Design Matters: Mauro Porcini

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PepsiCo’s award-winning Chief Design Officer, Mauro Porcini, reveals the secret to creating life-changing innovation in his new book, a manifesto for a genuine, authentic, and deeply humanistic approach to design.

Debbie Millman:

Is innovation about ideas or is it about people? Mauro Porcini argues that design that doesn’t put human needs at its center will not fare well in the marketplace. And he wrote a book about it called The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love With People. Mauro Porcini is PepsiCo’s chief design officer. He’s been on the show before, in 2020, to talk about his extraordinary career. And now he’s back to talk about his new book. Mauro Porcini, welcome back to Design Matters. 

Mauro Porcini:

Thanks for having me, Debbie, is such a pleasure.

Debbie Millman:

Thank you. Mauro, since the last time we met on Design Matters, a lot has changed in your life. In addition to publishing this wonderful new book, you also had a daughter. Congratulations. 

Mauro Porcini:

I do. I mean, it’s the most important project of my life, for sure, and the most difficult one, because you don’t have any control on it. You can just nudge-

Debbie Millman:


Mauro Porcini:

… you know, (laughs) the, the baby and the person that she will be. But yes, I’m so happy. Carlota and I are just full of joy right now. 

Debbie Millman:

What is it like being a father? I know that you were a p- puppy before, but now you have an actual living human being under your, um, purview. What is that like? 

Mauro Porcini:

Look, I, I think this is very personal. I, right, so I’m gonna answer for myself. I just feel complete in some way. I, I, I feel like I’ve been spending my life getting ready for this moment and, and now there is something, you know, I’m putting so much in her. It may be connected to my character. Uh, I always, since I was a kid already, I was somehow of a fatherly kind of person, a mentor. I wanted to somehow coach and teach even before I knew anything about life. Not that I know a lot right now, but (laughs), but I, I had always that instinct and that’s why probably somehow right now I feel like a lot of what I did in all these years was to prepare myself for this moment. 

Debbie Millman:

Well, your, your joy is palpable. Um, my wife Rexanne, I know you know her, uh, she says you are now her favorite person to follow on Instagram. She loves watching how you and the baby and your wife are getting on. 

Mauro Porcini:

Oh, tha- that’s a wonderful compliment. I love, love, love Rexanne.

Debbie Millman:


Mauro Porcini:


Debbie Millman:

Um, so let’s start at the beginning. You were born in Gallarate, a small town in the north of Italy, nestled between the alps in Milan. You were raised in Vratsa and your family was deeply committed to art and culture. Your father was an architect with a passion for art. Your grandfather, Amelia, was a painter who also worked for the fashion, Ministry of Aerospace. Your brother, Stefano, is an industrial designer and has created multiple fashion brands. But in our last interview, you said you initially wanted to pursue architecture because you didn’t know that design even existed. 

And that really surprised me. I, I had no idea. And so I wanted to sort of unpack that a little bit more because it startled me at the time and I don’t think I really dove into where we could have with that response. So when did you realize the design was actually design? 

Mauro Porcini:

Act- actually I realized after I started the University of Design. Uh, I was coming from a family, was pretty humble. I was, we were living the four of us, with my brother and my parents in, in one room. We were sleeping one room, uh, we didn’t have a lot of money. Uh, and, and so it was already a mega sacrifice to send me to university. It was not, you know, easy for my parents to get the money to go to public university. It was semi-free, but it meant that for five years, I couldn’t go to work. That was the sacrifice. 

So after I would get the, uh, degree, I needed to go to work right away. And so when I had to decide, my parents were like, “You know, Mauro, you can do whatever you want.” And that’s the beauty of, you know, of my parents. But there was architecture, was my second choice. Uh, and it was the second choice. It was the university that was the closest to the world of, uh, creativity and art. And it was also something that was familiar because my father was an architect, even though he was not really, you know, working as an architect.

He was a teacher in high school of technical drawing. Um, and so that’s what I wanted to do until a friend of mine from my school called me one day. And I remember cell phone didn’t exist yet, or I didn’t have one at least. I received this call on my Panasonic White cordless at home. Uh, I am in the, in the bedroom and I’m talking to him and he told me, “You know, they just opened a new university within architecture and it’s called design. The past year was the first year, and this is the second one. I’m gonna try to do the test to enter the exam, to enter, uh, the uni- the university.”

And I was thinking, “Wow.” It was called disegno industriale, industrial design. But in Italian, translated in Italian. Later on, they translated it back in English because it made more sense. Uh, and I was intrigued by two, these two words. Design somehow was reminding me of disegno, of drawing, of art. Industrial was telling me, “Wow, there is a commercial output of this. There is the possibility of getting a job.” And I was thinking, “Is a new university, so, you know, there will be these new designers and there will be opportunities, you know, for these designers.” 

And I knew also that if I didn’t like this thing called industrial design, I could have moved back to architecture without losing the year after the first year. So long story short, I decide to try the, the exam and I arrived first in the exam, out of thousands of students. So I was like, “Oh, maybe, maybe that’s my thing.” (laughs) And I, and-

Debbie Millman:

(laughs) You think.

Mauro Porcini:

… and literally, just after few months, not right away, after few months, I understood what I was going to study. ‘Cause until then, I always thought it was mostly the design of industrial machine for the industry, sort of engineering, but a little bit more creative, creative. And instead, I realized that I was going to study something that I, I was always passionate about. That is this idea of invented stuff, innovating, creating new things for people. And, and it was magic. And I, I, I never heard of this before. Not even my parents were really, you know, telling me that that thing existed even though my father was coming from the world of creativity, architecture. But design was never something we’ll talk about at, at all. 

Debbie Millman:

You went on to study at the National College of Art and Design in Dublin, where you spent a year studying with the Erasmus Program. And I understand that one of the deciding factors in going to the National College of Art and Design in Dublin is because you wanted to get better at speaking English. And I read that you even passed at a previous scholarship to a school in Paris because you wanted to be in an environment to best learn English. Is that correct? 

Mauro Porcini:

Yeah. Look, I didn’t speak English at all when I went. I studied French at school, but you knew back then already that English was important. It was not as important as it is today because we’re not living in this global digital world we live in today. Uh, back then you could have a wonderful career in Italy without speaking a world of English. And this is the reality for many great leaders in, in our country. So, uh, I start to study French and I was… you know, study was already very time-intensive and on top of it, I was playing soccer. 

And I was playing soccer semi-pro. Uh, and so it was every single day I would train and I had a game on the Sunday, so there was not really time to do anything else on top of this until, uh, somebody came in my life. This person is Stefano Marzano. He was the head of design of Phillips, uh, in the ’90s. And for anybody studying industrial design in Italy, it was like, or in Europe, it was like a myth. Like, he was… somebody was doing phenomenal things in that company. And completely by coincidence, I met him when I was 19. 

He was the friend of the father of a friend of mine from high school. And one day, uh, this friend of mine was talking to me and she… I told her, “Well, I study design. I just started to study design.” And, and she told me, “Oh, wow, my father knows a, a designer. It’s pretty important.” I was like, “Oh, who is this person?” And she’s like, “Well, Stefano Marzano.” Like, “Oh, do you know who Stefano Marzano is?” (laughs) And, and so I explained to her who he was and she told me, “Well, next time he comes to Italy, because he was living in, I’m gonna call you.” 

A few months later, he arrives in Italy, she calls me. And I remember once again, like, if it was yesterday. I was in this bus, I received a call, it was lunchtime. I was going to training, to soccer practice. And, and she’s like, Stefano Marzano, easier. Do you wanna count for a coffee after lunch?” And I had all kind of things to do that day, starting with the soccer practice, that again, I was paid to play soccer, so you, you didn’t skip one practice. It was like work. 

And, and often, when you are in this kind of situations, you are somehow out of your comfort zone. And that was the reality that was, was happening to me. I was out of my comfort zone in going to the house of these adults to meet this guy who was doing amazing things in design. And I was just 19 and, and I was thinking inside myself, “What am I gonna tell to this person? Am I gonna make a fool of myself?” And, you know, I was, I just started to study design. I had no know-how, no knowledge, no perspective on anything.

And so you get out of your comfort zone and so many times you find alibis to not go, you know, to not, you know, get out of the comfort zone. I had a very strong alibi playing soccer, just going, you know, uh, to practice. But my instinct was like, “No, you need to go meet this guy.” So I left everything. I was like, “Of course, Valentina, I’m totally free. I’m call right away.”

Debbie Millman:


Mauro Porcini:

I ran, I went there, I met him, and is being an amazing meeting because until then, I knew about what Stefano Marzano did, the projects. But that day I could touch with my hands, with my soul, the soul of this person, his passion, his vision, what he was doing, Shall we miss some of the projects he was working on? He was working on this new ringtones for cell phones when all the cell pho- cell phones back then were having, you know, this very boring, normal ringtone.

So long story short, I get super excited by this guy. Like, “Wow.” And my passion back then was still, anyway, philosophy and literature and, and I was fresh off high school where I studied philosophy. And, and I remember, of all these exchanges of letters between the masters of philosophy and their students, and we know a lot of the ph- ancient philosophy through these exchanges, through these letters. So leaving, you know, in that kind of myth, I, I decided to write letters to him.

He was in Ireland. I was a designer, you know, I’m designing, was a master of design. I’m gonna write letters to him about design, about what design can do in the world. And so in a couple of years, I probably wrote him a couple of letters. He never answer, obviously. And when I say letters, there was, there were not emails, so literally paper, ink and sending it through the mailbox, and he never answer. 

But at a certain point, it is something that literally changed my life. He sent me two books that he published through Phillips, and in one of them… He, he, he wrote a dedication in both of them. In one of them he wrote me, “I have these two books in English, in It, sorry, in Italian, but I’m sending them to you in English because you need to learn English.” I told him that time that I met him the first time that I didn’t speak a word of English. And he told me already back then, if you ever wanna work in a company of Phillips or in any other big corporation, you need to study English.” So is that book, is the little act of timeness of this very busy man that changed my life.

Because of the book I decided to give up the scholarship for Paris and wait and take the risk of trying to get another scholarship. It was not, you know, easy to finally go to an English-speaking country that happened to be Ireland and, and then Dublin. And, and even to go to Dublin, I had to give up soccer. It was the passion of my life. I had to give up the relation, you know, the beginning of a relation with a girl that I really, really, you know, was in love with. 

I had to give up. So much of my life, you know, was happening there and going there, I didn’t have a penny, so I had to work while I was study in a lang- study design in a language I didn’t know. But I couldn’t work as a waiter because I didn’t speak the, uh, li-

Debbie Millman:

(laughs) Of course.

Mauro Porcini:

Actually, I couldn’t work essentially almost at anything, you know, where you need to speak the language. And so by miracle, I found this job, washing dishes in the cafeteria of the school. And I remember I was so happy because they were paying very well compared to Italy. So that’s my story of going to Dublin to study again, designing a language I didn’t know. And, and, and I tell always, you know, the long story and, and that’s what I share also in the book, because two magic things happened there, that can be replicated by anybody.

One was m- myself as a young student, I put myself out there, you know, the letters that I wrote. I’m sure that this guy, this very busy guy, at a certain point was like, “Okay, there is so much passion in this kid that I, I need to give something back.” So if I didn’t do that, you know, that giving back wouldn’t have happened. On the other side is the story for people like us, you know, people that are at a certain point in their life, they did something, is enough a sentence. 

You know, maybe replying on a, to a message that you receive in your busy social media or, or an, you know, anything that you can do that eventually is not that time-consuming to change the life of people. This is magic. Helping people, impacting the life of people in a positive way is just wonderful. 

Debbie Millman:

Well, you’re paying it forward and I, I think that that is the best way we can give back to people that have given us, is to pay it that forward to others. Um, after college and getting your master’s degree, you freelance for a few years and joined Phillips Design in Milan, then you started your own firm, Wisemad. You joined 3M in their Milan office in 2002 as a design manager. And by the time you left to join PepsiCo in 2012, you had been promoted to the global chief design officer. 

Now, 10 years later, you are senior vice president and chief design officer at Pepsi and run an organization with over 200 designers and strategists reporting through to you. Talk a little bit about what a design team looks like at Pepsi and how you engage and interact with them? 

Mauro Porcini:

Well, first of all, you need people that are both creative, that understand deeply how to be designed and the extraordinary designers. Um, you need to, first of all, combine diff- the different disciplines of design. So there is the world of brand design, industrial design, digital. Eventually in our world, there is a little bit of fashion and architecture, so many, many different disciplines together. And you, you, you find people that are specialized in each of these disciplines, but the more you, you grow within the organization, the more you become a leader, uh, of the design organization, the more you need to have a holistic approach to all these disciplines. 

Because somehow you need to manage all the different dimensions in your job. And your job as a leader of design in an organization like PepsiCo is the one of understanding or to leverage every aspect of design to grow the business. And so this is then the second dimension. On top of being amazing designers and have an approach to design, they also need to understand the business world in depth. And then on top of it, they need to be able to be capability builders and culture creators.

Meaning that why if you go to work as a designer in Gucci or in Apple, uh, or entertainment, uh, just to name a few companies in different industries that are design-driven, if you go there, you need to be an extraordinary designer. But then somehow the culture of design is already there in the company. When you work in industries where design is not yet a main competitive advantage in the industry and the culture of design is not yet fully developed, then your role as a designer is also every day the one of being an ambassador of the culture, and therefore also a builder of the capability within the organization.

Now, this third dimension is often the one that is the most misunderstood by people when we are there hiring them. We always mention it to them, but they take it for granted. They don’t understand the complexity of something like this. They are thinking just, “Well, of course, you know, I need to do that, but at the end of the day, I need to be a great designer.” And it’s not that easy. It’s so difficult to find people that are able to do the, the three things, creativity, business and creation of culture and capabilities. 

Debbie Millman:

You have just published your first book, The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love With People. Congratulations. How much of your experience working at Phillips on your own at, at 3M, now at Pepsi, how much has that influenced the way that you have approached writing this book? 

Mauro Porcini:

It’s all about that. It’s all about the journey. I could have never written that, this book even just 10 years ago, for sure not 20 years ago. Let’s say that, you know, I started a journey from the very beginning, uh, especially when I entered the first big multinational corporation after Phillips. Phi- Phillips was very fast, and I had my own agency. So let’s say 20 years ago, my journey that led me to become CDO, um, first of 3M and then in PepsiCo started. And back then I entered this company with the company assigning to me a specific job description of a specific brief.

They wanted me to do certain things. Essentially, I was the design coordinator of the consumer business that is one of the six businesses of 3M just for the European market. And they wanted me to take all the different products the company was producing, multimedia projectors, dispenser of Scotch and positive ergonomic devices, uh, for the office or cleaning tools, uh, for Scotch, the Scotch Bra- Brand and so on and so forth. 

There was their car business. So they wanted me to take all these products and add a layer of aesthetic. That was their idea of what design was. So I come in, I was like, “Wait a second. (laughs) I mean, I study for five years in polytechnical designs so much bigger than this, and you want me to just do that? No, no, no, no, no.” I was like… And there was still a dream. I was thinking, “No, no, I can change this company. I can introduce this idea of human centricity, but….” And, and so here I am realizing step-by-step, pretty quickly, (laughs) that I had to deliver what they wanted me to deliver to survive, but in parallel, I didn’t let that heal my dreams. So behind the scenes, I started to do what I thought was right for the company. I essentially redefine my job description, redefine the brief. 

Today I know what I did back then is design thinking in action or is what the philosophers do all the time, or is what the children do all the time. What I did was, I asked myself why, why they’re asking me to do this on the products, to redefine aesthetic of these products? And then you start, you know, to realize that they’re asking you because there is a different kind of competitive landscape. And then at the point you ask yourself why there is a different kind of landscape, and then you realize that the world is changing. 

Some of the barrier to entry that they used to have are not there anymore. These companies are arriving and they’re seeing that even in that industry where nobody was using design before, design intended as a step, it could be a competitive advantage, but that was just the manifestation of something much broader than that. It was an easy competitive advantage because it didn’t require more money, it was just a cultural choice. So all these startup were deciding to use that kind of approach to compete with these big corporations. Then again, you… why? Why? Why? Until you are right to understand that the world is changing, certain dynamics are changing.

At the point you ask yourself, “Why didn’t do it until now? Why didn’t… they needed me to be, you know, to come here?” A- and so long story short, I came to the realization again, at the beginning, intuitively, later on, I, I became very, you know, conscious of this, that my role was the one of redesigning somehow part of the culture of the company. And I needed to do that with HR, with finance, not just with the business leader. You know, is easy to complain that the business leader is not understanding that you need to redesign certain products in a certain way and eventually the full strategy of the business. 

And it’s easy as a designer, but arrogantly to think that we just figure it out and the business leaders, they just don’t get it. The reality is that if you start to respect them, if you understand where they come from, if you change perspective, if you learn, you know, what are their, uh, goals, roadblocks, struggles, KPIs, then you realize how to help them and help yourself. And so in 3M  I realized, for instance, that I needed to work with HR department to really find the KPIs for the business leaders, the goals, the, the fact that, you know, these business leaders were measured on the performance ear-by-ear, but I was doing design that would impact the market years later, that this business leader would rotate too quickly. 

And so they couldn’t be there to enjoy the results of what they were eventually going to do with design, and therefore there was no incentive for them to do something like this. So you see that on the long-run to build design in the company was not even about designing the core, it was about changing the culture and the strategy of organization to empower and enable design to succeed. Now, the reason why that journey for me was very important to write this book is that on one side I had this naive dream of infusing human centricity in this company and I didn’t let anybody stalk me from dreaming. 

So that was, you know, something important. The other thing is that I always loved, always since I was a kid, uh, sharing, sharing ideas, uh, storytelling, speaking. I mean, you see even (laughs) right now how much I’m talking, you ask me a question and I go on and on and on. So that was me even as a kid. My mom would dream for me, uh, together with a priest of the neighborhood where I was living, they were both dreaming for me to become a priest, to preach, you know, to preach, to preach about the church and Jesus, all these things. 

Because already as a child, as a child, I was like this. And, and you know, in that culture that was, you know, the ultimate manifestation of, you know, this gift would be, you know, to put in a service of God, even though… You know, well, we’ll talk later about this eventually, but, well, I can tell you now I’m so happy that somehow I’m realizing what my mom wanted me to become, because my mom, in reality, of course, you know, she grew up in Italy, that’s her culture, she’s Catholic, but what she wanted me, she wanted for me was that somehow I could become an ambassador of love. 

In her culture, in her perspective, the idea was an ambassador of the, uh, Catholic Church and religion and everything, but what she was always talking about was not that. She was talking about kindness, love, you know, certain kind of values and impact in the other people in the way. So I’m so happy today, I’m seeing my mom so proud. My mom was not proud for the son becoming chief, chief design officer of 3M. I remember that she didn’t care. Uh, actually she was afraid that, you know, wealth and fame could somehow deviate me from being a nice person. 

And I think that my mom started to be super, super proud of me when I started to use this platform to send messages of love and positivity to the world. And by the way, I think they’re profoundly connected to the idea of human centricity and design done in the right way. So this book that I wrote in 2020, I started to write a book or even before, in reality, it’s a book that I’ve been writing for the past 25 years, is not his articles, his things that I was observing in, in the world, then, then became topics or conferences and articles or speeches internal in these companies to pitch design and investment in design. 

That the… And, and when we talk about investments, we talk about hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in design. So it’s for sure the result of this entire journey and the observation of everything that happened in that journey and the, the codification of everything into a story that I could share, that now finally became also book. 

Debbie Millman:

You know, it was, it’s… I was very surprised by the subtitle, The Power of People in Love With People, given how much of your work, while it’s always winning design awards, it’s also expected to perform financially. And so I was curious, what does innovation have to do with love? 

Mauro Porcini:

Look, if you think about the very first act of innovation, for the longest time, the prehistoric men and women were there and they were just using what was available in nature. One day, somebody, the knows-who, decided to take what was available in nature and modify that. They took a stone and they manipulate the stone to make a hunting tool out of it and immediately after, a tool that they could use to prepare the food. Later on, uh, they, they started to manipulate the storm to decore their bodies and then later on to, uh, to celebrate their gods and many other things. 

So that was the first time you took something in a status quo and you started to modify it. It was the first act of design, the first act of what we may define innovation. Why did they do that? What was the reason? Well, first of all, if you think about food, hunting, physiological needs and safety, and then immediately after, decoration of your body, self-expression, and then celebration of your god’s transcendence, these are all the needs of the Manslow pyramid. 

And if you combine all those needs together, they’re all driven to essentially reach your happiness. If you fulfill all your needs, essentially you’re gonna be happy. You re… You know, when you started to do innovation, to do design, to modify products, that was by definition an act of love for yourself and for the people close to you. You were creating something to help them and help yourself to reach your happiness at the end. For years, hundreds of years, these prehistoric men and women, they were doing this in their own close communities until they started to have too many products to produce. And they started to delegate the act of love to somebody else. 

And they were like, “Okay, I’m gonna do some of these products. You’re gonna do the others, we exchange them, but we are helping each other, protecting that idea of love, you know, of helping each other.” Then you started to amplify this and more and more delegation and you started to invent the idea of work and see this in companies and later on brands and all of a sudden love was substituted by financial profit. You were not doing it anymore to help somebody else because you really care for them, but you are doing it for making money.

Now, we designers, we go to school and the first thing that they teach us at school is not making money. I mean, you, I don’t think that I’m sure you don’t. You know, you tell your, your students, “Oh, you need to do this to make money.” Yes is a result, it happened, it’s important, it’s part of design and design thinking, but you create something because you wanna create value for people. In fact, we call these people people, we don’t call them consumers as an example.

You know, if you call people consumers, you’re gonna focus on selling stuff to them. If you call them user, you know, sometimes we call them user in the world of design, at least, you are focusing on the use of the thing. And so you’re gonna try to create something that is useful and is also desirable. But if you look at them as people, then you’re gonna care about, you’re gonna care about them. You’re gonna create something that is really great for them. 

And usually this is what we do as designers. In fact, when you go to a company that doesn’t have products that are extraordinary, that are really good from any standpoint, we designers get frustrated and we start to talk. Everybody in the company, we start to push, you know, the business leaders to try to create something extraordinary. Instead, in the traditional bus- business culture, when you go to school for business and in business school, they teach you to make money. 

They teach you how to grow a business from A to B. They teach you how to grow a brand, but with the idea of making money. And so for many, many years, companies, big and smalls out, you know, out there, they were thinking that to drive the growth of these companies, they needed that kind of coach or people trained to make money, looking at the product as one of the multiple levers, you have to make money. You know, back then in the ’80s when I was going to school, everybody was talking about the four Ps of the market in mix. Product was one of the piece. 

But if the product is mediocre as ever and you have the other piece, you grow the business anyway, you are a business hero anyway, actually even more because you could do something so extraordinary with a mediocre product. If you are instead a designer in one of those companies producing mediocre products, even if they generate billions of dollars, you’re gonna be a mediocre designer, unless obviously you are there with a mission. Elevate the quality of the product, make the product more desirable, more useful, more convenient, more sustainable, more purposeful. 

And there wow, you know, then you are there with a mission, you are evolving those companies and everything. But what I’m saying is that for many years these companies didn’t need people in love with people, didn’t need the kind of design culture, a culture that you find usually in the world of design, but is a culture that can belong to any other professional community and should and I think will. This idea of loving the people you’re serving. So this idea of creating something extraordinary for them or thinking that technology and business are just enablers, amplifiers, results, but it shouldn’t be the ultimate goal. 

Understanding that if you create something extraordinary for them, then everything else will come. So you need more and more this kind of culture today than ever. When you wanna satisfy somebody, you identify a need and try, you try to fulfill the specific need. But if you love somebody, could be you know a significant other, your parents, your kids, your friends, then you try to do more. You try to surprise them. You try to really make sure that essentially, ultimately you are helping them being happy, like the prehistoric man and the prehistoric women when they started to manipulate the storm for the first time in history. 

Debbie Millman:

Mauro, when you first got to Pepsi, you needed to hire an entire team, as I mentioned, and you write that you managed to find amazing talent, but you also met many people who despite having all the right technical characteristics you were looking for, they didn’t possess other specific traits that you believed were indispensable in the extremely complex world of innovation. And you referred to these as soft skills, both intellectual and emotional, that are intrinsic to the very essence of the serial innovator. Can you talk about what some of those skills are? 

Mauro Porcini:

Yeah. Look, some of them may be expected somehow. As an example, we mentioned it quickly earlier, this idea of dreaming, of thinking big. But even that is something that we as leaders in this company, we need to realize how important it is, because too many people enter these companies, these agencies, or the business world in general, and they dream at the beginning, but then in the day-to-day, in front of all the difficulties that you face and in front of all the people that tell you, “Stop dreaming and try to be practical” they do stop dreaming.

But sometimes you’re able to dream, but that’s not enough either. You need to be able then to take that dream and land it, making things happen. So, you know, one of the key traits of these unicorns is that ability of balancing, dreaming and vision on one side with execution and making, making things happen and the practicality that is so important. There are other characteristics like kindness, optimism, and curiosity just to mention a few. There are 24 different traits of these unicorns in the book. And those are less obvious. Uh, and yet they’re so insanely necessary if you need to innovate. 

And because I had the fortune of building my own teams at 3M and PepsiCo from scratch all, all these years, I’ve been hiring people that are kind, because I love to surround myself with this kind of people. At the beginning, I was just doing it intuitively. I mean, I was not rationalizing that. I just was attracted by those kind of people, nice, good people. Then at a certain point, many years ago, I started to realize that actually there was another super power of these unicorns, and especially of these kind of themes. ‘Cause I was simply looking at my teams and the amazing bond and synergy that they had. 

And then I was looking at other teams within the companies, outside of the companies, and I didn’t see the same kind of bond and synergy. And they realized once again that that bond was driven also by that ability of these people of being nice to each other, of trusting each other, of literally being kind to each other. And that’s so important in so many different ways. You know, many times, many people like to go to work and be surrounded by people that are not kind to them. There are jerks. Probably the most of, you know, the people listening to us right now, I’m thinking, “Of course, I don’t.” 

So when you are surrounded by people that are not nice to you, probably you go to work from, once again, nine to five, and then you rush home and you disappear. When you go and you are surrounded by people that are nice to you, that are kind, that are trustworthy, that you love, what do you do? Well, there is an high probability you’re gonna spend more time with them. You’re gonna have a drink, a coffee, a meal. 

In those moments of quality time, that’s when you build better ways in bond. Then when you, you build that connection, that is so important when later on, could be weeks, after months, even year, there is the moment of difficulty in a project, in a business, or even in your life, and you need the bond to overcome with full efficiency and full effectiveness and full productivity, the moment of difficulty. So first of all, kindness, drive the synergy that drives efficiency and productivity to key words in the business world. 

Or if you’re surrounded by people that you don’t trust, that are unkind to you, there is a high probability that sooner or later they’re gonna stop you on your back. Because of this, there is an high probability that you’re gonna do a series of activities to protect yourself, a series of activities that are redundant by nature. Your company doesn’t need you and your teammate to do additional staff to protect each other backs. Your company would prefer that you work in perfect synergy with one order to drive full productivity. 

Now, multiply that redundancy, the lack of productivity for hundreds of thousands of people inside these organizations and understand the level of lack of productivity. Totally hidden, totally invisible, that affect these companies. And for me, it drives me crazy when, when they talk about productivity, often they talk about cutting costs, changing manufacturing process, eventually laying off people. And they don’t talk about the lack of productivity that the, the lack of kindness drives. They don’t invest in kindness as a driver of major productivity.

There are other values of kindness that I talk about in the book, but I’m gonna pose here, else is gonna be a monologue. But you, you get the, the point, (laughs). 

Debbie Millman:

(laughs) Absolutely. I mean, one of the things that I was so struck by is that you realize that the talent of these unicorns was not necessarily something people were born with. And I think that that’s one of the big learnings for me in, in your book. These people are also characterized by a set of skills that can be nurtured, grown, educated, and amplified. And you’ve organized the skills into three key categories. The entrepreneurial gifts, the social gifts, and the enabling gifts. 

And so I wanted to know if you could talk a little bit about why those three specific categories, and then what do you mean in those specific categories, by entrepreneurial gifts, social gifts, and enabling gifts? 

Mauro Porcini:

Yeah. So entrepreneurial are those series of gifts and skills that essentially push you to be an, an entrepreneur inside these kind of companies, being proactive, identifying opportunities, dreaming and making things happen, and really moving things forward through your vision, through your understanding of a better status quo, you know, with their optimistic vision of a better world. And you’re like, “Okay, as an entrepreneur, I’m gonna drive this through my company.” 

No matter if I am the CEO or I’m an entry level designer, just starting, you know, this journey inside the organization. The social skills talk about your ability once you have that kind of vision and you’re trying to make those things happen, to bring others with you. That’s so important, ’cause we don’t live anymore in the world of a one-man or one-woman show. This is a team effort today more than ever for a simple reason. Because competition is so extreme, that you need hyper-specialization in all the different dimensions.

You need to be extraordinary in all these dimensions, and therefore you need the team of extraordinary people in all the different areas. And therefore you need to have skills. All these leaders need to have skills to work together, to… that then, that help them socialize, you know, their vision, their dream, and empower, amplifying and unlock the, uh, superpowers of the team. The enabling gifts are somehow those skills that prepare you to, uh, be an entrepreneur and be the kind of connector and social animal that you need to be, uh, as an innovator. 

Uh, and so they’re so important because essentially they feed your other skills and they make you become, uh, you know, the best version of your, of yourself, both as a human being as well as ultimately also as a leader inside these, uh, organizations. 

Debbie Millman:

One thing that I was really intrigued by was the way in which you talked about entrepreneurial efforts. And, and you write, for those unicorns that wanna do something more entrepreneurial, the global market, new manufacturing technologies and the digital platforms have made it possible for a vast number of dreamers and entrepreneurs to create their own new businesses, sometimes with extraordinary results. And you go on to state that if you have a good idea, it is much simpler to take it to market in comparison to just a few years ago and outline the four fundamental drivers of this change to be access to capital, increased efficiency and potential of manufacturing platforms, e-commerce as a sales platform, and digital media as a communication platform. So would you say that the most formidable barrier to entry is no longer money and scale? 

Mauro Porcini:

Yeah. And is, and therefore, it is people. It is… If you find the best possible talents, you know how to inspire them, grow them inside your organization, motivate them, retain them in the way, then you are, you are such a amazing, amazing barrier to entry for your organization. Anything else? Obviously, obviously, you know, now I’m… You know, we, we are extreme in the definition of this scenario, scale money are always, you know, an important barrier, but they’re not as absolute as they used to be in the past. 

And I think, you know, in industries like food and beverage, we witness this every day. And there are some industries where, you know, this is more true than others. For sure, in food and beverage is easier to enter than in automotive and build your new car company. No matter that, there are so many new car companies, especially investing in the, the electric vehicles, uh, that are coming into, into the world. And but this is true in so many different areas. So, uh, when you have the kind of situation where essentially you need to be super agile, super flexible, on top of everything is going up, you know, is happening out there, you need to be able to redesign your knowhow, your organization, even your manufacturing processes and plans continuously. 

Well, what is the driver of all of these? These people. I mean, people are the driver of change. They’re the ones that are gonna be able to flex your company and they’re acting in the… you know, in, with great agility where it is supposed to go, in a world that is moving and changing so fast. One of the biggest problem actually of the business world today is the fact that these organizations, artificially created, have a very hard time at redefining themselves, redesigning their culture, that people instead, you know, that often, we think, “Well, you were so slow at adapting.” 

The reality is that we are able, individually, to adapt very quickly. We just don’t realize, but we adapt very quickly. Look at what happened during the pandemic of COVID, how… I don’t know. My parents that never, never ever bought any anything online, all of a sudden started to buy everything online. From literally night to day and in few days it was normal for them. And this is just one example. 

But hybrid work, I remember, before COVID, it was so difficult to talk about this. I mean, companies, you know, big corporations like PepsiCo were already, you know, creating policies that were going in that direction, because they knew that somehow the world was starting to go in that direction. COVID accelerated something. It was already, you know, there inside the hearts of people, but one- once that arrived, culturally, we individuals were like, “Okay, this is normal. This is… You know, from literally night to day once again.

But companies are struggling to adapt and, and change. And we see this tension now in society, you know, in front of our eyes right now, or this tension between people that are adapting very quickly and therefore then what’s going on out there change very rapidly, but companies that struggle, you know, to change. And so the more human you are in your organization, the more you empower extraordinary talents to move with agility and follow both their instinct and their minds, the more you structure your company around that idea, the more competitive your company will be, more than anything else. 

Everything else will come. You will still want, you know, resources, money to help you build some form of barrier, even just to give you stability and give these people the possibility to think and breathe and, you know, else is always a rush after the next product or the next challenge. But, but again, you need to put people at the center of everything and that’s your most powerful competitive advantage. 

Debbie Millman:

Mauro, I have one last question for you. For anyone looking to become more of a unicorn in their place of business, what would be one piece of advice that you would give to someone that is attempting to do that? 

Mauro Porcini:

The starting point is dream. 

Debbie Millman:


Mauro Porcini:

And when they tell you not to dream, you keep dreaming, but then try to understand right away how to make progresses, make things happen, build proof points quickly so that you can gain credibility and start to bring people with you. And this is the other part, bring people with you. It’s not a one-man show, a one-woman show and therefore you need certain kind of skills, the social skills to bring those people with you. And understand, you know, just to close, this is something I always remind myself and my teams. When you’re in front of somebody, it could be the CEO of your company, your peers, your team, anybody, a customer think, how can I make you successful? 

Not yourself, not me, you. And therefore, how can I leverage everything I can offer to make you successful? If you find a way to make the person successful, the person will need what you can offer. In, in, in my history that has been the design capability in these companies. And to understand how to make that person successful, you need many skills of these unicorns. You need to understand the business of these people, their goals, their strategies, but mostly, mostly you need empathy.

You need to understand them as human beings. You need to understand not just what is the goal that their bosses give them or the shareholder gave them, now you need to understand what is their goal alive, what are their struggles, their families, their history, what keeps them up at night? So that empathy that really make you understand how you can help them at 360 degrees, not just in their project but holistically.  So if you have a dream and you understand how to bring people with you, and this is a very practical advice, a technique, you know, love them. That’s really like, love the meaning… Try to help them in their life. 

And it’s beautiful because imagine what… the implication of this. What I’m saying is that by helping somebody else, you are helping yourself. So by loving somebody else, by creating something good for other people, that’s the best way for creating goods for yourself and reaching your dream. And it’s true. It’s not a naïve, romantic vision of the world, it’s really work, it really happens. Because literally, as I said earlier, in a more pra- practical way, you’re making yourself indispensable to these people by helping them.

And so is a beautiful, uh, balance, that by the way, if you also believe in that idea of human centricity that we talk about today, and therefore you are creating real value for society out there, that’s wonderful. You are really reaching that idea of the subtitle of the book, the idea of people in love with people, the people that surround you, you know, as a driver of innovation. The people you’re serving are there and love is really the synthesis of everything we’ve been discussing today. 

Debbie Millman:

Mauro, thank you so much for making so much work that matters. And thank you so much for joining me today on Design Matters. 

Mauro Porcini:

Thank you for having me, Debbie. And thanks to everybody who’s been listening to us. 

Debbie Millman:

Mauro Porcini’s brand new book is titled The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love With People. And you can buy it wherever you love to buy books. I am also going to be able to interview Mauro on PRINT Magazine’s brand new Book Club, and that will be happening in November. So watch for more information about that. Come with questions. You can also see a lot of Mauro’s work all over the world or on This is the 18th year we’ve been podcasting Design Matters, and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman and I look forward to talking with you again soon.