The Interpreter

Claudia Kotchka glides from the design world to the business world and back with ease. Now she has to teach 110,000 employees at Procter Gamble to do the same thing.

Claudia Kotchka is holding the secret to understanding design at Procter & Gamble in her palm. It's not a P&G product but a tin of Altoids, the "curiously strong" mints produced by Wrigley. As the scent of peppermint oil wafts out of the box, she points out the nostalgic typeface, the satisfyingly crinkly liner paper. "Even the little mints look handmade," she says. "It's not completely full. The whole thing is very authentic."

Then comes the twist. "Let's say P&G buys this brand. What are we going to do?" asks Kotchka, P&G's vice president for design innovation and strategy. "[Employees] always gave me the same answers. 'We're gonna cost-save on this tin. We're gonna get rid of this stupid paper—it's serving no functional purpose.'" She plops the tin on the table and picks up another product, unable to suppress a mischievous smile. "And I go, 'Okay! Exactly! And this is what you get.' "

Kotchka reveals "Proctoids," a box made of cheap white plastic from P&G's baby-wipe containers. With uniform beige ovals jammed into the container, fewer colors on the lid, and no paper, Proctoids taste like Altoids, but they look as appealing as a pile of horse pills. Gone is the pleasure people get when they buy Altoids. Gone, too, is the up to 400% premium they pay. "That's what design is," she says of the look and feel. "That's what designers do."

Kotchka, 53, is not and never has been a designer. She was trained as an accountant. But she is now one of the highest-ranking design executives in the country, vital to CEO A.G. Lafley's effort to weave design into every strand of P&G's DNA. (See Lafley interview, page 56.) The goal is to transform the company from a place that's good at selling "more goop, better" into one whose products infuse delight into customers' lives. What Lafley and Kotchka are trying to do is revolutionary for a major corporation: They aim to make design part of every step of the product-development process, from the research to the store shelves. "We have an innovation process," says Lafley, "and we want to make sure that design is plugged in at the front end."

To be the design maven for a $51 billion company that until recently considered her realm to be the "last decoration station on the way to market," in one designer's words, is a hell of a job. But marrying beautiful design and beautiful business is a natural fit for Kotchka, a whip-smart 27-year P&G veteran who punctuates her speech with a lot of "fantastic's" and "awesome's." She coexists seamlessly in two worlds that usually interact about as well as oil and water. "P&G is in the forefront [of design] because of what Claudia is doing working with Lafley," says Peter Lawrence, chairman of the Corporate Design Foundation. "This is a leading example."

Like a simultaneous translator, Kotchka must express the language of design in a way that people steeped in sales, finance, or research can understand. At the same time, she needs to keep her designers motivated and clear on the fact that an idea that doesn't increase sales is meaningless in a place like P&G. "That's all we care about—what's going to win with the consumer," she says.

Kotchka started her career at Arthur Andersen. Bored silly, she wrangled a job in marketing and climbed up the P&G ranks. In 1991, she was the first nondesigner asked to run the art and package-design department. After a few more moves, in 1999 Kotchka started her own successful business within the company, Tremor, which used influential teenagers to test new products. In June 2000, a shakeup at P&G brought Lafley in as CEO. He immediately started talking about design as a way to differentiate P&G. The experience of using a product, he said, was worth more to the customer than the price or technology alone. The guy might as well have been speaking Chinese. "To say he was going on this design kick when there were some immediate challenges was not an easy sell," says Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto and a consultant to P&G.

Kotchka knew and liked Lafley, but when he asked her to give up Tremor and "build design into P&G," she turned him down flat—twice. The third time, she accepted, becoming a direct report to Lafley, a clear signal of design's importance. Kotchka quickly hired dozens of designers, planting them in every business unit to seed new ways of thinking. Bringing experienced outsiders into a company famous for growing its own was a departure. But P&G needed to shock the system to change minds quickly.

Slowly, the products began to change. There were innovations brought from outside, such as the Crest SpinBrush, and fresh looks such as Prilosec's purple package. Then came offerings whose design changed the function, such as Kandoo, a toilet-training wipe with a kid-friendly button on the box; Tampax Pearl, a tampon with a more comfortable applicator; and Olay Regenerist, a new formulation of Oil of Olay that creates an aura of luxury.

Listening With Their Eyes

In late 2002, Kotchka's group funded the early stage of an ambitious project to develop an entirely new product with Ideo, the Palo Alto firm famous for designing the Palm V. But where to start? After reviewing hundreds of suggestions from senior executives, Kotchka and her team came up with the holy grail: "Reinvent bathroom cleaning." Everyone knows cleaning the bathroom stinks—literally and figuratively. It's pure drudgery. A team of Proctoids was shipped to Ideo to redesign this unpleasant task.

The cultural transition from P&G-land (where everything has a protocol) to Ideo world (where the whole point is to rupture tradi-tional ways of thinking) was rocky. One P&G manager called from the meetings in a panic, Kotchka recalls, saying, " 'They have no process. This is chaos, and we need to get them on the P&G process.' " Kotchka sent the executive back to learn that although the design process doesn't look like P&G's, it is one—one that values brainstorming and the rapid-fire creation of new products.

Designers "listen with their eyes," in Kotchka's words. So the group spent many hours watching consumers clean their bathrooms. They focused on "extreme users," ranging from a professional house cleaner who scrubbed grout with his fingernail to four single guys whose idea of cleaning the bathroom was pushing a filthy towel around the floor with a big stick. If they could make both users happy, they figured they had a home run. One big idea—a cleaning tool on a removable stick that could both reach shower walls and get into crannies—got the green light quickly. Consumers loved the prototype, patched together with repurposed plastic, foam, and duct tape. Some refused to return it.

The P&G employees thought they were done, but they were just beginning. Now it was time to actually design the thing. The result, 18 months and multiple iterations later—a speed record for P&G—is the Mr. Clean Magic Reach bathroom cleaner. Rich Harper, design manager for household care, holds one with the tender care normally reserved for a newborn. He caresses the blue lever that connects the pole to the cleaning head, showing how its color and audible "click" when snapped on correctly are design signals that help the consumer understand the product. "It's those little details that have really made a difference," he says.

Harper highlights the round holes on the blue (blue = clean) foam head of the product. They have no function, but help to convince the buyer that it is squishy enough to fit behind the toilet. And the silver color of the pole? It signifies that "touch of magic" associated with Mr. Clean's brand. The Magic Reach came to market in February, and early data are promising: One woman was overheard saying she had "lust in her heart" for it.

Kotchka is thrilled with the Magic Reach experience but knows she has a long way to go. "There are still a lot of people who don't know what [design] is," she says. She spends most of her time as a combination goodwill ambassador and firefighter. This morning, she's in an urgent meeting with the head of global human resources; since she took over, the number of designers at the company has more than tripled, and she's adding new bodies as fast as she can. Last November, she hosted a "design tasting" for P&G's top 200 executives, for whom her group transformed P&G's learning center into a showcase of design case studies. Kotchka also benchmarked more design-sensitive companies such as Mattel and Nike. In 2003, she created the P&G Design Board, an advisory board whose members include General Motors' Bob Lutz and Ivy Ross, head of design at Old Navy. It meets every four months to go over new-product concepts and provide fresh ideas.

And then there's the Clay Street Project, P&G's attempt to bring innovation in-house. In a brick-walled loft in a gritty Cincinnati neighborhood, it is P&G's new skunkworks, where cross-functional teams spend 10 weeks away from their day jobs to create new brands. "Coming from marketing," says Maile Carnegie, marketing director for hair care, "design's kind of gone from a peripheral whatever to something that I intellectually understood. But working this way has taken me . . . to a visceral understanding."

Kotchka can only laugh her trademark big laugh and lament all that has yet to be done. But by straddling two worlds with aplomb, she has helped create a model for other companies to follow.

Jennifer Reingold is a Fast Company senior writer.

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1 Comments

  • Kaylee Lucas

    I wonder whether I can get Kotchka to do a seminar at my company. She would do our designers good. The recent economic has gotten everyone on a cost saving spree at the cost of design. I would love to see buyers paying a 400% premium for our products.
    Kaylee - Master Cleanse, CEO