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The Geeks Get Loud

3M may be the greatest idea factory in the world—smarter than Apple, more innovative than GE. But has Minnesota modesty been holding it back?

The Geeks Get Loud
Photo by David Bowman

(page 1 of 3)

Mauro Porcini wants to talk about laahv—love, Italian style. It’s late afternoon and we’re in a conference room at the Maplewood headquarters of 3M, where Porcini is the chief design officer, overseeing product designs for the company’s 45 divisions. And because he’s wearing a pink sportcoat, pointy loafers, and a black silk scarf, and because his voice sounds like the Trevi Fountain looks, I’m inclined to let him talk about anything. “When you laahv somebody,” he tells me, “you want to surprise them. You want to create the unexpected, the extraordinary, the magic. When you want to satisfy somebody, you do everything possible to satisfy, no?”

He smiles innocently. “That is my goal,” he says. “I want to laahv our users.”

For more than a century, 3M got away without laahv, without style at all, really. Its best-known products—sandpaper, Scotch tape, Post-it Notes—do not announce themselves so much as simply work, and the same could be said of its employees. As Porcini talks, his coworkers stream past in 3M’s inconspicuous unofficial uniform: slacks and sweater. It was, and still is, the quintessential Minnesota company.

But times change. In 2002, Porcini was recruited to romance 3M customers, at first only Italians, who appreciate good styling in general, and then everyone else. Just 27 years old, and still in his native Milan, he tapped Pininfarina, the design firm renowned for its work with Ferrari, to redesign a line of video projectors. The result, resembling space-age binoculars, doubled the products’ sales and earned 3M its first major design awards. Porcini is now overseeing the design of tape dispensers that look like high-heel pumps and one that looks like an amiable dog with a bowl (the designers’ working name for him was Ralph).

In 2010, Porcini was relocated from Milan to Minnesota. He bought an unassuming rambler in Hopkins, put a massive stone lion in the front yard, and painted it fluorescent pink (his favorite color). “Design is an English word,” he says, describing Italians’ instinct for style, “we just feel it.”

He and his wife, Elisa, a former Gucci designer, gutted the home’s interior, creating a kind of open-plan playground. “You walk in and your jaw drops,” said a recent guest, a former design director for Target. There’s a Frank Gehry cardboard chair, a Jacuzzi that fills from a narrow spout in the ceiling, and, in the living room, an example of what he considers one of the best-designed products in the world: a spider-shaped Philippe Starck juicer. “The juicer is absolutely not functional,” he says without annoyance. “You use it and juice goes everywhere. It’s like a joke in the design world.” Not that he would use his version—it’s gold-plated.

“I laahv to talk about this juicer,” he says, “because it’s a point I like to make: give the people what they want. If they just want styling, you give it to them.”

He lets this sink in. And then, as though remembering where we are, in a state where more fleece is flaunted than gold, he smiles shyly and says of the juicer, “This, of course, is extreme provocation.”

Last fall, Porcini opened a design lab at 3M headquarters and began integrating design into 3M’s ambitions at the highest level of strategic planning, right from the start of product development.

Sometimes the strategy is just to show off. The Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York recently displayed a dress made of 3M fluorescent tape. This spring, 3M threw a party at the hip SXSW festival in Texas to display futuristic technology like the Virtual Presenter, a cutout of a foxy sales rep with a video projector aimed at her from behind, creating a hologram-like appearance as she “talks.” It’s as though the three M’s in 3M are no longer Minnesota, mining, and manufacturing, but moxie, mischief, and—Porcini’s second favorite word—magic.

Change was overdue. Over the past decade, while companies like Apple flaunted high design and tightly crafted images to stand out in a crowded marketplace, 3M struggled to define itself. It hasn’t helped that 3M, unlike Apple, has an enormous and diverse array of products: 55,000, according to the company, a number so large you just have to take 3M’s word for it.

Most of the innovations—adhesives, tapes, screens, grips, filters, scanners—are hidden inside other products, making your smartphones touchable, your roads drivable, your planes flyable. 3M is ubiquitous and anonymous; everywhere and, in the consciousness of consumers, nowhere. In 2009, a survey found that just 14 percent of consumers were familiar with 3M, a substantial drop from 2001.

3M’s design push is now just one part of an ongoing strategy to better communicate its knack for innovation—to shout it, in fact. “We’ve been a humble Midwestern company that hasn’t been flashy or loud,” says Glenn Carter, 3M’s director of innovation marketing. “We may be the most fascinating company on the planet, but nobody knows it.”

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