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  • Lou Killeffer

Introducing IBM Design Thinking

Late last month I joined my friends and colleagues in AIGA Connecticut at the historic, 18th-century deKoven House in Middletown for the sold-out workshop, Business of Design, led by the gifted Oen Michael Hammonds, the Head of Talent Enablement Experiences at IBM Design.

Learning what IBM is doing with design thinking - and how and why they're doing it - was an extraordinary experience.

Design Thinking

While it may seem obvious to some, particularly many in marketing, the primary principle of design thinking is to put the consumer first, not the company. To be, in fact, consumer centric and focus on understanding and fulfilling their wants and needs as the only proven path to profitable product development and marketplace success.

Now while we all know what design is, the critical distinction is that design was traditionally applied in the final stages of product development ostensibly to make goods and services as attractive as possible. Today, design thinking is applied at the front end, not just to increase desirability but to create true consumer-based utility, performance, and value. As such, effective design thinking becomes a key competitive advantage in producing products, differentiating your brand, creating consumer loyalty, and commanding a premium price. All of which combine to deliver every business’ two most elusive goals - successful innovation and sustainable topline growth. The most obvious example of which, of course, is Apple.

Importantly, design thinking begins with divergent thinking to encourage the greatest number of options from the start, before shifting to convergent thinking to settle and prove out the best possible solution. And as a process it typically proceeds through some variation of seven specific stages: define, research, ideate, prototype, choose, implement, and learn.

Today's design thinking has taken many forms across education, society and industry, but its increasing application to business can be traced almost directly to David Kelley who founded the design consultancy IDEO in 1991.

A significant sign of its consistently growing impact can also be found in the proliferation of design thinking programs at colleges and universities like, Harvard, MIT, and UVA, who’ve now joined the early advocates like RISD, Parsons, and Stanford (whose design program Kelley helped create).

Design thinking has been further popularized by a rather steady stream of crossover bestsellers from the business press, highlighted by the buzz surrounding books like Daniel Pink’s A Whole New Mind: Why Right Brainers Will Rule the Future, Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers: The Story of Success, and Tim Brown’s Change by Design: How Design Thinking Transforms Organizations and Inspires Innovation.

Our accelerating digital economy is clearly the primary driving force as the speed of near continuous change has shattered old business models and marketing methods and brought the primacy of the individual user experience increasingly to the fore. This is particularly true in tech where relentless advances in both digital and mobile have fostered easy-to-use software as a service over the Internet and disrupted the traditional definitions, and accompanying profit centers, in hardware, software and allied services.


Virginia “Ginni” Rometty began her career at IBM as a systems engineer in 1981; she became IBM’s first female Chairman, President and CEO in 2012; and in 2013 Ginni “bet the future” of the services division on design thinking by forming IBM Design.

Ms. Rometty has launched a targeted array of initiatives to both define the future and accelerate the pace of change at IBM. These include a renewed focus on the fields of data analytics, cloud computing, cyber security, mobile technology, and artificial intelligence. But she’s also said “design thinking is at the center” of what she wants to get done - and she’s operationalized it within perhaps the single largest, most engineering dominant culture in the world.

Interestingly enough, IBM boasts a rather unique design pedigree, dating back to the tenure of CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., who famously proclaimed “Good design is good business” and engaged some of the most preeminent figures in twentieth-century design on behalf of IBM, including Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand (whose remarkably mischievous IBM logo you see above), Charles Eames, and Eero Saarinen.

Design thinking is being broadly embraced across the tech services sector as the democratization of data threatens to destroy the traditional business of installing, managing, and servicing corporate IT. Future success requires no less than reimagining the customer experience to stay relevant - much less preferred - in an increasingly fast-paced, cloud-based world. Everyone seems to agree that customer insights, continuous feedback, and constant iteration are becoming the new ways of working.

Yet even in this context, Ms. Rometty’s ambitions are remarkable. That's because IBM is huge. With 375,000 employees doing business in 170 countries (the UN by comparison operates in 193) simply solving for speed and scale are the single biggest challenges to evolving the enterprise.

And while no doubt challenged today, if arguably late to some key markets in the past, IBM has an enviable record of self-reinvention throughout its 105-year history. As Ms. Rometty has told her shareholders, IBM's the only technology company that’s more than one hundred years old because of its continual ability to adapt and evolve. “Don’t underestimate us," she said, "This is in our DNA, this ability to transform."


As the oldest and largest professional membership organization for design, with 70 chapters and more than 26,000 members, the American Institute of Graphic Artists (AIGA) proudly advances design as a profession, a strategic advantage, and a vital cultural force for good in business and society.

Last November, AIGA announced IBM as its first Sponsor for Design Leadership, strengthening its relationship with AIGA’s creative communities by engaging IBM leaders and deploying their expertise across AIGA’s remarkable network. The multi-faceted AIGA/IBM partnership integrates leadership development skills and experience design across AIGA’s continuing activities, serving the organization’s 26,000 members as well as the 260,000 graphic designers in the U.S. who view AIGA as a critical authority and resource.

IBM and AIGA's mutual goal in this collaboration is to help AIGA scale its leadership capabilities so that design may have a bigger impact in the world; all while advancing the design profession and expanding its value as it addresses complex problems across sectors.

Business of Design Workshop

Oen Michael Hammonds is the Head of Talent Enablement Experiences at IBM Design.

As such he travels the world as part of the Education+Activation team developing programs and experiences for a wide array of executive, software development and sales teams. His prior career in advertising, graphic, interactive and environmental design propels his natural abilities as a leader and facilitator.

All that said, it’s hard to convey the tenor and texture of the workshop we shared. A straightforward description somehow falls far short of the experience.

Oen divided us into teams, and gave each team a variation on an elegantly simple and familiar problem - To design a better way for people to plan and prepare their meals throughout the week.

He then led us through a day of devising solutions that proceeded through several steps, including:

  • Empathy Mapping

  • Aligning on Pain Points

  • Devising Need Statements

  • Ideation

  • Prioritization, based on both User Impact and Corporate Feasibility, and

  • Initial Road Mapping

Believe me when I say it was a thoughtful, engaging, and productive experience, the first principles of which I highly recommend you down load here from the IBM Design Thinking Field Guide

Let's Think Together

So IBM’s on an admirable mission to create a culture of design thinking that will bring a human-centered focus to thousands of product and service experiences. Their approach is rooted in a deep focus on the people we're designing for and establishing an iterative work flow in which “everything is a prototype."

In doing so, they firmly believe “the technology we all use at work should be as delightful, intuitive, and efficient as the technology we use in the rest of our lives”. This is driven, to a very large degree, by their quite clear understanding that the customer experience is “the difference between winning and losing”.

Indeed, as Oen shared, according to Gartner 89% of companies believe that customer experience will be the primary basis for competition in 2017. (The comparable percentage in the 2011 study was only 36%)

For IBM, a large part of fulfilling themselves and addressing their competiton is embracing IBM Design. Their process then becomes "radical collaboration" in support of spreading the designer’s mindset throughout the corporation. And simple spreading doesn’t quite do justice to what they’ve undertaken and already accomplished.

Just consider:

  • 50,000 IBMers are now working this way

  • 350 IBM teams are now working this way

  • 1,200 formally-trained designers now work at IBM (which should scale up to about 1,500 total)

  • 100,000 IBMers have now been trained in design thinking

And all 375,000 IBMers will be design thinkers by the end of 2018: when completed, this transformation will make IBM the largest product design organization in the world.

Imagine that! Indeed, there’s a jaw dropping, moonshot quality to the ambition behind IBM’s embrace of a new way of working "that will impact humanity in ways that both matter and endure." And an extraordinary, even old-fashioned, sense of real corporate responsibility in sharing it across AIGA for the added benefit of so many. What a partnership...

So what does your future look like? How will you and your teams compete, much less stay relevant? What might design thinking mean for your enterprise? How much are you all willing to ask of yourselves and each other to change for the better?

Workshop photos courtesy of Kim Barker-Craven & Monique Duquette Design

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