The Great Connector

Closing the gap between business and design

By Pauline Tingas,
Senior Editor
One of the highest ranking design executives in the country, Claudia Kotchka has been working since 2001 to inject design into every facet at Procter & Gamble.
Sounds simple, considering P&G has historically held design in great regard; the company is credited for coining the “first moment of truth” phrase that describes the opportunity for packaging to connect with consumers at retail.
But somehow that appreciation got lost in the technology, efficiency and mass marketing expertise that made P&G into the world’s largest consumer products company. In that climate, design lost steam and, in fact, was relegated to what one P&G designer described as the “last decoration station on the way to the market.”
That all changed when A.G. Lafley took the helm as CEO in 2000 and declared: “We can not compete on technology alone.” His new model included a heavy dose of design, and he personally courted Kotchka to become P&G’s first vice president of design and innovation.
Clearly, it’s no easy task to reorient a giant like P&G. And, at first, Kotchka might seem an interesting choice for such a monumental charge. She never trained as a designer, nor worked as one; in fact, she started her career as an accountant before working her way through the marketing organization at P&G.
But Kotchka says her career path is actually a great asset in her work with designers. “I can see the skills and talents they can’t see. It’s like the saying that ‘the fish is last to know it’s in water’,” she says.
The most enlightening time, according to Kotchka, was in the early 90s when she ran what used to be called the “art department” at P&G. “When I came into that role,” she explains, “designers told me they were not the ‘art’ department, but the ‘design’ department. And they told me I didn’t know anything about design. That was really eye opening.”
So she set out to intellectually study the discipline by going on a “pretty major” learning journey. The process instilled her with respect for designers and the way they think and work. She also learned that it was possible to marry how designers think with what business needs.
An “aha” moment was when Kotchka heard Robert Blake speak about how Phillips transformed itself from an engineering-focused electronics company to a design-centered brand.
“That’s when I realized the power of design beyond just aesthetics,” she says. “Not that aesthetics aren’t important. They are. But that’s when I saw a company using design more strategically.”
With those learnings as her guide, Kotchka has now made sweeping changes at P&G, using design as a strategy to “deliver delight” to consumers each time they engage a P&G brand.
To get that done, she had to bridge the gap—both figurative and literal—between business and design. She hired scores of designers and embedded them within R&D teams. She also developed a board of designers—which includes Tim Brown, IDEO’s president and CEO—for outside perspective on P&G developments. And she launched the Clay Street Project, where cross-functional teams spend 10 weeks away from their jobs to release their creativity.
So how are the business types taking these dramatic shifts? “People are very open to collaboration,” says Kotchka. “What they don’t always understand is how designers think. Sometimes it can look like they have no process.”
Take, for instance, their use of prototypes. “Designers use visuals and prototypes to form a dialogue,” Kotchka says. “It’s not to say ‘this is what we’re going to the consumer with’. Really, it’s a tool for thinking.”
But the design-business gap is clearly closing at P&G. And it has impacted the company’s regard for packaging in the development process. “We don’t look at [product design and package design] separately,” she says. “They are too integrated.” She points out examples like Febreze Air Effects (“a fabulous package”), Tampax Pearl (“it communicated very quickly what the brand and product were about”) and the Kandoo line of toiletries for toddlers who are always saying I “can do” it myself.
Though that’s not something you’ll hear from P&G anytime soon. Kotchka says external partners are a critical part of the new design imperative at P&G. “We couldn’t possibly do all this work internally,” she says. “Part of P&G’s goal is what we call ‘connect and develop’. It’s all about having access to the best ideas in the world.” BP
Name: Claudia Kotchka
Age: 23!
Title: VP of Design Innovation & Strategy
Years in current job:Since October 2005
What do you consider the ultimate branded package?
“The Starbucks cup—you can’t miss that cup anywhere in the world. The Coca Cola bottle is equally fabulous.”
Contents of your purse?
Lipstick, car keys, cell phone, checkbook, pens, makeup mirror, lip gloss, Puffs, Tide to Go, receipts and a wallet. “I’m a typical woman, with lots of stuff.”