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Icons of Progress

Good Design Is Good Business


By forming the first corporate design program at IBM, Thomas Watson Jr., and Eliot Noyes forged a partnership that would shape thinking around corporate design and culture for decades to come. They believed that corporate design must be informed by character rather than surface image, and that “good design is good business.” Today, as a result of Watson and Noyes’s efforts, these principles continue to serve as some of the foundational tenets of the field of corporate design.

To build the program, Noyes drew on an extensive network of designers, architects, sculptors and other visual artists that he had cultivated during his tenure as director of the Department of Industrial Design at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMa, 1939–1946) and in the years that followed. Noyes welcomed them into the corporation’s corridors, to apply their methods and ideas to help shape IBM’s identity. As a result, a modern, forward-looking company was expressed in its choices of the architecture and art of its buildings, in the experiences it offered, and in the design of its products and marketing.

World’s fairs

A predecessor to the world expositions of today, world’s fairs were large public exhibitions held throughout the world beginning in the mid-19th century. The fairs typically displayed—and often introduced—technological and scientific inventions and advancements from around the world. Companies built “pavilions” at the fairs to present their proudest achievements. Eliot Noyes took great pleasure in directing the design of IBM’s pavilions, which provided unique opportunities to portray the company’s character to a global audience. Graphic designer Paul Rand created the brochure offered to visitors to the IBM Pavilion at the New York World’s Fair of 1964. The 28-page memento documented the experience of the pavilion. The pavilion itself was designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen.

Graphic design

Paul Rand shared Noyes’s belief that a company’s visual representation was inextricably tied to the quality of the company itself. Heavily influenced by modernist philosophy, Rand sought to “defamiliarize the ordinary” through his minimalist designs. His redesign of the company logo in 1956 under Noyes’s direction, while subtle, marked the first step toward an integrated corporate design program at IBM. It also gilded Rand’s reputation as a master of thoughtful logo design. He continued to help shape how IBM’s brand was expressed through his work on a wide range of printed materials—from annual reports to product packaging to posters to marketing materials—for more than four decades.