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By focusing on people and the systems they work in, IBM has designed products, spaces and solutions that harmonize industry and art
Designers Eliot Noyes and Jean Polak speak with Thomas J. Watson Jr

The story of one of the world’s most innovative corporate design programs has roots in the unlikely meeting of a pair of office mates at the US Department of Defense. Their collaboration would harmonize industry and art around a forward-thinking, people-centric aesthetic, one that continues to inform how IBM approaches nearly every aspect of its business.

Thomas J. Watson Jr. was running reconnaissance flights for the US Army Air Corps when he met glider pilot Eliot Noyes at the Pentagon during World War II. The men bonded over their fascination with flight and would reconnect serendipitously after the war. When Watson was a vice president at IBM, he retained Noyes’s employer, the New York industrial design firm Norman Bel Geddes & Co., to redesign its office machines. Noyes would assume the commission for IBM’s typewriters after Bel Geddes abruptly closed his firm in 1947.

Noyes’s first project, redesigning the popular Model B Executive Typewriter, was a huge success. He and IBM design engineers carefully crafted a whole new machine, a sleek, curvy model that far surpassed in visual appeal the uniformly boxy designs of other typewriters on the market. Consumers loved it. As did Watson Jr., who would ultimately hire Noyes for a succession of other projects, including the redesign of his own 16th-floor office at the company’s New York City headquarters.

Noyes’s goal was never just to make things pretty. It was to reflect the true essence of the subject and its relationship to the space around it. Typewriters, for example, weren’t just machines — they were vital organs within living, dynamic businesses. “Eliot knows how to put things together so that the whole thing works,” Watson Jr. said.

IBM, by Watson’s own admission, had lacked coherency in this area. “We had no design theme or effort then. No identifiable or pleasing typography. No consistent color plan,” he would later reflect. “Even our trademarks were laid out in jarring and dissimilar fashion.”

Noyes’s goal was never just to make things pretty. It was to reflect the true essence of the subject and its relationship to the space around it.
The dawn of IBM design

In 1956, Watson hired Noyes to run a first-of-its-kind corporate design program, incorporating everything from architecture to graphics to methods of work. “Design is an all-encompassing term,” Watson Jr. would say many years later in a speech at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school. “It always includes a mixture of the practical and the aesthetic.”

IBM was in a state of flux in the latter half of the 1950s, restructuring divisions to unwind a centralized management in favor of a more nimble and autonomous leadership structure. It had bet the future on the computer and was entering a period of torrid growth. Watson decided that expressing this change in corporate character required a holistic approach to design that broke from the company’s conservative image.

The way Noyes saw it, the mission wasn’t about templatizing colors and fonts. He felt a standardized visual motif wouldn’t age well and instead recommended a simple theme: “the best in modern design” to reflect quality and the progressive nature of this rapidly evolving global business.

Design is an all-encompassing term. It always includes a mixture of the practical and the aesthetic. Thomas J. Watson Jr. IBM’s second CEO
Building a design dream team

For Watson, design was always an enabler of business success. During his speech at the Wharton School he reminded the audience: “We don’t think design can make a poor product good … but we are convinced that good design can materially help a good product realize its full potential. Design can help make a good business great. In short, we think good design is good business.”

Good design, of course, requires good people. Noyes was a trailblazing creative, one of the “Harvard 5” mid-century architects who reimagined European modernism for a postwar American milieu. Though he considered himself an architect first and foremost, his “form-follows-function” sensibilities served him well in industrial design, where he did iconic work for IBM, Mobil and others.

His accomplishments, reputation and tireless quest to recruit talent helped Noyes enlist some of the 20th century’s most progressive and influential design minds to sculpt the image of the new IBM. Among his early collaborators was Paul Rand, the “father of graphic design.” Rand pioneered a distinctively American modernist style in his work, blending simplicity and practicality. He designed the now iconic IBM logo and would for years consult for IBM on graphics. His work with businesses on visual identity changed the public face of corporate America.

...we are convinced that good design can materially help a good product realize its full potential Thomas J. Watson Jr. IBM’s second CEO

Charles and Ray Eames designed displays, exhibitions and multimedia presentations, and were instrumental in redefining the interface between architecture and the company’s consumers. Their influence in American design extended far beyond IBM’s walls. The couple, who considered themselves tradespeople, influenced architecture, furniture and film by “solving problems,” Charles Eames once said. “We don’t do ‘art.’” 

Eames had met his wife Ray and future collaborator Eero Saarinen at the Cranbury Academy of Art in Michigan. Noyes discovered Charles and Saarinen at an organic furniture design challenge he’d sponsored in 1940, which together the two had won. Noyes would commission Saarinen, also an architect, to plan a new IBM plant in Rochester, Minnesota. Saarinen also would design the Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York. Saarinen achieved international acclaim, designing structures such as the St. Louis Gateway Arch and the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York.

“When I recommended Saarinen for the job, I was not thinking about what appearance his building would have,” Noyes said. “I was thinking that if he does the job, I will not have to worry about its integrity or its modernity, and these are certainly the qualities that IBM should represent.”

By 1960, the company was gaining broad recognition for its progressive approach to design, winning awards for its graphics work in brochures and its annual report. In 1966, the Design Program received the Tiffany Award for excellence in American design.

In 1966, the Design Program received the Tiffany Award for excellence in American design
Design renaissance

As IBM grew through the years in size, geographic footprint and product diversity, preserving a central design mission became more challenging. This was especially true as the company shifted its strategy from computers to services in the early 1990s. Over time, much of the design work was outsourced.

By 2012 there were about 200 designers left in a company of more than 300,000 IBMers. That’s when Phil Gilbert, who joined IBM through the acquisition of Lombardi Software in 2010, stepped in. Gilbert had built a design culture at Lombardi similar to the one Noyes and Watson Jr. nurtured half a century earlier. He would rejuvenate design at IBM, which today strives for “pervasive excellence” while staying closely connected to business goals.

This pragmatic and aesthetic approach has influenced a whole new generation of companies, committed to design as essential to expressing corporate identity and connecting products, spaces and people. Meanwhile, IBM has returned to design as an organizing principle. Today it employs more than 3,000 designers across departments, including human resources. The company has built more than 50 design studios around the world, pioneered a novel approach to problem-solving — known as enterprise design thinking — and trained hundreds of thousands of people in the practice.

Returning to its mid-20th-century roots, design at IBM once again informs everything — from architecture to communications — as a means of, in the company’s own words, “giving people a path, both emotionally and functionally, towards their goals.”

IBM design today >3,000 designers employed across departments >50 design studios built around the world
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