Inside IBM Design: The era of fetishizing the process of design is finally ending

Results, not Post-Its.
Results, not Post-Its.
Image: Courtesy of Invision
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Can you teach an old company new tricks? IBM’s metamorphosis into the world’s largest design-oriented company hasn’t been easy. The Loop, a new documentary produced by digital design company InVision, gives an illuminating peek into how the 109-year old company is convincing staff that embracing a design mentality is the key to its survival.

Instead of just handing IBMers a corporate mandate, the company is encouraging critical voices to shape the design program.  Phil Gilbert, general manager of IBM design and the company’s chief design ambassador, explains that building a sustainable design culture involves encouraging continuous self-inquiry and even provoking internal debate. “Critics, critical thinking and argument are always welcome—and I’m using argument in a classical sense,” he explains. “We have a saying ‘we want our people to have strong opinions, loosely held.'”

To move employees toward a deeper understanding of design, Gilbert first had to articulate the definition of “design” for IBM’s 380,000 employees around the world—a tricky semantic assignment even within the design industry itself. Not only did Gilbert have to clarify a fuzzy, oft-misunderstood concept to a broad audience, but he had to appeal to staffers who were not entirely sold on the idea, including many of the engineers.

Instead of fetishizing the colorful parts of design that are seen as mysterious—brainstorming, ideating, drawing, prototyping—like most design innovation firms do, Gilbert took a different route. He spoke in terms of results.

For Gilbert, all those “design thinking” Post-It pow-wows, slick whiteboard doodles, and user-empathy excursions that are used to illustrate design today are essential but ultimately not the point. “For me design has always been about scaling quality. It’s all it is—it’s a business outcome.”

Gilbert was running a software company when he realized that thinking like a designer allowed him to get into the heads of customers and better anticipate their needs. “It wasn’t until I ran into the formalism of design that I realized, this was a way to scale,” he elaborated in a follow-up call with Quartz. “There were people formally trained in sweating the details of a human’s experience with a product, or an idea, or an action.”

His pragmatic definition of design’s utility is refreshing amid the battle over the term “design thinking” that has pre-occupied design circles. Is design thinking redundant? (Design, like all pursuits, involves thinking after all.) Is it a marketing ploy? Is it bullshit? What IBM reminds us is that design’s power doesn’t happen in the drawing board but in its repercussions.