Author Talks: PepsiCo’s Mauro Porcini talks meaningful design and mentorship

PepsiCo chief design officer Mauro Porcini explains how designers and nondesigners alike can push the boundaries of innovation every time they create.

In this edition of Author Talks, McKinsey’s Kimberly Beals chats with Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s first chief design officer, about his new book, The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People (Berrett-Koehler Publishers, November 2022). Porcini recounts his journey from humble beginnings to global design influencer, sharing the ventures that helped shape what he calls the “principles of meaningful design”: a human-centric mindset that puts sustainability and cultural needs first. An edited version of the conversation follows.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing design and innovation today?

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We need to realize that innovation is all about culture. It’s all about people. The first challenge is understanding that to drive innovation today at the pace required by this world—especially knowing that many of the challenges we are facing are defined by new variables that will come into place in the near future—we need people with the right mindset that are able to tackle all these different challenges in the best possible way.

In terms of macro challenges, some of the biggest we have as a society today are for sure sustainability, health and wellness, personalization in a meaningful way, and understanding how technology can enable all of these dimensions.

We can tackle all of these potential problems—or opportunities, as I like to call them—and use technology as an enabler to help companies big and small be innovative and create financial algorithms that make space for experimentation.

We should stop calling experiments mistakes, missteps, or failures. Let’s all work together toward the common goal: putting people at the center of everything.

What is the meaning behind the book’s title?

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“People in love with people” is not just a nice subtitle for a book, it is the way I have been defining the innovators of the world for many years.

In “people in love with people,” the second set of people means human centricity: we need to focus on the needs, wants, and dreams of people in everything we do in our business, instead of thinking about financial goals, market share, and technology as a competitive advantage.

Of course, those are important variables; they’re part of design thinking, desirability, viability, visibility, and what we do as innovators, but they need to be perceived and managed as amplifiers, not as the starting point.

The starting point, the cultural level in every company, needs to be the needs and wants of human beings and, therefore, the needs of our planet, our society, and of everything else that [matters to us] as human beings. This is the starting point, and I think it’s the biggest challenge right now because we’re in a moment of transition, and many companies are not yet understanding how important it is to focus on this.

The starting point, the cultural level in every company, needs to be the needs and wants of human beings and, therefore, the needs of our planet, our society, and of everything else that [matters to us] as human beings.

What are some of the milestones that changed your outlook on innovation?

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One of my first aha moments—one of the first moments when I realized what innovation really was—was when I met Claudio Cecchetto, an Italian celebrity from the music world. He’s a producer, singer, and DJ. In the United States, this would be like meeting Jay-Z, just to name one example.

I was 25 or 26, and we decided to create a company together to explore the digital world that was just starting. Here we are. We start this company, and it’s a dream job for me. I was coming from the periphery of Milan, a town with zero connections. I had a humble family growing up. There were four of us, and my brother, my parents, and I slept in one bedroom.

Here we are with these big celebrities creating this amazing company in the city center of Milan, and I remember something that really changed my life. Claudio Cecchetto never, ever, ever, in his life, used the word “innovation.”

He wouldn’t be able to go into a boardroom in front of a CEO of a company and explain what innovation is, and yet he’s one of the greatest innovators that I’ve ever met in my life, in terms of what he was doing in the world of music. Many Italian celebrities today in the world of music were created by him—and when I say created, I mean that he could see the potential in people that not even they could see in themselves.

In the book, I call Claudio a mentor by osmosis, which is one of the three categories of mentors I talk about. Without ever talking about innovation, he would practice innovation every single day, every hour of the day.

I was coming from the periphery of Milan, a town with zero connections. I had a humble family growing up. There were four of us, and my brother, my parents, and I slept in one bedroom.

Recently, he was organizing a big concert in Milan’s San Siro Stadium, the big stadium in Milan, for one of the bands he produces. This band is very famous, and they have done many concerts in this stadium over the years.

Instead of thinking, “I’m going to do a concert with the great songs of this band,” he thought, “How can I innovate the way we do the concert?” He came up with the idea of having karaoke with giant screens so everybody could sing, because the most famous songs of this group are very trendy [with] karaoke in Italy.

Here was a famous band that was going to do a great concert, and he was thinking, “How can I change the game there?” Long story short, he told me how to be an innovator without ever talking about innovation.

What are your three principles of design?

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There are three categories of principles that I call the “principles of meaningful design.” The first two categories are the foundation and fundamentals: the ones that define everything. Then there are what I call the “enabling principles.”

The first two foundational principles are what I call the “human principles.” They’re essentially about creating products that are relevant from a functional standpoint, an emotional standpoint, and a semiotic standpoint. The other, fundamental principle is that the product should be always innovative: in one way or the other.

It should be extraordinary—different from everything else. It doesn’t mean that you will always be able to create something innovative and extraordinary, but that kind of mindset will push you to push the boundaries of what is possible all the time and accelerate the overall journey of innovation for your brand or company. It’s enough to break through and actually do something extraordinary a few times in your life.

How do you use the Principles of Meaningful Design in creation?

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The enabling principles are all about: if these two initial principles are true, then the way you enable that vision is in this way.

Your products should always be sustainable from an aesthetic standpoint and from a functional standpoint, meaning that they’re useful for what they need to do; from an emotional standpoint, meaning that they’re engaging; from an intellectual standpoint, meaning that they are user friendly or ergonomic in some way; and from a social standpoint, meaning that they are respectful of diversity of any kind in society.

Products also need to be environmentally sustainable and financially sustainable. I came to a realization years ago that being financially sustainable is imperative, even for the pure designer. If you have good ideas and you are trying to change the world and you achieve all these dimensions that I just mentioned—your product or solution is sustainable in all of these spheres—then you want that solution to reach as many people as possible.

The financial success of your product, or the viability of your product from a business standpoint, is fundamental to making sure that your product reaches as many people as possible. You want billions of people to enjoy your product instead of creating something extraordinary that just four or five people in the world can enjoy.

When is competition helpful for innovation?

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Competition is extremely useful when it puts a healthy pressure on your products, on your brand, or on an overall category. When you have a competitor that is innovating, and it pushes you to innovate as well in a way that creates meaningful value for people, and that’s how you compete, that’s wonderful.

When competition puts too much pressure on you and drives actors in the industry to innovate just for the sake of innovation, without creating meaningful solutions for people—because you need to beat the competition, not because you’re creating value for society—that’s something that absolutely doesn’t work.

The financial success of your product…is fundamental to making sure that your product reaches as many people as possible. You want billions of people to enjoy your product instead of creating something extraordinary that just four or five people in the world can enjoy.

This accelerated pace of innovation that is not meaningful for people distracts you from the most meaningful long-term innovation that can change industries.

What advice do you have for designers just beginning their careers?

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I’ll share something that worked very well for me. The first thing to do is to dream. Think big. Have a vision and work every day to reach that vision. If you do this first, it gives you so much energy and passion.

We need to protect the ability to dream. There are many people who get out of college and, very quickly, they become very practical. They stop dreaming and they start to do what they are asked to do.

What I did in my journey was understand what my supervisors and clients were asking me to do, and then give them that—while, in parallel, trying to work on changing the game and doing things differently. Don’t accept the frame that they are imposing on you, especially if you’re a designer.

What I did in my journey was understand what my supervisors and clients were asking me to do, and then give them that—while, in parallel, trying to work on changing the game and doing things differently. Don’t accept the frame that they are imposing on you, especially if you’re a designer.

How can designers work with leadership to better define what design can do?

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In my journey at 3M and then at PepsiCo, I would receive a job description that was very specific, and I always did much more than that job description. I thought about how I could help these companies, for real. If I didn’t do that, I probably wouldn’t have lasted a long time at 3M or Pepsi.

My questions were always, “How can I really help this company succeed? And what can I offer as a designer that they don’t even realize?” Often, people don’t know what you can offer. What I’m saying applies to anybody, not just designers. Nobody knows what you can offer—you are the only person in the world that knows what you can offer.

You will be asked to do something based on your company’s expectations, but work on something that is bigger than that. Dream. Make things happen and work on the connection between the design world, emotions, love, kindness, and the businesses world of productivity, efficiency, performance, and KPIs. The more combination there is between the two worlds, the better it is.

Nobody knows what you can offer—you are the only person in the world that knows what you can offer.

Any kind of company has an amazing opportunity to learn. I never did an MBA or a PhD, but I can speak on a stage at a world business forum about business because my peers in marketing, finance, strategy, R&D, science, and engineering over the past 25 years have been my professors—I gave that role to them.

I look at them as people I could learn from instead of as people who don’t understand what I do as a designer. I look at this as an amazing opportunity to grow and learn. The goal is to combine the two dimensions, which is the eternal tension of any human being: rationality on one side, emotions on the other.

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PepsiCo’s Mauro Porcini talks meaningful design and mentorship

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