Leading by design

“I tell engineers that if the problem they’re trying to solve includes people, they probably need design,” says IBM 2017 Fellow Charlie Hill.

Hill, who co-founded IBM Design Thinking in 2012 with Phil Gilbert, GM for IBM Design, explains that design thinking comes into play in virtually every aspect of every product that we buy — or choose not to buy.

Say you’re shopping for a new coffeemaker. Pretty much any one on the shelf is going to make a perfectly fine cup of joe. So what makes one a best-seller and another a dog? Lots of things, from the way it looks sitting on your counter to how easy it is to clean. How much noise does it make? Is it adaptable enough to make one cup or twelve, depending on the user’s needs? Will it keep the coffee warm enough without stewing it, so the third cup tastes as good as the first? Factor in every coffee variable you can think of and you begin to get an idea of the range of issues encompassed in design thinking.

Portrait of Charlie Hill

Charlie Hill, IBM Fellow; vice president, Platform Experience


I tell engineers that if the problem they’re trying to solve includes people, they probably need design

“IBM has a great history of using design and, in fact, we had the first corporate design department back in the late ’50s,” says Hill. “Elliot Noyes, a great designer, was the first head of design at IBM and the company hired a number of other famous designers in the 1950s and ’60s and onward. But then the business changed tremendously. IBM became much more of a services company, and the corporate design mission just fell behind where the company was. In the last couple of decades, IBM has acquired well over 150 companies, and it has become more important than ever to have strong corporate design identification.

“That’s where Phil [Gilbert] and I were coming from,” he continues. “There was no longer a discernible corporate design department at IBM. There was strong design around our brand, around marketing communications, but in product development there were just little pockets of design here and there and no unity across them.”

IBM design lab at work


We set ourselves a goal of hiring a hundred designers that first year, and we’ve now hired over a thousand.

The core principle of design thinking is simple: shape your product’s design to meet your user’s wants and needs. In practice, it’s far from simple. It means working backward from the user experience to determine the details of an offering or product.

The practice of design thinking is fast-paced and highly collaborative. Designers work to discover unmet user needs, define the scope of the problem, generate potential solutions and then test and refine those solutions.

Apple founder Steve Jobs was perhaps the most visible early proponent of design thinking, though he didn't call it that. He relentlessly drove a focus on giving customers what they wanted, even if they themselves didn’t yet know what that was. The company developed a reputation for creating products that just felt right to users; that seemed to feed an intuitive sense of what worked.

Hill, who holds a master’s degree in design from the Royal College of Arts in London, and a PhD in engineering, spent four years designing products at Apple before coming to IBM 19 years ago in product development.

As vice president of platform experience, Hill is able to use all the skills he’s developed in research and design. “What I love about this job is that we work on really fascinating, difficult problems — problems that affect how society functions, how business works. Design is a strategic competency that can connect the dots between the world of our clients and our technical and business innovators and bring that all together in a powerful way.”

A woman writes on a glass wall between sticky notes

There was certainly an opportunity for a kind of allergic reaction to what we were doing, and there were occasions where antibodies showed up on the scene

The design group’s evolution at IBM

“We brought in our first group of designers in January 2013, and since then we’ve very intentionally scaled up our capabilities around what we call people, practices and places,” says Hill

People is about bringing designers in and building a design leadership at IBM.” Design is now a fully realized career track at IBM, including high-level designers who hold titles of distinguished designer and design principal on the individual contributor side, and vice president on the management side. “Our intention is to build a new kind of leader at IBM — a design leader who is operating on a par with the top technical talent in engineering.

Practices is all about orienting the work we do around user outcomes. It’s about understanding and shaping the experiences that people have of our offerings, whatever those offerings might be.

Places refers to creating great workspaces for multidisciplinary teams to work in an agile fashion.”

“There was certainly an opportunity for a kind of allergic reaction to what we were doing, and there were occasions where antibodies showed up on the scene,” Hill recalls. “The very first time we did it, we invited two teams. One was a large legacy team and the other was a smaller, recently acquired start-up team. When the legacy team showed up Monday morning, one of their managers came in and said, ‘I’m here to shut this down.’ He thought it would be complete BS.

“But what they experienced was the power of working across disciplines in a very real-time way, in a visual and concrete way, grounded in the common currency of user needs. Within a few hours, they were making new discoveries about what they might want to do in their projects — and they’d been working together for months and not had those moments before. By the middle of the second day, that particular manager was sold on what we were doing and became a firm supporter of the effort.”

IBM Design Thinking exercise

Recruiting for growth

Recruiting the right people has meant developing relationships with universities and design schools that haven’t traditionally been on IBM’s radar. It’s working: “We set ourselves a goal of hiring a hundred designers that first year, and we’ve now hired over a thousand,” says Hill.

The organization also looks to hire mid-career design professionals, and to ensure the employee pool reflects the marketplace. Hill says, “we’ve worked to raise the diversity of our more senior leadership ranks to match the designer population as a whole. Today our population of Design Principals is more than 50% female and under-represented minorities, in line with the broader designer population at IBM.

“It’s a very competitive talent market,” he says, crediting the company’s culture with its success in recruiting designers. “One reason I stayed at IBM is I like the collaborative spirit here and the challenging nature of the problems we work on. I feel that to be at IBM is to be a student of the world.”

A touch screen with candidate photos