The Human Side of Innovation: A Conversation with Mauro Porcini, Global CDO for PepsiCo

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A Conversation with Mauro Porcini, author of The Human Side of Innovation: The Power of People in Love with People

M.AD: In your book, you discuss how innovation needs to come from a place of love for others. What does this mean and what are the consequences of designing selfishly? 


Think about somebody you love. Your children, your significant others, your parents, your special friends. Visualize them in your mind, focus on their faces. Now think about what you want for them. You probably want them to be fulfilled, to have a life that is free of concerns and frustrations, that is joyful and safe, easy and convenient, purposeful and full of wonderful memories. In other words, you want them to be happy.

Now park that thought. Go back to the prehistoric time. Yes, think of thousands of years ago, when the very first products were imagined, designed and produced. They were tools, created by manipulating a simple stone, and used to hunt in a more effective way, and then immediately after to prepare food in an easier manner, and later on to decorate our bodies, following one by one the needs of the Maslow pyramid. Those tools were invented by people to add value to the life of other people that they knew and were close to – the same ones that you were visualizing in your head a moment ago. These innovators were “people in love with people,” and the objects that they created were gifts of love. After those first products, hundreds, thousands of other products were created by human beings for other human beings, always with the same goal: adding safety, utility, convenience, fun, style, meaning to the life of others. 

Then, at a certain point, we started to delegate the creation of those objects to others. Because we started to need too many products, and they were too difficult and complex to create by ourselves. We organized ourselves in societies, we invented companies, and then later brands, and we trusted other people to generate products on our behalf - to meet our needs and wants, with the same care and love, focusing on solving our problems and fulfilling our lives. This is what the companies and brands of today should do: generate extraordinary solutions for people’s needs and wants, with the ultimate goal of generating individual and societal happiness. But we know very well that this is not the case. With business and scale also came the hunt for profit and a new distance between the innovator and the person receiving the gift of innovation. And unfortunately, economic value started to replace human value in the mind of too many innovators and companies, betraying the original pact of love that was generated at the beginning of time. 

For too many years, the mediocrity of loveless solutions has been protected through huge barriers to entry, made of scale of production, distribution, and communication. It was almost impossible for the man or the woman on the street to go and compete with the big companies. And therefore, these barriers were protecting both the good products, as well as many mediocre ones. 

Today, however, the new social and business scenario is giving a new opportunity to love and excellence – the real one, the one focused on the human being. The situation has changed. People out there can finally go after the big brands, in a much easier way, for the first time in history. They can invent a product, get funding online or through the proliferation of funds hunting for the next start-up; they can produce it at a lower cost, thanks to new technologies and globalization; and they can reach the end user directly, through e-commerce and social media, bypassing traditional large-scale distribution and massive media investments once necessary to have a voice. 

This means that any company, big or small, has nowadays only one choice: to create extraordinary products with a 360-degree perspective, from object to packaging, from branding to service, from communication to experience. Mediocrity is no longer defensible. Focusing on the human being becomes the most powerful barrier to entry. Either excellence is produced or someone else will do it on our behalf. I call this time we live in “the age of excellence.” 

M.AD: What’s the “age of excellence” and what’s the consequence of this scenario for our society? 


The “age of excellence” is, above all, a message of hope and optimism. It describes the current social and business scenario, a magical moment, in which business and economic interests are finally starting to re-align themselves with the interests of people and society.

Let me give you some further context: everything that surrounds us, and that hasn’t been created by Mother Nature, has been imagined, thought up, designed and built by a human being. Every single thing. The computer that I’m using to write these words, the clothes I’m wearing, the chair I’m sitting on, the apartment I live in, the airplane passing by the window, the cup of coffee (now cold) that looks at me with curiosity from across the kitchen table. And even the packaging of the products that just arrived at my house and the ad campaign that they’re part of. Everything is designed by someone.

Collectively, through our products, our brands, services and experiences, we touch the lives of billions of human beings across the world every single day. 

If our solutions are designed in the best possible way, then we will end up adding value to these people’s lives, generating moments of positivity made up of security, comfort, utility, convenience, pleasure, style, beauty, enjoyment, meaning and poetry. If they are not, we make people’s lives more complex, more difficult, less pleasurable, less enjoyable. 

If all the companies in the world, great and small, start to compete by putting the human being at the center of everything – with a design-driven approach, hunting for excellence at 360 degrees – we will begin to generate a myriad of precious fragments of a vast, universal and virtual meta-project, the most beautiful and important project that exists: the project for global, social and planetary happiness.

As designers, innovators and entrepreneurs, we have a unique opportunity, but also an immense responsibility – to design products that favor a better future, that push our society in the right direction, that imagine and advance the well-being of an entire planet. That doesn’t mean every product we create will be perfect, or that every company we work for will have this mission. It would be naive to think this, an unrealizable dream. Instead, we need to insert this tension toward perfect into every product we create, and try to reach it within the limits of the historical, social, technological and business context imposed upon us – always trying to redefine these limits, re-imagining the boundaries of the possible and the credible.

The good news is that finally, in this historical moment, the interests of humanity are starting to re-align more and more with the interests of business. Either your company will understand it and grow with it, or it won’t, and it will disappear. Sooner or later. 

M.AD: What is a “culture of innovation” and how can it transform an organization? 


Innovation is inefficient by definition. It requires investments that directly impact the bottom line of a company. You need to create an innovation team and give them time and resources. You need to invest in new production processes and plants. You need to pour money in communication, to produce awareness, adoption and engagement for the new product. And it’s risky. Data show that innovations fail most of the time. When you fail, you need to absorb the cost of that failure, and you need to build systems and processes to learn from that failure and transform that failure in new data and insights, so you can avoid the same mistake in the future and instead generate excellent, meaningful, and successful solutions. When a company is able to do all of the above, it stops calling those projects “failures” and “mistakes,” and starts to call them “prototypes” and “experiments.”

Before arriving at that stage of enlightenment, any finance-driven organization tends to see innovation as a negative variable that ideally should be avoided. They see a perfect scenario as building a successful product, and then extracting as much value out of that product, through scale and automation, by incrementally reducing cost and driving efficiency. 

But luckily for the world, every company needs to innovate. Because if you don’t innovate, with the interest of your users at the front and center, then your competitors will do it first, and they will beat you in the market. 

The great difference between the present time and just twenty years ago is that today innovation is much more urgent as a need, because products and brands that don’t fulfill people’s needs and desires are under attack. They cannot be protected anymore by the traditional barriers to entry, crumbling under the weight of globalization, new technologies and the digital platforms.

While in the past big corporations could buy innovation through mergers and acquisitions, or drive a safe and predictable innovation pipeline led by progressive technological advancement, today those same companies need to change gear. They need to build a holistic culture of innovation in house, integrated in their genetic code, central to their ways of thinking and operating. The reason is that the innovation pace of the market is exponentially faster, and it impacts every dimension of an organization: product, branding, communication, experience, distribution, and everything is going on behind the scenes. You can still buy part of your innovation, but that’s not enough. You need to build your innovation culture inside. You need, in other words, to transform and innovate your culture of innovation itself. Or you will be too slow and not meaningful enough. Not anymore, no matter your extraordinary past!

M.AD: Why don’t you like the word “consumer” – and “consumer-centricity”?


I don’t like the word “consumer” as it is used in the business world today. It’s a term that I find alienating, up to the point of being disrespectful to our human nature. My particular distaste for the word stems from two main reasons.

First of all, calling a human being a “consumer” runs the risk of depriving them of their humanity, transforming people into merely a business entity to which you are selling a product for profit. Would you ever call your daughter, your son, your wife, your husband, your parents, consumers? I wouldn’t. Isn’t it such an ugly word? Isn’t it reductive? The image of my daughter as a little consuming being disturbs me. It flattens us out onto a single dimension, the dimension of beings who do nothing in their lives but buy and consume. I don’t want to be seen as a consumer. I would very much like to be seen as a person who lives, enjoys, suffers, dreams, invents, communicates, travels and creates. We are human beings, not consuming beings.

The second reason that I have developed such a piqued intolerance for the term lies in the fact that we are living in a society in which available resources are increasingly scarce. That means the act of consuming these resources needs to be limited and responsible, and the intelligent use and re-use of these resources ought to be our daily mantra. Pigeonholing the human being as a consumer (of these resources) sends a message diametrically opposed to every innovator, entrepreneur, designer, researcher, and marketer in the world. “User” at least is a far more dignified term, because it focuses on a person in the act of utilizing a product or service and finding some benefit in it.

An innovator who sees people as consumers prioritizes every possible and imaginable tool to sell them something and make them consume it; an innovator who sees people as users, on the other hand, focuses on the creation of positive, functional and emotional value. And the innovator who sees them simply as human beings will make their happiness the priority, and everything will revolve around that single goal. 

Consumer-centricity is about understanding people to sell them something. Human-centricity is about understanding people to build real value in their lives. The first approach sees a good product as one of several levers to generate business growth. The latter sees a good product as the primary driver to improve people’s lives.

I want to design for human beings. These human beings will acquire, consume and utilize. But these will be dimensions, consequences, results – and not the key words by which to reduce or define them. Above all, I want to create solutions that aim to bring a human being joy, solutions that entertain, provide security, simplify their lives, connect them, make them relax, make them happy. 

There are other terms that have a similar function. I have always been fascinated, for example, by how the American retailer Target calls its own clients “guests.” For many, this figure is simply a consumer; for the Minneapolis based chain, they are a sacred guest, welcomed into a home, treated with care, attention empathy, respect. In this book, I have tried to avoid the term ‘consumer’ as much as possible, and in the rare occasions where I use it, it’s always in a strictly business context. Over the course of my life, I have always tried to limit my use of the word, relegating it only to those situations where I needed a particular audience to intuitively comprehend my messages, without risking any potential misunderstanding. In these cases, unfortunately, I have had to use it, and will do so in the future. But on all other occasions, the person for whom we design and innovate is and will remain, solely and simply, a human being.

M.AD: Why is design thinking a success for some organizations and a failure for others?


Design thinking is a tool. It’s like a brush: put it in Picasso’s hands and then put it in the hands of your tax advisor, and the results will be diametrically opposed. (At least, so long as your tax advisor is not the reincarnation of Picasso.) A brush is necessary to be able to paint, just like the canvas and colors, but they are all just instruments;  it’s the artist’s talent that makes the difference. Despite this, there are institutions that pay millions of dollars to hire consultants with the goal of making a better brush, with the finest wood and the very best bristles, made from the pelts of badgers, mongoose, and squirrels, conical, flat, forked, jagged, fanned, usually sourced at prohibitive prices. Time and capital are invested in discussions, presentations, projections, and predictions. And then you forget to speak about Picasso, how he thinks, how he sees the world, how he holds the brush, how he finds inspiration, how he deals with the errors on his canvas, how he engages in a dialogue with the world around him, how he analyzes his subject, how he expresses himself, why he does all of this and beyond. In many organizations there is, paradoxically, the conviction that it is much more difficult to produce the right kind of brush, rather than finding, training, leading, inspiring, and retaining the Picassos.

That’s what has happened in recent years to processes like the celebrated “Design Thinking,” beloved by so many and rejected by others, a source of huge commercial success, but also horrendous failure. Those who have attacked design thinking have simply been taking aim at the brush. In truth, design thinking is a good brush to all effects. It seamlessly blends empathy, strategy and prototyping, leading you to understand what’s meaningful to people, what’s relevant to your business, and experimenting around those variables in an iterative way. What needed to be understood, and eventually criticized or celebrated, was, instead, the way that the brush was being used in each individual project and company. Was there a Picasso behind the brush, or simply an accountant who had taken up painting as a hobby?

The most important part of design thinking, in order words, is the thinking person: the human beings behind the tool, their ability to analyze, to synthetize, to fail and learn; their courage and resilience, their vision and empathy, their curiosity and sharpness of mind.

M.AD: You explain how innovators can have the correct answers to the wrong set of questions, which can get in the way of innovation. What are some examples of the right types of questions? 


Flocks of designers, marketers, engineers and scientists invest vast financial, intellectual and emotional resources, over months and months of research, processing, experimentation and prototyping, in projects that respond perfectly to an entirely wrong set of questions. On the other hand, true, concrete, authentic, successful innovation, begins by asking yourself the right questions and translating them in the proper brief. In every project, the very first step to take, before anything else, is to rethink the initial question: what did the user really want? 

The majority of briefs, tasks and requests that we receive throughout our lives, above all when we don’t yet have a reputation as innovators, revolve around the stable grounds of the status quo, of what is already considered to be feasible, believed to be plausible. If they don’t get questioned, requests like these will simply produce solutions that keep on conforming to that status quo. An innovator, on the other hand, always tries to identify the root causes that gave rise to the brief in the first place.

If you’re asked to build a bridge, for example, try and understand what the real need is. If what’s required is a way of moving from A to B while overcoming some obstacle or another, try and understand if this is really necessary (maybe the users can solve their problem without moving away from point A!) and if it is, then ask yourself if a bridge is truly an adequate response. Any other professional will design a bridge, reacting to the brief, and maybe designing a beautiful structure, with some ingenious functionality – but they will only ever create a bridge. It will still be a bridge even if the bridge wasn’t the best response to the primary need which generated the request. Innovators, on the other hand, invent catapults, helicopters, a boat or some other unheard-of vehicle that allows efficient, secure, rapid and comfortable transport from A to B. The innovator innovates. Henry Ford famously said: “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” Henry Ford simply didn’t ask them. He gave them the car. Henry Ford wouldn’t have designed another bridge.

This applies to a project, to our jobs, to our lives. Ask yourself: are you really doing what’s meaningful to you and to the world, or you are just navigating in the safe waters of the expected, of the status quo, of your comfort zone?

M.AD: Who are the “unicorns” that you discuss in your book? Why is it so difficult to discover them?


The unicorns are the ideal innovators. They are “people in love with people,”  individuals who are passionate about creating excellence for themselves, for others, for society, and for the world. I spend many pages of the book describing them, celebrating their skills, and detailing their superpowers, so anyone can find them, hire them, nurture them, and retain them. I did this because unicorns are the ones who make the difference between meaningful, successful innovation on one side, and failure and irrelevance on the other. They trump processes and tools. They are the secret ingredient of the innovation recipe. 

You might expect some of their qualities. They are dreamers and executors, change agents and risk takers. But when was the last time you heard an executive ask prospective hires if they were optimistic, kind or curious? If they have aesthetic sense or are humble? If they know how to have fun or are storytellers? 

And yet, in this hyper accelerated and hyper connected world we live in, these skills make a difference. They give a competitive edge to you and your organization, driving quality, excellence and efficiency. But too often, they are neglected and not considered.

There are 24 skills that define a unicorn. They are partially natural talent, and partially they need to be educated and trained. A natural talent who doesn’t put effort into nurturing their abilities will end up less of a unicorn than a less natural talent who focuses on training and practice.

They are difficult to find, because there is no school or institution out there that teaches us all these qualities, strategically and holistically. If you are lucky, you learn them by doing, you build awareness during your life journey, you discover them failure after failure, success after success, experience after experience. If you are generous, you will then share those learnings with others.

M.AD: What are the entrepreneurial, social, and enabling gifts of unicorns? 


There are 24 skills that define a unicorn. They are partially natural talent, and partially they need to be educated and trained. A natural talent who doesn’t put effort into nurturing their abilities will end up being less of a unicorn than a less natural talent who focuses on training and practice.

  1. The unicorn’s entrepreneurial gifts are the set of skills that directly impact our ability to build an innovation strategy. In other words, these traits shape the way we manage a whole series of variables, processes and situations that range from a single innovation project all the way through to an entire business strategy or a personal life project. This group includes skills like the ability to be visionary, experimenters and executors; to be original, intuitive and proactive; to have aesthetic sense and be risk takers.
  2. The unicorn’s social gifts are the set of traits that are indispensable for working in an effective way with other people, moving with ease in a dense network of social relations. These are fundamental characteristics for doing innovation holistically, utilizing a community’s collective know-how and avoiding dangerous roadblocks on the way. This group includes skills like kindness, trust, love for diversity, respect, empathy, the ability to be charismatic storytellers, to be generous mentors and to have fun with others.
  3. The unicorn’s enabling gifts are the set of characteristics that give an individual the necessary structure to work effectively and successfully on the one hand – know-how, culture, mindset – and on the other, the drive and energy required to move forward in the prickly and unexplored territory typical of innovation, both in business and in life. This group includes skills like curiosity, humbleness, confidence, optimism, resilience, the ability to be comfortable with discomfort and to be attentive listeners.

Without these traits, the PepsiCo Design function wouldn’t be where it is today, and it certainly wouldn’t be such strategic asset for this multi-billion dollar corporation.

M.AD: Is it possible to create unicorns or become one yourself out of pure effort?


Each of us should try to become a unicorn. Some of us will be more successful than others, but the secret to becoming a unicorn is harnessing that passion to better yourself every day of your life, looking at every experience as an opportunity to grow and learn. The perfect unicorn doesn’t exist. Iit lives in what Plato would call “the world of the ideas.” It’s a lighthouse for us to aspire to, every moment of our existence, all the way until our last day.

To become the best possible unicorn, we first need to be aware of the unicorn’s characteristics. 

As a society, we should make sure that these traits are taught in schools and companies, that they are celebrated by media and leaders. We should inspire people to be dreamers, to be optimistic, curious, and kind. 

As individuals, we can try to amplify those gits through practice and education. And we can rely on the help of a series of mentors. In the book, I describe three categories of unexpected mentors: the ideal metamentor, the virtual mentor and the mentor by osmosis. Anyone can find these people in their lives and look to them for inspiration and personal growth.

M.AD: How do mentors play a fundamental role in the life of a unicorn? 


There is no school to prepare a unicorn. No yet at least, even though I would love for the education system to evolve and embrace this opportunity. People become unicorns through a journey of awareness, practice and maintenance. It’s a journey that lasts a lifetime, a progressive discovery of failures and successes, of mistakes and learnings. The guidance of mentors along the way can accelerate your process of awareness, can help you in your practice, and can support you in maintaining the skills that you developed. I wish somebody had given me the list of unicorn characteristics early in my life, when I was still a child. I would have avoided many mistakes, accomplished many more of my goals, and made much more progress in my personal journey to become a unicorn.

M.AD: Tell us more about the role of schools and education. 


Unicorns are difficult to find because there is no school or institution out there that teaches us all these qualities, strategically and holistically. If you are lucky, you learn them by doing, building awareness during your life journey and discovering them failure after failure, success after success, experience after experience. If you are generous, you will then share those learnings with others.

The schools of our planet, aside from teaching math, literature, geography, philosophy, physics and finance, should educate people in the skills of the unicorns. They should inspire students with the importance of kindness and sincerity, teach the ability to dream, the practice of curiosity, the role of empathy, the art of execution, respect, discomfort, storytelling, initiative and all the other gifts that make up unicorns. And they should do so deliberately, rather than through emulation and the example of a few special teachers who embody these same attributes. It should be a strategic and systematic effort, with textbooks and seminars, to help grow awareness of the value of these virtues, both for students and for teachers. 

This kind of approach to education would create many more leaders for our companies, our communities and our society as a whole, and would create better conditions for business innovation and collective social progress.

M.AD: Can you explain the difference between an ideal “metamentor”, a mentor by osmosis, and a virtual mentor? 


These three figures push the boundaries of a traditional mentor. They essentially become ways to inspire people to independently hunt for mentorship, no matter the personal situation, context and background. If we embrace this idea of mentorship, there is no excuse anymore: we can all find and create our own mentors, even if we live in a small town, even if we have no network nor connection, even if we work in a company with a limited number of people to be inspired by. Let’s look at the three mentors more in detail:

The ideal metamentor

The ideal metamentor is an extraordinary mentor that can teach and inspire you to become a unicorn. The metamentor doesn’t exist as one person. Instead, it is the combination of multiple people who have at least one unique and formidable unicorn characteristic. 

Think about all the people you know. Who is the kindest person amongst your friends? Who is the most visionary? Or the most courageous? Who is the most analytical? The most stylish? Or the most curious or optimistic? Or the one with the highest empathy or resilience? Every time you want to leverage one of the unicorn’s traits (and you want to push that trait to the extreme), think of the specific person who manifests that trait in the best possible way. Talk to them and be inspired by them. When you try to be more curious, think of the most curious friend you have—how she acts, how she thinks. You may not be the most curious person in the world (although you are perfectly aware of how important curiosity is to feeding your imagination and creativity), but thinking of that super curious friend inspires you to be more curious every day. Thinking of this person helps you figure out ways to exercise your curiosity and nurture at every opportunity. Do this each time you face a difficult situation where you need to be more resilient, each time you need to write an email and you need to be more analytical, each time you don’t feel courageous, but still need to act. Ask yourself – or ask the person directly – how they would behave if they were in your shoes. 

Think about the people who surround you. You may not be lucky enough to have a unicorn in your life to mentor you, but each of us can find several people with at least one of the unicorn’s characteristics. Look for these superpowers in the people you interact with every day, or in others who you come into contact with over the span of your life. Identify them, become aware of the luminous glow that surrounds these people, and absorb their positive energy. The union of all these figures creates what I call the ideal ‘meta-mentor’. 

The mentor by osmosis

The mentor by osmosis is the one who acts and makes things happen. They don’t preach, they don’t teach, they don’t talk. They do things. It’s our role to observe them, absorb what they do, practice it, fail, learn, and try again. They will be there to redirect us, to support us, to mentor us by doing.

Over the last twenty-five years, I’ve listened to experts talk about innovation in an erudite and sophisticated way. I’ve read dozens upon dozens of books on the topic of innovation, full of ideas and tools. I’ve collaborated with consultants who were paid millions and were able to hold forth about strategies and processes better than anyone. But the problem with a great many of these experts and theorists – along with their carefully tailored language and quick wordsmithery – is that very few of them have ever actually innovated in their lives. Even fewer of them have innovation in their blood, in their guts, in their eyes, in their bones. They speak about it, but they don’t actually do it. And when they try to, they often fail. Over the years, I’ve become terribly allergic to these nonpracticing orators, to people who speak about things without having done very much at all, who hide behind processes, frameworks, numbers and stats – and then grind to a halt when they have to actually innovate on a daily basis.

In the book, I talk about one of my mentors by osmosis: his name is Claudio Cecchetto, and he is the exact opposite of all of this. He innovated, and he didn’t talk about it. Over the years, through his behavior, his way of thinking, his way of acting, he drew out something which was already there within me, but which I had left dormant, allowing it to emerge only randomly and occasionally. Claudio, as an unconscious mentor, gave consciousness to Mauro, his unconscious disciple. From out of the raw material in front of him, he extracted the mindset of Mauro the innovator. And once extracted, it has remained with me for the rest of my life.

The virtual mentor

The virtual mentor is a person who can inspire us through their actions, ideas and behaviors, even if they don’t live close to us. Often, they are unaware of the role they are playing for us. Today more than ever before, through the internet and social media, we have access to an infinite stock of potential virtual mentors, often with a direct daily connection to them. We can observe them in their professional lives and often in their private ones, too. We can study them, and sometimes we can even ask them questions. It’s up to us to choose the right people as our source of inspiration. If that person then interacts with us, even if only sporadically, then they begin to become a mentor, with a more or less active role in our existence. 

Identifying figures who can inspire us, even when they can’t give us replies and encounters, is a precious art. And it requires two occurrences. Both the virtual mentor and the mentee need to do something. I talk about them in the book, when sharing the story of my relationship with one of the most important virtual mentors I had. His name is Stefano Marzano, and he was the head of design at the Philips corporation.

The first occurrence is what the virtual mentor did. Stefano was a very busy and successful leader, who knew me by chance. Despite all this, he decided to invest his time to inspire me by getting a couple of books that he published, thinking about a note to write, writing it, finding my address, and sending the books from Holland to a young man in Italy. Was this a huge effort? No, not really. Would many other people have done it? No, probably not. And, usually, they don’t. The small effort of a big man had a huge impact on the life of that young student. To be quite clear: Stefano didn’t really know me; at that point we’d met only once, and he’d received a couple of my letters. He owed me nothing. I wasn’t from a well-off family, and I did not have the kinds of connections that were relevant to him. He had no aim or personal interest in sending me those books with the dedication. It was simply an act of kindness. I had coffee with that man a year earlier, and that meeting had transformed him into my mentor, without him knowing, because I followed him, studied him, and admired his work from afar.

This is precisely the second occurrence in the story: a young man of 20 put in the effort to find an inspirational model and decided to select this person as his own virtual mentor. I say a virtual mentor, because Stefano wasn’t physically near to me. He wasn’t my boss, nor colleague, nor teacher, he wasn’t even a friend. I simply began to follow him through conferences, publications and interviews – studying him and learning from a distance. What made him different from a role model is that I had some interactions with Stefano. He knew he had a fan in Italy somewhere, but he didn’t need to do anything else. He was leading design in a Dutch corporation, and I was simply a young man who had begun my innovator’s journey in a far-flung Italian university. In those years, I learned so much from him – silently, respectfully, observing the results of his work, the impact of his leadership on the company, the encounters and stories of many people who worked directly with him, his words in books and discussions. At the end of my studies, four years after meeting him for the first time, Stefano offered me a job at Philips Design in Milan. It was the official beginning of my professional career. I only spent a year in the company, but it was a short period of important learning. A few months later, I met Claudio Cecchetto. By that point, I was ready to fly. I spread my wings and took off. And the rest is history.

M.AD: What are the principles of meaningful design and why are they necessary?


In a world where we need to produce excellence at 360 degrees, where we need to imagine and design the best solutions to satisfy people’s needs and desires, we need a set of universal principles that can guide and inspire us – constantly providing us with powerful filters to interpret and validate the meaning and value of each idea, bringing our teams together around a single vision. The principles of meaningful design are a treasured compass that gives us direction and enables us to consider, each and every time, all the different qualities that make a product, a brand, a service and an experience, extra-ordinary and meaningful to people. 

The fundamental principles:

1. Human

Useful, emotional and semiotic

The first principle of meaningful design, the human – and humanist – principle, lives at the intersection of utility, emotion and semiotics. It is a synthetic principle that embraces everything and everyone, claiming the substantial necessity and value of designing solutions that can strike a perfect balance between the needs and desires of a person, from utility to emotional engagement to self-expression and purpose.

2. Innovative

New, unique, distinct, and extraordinary

The second principle of meaningful design specifies the innovative nature of the solution. Meaningful design breaks the continuum of the known and expected, introducing at least one element of novelty. It means there are no similar approaches and will thus be distinct from all competitors. It is an exception from the usual practices, special in relation to the normal way of things. While the variable of distinction was a business variable, the extraordinary nature of a solution is a humanist one.

The enabling principles:

3. Aesthetically sustainable

Beautiful, harmonious, pleasing to the senses, without any redundancy.

4. Functionally sustainable

Practical, efficient, convenient, and ergonomic.

5. Emotionally sustainable

Attractive and engaging.

6. Intellectually sustainable

Accessible, intuitive and user friendly.

7. Socially sustainable

Respectful, ethical, honest, and trustworthy.

8. Environmentally sustainable


9. Financially sustainable

Business valuable and economically accessible to our user.

The clarifying principles:

10. Relative

The solution depends entirely on the needs and desires of the person; there is no “good design” in absolute terms. As such, “good design” is absolutely relative.

11. Poetic and expressive

The solution is permeated by a designer and innovator’s perspective and sensitivity. It is not the mere output of a process, however valid that process might be. Using the same process, different people will generate different outputs. Respect and embrace this truth, and get the best innovators you can find for your project.

12. Storytellable

The solution is a story to tell and to share. And this story must be an integral part of the product’s DNA.

This is a list of principles that are relevant for anyone working in the world of innovation, no matter your background: design, marketing, research and development, consumer insights, sales, manufacturing, supply chain, commercialization, finance, legal, human resources, and every other function; from the CEO down to the junior employee; from the multinational to the start-up. Because everyone plays an important role in this multidisciplinary journey to generate progress for the company and for society as a whole.

M.AD: What is the difference between human-centered design and environment-centered design?


Human-centricity is an approach to innovation that creates value for people – and for the world they live in. The sterile polemic that contraposes human-centered design to environment-centered (or eco-centered) design starts from a wrong understanding of what people-focused innovation is about. 

Let me clarify my perspective with an example. If you were designing a series of products, brands and services for your children, using a human-centered approach, would you create solutions that destroy the bed where they sleep, the room where they play, and the house where they live? You wouldn’t. That wouldn’t be human-centered design, that wouldn’t create any value for your kids. So, why would anybody think that human-centered design could generate any product that consciously destroys our environment and all other species living in it that are part of our eco-system? It’s in the interest of the human being to preserve and protect the “house” in which we live – our planet – and all its inhabitants. That’s what real human-centered design tries to do. Environment-centered design is a key component of human-centered design. 

M.AD: Why is your message relevant now?


As we begin to move past the COVID pandemic, with the winds of recession and wars in our backyard, with new active conversations going on about work-life balance and the role of people in business, threatened by AI and new technologies, this article delivers a powerful message: we need to put people at the center of everything.

We need to refocus everything we do on the human being. The person driving the innovation process and the person we innovate for. From people to people, people in love with people. That’s the most powerful way to succeed, to produce business growth and ultimately grow societal happiness. It’s a modern renaissance, where humanism can finally be the answer to many of our problems in business and society. 

M.AD: What are the skills of the unicorns?


I divided the skills of the unicorns/innovators into three groups.

The Entrepreneurial Gifts

• They are visionary experimenters and executors.

• They are original and have a unique perspective.

• They are intuitive and analytical.

• They are proactive, look for the root cause, and go the extra mile.

• They are on top of trends—and eventually trendsetters.

• They are people in love with people.

• They are risk takers, but cautious too.

• They are aesthetes with an aesthetic sense.

• They are holistic designers.

• They are both business savvy and tech savvy.

The Social Gifts

• They are kind, sincere, and trustworthy.

• They are in love with diversity.

• They are empaths and have an elevated emotional intelligence.

• They are dialectical conductors of multilingual orchestras.

• They are respectful.

• They are charismatic storytellers.

• They are generous mentors.

• They avoid taking themselves too seriously and know how to

have fun.

The Enabling Gifts

• They are curious.

• They are humble but confident and self-aware.

• They are attentive listeners, but quick to decide and act.

• They are optimistic and resilient.

• They are comfortable with discomfort.

• They are change agents.

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