“All I wanted was my independence: make money and get my own place.” Nicolas Vallejos is not your traditional designer. A good student in math and physics, he spent five years studying architecture and urban planning, dead set on a life of independence in his native Brazil. He never took formal design classes, but was and remains an enthusiastic admirer of great design and an avid doodler (“it helps me concentrate”); it was the early training in computer graphics and CAD and 3-D studios that led to the opportunity as a designer at South America’s oldest newspaper that changed his career trajectory. “It paid well, so I thought, why not?”
The role evolved and became part of an in-house design agency for the paper, which offered advertisers free creative services with paid placements. Vallejos quickly learned illustration and graphics, gaining exposure to programs like Photoshop and a first experience on a Mac computer. But because he had to wait for the news stories to be set, his shift didn’t begin until the end of the day. Ever the opportunist, he took on a second job, working days as an art director for a friend’s agency.
Fast-forward 25 years: Vallejos is now finishing his fourth year as a Brand Design Director for Frito-Lay after nearly 11 years at General Mills. He’s collaborated with CBX on multiple projects, including Flaming Hot Doritos, and some of our work together helped set the tone for a Pepsi Super Bowl commercial, and still informs Vallejos’ approach to design projects.
Vallejos sat down with us—via video—between work and training (he’s preparing for an Iron Man in July) to share a little more about his journey, his approach to work and life, and his vision of the future of design.
It’s a long way from northern Brazil to the north of Texas. Tell us a little about how you got here.
I hadn’t had a vacation in two years, so I quit the agency job, kept the newspaper gig, and took a sabbatical for two months to go visit my sister in Minneapolis and learn English. When I came back, I convinced my fiancée that we should quit our jobs and move. We got married and came to the US without jobs, much money, or even much English. But I had a portfolio and found work quickly. I ended up doing a lot of graphic and some structural design, working with engineers on shapes of tools, how machines pack things, designing clam shells, doing brand architecture without knowing it.
In the meantime, my wife forced me to go back to school, where I did an MBA with a focus on communications, and started managing design departments, working with marketing teams, and understanding how everything fit together. I saw an ad for a brand design job at General Mills at the same time that my current company was losing people quickly. I didn’t know what that meant, but I read the description, knew I could do it, and that led to 11 years with GM and now almost four with Frito-Lay.
It really is amazing. We came to this country with almost nothing. Now I’m with Pepsi and my wife is with Raytheon. It’s a true American Dream—we came here with very little, and now we’re both working for some of the best companies in the world.
Architecture and an MBA aren’t the traditional routes to design, and yet here you are, and working under one of the global leaders in the field (Mauro Porcini, PepsiCo’s Chief Design Officer). Do you feel your unorthodox background has helped?
I’m definitely a little different as a designer, and I always try to balance the business development piece in what I’m doing. I’m a firm believer in diversity—of thought, cross-functional expertise, ideas, and styles. No one person or team can do it on their own. I want that diversity to drive successful collaboration.
Also, to be a good creative leader, it is essential to develop and build key relationships and to build strategic partnerships (in a corporate environment). That’s really the most important thing; that’s why I consider you partners and not a transactional agency. Big corporations are like that, too. You create proof points with small brands, build trust, and then you can impact bigger brands, such as Lay’s and Doritos.
When I came to Frito-Lay, I made it a point to meet with all the partners we worked with. My objective is to be the best-integrated partner I can, to understand what you need, to ensure the company is getting its money’s worth and provide business value. I love to solve problems, and solve problems as part of a partnership. And I moved to PepsiCo because I saw the big opportunity. Big responsibilities, but big opportunities. I only see opportunities, which is a good balance with my wife, as she only sees risk and we balance well together—it’s been 28 years! I didn’t move here because the grass was greener; I saw more grass.
Speaking of grass…we’re in an interesting business at an interesting time. We just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, and yet we’re both in a business where we make and design a lot of trash. How is the awareness of a need to protect the environment impacting your business and approach?
I’m part of Frito-Lay’s sustainability project, working with the global team in NYC and across the organization. In my personal opinion, from a simply pragmatic standpoint, we need to address the issue now. I’m a Gen X-er that didn’t grow up talking a lot about sustainability. My designers, on the other hand, are mostly in their twenties, and they see and feel the impact we have on our planet. They understand the issue from a different angle and give me added perspective.
My personal viewpoint is that people want to do good for the environment, but a significant portion of them doesn’t want to or can’t pay more as a consequence. Convenience is also a huge driver. As designers and marketers, we need to find solutions that are extremely convenient, simple, affordable, and scalable in order to make a difference. We also need to discuss how we communicate these challenges and opportunities to different audiences. That’s the big challenge that requires innovative thinking and holistic problem-solving. It’s part science and part emotion.
Behavior change is tough to create, but it happens all the time organically. How are things like direct-to-consumer brands impacting your approach to design?
When Mauro Porcini talks about design, it’s with a capital D: Design Thinking, big picture. For me it’s nonlinear, creative problem-solving. Nothing is going to be like it was before, with what’s happening during this challenging time. Our design approaches will have to change, thinking about how we test solutions and ideas in a very different context. Human behavior and relations are going to change, and we as designers need to quickly adapt to these new challenges, searching for all potential opportunities.
Our quest for insights and research methodologies was already evolving, and now we will have to accelerate and adapt to a new normal. We were already becoming more and more isolated in how we shop and interact with other people in the real world, and the pandemic will fast-track these changes, bringing new norms and behaviors. Nothing can replace personal interaction and relationships, but we have to adjust to a new era of “social distance” interactions.
For example, when we did the Lay’s redesign, we developed and implemented a robust consumer-centric qualitative research plan. Among other activities, we conducted in-house ethnographies and in-store shop-alongs, watching how people engage, navigate, and look at brands at home and on shelf. It was an anthropological and very personal way to study our consumers. With our new realities, this approach is risky and almost impossible. We need to find new and creative solutions to understand what problems we are solving for our consumers, customers, and partners.
Another point is that we always try to design in relation to something (in context), especially in a retail environment. Every product and brand wants to be seen on shelf. In order to be noticed and be selected, products need to stand out in a real strategic and authentic way. This reality might not be totally true anymore, especially with the fast growth of e-commerce, DTC (direct- to-consumer sales), and other alternative ways to bring products to consumers. More than ever, organizations that figure out how to communicate their product’s benefits in a simpler, faster, and more efficient way will win with consumers, especially now that attention spans are so limited and the retail environment so diversified. Designing a product for someone looking at a phone is a completely different game than designing for an in-store shopper.
Working with designers impacts the way we see the world; among other things, we understand that virtually everything has had to be designed. When you look around, are their things you wished you had designed, or that you’d like to redesign?
Don’t tell anyone, but I love a lot of the “as seen on TV” ideas! Some of the solutions are so obvious and simple, and I keep asking why I didn’t think of that before. I love to cook, and I have a lot of gadgets in the kitchen. For example, I am a fan of Alessi designs and its products. They are simple, functional, and extremely elegant. I love the interesting ideas and the simple solutions for everyday problems that we take for granted. The other day, I bought something in which to steam broccoli, and it’s so elegant! I also love Frank Lloyd Wright, and my heart was crushed a little when I learned a lot of what he designed wasn’t as functional as it is beautiful.
Redesign? For me, it’s more about looking at process than at things. It’s about simplifying. You can always do something better, faster, or more efficiently. My Iron Man training teammates call me MacGyver because I’m always solving problems, always jotting notes, always finding solutions. There are so many things that can be improved, especially around services. I always say that there’s a solution for everything in life; the only thing that does not have it is death, but even that one does, which is to just accept it.