IBM has launched a new Distinguished Designer program to indicate the importance of design as part of the IBM culture and to recognize top designers within the company.
Big Blue established the role of Distinguished Engineer 20 years ago to highlight engineering innovation as critical to IBM’s success. Now IBM has named its first Distinguished Designers, who will drive innovation by leading the development of IBM’s design practices.
Indeed, IBM recognizes design as a technical craft on a par with engineering as critical to the long-term success of the company and key driver of value for its customers, said Fahad Osmani, talent director for IBM Design.
“From a standpoint of importance to the product development process, design is absolutely on par with engineering at IBM,” Osmani told eWEEK. “Would you ever need one designer for every engineer? Probably not. That’s not going to be a healthy ratio for any product development organization. But I would say from a voice in the room, first-class citizenship, decision-making influence, design is on par with engineering on all of those things on the projects we’re embedded with.”
IBM Design is three years into its mission of driving a culture of design within the company. The company has built what it claims is the world’s largest design team, with 1,250 designers and 29 design studios around the world. Designers work on multidisciplinary teams on IBM products; digital engagement platforms for customers via the company’s digital agency, IBM Interactive Experience (IBM iX); and branding and marketing initiatives.
And three years after launching its design effort in earnest, IBM has named three Distinguished Designers: Doug Powell, Adam Cutler and Charlie Hill. The new Distinguished Designers will report to Phil Gilbert, general manager of IBM Design.
Powell joined IBM in 2013 as director of the IBM Design Education + Activation program, where he has introduced IBM Design Thinking to hundreds of multidisciplinary project teams and tens of thousands of IBM employees. He previously was national president of the AIGA (formerly known as the American Institute of Graphic Arts), the professional association for design. Powell also is a lecturer and thought leader on design issues.
As an IBM Distinguished Designer for IBM Studios in Austin, Texas, Powell will drive the development of the global IBM Studios experience for IBM employees, clients and partners, with the goal of establishing a scalable and consistent global go-to-market platform for human-centered design, Osmani said.
Cutler joined IBM in 2001 after working in advertising in Chicago, during which his customer list included basketball legend Michael Jordan. He then served as director of User Experience Design at IBM iX, working with customers including OPENPediatrics for Boston Children’s Hospital. Since 2013, Cutler has been IBM Design practice director, where his team developed IBM Design Language and IBM Design Thinking. As an IBM Distinguished Designer for IBM Cognitive Design Practices in Austin, Cutler will drive IBM’s cognitive design agenda and the interface between humans and cognitive technologies. He will define “cognitive-specific” practices for IBM’s design language and education to be used by the company’s designers across the world. That includes cognitive practices for design research, user experience design and visual design.
Hill has experience with software design and delivery, as well as a research background in designing digital work environments. He was named an IBM Distinguished Engineer in 2012, and was instrumental in founding IBM’s Design organization. He served as IBM Design CTO, where he built new design capabilities and created a sustainable culture of design. Hill previously was a member of Apple’s Human Interface Group, where his design work focused on integrated hardware/software user interfaces and electronic workspaces.
As an IBM Distinguished Designer for Design Transformation at IBM’s studio in Cambridge, Mass., Hill will be responsible for establishing connections between designers and design practices and overall IBM culture and processes. This includes operating and management systems that measure the value of design across IBM. His focus areas include developing an approach to measuring user outcomes that can be implemented at scale across IBM and strengthening IBM’s talent development processes for designers.
Osmani said IBM’s latest transformation comes at a time when users expect enterprise IT to be as intuitive as their devices. There has been a change in the people who develop and purchase enterprise IT, he noted, and they expect technology to be easy to use. And IBM’s customers, including retailers, banks and others all want to create personalized, iconic digital experiences for consumers.
Osmani explained that about three years ago, just as Ginni Rometty was getting her feet wet as CEO, Big Blue was shifting its focus to working with both the traditional IT-focused customers and the business users within customer organizations. This was a change from its traditional role as a pure IT-focused company working directly with the IT organizations of its customers and developing hardware and software specifically for them, he said.
IBM Launches Distinguished Designer Program
“Those [business users] we recognized were very different from the IT individuals that we were used to,” Osmani said. “We knew that we had to put in a concentrated effort into understanding this new type of user that we didn’t intrinsically know as part of IBM’s culture. And we couldn’t use ourselves as a proxy for that. We had to take a user-first approach to the new software products and tools and systems of engagement that we were creating.”
To achieve this, IBM began to focus on user experience design and design thinking. However, the team quickly realized it had a big talent gap.
“We had way more engineers than we had designers to tackle this kind of new problem at IBM,” Osmani said. “So we needed to bring in design capacity at scale to solve this problem.”
Three years later, IBM has built a design force to be reckoned with, and regularly draws talent from the top design schools in the country, including Rhode Island School of Design, Parsons, Stanford, Carnegie Mellon and others. IBM Design also has attracted professional hires from industry leaders including Microsoft.
“We’ve had a strong emphasis on entry-level designers recently,” Powell told eWEEK. “We’ve been hiring from some of the top academic design programs in the world. And because of the scale that we are building this program at, it requires us to look at the entry-level pool of potential candidates. Many of our designers come from academic programs, many come from other tech companies or agencies or consultancies at the more senior level.”
New hires specialize in front-end development, user-experience (UX) design, visual design or design research. IBM designers work on software for analytics, cloud, Watson, security, mobile and open source, as well as on hardware. They also work on consulting services via IBM iX, where teams focus on design for everything from virtual showrooms for Jaguar’s Land Rover to making the Atlanta Falcon’s new stadium immersive and interactive and building business apps for the Apple Watch. The IBM designers also work on the IBM brand experience and digital marketing.
“We had to put in place something that recognized design as a permanent part of IBM culture and thought leadership at an executive level,” Osmani said. “We already had that from the engineering side. IBM has the Distinguished Engineer program in which we recognize people who have contributed something exceptional to the business of IBM. We wanted to create the same role for designers.”
Charles King, principal analyst at Pund-IT, said IBM’s “born again” focus on design began with the hiring of Phil Gilbert, who came to the company in 2010 as a result of IBM’s acquisition of Lombardi Software, where he was CTO.
“Gilbert began by leading IBM’s Business Process Management group, which was tasked with simplifying the company’s solutions and making them more user-friendly,” King said. “He’s taken that same sensibility into the IBM Design group, which is largely staffed by younger employees, whose sensibilities are decidedly less conventional than many IBMers. But the group has been a breath of fresh air in their focus areas, which include business applications and developer tools.”
The approach to design that IBM is applying is user-centered design, Powell said. In this approach, everything is about understanding the user.
“In that practice of design, the user will tell us if we’ve got a successful design,” he said. “IBM has published its design practice in framework called IBM Design Thinking. Within that practice we have a tactic we call Sponsor Users, where we bring the user into the design process with our design team. That has an amazing effect on the direction of the product or service we’re developing.”
King argues that it’s easy to forget how stellar IBM’s design efforts were for decades. He said he believes the company’s iconic “THINK” sign is one of the IT industry’s best-known mottos, and over the years IBM won numerous awards for consumer and business products, including its Selectric typewriters.
“So I believe it’s arguable that the efforts of the new IBM Design group are as much about returning the company it its former glory as they are plowing new ground,” he said.
Meanwhile, Osmani noted that in addition to honing its design efforts, IBM is trying to find a way to measure user sentiment in a programmatic way. Being able to more accurately measure user sentiment will have a direct connection to IBM’s bottom line, he said.