IBM’s focus on design has its roots in a stroll down Fifth Avenue in New York that Thomas J. Watson Jr. took in the early 1950s. He stopped at an Olivetti shop where typewriters were set out on sidewalk stands for passersby to try out. The machines had sleek designs and a variety of colors. Inside, the shop was bright and modern looking. In contrast, the display areas in IBM’s offices in those days were dimly lit and its computers were drab and boxy. The lobby of the headquarters on Madison Avenue had been designed to please Thomas Watson Sr.’s early 20th century aesthetic: it looked, his son wrote, like the “first-class saloon on an ocean liner.” A few years later, as Watson Jr. was preparing to take over as IBM’s chief executive, he decided, “I could put my stamp on IBM through modern design.” Later, in a 1973 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Watson Jr. declared that “good design is good business.”
In 1956, Watson Jr. hired as the company’s design consultant Eliot Noyes, a well-respected architect and former curator of industrial design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Noyes’s 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. The goal was much more than consistency of look and feel. It marked perhaps the first time in which a business organization itself—its management, operations and culture, as well as its products and marketing—was conceived of as an intentionally created product of the imagination, as a work of art. “In a sense, a corporation should be like a good painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract,” Noyes wrote.
Also, this would not just be any kind of painting, but something specific and immediately recognizable, yet never uniform or static. Noyes brought in a wide variety of artists, designers and architects—some of the greatest creative talents of the day, including Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rand and Isamu Noguchi—and they created an equally broad range of creative expressions. But all were grounded in an underlying design philosophy.
Noyes described his own role as a “curator of corporate character.” He explained: “It does seem to be a part of the role of the designer to help identify this character, and then express it in terms of the most meaningful goals and the highest ideas of the company and in the broadest context of our society and economy.”
“The impact Noyes had was incredible,” says Steven Heller, author and longtime design director at the New York Times. “He oversaw the modernization of all aspects of the brand. IBM became the company to beat, the paradigm of the modern corporation.”
Noyes produced designs himself, including that of the iconic IBM ® Selectric typewriter and the Management Development Center in Armonk, New York. 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 “8-bar” logo is still in use today.
The husband and wife team of Charles and Ray Eames had an especially strong influence on IBM’s thinking. They 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. As designers, Charles and Ray Eames were problem solvers. They dedicated themselves to making things better, not just different. “They taught that if you don’t understand something, you can’t design it,” says Lee Green, the vice president in charge of IBM’s Brand Experience and Strategic Design. “Design has to be purposeful. It’s not about cosmetics and decoration. It’s about substance.” Or, as Charles Eames put it, “Design is a plan for arranging elements in such a way as best to accomplish a particular purpose.” By that definition, IBM’s researchers could be seen as designers, and its designers have been researchers and teachers.
IBM’s philosophy of design has influenced many other enterprises and institutions in the decades since Noyes. Design is now seen as essential for organizations to express their brands and their values—from Apple’s iPhone, to Starbucks’ in-store experience, to Disney’s entertainment venues. Indeed, in recent years, companies have employed the principles of so-called “design thinking,”—including observation of how humans interact with new things, rapid prototyping and collaboration across multidisciplinary teams—to create everything from consumer services to business strategy. At IBM, such methods are being applied to the design of its client briefing centers, and to the recruitment and onboarding of new employees.
“We live in the shadow of what Eliot Noyes and the Eameses, Rand and Saarinen have done,” says Keith Yamashita, the IBM Charles and Ray Eames Brand Fellow. “It’s the same mission. It’s just different people.”