IBM Selectric Tyepwriter
March 7th, 2017

Cutting Edge Design Advice, Circa 1956

Everything in business needs the intentional, creative, human-centered influence bestowed by design. Everything. From processes to services. From product design to architecture. From workspaces to websites. From the mobile app that dials customer service to the words spoken by the call center staff. Every aspect of business is an opportunity to design something better.

Design as Business—Circa 1956

Some people think the holistic design-business connection is a new thing driven by a modern marketplace hungry for innovation. Apple is often spotlighted as a pioneer of the design-centric business. But another computer company preceded Apple in making design an integral part of corporate culture. Sixty years ago IBM’s CEO Thomas Watson Jr. decided he wanted to “put my stamp on IBM through modern design.” Watson understood that “good design is good business.” And he invested heavily in design across all aspects of IBM. More about that in a moment.

Why Design Everything?

Because otherwise, you’re leaving something to chance. Because design clarifies and builds the power of your brand. Design guides innovation and increases the chances of adoption. It makes products work better and creates a consistent visual language that enhances recognition and imbues products with corporate values. It creates positive work environments and simplified processes. It humanizes products and services, enhancing experiences for both customers and employees. It provides efficiencies—giving internal teams continuity rather than continually reinventing the wheel. And it helps create corporate culture.

IBM Succeeds by Design

In 1956, Thomas Watson Jr hired the industrial designer and architect Elliot Noyes to help make IBM a design-driven company. Author Steven Heller writes that Noyes, “oversaw the modernization of all aspects of the brand. IBM became the company to beat, the paradigm of the modern corporation.” Noyes described his role as a “curator of corporate character.” He explained: “Part of the role of the designer (is) 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.”

In fact the history of IBM reads like the story of mid-century modern design. Noyes corralled a team of skilled design consultants and funneled their talents so the output emanated from one underlying philosophy and laddered up to one, very modern brand. Including products designed by Noyes himself, to architecture by Eero Saarinen, exhibits and films by Charles and Ray Eames, and the IBM brand identity by Paul Rand. Every touchpoint, every encounter—for both customer and employee—was designed.

Each designer brought a different perspective, but there was a consistency of process that included digging deep to learn the meaning behind the business, and the true purpose of the thing being designed. “(The early IBM designers) taught us that if you don’t understand something, you can’t design it,” says Lee Green, IBM’s former VP in charge of design. “Design has to be purposeful. It’s not about cosmetics and decoration. It’s about substance.”

IBM prospered as a result. From 1955 to 1965, during its pioneering design heyday, IBM grew from a $700 million business to a $3.7 billion giant.

Today we see that design is essential for businesses of all types and sizes. Manufacturers and service businesses large and small now understand that, through design, they can create positive experiences and bring customers to the table. And everything counts.

* Image courtesy of Tomislav Medak via Creative Commons licensing. Alterations to original image are edits to lighting and removal of background.

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