portfolio, looking at the culture of your talents, and balancing everything to blend incremental evolution with some breakthrough events that can accelerate everything else. This is true, once again, in what Indra did with me or other talents that she brought in from outside. You bring in disruptive talents, you try to insert them in the genetic code of the organization, and they change the organization from within.

Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. But companies need to keep trying that because even the fact that you are trying is building by itself a culture, even when you fail. But once again, we should then look at those failures not as failures, but as experiments you learn from.

Chapter 6: “Innovation is an act of love”

SAFIAN: What’s at stake for design now for all of us at businesses now?

PORCINI: We’re facing so many difficulties, from a potential recession, wars, division in society, and the role of technology, data, artificial intelligence, that is creating anxiety in people thinking, okay, what is the future of us, of individuals?

This book is sending a message of optimism that you can win just if you create excellence for society. We talk so much about sustainability; we talk so much about health and wellness. This is a very tangible example of how the world is moving in the right direction. At the end of the day, what really makes the difference is the person, the human being, and it’s in this perfect loop. 

People in love with people are the people driving innovation, and it’s the focus on the person you want to serve.

Think about the first act of innovation. The first act of design was when the prehistoric man or woman took a stone and started to change it, to manipulate it, to transform something that was available in nature, in a tool to hunt, to cook, later on to decorate your body, later on to celebrate your gods. So essentially they started to create stuff, products, as we call them today, for themselves and the people surrounding them as an act of love.

I start the book with this sentence, “Innovation is an act of love.” Originally, it was exactly that, you are creating something to fulfill a need for you, and the people around you. This is what was driving innovation. It was an act of love, and then when you started to have too many objects, and products to produce, these people started to delegate that act of love to others.

And scale is what killed that act of love. Because all of a sudden, you started to put a distance between the person that was creating and the person that you were serving. So you lost that intimacy, that looking at the person in front of you and being like, “You know what? I really want to create the perfect shoe for you, or the perfect drink for you, because I really care about you. You are my children, you are my husband, or wife, or parents, or friends.”

With scale came a new focus. The focus on profit, the focus on economic growth. And for years we’ve been slave of that, and we started to lose love in favor of economic interest. While in the past you could protect, through barriers to entry driven by scale. Today, technology and globalization are making those barriers to entry crumbling down. And you need, therefore, to reignite the love into your culture, into your company, into everything you do. It’s becoming a key competitive advantage. Today is the only driver of real sustainable profitability in time if you do it right.

I think that we are at the crossroads that these companies are starting to really be driven by purpose for real. Simply because they understand that the business is there, the future is there, but this is magic. This is beautiful, and we can accelerate it more and more.

SAFIAN: Well, Mauro, thank you for bringing your dreams and your optimism and your love to all of us into this. I really appreciate you spending time with us. Thank you so much.

PORCINI: Thank you, Bob. It’s been a pleasure.

Masters of Scale’s mission is to democratize entrepreneurship. Launched in 2017 as a weekly podcast featuring Reid Hoffman, we’re now two weekly podcasts — Masters of Scale with Reid Hoffman, and Masters of Scale: Rapid Response, hosted by Bob Safian — as well as an award-winning daily learning app, a best-selling book, virtual and live events, and more, serving a global community of founders, funders, and leaders looking to innovate at scale.
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