Travelogue: Design Culture at IBM


A couple of weeks ago I spent a few days with a former graduate student of mine, Jordan Shade, who now works as a design researcher at IBM Design in Austin, Texas. News of IBM’s strategic reorientation around design innovation and human-centered design process has reached somewhat mythic proportions in the design world as the organization has committed to hiring 1,000 designers within a 5-year period that began about 18 months ago. And they are aggressively recruiting and training recent design graduates from bachelors and masters level design programs (this summer 100 new designers will be on-boarded, added to the approximately 300 that have already been hired). I first learned of this at A Better World by Design 2013, where some of the first wave of the newly created team were present to evangelize about IBM Design, including Doug Powell, who presented the conference keynote.


I hung around IBM Design’s vast 2-floor design studio for a day to get a sense of the work and the culture, shadowing Jordan, speaking with some of her colleagues, and generally studying the workspace and the visual evidence of their process. The initiative is impressive in many respects. For one, the studio space appears to be highly functional, supporting a large number of designers on multiple product teams and working in different modalities: spaces for large workshops, small team group work, private conversations, quiet reflection, video conferencing, formal presentation, vertical surfaces for large-scale visualization and ideation, and cafe environments for eating and socializing. The space is comfortable, accommodating different kinds of work, and flexible enough to respond to the rhythms of the design process.


Most impressive to me, though, is the intentionality with which IBM is building — or rather, prototyping — a design culture. The goal is ambitious and transformative: infuse a strong design ethos within a multinational enterprise software and business operations corporation (and one with some 430,000 employees). At the heart of this mission is design education, the transference of design process, methods and tools through project-based experiences. New hires fresh out of undergraduate and graduate design programs are brought to IBM Design’s Austin studio for an intense 3-month design camp during which they are oriented to the organization and culture, assigned to various product development projects, and pushed to quickly deliver results within a highly complex, iterative, and rigorous enterprise environment.

Expanding beyond the confines of the design studio, members of IBM Design’s Education and Activation unit travel around the world to other IBM sites to facilitate week-long design workshops with product development teams, most of which are already integrated with IBM designers. The goal of these engagements is to, again, transfer aspects of design thinking and human-centered design process by working closely with developers, engineers and managers. The dissemination of design culture — ultimately, a massive organizational change initiative — at this scale of an organization is so fascinating, not so much as a strategic goal, but in practice, in the specific methods, behaviors and relational work being done to meet this goal. The question remains to be answered, of course, about the net effect and impact of IBM’s reorientation around design, as judged by its key business metrics. How successful will the establishment of a new design culture be in transforming an organization?