How IBM is re-establishing itself as a design-centered company

How IBM is re-establishing itself as a design-centered company

Not everyone at IBM is a designer. But Charlie Hill, the company’s newly-appointed, first-ever Design Fellow, wants every employee there to think like one.

More than 60 years ago, IBM started one of the first corporate design departments in the world. Now, Hill’s on a mission—not to just revive the department—but to make design a core part of the company’s identity. And if being one of the top draws for Stanford University’s prestigious design school, The, is any indication, Hill and other design leaders at IBM are onto something.

It’s quite the compliment when you consider that just a little more than five years ago, IBM’s corporate design department was considered a thing of the past.

Making design its business

According to Hill, the end user is having a bigger say in the tools they use. With the rise of cloud and mobile technology, and more focus on the individual rather than the procurement process and traditional IT within the enterprise, Hill knew that the old ways of thinking about enterprise technology needed a facelift. More than that, IBM needed to take a hard look at what kind of company it wanted to be. While IBM may never be sexy in the way that Apple markets its consumer products, in the world of enterprise technology and business-to-business technology, it is quickly becoming a leader in creativity and design.

“It’s interesting to think about what we really mean by design,” says Hill. “Certainly, when we talk about designing something, we all have in our minds a beautifully-crafted user interface, let’s say, of an app, or product of some kind. That is the most visible part of design. But actually, there are other transformative aspects of design that are hidden beneath the surface—having to do with understanding who your users are, and what needs they really have, and how best to meet those needs.”

That view of design, Hill argues, makes you want to bring design into the heart of how development teams operate. And that’s exactly what IBM is doing.

IBM quadrupled the number of designers the company employs, hiring 1,600 designers over the last five years. Designers at IBM specialize in front-end development, user experience (UX) design, visual design, content design, and design research. They work on multidisciplinary teams alongside engineers and product managers.

Design is a recent phenomenon in enterprise tech, which was traditionally shaped by the requirements of purchasing departments. Today’s focus on enterprise design is driven by three trends: purchasing decisions are now made by people who work in areas like marketing or human resources, the people who actually use the technology; millennial “digital natives” raised on smartphones expect consumer-level UX at work; and the digitization of industries, from healthcare to finance, requires products, processes, and services that are designed for the digital age and reflect the latest advances in artificial intelligence, mobile, and cyber security.

Design may be a new concept when it comes to enterprise business software, but at IBM, it’s something that’s been at the core of the company for decades.

A history of design

Thomas Watson Jr. was the force behind the creation of IBM’s Corporate Design Program, the first of its kind in America. It went beyond architecture, sculpture, photography, film, and graphic design masterpieces, and introduced the idea of harmony between business and design, declaring that “good design is good business.”

Shortly after Thomas Watson Jr. became president of IBM in 1956, he worked with consultant Eliot Noyes. His goal was to create a first-of-a-kind corporate design program that would encompass everything from IBM’s products, to its buildings, logos, and marketing materials. Noyes recruited some of the best creative talent in the world as consultants—such as Paul Rand, and Charles and Ray Eames—to work with the program. For the next 20 years, under the guidance of Watson Jr., these four formed the core design team for IBM, working closely with each other and with Noyes’ office of architects and designers—as well as IBM internal designers worldwide—to shape how design could express the character of IBM.

Noyes produced designs himself, including that of the iconic IBM Selectric typewriter. Noted architect Earo Saarinen designed the company’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York—a long curve of glass and stone that gives researchers inspiring views of the countryside even while encouraging them to interact with one another.

Rand’s series of IBM logos culminated in a 1972 version formed from stacked stripes, suggesting speed and dynamism, which made the company’s initials instantly recognizable worldwide. The ”eight-bar” logo is still in use today. The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames were best known at the time for their molded-plastic and plywood chairs. But for IBM, the couple designed everything from the exhibit at the 1964 World’s Fair, to the film Powers of 10, to the famous exhibit Mathematica, to dozens of educational films for school and television that helped teach generations about science, math, and technology.

And now, design once again has become an essential part of IBM’s business.

But at the same time, Hill points out, it’s not just about the designers. It’s really about how the whole team thinks. Instead of focusing just on features and technical measures of progress, IBM takes a more holistic approach, about how people will interact with these products.

“Everyone plays a role in determining the eventual experience that a user has of a product. If the product breaks down, that’s bad user experience,” says Hill. “If it’s too difficult to use, that’s bad user experience. Even architecturally, if it’s badly architected, and it’s too difficult to change and improve the product, that leads, ultimately, to a bad user experience. We wanted to make sure that all of the different disciplines involved in delivering an outcome had their eyes on the user, and what the experience is for the user. That’s how we approached the change process.”

Hill continues, “Particularly in our world, where we’re designing for people who do very different jobs than what we do every day, we wanted to have the voice of the user in the room, when we’re talking about the experience that’s being delivered. This can be really transformative, because you start to realize that your model of what the user needs isn’t quite what you thought it was, just because there’s always a little bit of a game of telephone between some initial insight that you have and how that insight is codified into design decisions along the way. So when you bring the user into the process repeatedly, it allows you to stay aligned, not only within your team, but also with the person who ultimately is going to decide the success of your offering.”

Hill and others looked at how these teams were made up. “If you can make that whole team successful, and work together well, and have them orient themselves toward the success of their users, then you’re on a path to differentiated outcomes in the market,” Hill says.

Hill began working with a few teams across all of the disciplines, particularly in engineering and product management, looking at what practices helped the teams really move forward regarding outcomes, and what kind of state the teams needed to be in to be successful.

Hill and his teams created a framework called IBM Design Thinking, based on the concept of design thinking, but much more specific to IBM’s culture.

Design thinking vs. IBM design thinking

Design thinking isn’t a new idea. The initial concept of design thinking can be traced to Herbert A. Simon’s 1969 book The Sciences of the Artificial, when it was developed as a way of thinking in the sciences. Then, it became associated with design in architecture, thanks to Bryan Lawson’s book How Designers Think in 1980. The term began to broaden to include new ways of thinking in education and design in general, but it wasn’t until David M. Kelley, founder of design consultancy IDEO, adapted the concept of using design thinking as “a method of creative action” for business purposes in the early 1990s that the term started to creep its way into solving problems in the enterprise.

Design thinking as we know it in business now involves, in short, this framework: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, and test.

Like its classic counterpart, IBM Design Thinking fosters empathy and innovation. But it also, according to Hill, codifies effective ways of working as a team, putting the user at the center of decision making. It allows teams to work together in a multidisciplinary way, and at the same time, helps teams work faster and embrace an iterative approach. Once Hill and his team figured out what made a team work well, and what made a job tick from a design point of view, then they needed to figure out how to scale. So, they created the Hallmark Program.

To be a part of the Hallmark Program, Hill and his team invited business leaders from all over the company to nominate high-priority projects from their business units that could be joined together. There are conditions to joining, however, including investing in an adequate ratio of designers and product managers to engineers, among other basic things. In return, Hill and his team would channel designers that they were hiring into that project, and provide design enablement support to them, along with studio space.

This “People, Practices, and Places” strategy within the Hallmark Program brings in the designers, the enablement around new practices that are more human-centric, and then provides a place to work that really fosters creativity and multidisciplinary collaboration. “That really was our strategy,” says Hill. “And the program then made those resources accessible, not to everyone at IBM, because in that case they would have been weakly diffused across our vast company, but specifically targeted to a growing number of carefully-selected projects that were, on the one hand, very important to the business, and on the other hand, ready and committed to actually making a shift in the way they put teams together and the way they worked. That idea, that you matched the projects with these resources, was the key to our driving change in a scalable way.”

IBM has more than 40 design studios around the world in more than 20 countries. Designers work on products for Watson, cloud, security, mobile, the Internet of Things, mainframe, and more. And in digital services via IBM’s Interactive Experience, or IBMix, as it’s called, teams focus on data-driven design for everything from Watson embedded in General Motor’s OnStar, to creating an immersive experience for the Atlanta Falcon’s new stadium, to building business apps for the Apple Watch.

Hill explains that when they started the new design program at IBM, they were very much a startup within the larger enterprise. And the company wasn’t ready for this change. But, he notes, walking around IBM today, you’ll see workspaces that are much more like startup environments. And it’s mainstream, where the program operates in a much more meaningful way. The goal is for it to be self-sustaining, where, Hill says, the initial team that started this shift should be able to walk away from their jobs and feel confident design will flourish in a lot more areas of the company without any hand-holding.

“We’re still at the beginning of a huge digital revolution, where digital capabilities can make all kinds of things easier and better. And that makes design essential,” says Hill.


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Charlie Moss has written for The Atlantic, The Washington Post, The Week, Slate, MOJO, VICE and other publications. He has a passion for comic books, Star Wars, and The Beatles.