IBM Stu­dios

Greg Storey ex­plains how the Stu­dios teams are help­ing in­stil a cul­ture of de­sign at IBM

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It’s no se­cret that over the past few years IBM has been hir­ing hun­dreds of de­sign­ers and rapidly scal­ing up its de­sign teams in a bid to place de­sign firmly at the core of its cul­ture. At the cen­tre of this is IBM De­sign Think­ing, a set of prin­ci­ples that are be­ing taught to tens of thou­sands of IBM em­ploy­ees, whether they work in de­sign or in a call cen­tre.

With ap­prox­i­mately 400,000 em­ploy­ees in to­tal, rewiring the com­pany’s col­lec­tive think­ing is a ma­jor op­er­a­tion. We quizzed Greg Storey, de­sign prac­tice man­ager at IBM Stu­dios – the cul­tural cen­tres of de­sign at IBM – on how the trans­for­ma­tion is go­ing.

net: How would you de­scribe the kind of de­sign com­mu­nity you’re try­ing to build? GS: We are build­ing a com­mu­nity of pas­sion­ate and amaz­ingly tal­ented de­sign­ers that, by na­ture, finds needs and fills them. We are build­ing a cul­ture of pro­fes­sion­als who move things for­ward to the best of their abil­ity, in­stead of hid­ing be­hind mile­stones. We are build­ing a cul­ture of de­sign­ers who like to make, and do so – whether it’s in the form of a print stu­dio, global ra­dio sta­tion, vir­tual re­al­ity project or a kick-ass Hal­loween party. We are build­ing a di­verse cul­ture of de­sign rep­re­sented through in­di­vid­u­als from all around the world and from all walks of life.

net: Nu­mer­ous com­pa­nies are build­ing de­sign sys­tems at the mo­ment. What sets IBM apart? GS: To­day, IBM is scal­ing de­sign and de­sign think­ing at a scale no one has at­tempted be­fore. De­sign think­ing drives the cre­ation of hun­dreds of prod­ucts, ser­vices and dig­i­tal plat­forms for en­gag­ing IBM clients and em­ploy­ees.

To give you an idea of the scale we have to con­sider, IBM has roughly 400,000 em­ploy­ees

and con­trac­tors around the world. Add to that the mil­lions of IBM prod­uct users and clients (and their clients) and you get an idea of how our de­sign sys­tems have to scale. IBM is sin­gu­lar in this re­gard.

net: How is IBM tack­ling this?

GS: Im­ple­men­ta­tion takes place through a com­pany-wide ed­u­ca­tion series and a va­ri­ety of work­shops. Roughly 200 mul­ti­dis­ci­plinary teams across IBM are us­ing de­sign think­ing in their work – split be­tween prod­uct and client-fac­ing teams. 25,000 IBMers have al­ready re­ceived de­sign think­ing ed­u­ca­tion. By the end of this year, that num­ber will grow to 100,000.

net: Tell us about IBM’s de­sign his­tory ...

GS: While this fo­cus on de­sign may be rel­a­tively new for many com­pa­nies, that is not the case for IBM. In 1956 – 60 years ago – shortly af­ter be­com­ing pres­i­dent of IBM, Thomas Wat­son Jr. hired Eliot Noyes to cre­ate a first-of-its-kind cor­po­rate de­sign pro­gramme, which en­com­passed ev­ery­thing from IBM prod­ucts and build­ings to lo­gos and mar­ket­ing col­lat­eral. Noyes ex­tended his team by hir­ing some of the best de­sign tal­ent in the world as con­sul­tants, in­clud­ing Paul Rand, and Charles and Ray Eames. Later, at a lec­ture at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia in 1973, Wat­son made the iconic state­ment that “good de­sign is good busi­ness”. This strong de­sign her­itage is an­other thing that sets IBM apart.

net: You’ve hired hun­dreds of de­sign­ers in a rel­a­tively short space of time. How do you man­age that rate of re­cruit­ment?

GS: IBM De­sign gen­eral man­ager Phil Gil­bert and his core team knew that to hire as many de­sign­ers as they wanted in such a short time they would need to re­cruit di­rectly from uni­ver­si­ties and de­sign schools. Spe­cial at­ten­tion (and staff) was di­rected towards re­cruit­ing and ad­vo­cat­ing the unique op­por­tu­ni­ties IBM de­sign­ers face com­pared to what other com­pa­nies are do­ing. The mes­sage has been well re­ceived, as tens of thou­sands of port­fo­lios have been sub­mit­ted by grad­u­ates from nearly 100 de­sign schools, in­clud­ing Stan­ford, SCAD, Carnegie Mel­lon, RISD and Par­sons.

net: What do you look for when hir­ing? GS: Pas­sion­ate prob­lem solvers who are able to em­pathise with users and use that

em­pa­thy to make ex­cep­tional ex­pe­ri­ences. We are look­ing for re­searchers, de­sign­ers, and de­vel­op­ers from a va­ri­ety of skillsets and back­grounds, from re­cent grad­u­ates to in­dus­try vet­er­ans.

We want to see port­fo­lios with strong craft, ev­i­dence of com­plex prob­lem­solv­ing skills (or sys­tems-level think­ing), and tech­ni­cal vi­tal­ity (show­ing that you un­der­stand tech­nol­ogy and know the tools of the trade). Lastly, we need to see that all the work is hu­man-cen­tred.

net: How are things evolv­ing since you started scal­ing up de­sign teams?

GS: Well, the floors are get­ting a bit more crowded as we hire more and more de­sign­ers. Evo­lu­tion of the pro­gramme is mul­ti­fac­eted, be­gin­ning with a big up­date to IBM De­sign Think­ing, IBM De­sign Language, and the re­cent un­veil­ing of the brand new IBM De­sign Re­search. Ev­ery team and pro­gramme within IBM Stu­dios uses these tools to im­prove how they func­tion and serve their users.

net: What are the core con­cepts of IBM De­sign Think­ing?

GS: Ev­ery­thing is a pro­to­type – ev­ery­thing should be con­sid­ered a work in progress and re­it­er­ated based upon users’ needs and ad­vance­ments in tech­nol­ogy. At the cen­tre of IBM De­sign Think­ing is ‘The Loop’, a set of three be­hav­iours (Ob­serve, Re­flect, and Make) that en­cour­age con­tin­u­ous at­ten­tion to the prod­ucts and ser­vices we de­liver. For more de­tails, I rec­om­mend read­ing the play­book, which is com­pletely open to the public:­sign/think­ing.

net: How did the De­sign Think­ing prin­ci­ples shape Bluemix, your tool for cloud app devel­op­ment?

GS: There is a fan­tas­tic ar­ti­cle about this very topic that I rec­om­mend read­ing ( netm.

ag/bluemix-286). Sim­ply put, IBM De­sign Think­ing forced the Bluemix de­sign team to fo­cus on users in­stead of func­tions and ca­pa­bil­i­ties. From their re­search, they were able to work with man­age­ment and engi­neer­ing to cre­ate the ex­pe­ri­ences that de­vel­op­ers, from an ar­ray of com­pany sizes and types, wanted and needed.

net: How does de­sign fit into the rest of the com­pany?

GS: From what I have ob­served, de­sign fits into most of the or­gan­i­sa­tion start­ing with our de­sign think­ing. Dur­ing my first project at IBM, I worked with folks who run a sup­port call cen­tre. They walked me through the out­come from a de­sign think­ing workshop they had con­ducted on their own to im­prove how their team works to­gether. These folks are far from ever be­ing con­sid­ered ‘de­sign­ers’, but there they were, us­ing de­sign on their own with

suc­cess­ful out­comes. It’s fan­tas­tic! So how does de­sign fit into the rest of the com­pany? Like a glove.

net: As de­sign prac­tice man­ager, what does a typ­i­cal day look like for you?

GS: My sched­ule varies de­pend­ing on who I’m work­ing with that day. When you have stu­dios around the world, there are some cre­ative sched­ul­ing needs from time-to­time. Oth­er­wise my day is like most de­sign­ers’: it be­gins with cof­fee and ends with a bev­er­age that is not cof­fee.

net: What does your role in­volve?

GS: What­ever it takes. Some­times that means giv­ing a pre­sen­ta­tion on the IBM Stu­dios pro­gramme to a group of new hires. And some­times that means clean­ing up a stu­dio space af­ter a workshop and pre­par­ing it for a to­tally dif­fer­ent ac­tiv­ity. There is so much go­ing on on any given day that there are plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to shake up the sched­ule and do some­thing dif­fer­ent. I have yet to have one week be a re­peat of the last.

net: Your web­site de­scribes ‘em­pow­ered teams’ that can make de­ci­sions with­out hav­ing to wait for sign-off from mul­ti­ple stake­hold­ers. How does this work?

GS: I can’t speak for ev­ery team – it’s a very large com­pany – but my ex­pe­ri­ence is that we are not only em­pow­ered, but ex­pected to make de­ci­sions. On my team, we’re are tasked to move for­ward – even if that means mak­ing a mis­take – so as long as we learn from the ex­pe­ri­ence, and use it to in­form bet­ter de­ci­sions in the fu­ture. This free­dom and re­spon­si­bil­ity also help us be­come bet­ter Wild Ducks (

ducks-286) – independent thinkers who chal­lenge the sta­tus quo.

net: What are the phys­i­cal workspaces like at IBM Austin?

GS: We have two floors, both with open floor­plans. Al­most ev­ery­thing is on wheels (desks, chairs, white­boards and tele­vi­sions), which makes it easy to re­con­fig­ure team workspaces. The floor on which the IBM Stu­dios sits fea­tures four col­lab­o­ra­tive spa­ces with hang­ing white­boards, which we can use to di­vide each of those spa­ces into four work­ing ar­eas. These spa­ces are in con­stant use by de­sign­ers, ad hoc teams and work­shops.

This setup is in­cred­i­bly flex­i­ble – it can cater for a sin­gle de­signer work­ing on a big jour­ney map, right up to an IBM De­sign Think­ing workshop for 50 peo­ple or more. It’s pretty awe­some. Austin was the first stu­dio of this kind, and my team is work­ing to build out the ex­pe­ri­ence to all 29 stu­dios around the world.

net: How is the space dec­o­rated?

GS: Just about ev­ery wall sur­face is coated with white­board paint, which means there are sketches, jour­ney maps and wire­frames ev­ery­where. We have the Make Lab, fea­tur­ing a slightly used Amer­i­can Cameo au­to­matic press, and we have an HP De­sign­jet T2500 that is con­stantly crank­ing out large-for­mat prints. These things, com­bined with a met­ric ton of sticky notes, make for walls filled with ideas, schemat­ics, screen prints of orig­i­nal art, and all kinds of posters. Here and there you’ll find unique, one-off in­stal­la­tions cre­ated by a de­signer who had some time and a lot of in­spi­ra­tion. This is all to say; our walls are filled with won­der and amaze­ment, with a bit of amuse­ment here and there.

Bluemix IBM em­ploy­ees from dif­fer­ent dis­ci­plines – from prod­uct man­age­ment to engi­neer­ing – worked col­lab­o­ra­tively to cre­ate this user- cen­tred cloud app devel­op­ment tool

IBM De­sign Think­ing This frame­work forms the back­bone to IBM’s de­sign mis­sion

Wild ducks IBM em­ploy­ees are en­cour­aged to be ‘wild ducks’ – independent thinkers who chal­lenge the sta­tus quo. The idea is cap­tured in this film about four un­con­ven­tional IBM clients (

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