Ambassadors of the Human Being
Designer, Innovator, Magician, and Chief Design Officer of PepsiCo
Mauro Porcini joined PepsiCo in 2012 as its first-ever chief design officer. In this newly created position, he imbues PepsiCo’s culture with design thinking and leads a new approach to innovation by design that impacts products, brands, and the organization itself. He heads up design offices in New York City, Dallas, Chicago, Miami, London, Dublin, Moscow, Cairo, Bangkok, New Delhi, Shanghai, Mexico City, and Sao Paulo. Led by Porcini, PepsiCo’s design teams have been recognized with almost 1,000 design and innovation awards, and Porcini has been singled out with numerous honors, which include top spots on lists of the world’s most influential, most creative, best dressed, and hottest rising star. He will be awarded Jefferson’s first Innovator of the Year at the next Celebration of Innovation.
I think it was a mixture of something that was happening in the world and in the markets. We live in a world where we need, more than ever, what companies call “consumer centricity.” I prefer to call that kind of approach “human centered.” “Consumer centered” defines human beings as business entities that you want to make money on. In reality, what you want to do is add value to their life.
PepsiCo had a CEO, Indra Nooyi, who understood that because the world was changing, it was necessary for the company to change the way it was doing two things: building brands on one side and driving innovation in the other. Indra had the vision and the courage to do it, not by herself, but together with a few individuals. They understood that design is much more than packaging. My job interview with Indra wasn’t about what products I could design for PepsiCo. It was about how to make a shift of culture, how to design the culture of the organization to drive creativity and innovation. When the current CEO, Ramon Laguarta, took the helm in 2018, he doubled down on design and its culture, accelerating the role of the discipline in two areas close to his heart and his vision: innovation and sustainability.
There are three lenses that we use in the design-thinking world. The first is people, human beings. The second is business—marketing, macroeconomics, branding—and the third is technology and material science. Innovation starts in one of these three areas. But wherever you start, in one way or another, you need to take everything back to people. This is what design is about: monitoring the three dimensions of innovation—technology, business, and people. Then, once you have the right intuition, it’s about connecting the three of them with a human-centered approach.
But you also have to sell these ideas to the organization, which means you have to be in the right culture for this approach to be accepted and to grow inside the company. If you want to take design to the next level, even in design-driven industries, a lot of your work is not just doing design work; it’s designing the right environment from a culture standpoint, a business-model standpoint, and a process standpoint for the design culture to thrive and grow and succeed. That’s a big chunk of what I do every day.
On the wall of PepsiCo’s Design & Innovation office in NYC are these words: “We are crazy enough to think we can inspire the future.” Inspire the future how?
It’s important to understand where society is going and then create products that the world both needs and wants. All our efforts in sustainability, in health and wellness, and in the customization of products like Spire and SodaStream Professional are examples of how we’re trying to inspire people to behave in a different way and get companies to follow our lead.
But we’re just one player out of millions who are shaping the future. So the only thing we can really do is inspire through our products and our brands. As designers, we think we’re really the ambassadors of the human being, of people inside big corporations and people outside them. We want to inspire everybody—the company itself and the society—to really shift everyone in the right direction. But it’s a collective effort, and we don’t control all the variables.
You once described design as the “magic balance between emotions and rationality that defines the success of the product.” Tell me about the magic.
Innovation that is relevant and meaningful to people is all about the balance between something that is functional and something that is pleasurable. Something works on your mind and on your heart. I call it “magic” because it’s impossible to define.
To arrive at the right mix, you need a lot of experimentation, but you also need a sensitivity and an intellectual agility that’s difficult to describe. That’s why I keep talking about the importance of people—not just the human beings we design for but the human beings innovating inside the organization. The magic is in the people.
As a leader—as someone designing an organizational culture—you need to give people a formula. You need to give them process. You need to give them tools to help them as much as you can. But there’s something you can’t touch, and that’s the magic of the genius, the intuition. It’s what made Richard Branson and Steve Jobs and Bill Gates who they are. You can take their playbook and do exactly what they did—and you can still fail.
There are tons of books written about these kinds of things. I think you can coach it, and you can have people growing and getting better and better. But ultimately, it’s untouchable. It’s very difficult to put into a bucket and carry inside an organization. That’s why it’s scary: We don’t know how to define it and quantify it, but it’s the most important thing ever.
Our vision is to grow the business of PepsiCo, of course, but before anything else, our vision is to create value for people,” Porcini explains, “because we believe that if you create real value for people, then you will also grow your company.