P&G’s Global Design Officer on How Design Inspires Experimentation

By Lilly Milman |  April 22, 2021

Why do we trust Mr. Clean, outfitted in a white t-shirt with one hoop earring, to clean our homes, or the family of blue Charmin bears to sell us toilet paper? Phil Duncan, Global Design Officer of Procter & Gamble — the largest consumer packaged goods company in the world — explains. 

Phil Duncan, Global Design Officer of Procter & Gamble

Animated brand mascots can communicate awkward subjects and be consistent, he says — unlike human actors, who can be effective mascots but whose personal lives may impact the brand.  

“A character…allows [designers] the opportunity to build its personality, rather than necessarily relying upon an individual, which sometimes can bring challenges with it — [especially] if that individual goes off the rails and does something that is inconsistent with what the brand wants,” Duncan says. “So, they play a really vital role for us, particularly in categories where we need to be super differentiated, or help us tell a story around the business that might be somewhat challenging for people to make right.”  

Duncan has worked at P&G — a company with subsidiary brands including Febreeze, Bounty, Tide, Old Spice, and Olay — for nearly 17 years. In addition to leading design efforts, he also takes the lead in the internal startup studio P&G Ventures. 

In a recent interview, Duncan shares what he thinks makes a brand iconic, breaks down design choices like the Tide bullseye logo, and gives advice on working through design challenges. 

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Breaking Down an Iconic Design

According to Duncan, for a brand design to be iconic, it must first have assets that are “enduring and recognizable, regardless of the platform in which [the product] shows up.” The design has to resonate with the customer on the shelves, on a store’s webpage online, or even on an influencer’s social media profile. 

But good design that resonates isn’t all it takes to become an iconic brand. Constant and conscious reinvention is also necessary, Duncan explains. Think Old Spice. While the product was a leader in men’s deodorant, it wasn’t elevated into an exciting, iconic design until a rebranding campaign in 2010 brought celebrities like Isaiah Mustafa and Terry Crews into commercials — ultimately giving Old Spice a much larger online presence. 

“Brands who climbed to that [iconic] status do a really good job of what we call constructively disrupting themselves. They don’t just reinvent to reinvent… They honor where they’ve come from, but they also really reimagine what the possibility of the future is going to look like and how they will engage with the consumer in meaningful ways,” he says. “Brands that do that hard work [of] thinking about…the next engagement space…will climb to that iconic status.” 

Another example is Tide, which Duncan singles out as one of his favorite brands from P&G’s portfolio. “This is a business that has been incredibly sustaining, and growing, and meeting the consumer needs for decades, and that’s really unusual,” Duncan says. And what makes the product continue to stand out is its pivots. The single-use Tide pod is one example. 

“This was a completely new form. We really needed to think about what were the sights, sounds, signals to match what was an incredibly huge technical leap,” he says. “How would we disrupt the shelf? How do we make it stand out and be really different? How do we continue to evolve the form so that it was better than competition?” 

In addition to the Tide pod itself being effective, easy-to-use, and brightly colored, Duncan also credits the brand’s success with the loud packaging of the products. The neon orange and blue containers, with a bullseye in the middle, are as recognizable online as they are on store shelves. 

We’ve become much more in tune with embracing things like lean innovation and quick experiments.

How Listening Closely Can Solve Design Challenges

In order to be an effective designer, it’s important to remain curious, Duncan says. But this is also one of his role’s greatest challenges. “I need to…[keep] my curiosity high to understand what’s next and what to instigate with our brand teams,” he says.

At the same time, his role as Global Design Officer also requires him to make choices and be decisive. When scoping out new ideas, Duncan has to be constantly asking himself: “What are the things you’re going to allow to come into your world…and what are the things that you should ignore?” 

This is where listening to the customer, as well as listening to other team members within the company, is imperative. While Duncan says leaders in P&G recognize the importance of investing in innovation, he adds that the power of design makes it even easier to start conversations about new ideas. 

“One of the things that I [tell] the design team is: Listen to the conversation, listen to the consumer, listen to the internal strategy, and then go create. Because your creation stops the conversation to some degree,” he says. “Then you can say, ‘Was this what you intended? Let’s go learn about this with the consumer.'” 

Having innovation teams work closely with design has also impacted the company culture, creating a more open environment for lean innovation principles and lots of experimenting, Duncan adds. 

“The big opportunity for design is to use [their] talents to bring the potential opportunity to life to go learn about [it]… We’ve become much more in tune with embracing things like lean innovation and quick experiments: Bring it to life, go out to the consumer, see if it’s resonating, bring it back, reimagine what it might look like…and that’s the gift that design brings to the table.”