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Design + Engineering at IBM

Posted on May 22nd, 2015 in Articles by Graeme

I had the privilige of joining IBM at an exciting time of significant change as the corporation has looked to reinvent itself. Amongst this large transformation has been the focus on bringing design back to the heart of IBM products. It sounds straight forward, but in practice has presented some unique challenges that you won't get anywhere else, and it's taught me so much in just a year.  

The aim of this post is to give you some insight to what it's like designing at IBM, and hopefully convince you to come and work with me.


 A new culture of design

The design movement has involved hiring a tremendous number of talented designers to bring design back to the heart of IBM products. It can’t be ignored that in recent times IBM has been engineering lead — it’s evident just by looking at the products in the last 10 years. So can hiring a load of designers actually bring real change to an engineering culture?


Design education

I can find 105,000,000 reasons why people hate change, so influencing people is one of the biggest challenges, and part of the IBM Design Thinking initiative I’ve been a part of. It has involved providing design education across different product teams, through running mini design camps which are still going on and having a large impact. The whole process has given us a chance to bring back awareness to design within IBM, something that had almost been forgotten since the times of Eames and Noyes.

Design education at such scale is something I never would have expected to be a part of before joining IBM, just another example of how the design roles are so varied here. Throughout my time here however, I’ve wondered if it’s enough to just keep teaching about design, as the real value is brought about when visible outcomes are produced — after all, the aim is to create iconic products that users need.


Making the right things

Outcomes of design thinking at IBM are becoming evident with products such as IBM Verse and Bluemix, not just in the way they look with the new design language, but also in how they work and the experience they provide for the user. Because of the shift to cloud, IBM is in a new market, competing against the likes of Amazon. We therefore need to gain an in depth understanding of the users in this market so that the right customer can be designed for, in the best way.

"They did not hire me to give them something they like, they hired me to give them something that works"  - Paul Rand


Design camp studio project

I found out first hand how tricky design can be at IBM whilst working on a studio project in Texas whilst on Design Camp. Our project revolved around the cloud marketplace, which is very broad. It consists of an array of users ranging from hobbyist developers right through to large enterprises, which makes it an uphill task to pinpoint where a problem may lie.

IBM’s existing relationships blurred the lines even more when designing our solution. For example, despite such a large segment of the market being made up of hobbyists and individual developers, IBM’s strong relations with enterprise level business partners had a large influence on what we were making. It actually seemed easier to focus on the larger customers, as we knew more about them as a company, and had more resources in the area. But to do so meant ignoring start-ups and small to medium sized businesses — a segment of users which has made Amazon Web Services so successful.

In a culture that’s firmly set, it can be easy to lose sight what you’re there for, and just go with the flow ticking boxes, eventually ending up as a fat piece of IBM furniture. Thankfully, design isn’t about being comfortable and building something because it’s what the corporation thinks is needed, or because we’ve been told to. We need to make it work.


Working With Rand from IBM on Vimeo.


As we push to bring our ideas to life, there is of course some resistance along the way, but this is changing, as the technology industry itself is changing to become a blend between design and computer science. This is great, as it’s leading to more collaboration between designers and engineers. Nowadays, it’s not rare to see designers wanting to learn code, and developers learning about design.


Collaboration is essential


Learning from eachother

At IBM Design, there’s a willingness to share expertise across each design discipline, which is creating a collaborative environment. I can walk across to a colleague and learn something new at any time in the day, and that’s what makes me want to get up in the morning. Enabling designers to code is also something which has gained large momentum on IBM Design Camps for new hires, and I think it’s essential as there’s no point designing something without being able to push it as far as you can.


Shared goals

Designing solutions without producing effective outcomes for our users is disappointing, as it means we won’t have the best end product — neither engineers or designers want that. We all want people to enjoy using our products, which means cohesion between designers and engineers is really important, thus both disciplines need to have a good understanding of eachother. That’s something we’re working towards at IBM, and I need your help.


New studio, more people!  

By joining, you'll also be working in an amazing new design studio, which is getting built very soon!

However for me, it's the people in the space that make it great, and I know it can be so much better with the right people. Our team is still relatively small, and I want more amazing people to collaborate with and learn from, so please apply or just get in touch if you have any questions.

Have any thoughts?