From THINK to FEEL: The Design transformation of IBM

by The Creative Cloud Team

posted on 09-18-2017

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“Design is so simple. That’s what makes it so complicated.”

— Paul Rand

In its 105-year history, IBM has created a lot of things. IBM invented the ATM, the barcode, the smartphone, fractal geometry, and laser eye surgery. In fact, IBM has more patents than almost any company in history. The company has won Nobel Prizes, has helped put a man on the moon, and has now embarked on one of the most ambitious experiments in corporate history.

This is the story of how IBM transformed itself from a company designed by engineers into a company engineered by designers by embracing Design Thinking.

Design Thinking is a human-centered approach to innovation that was first adapted for use in business by David M. Kelley, who founded IDEO, the legendary design consultancy. It’s iterative, flexible, and focused on collaboration between designers and users. Here, we use five stages of the Design Thinking process to help dive deeper into IBM’s inspiring, thought-provoking story.


To create meaningful innovations, you have to know your users and care about their lives.

In 2012, IBM faced a crisis. Companies were no longer looking for off-the-shelf software solutions. Businesses needed software that was tailored to the way their employees worked. The kind of software they could use without help from the IT department. Software that worked the same across devices and platforms.

Customers wanted things to be familiar and intuitive. They wanted things easy to learn and understand. They wanted IBM software to look and feel the same across a multitude of products, apps, and services, many of which had been acquired and were never designed to integrate with IBM’s fractured ecosystem.

In fact, what companies and customers both sought wasn’t just better software — it was a better software experience. And that raised a serious challenge. Improving the user experience of your products is not simply a matter of doing the same thing, only better. You must fundamentally change your approach. It isn’t about changing the way you build. It’s about changing the way you think.

IBM identified this necessity of having a customer-centric business model as core to its success and next sought to turn around the steamer ship of its established “that’s-how-it’s-always-been-done” thinking to make things nimbler and more design-centric.


Framing the right problem is the only way to find the right solution.

So, despite its past successes, IBM had begun to earn a reputation as a forward-thinking, backward-designing company by the early 2000s.

This was quite a shift from its celebrated history of working with some of the greatest designers of the time. Charles and Ray Eames both worked for IBM. Eero Saarinen and Marcel Breuer designed groundbreaking corporate architecture for IBM. Paul Rand designed its logo.

So why the shift? Part of the problem stemmed from the ratio of IBM designers to IBM engineers. As IBM grew in size, it employed more software engineers, eventually employing 33 coders for every one designer.

Having identified this imbalance, and seeking to elevate the role of design in the company, IBM hired more than 1,000 designers between 2012 and 2017 to bring the coder/designer ratio closer to 8:1.

IBM leadership knew it had to do more than just bring in more designers and hope they’d change the culture. In fact, shoehorning talented designers into a process tailored for coders and engineers is an expensive recipe for disaster. So IBM did more than just expand designer ranks — it created a core team that focused on redesigning processes to encourage the customer-centric problem-solving that’s the hallmark of Design Thinking.


It’s not about coming up with the right idea. It’s about generating the broadest range of possibilities.

Working with design thinking experts at IDEO and Stanford University, this core team created a repeatable set of practices known as IBM Design Thinking:

  1. Focus on outcomes not outputs. At IBM, we’re not measured by the features and functions we ship. We’re measured by how well we fulfill our users’ needs. Whether we’re helping them discover a cure for cancer, collaborate across continents, or just do their expense reports a little faster, our users rely on us to help get their jobs done every day.
  1. Treat everything as a prototype. Human needs fundamentally don’t change. The ways we address them do. Solve old problems in new ways.
  1. Move faster by empowering diverse teams to act. To ensure our teams’ ability to generate better ideas and deliver real-world outcomes for users, we consider two important team factors: diversity and empowerment.

Once IBM had created these principles, the next task was to communicate them to the entire company in a meaningful way. Not just by telling employees, but by actively and thoughtfully engaging them in an ideological and practical collaboration. This had real potential to impact nearly every facet of IBM’s corporate culture — as well as its bottom line.


Build to think. Test to learn.

The Design Thinking team launched the Design Camp pilot program — a calendar of interactive workshops for employees at every level, designers and non-designers alike — that explained how Design Thinking worked and demonstrated the real value it created.

For example, one Design Camp exercise is to reimagine existing processes. What if you applied the discipline of Design Thinking to something as simple as running a brainstorming session?

In a traditional approach, you might gather people in a room and start writing down people’s thoughts as they have them. In a Design Camp exercise, however, you’d reimagine this process, starting with the user.

What if everyone took an hour to write ideas on sticky notes and then shared a photo of these “notes” with brainstorming colleagues? The brainstorming session could be used to discuss the merits of each idea, whittling the list down to the very best three and working on next steps to prototype them. This method for brainstorming has proven to yield not only more ideas but better-quality ideas. All without adding any time or extra resources.

That’s the value of Design Thinking — reimagining new solutions to old problems. These Design Camps helped to not only drive a Design Thinking mentality across the entire organization, but they also helped IBM build the momentum needed to drive cultural change.


Testing is an opportunity to learn.

Another key component of IBM Design Thinking is to create a set of testable and measurable hypotheses about what you design and deliver. Testing these hypotheses helps determine whether or not you’ve managed to create the compelling product you’d hoped to build.

With your set of hypotheses in hand, you can then identify the smallest, least expensive thing that can be built and delivered quickly to test one of your hypotheses and help you learn and evaluate your effort.

So, at IBM, they don’t just build and test. They make, try, gather feedback, refine, and repeat. In this way, the goal is constant evolution and experimentation. And that’s a powerful approach that can have far-reaching ramifications beyond product development, filtering into every aspect of the way a company does business.


Both a willingness to be open to change, as well as the mettle to follow through on the hard work to make it happen, are hallmarks of companies that have stood the test of time. That an established, tech-focused company like IBM turned to Design Thinking (and designers themselves) to lead the charge for innovation speaks to design’s power as a discipline. But it also underscores the value of creativity itself as a dynamic, collaborative, and efficient way to solve problems at every organizational level.

In taking on the challenge of steering an extensive engineering culture toward a more agile, human-centered collaborative approach, IBM has continued its longstanding tradition of reinvention, of adapting to the ever-changing needs of its customers.

If history is any guide, IBM is in good company. The success of other forward-thinking, design-centered companies supports the conclusion that “Design Thinking wins.” When slow-out-of-the-gate companies like Airbnb and Slack turned their attention to user-centered design, their fortunes followed. In fact, research shows that 46 percent of design-led companies report a competitive advantage, 41 percent report greater market share, and (perhaps most importantly) 50 percent report more loyal customers.[i]

IBM has been in business for over a hundred years because it’s doing some things right — and one of those things might just be knowing when to lead and when to follow. In this case, IBM is following in the footsteps of companies far younger than it is. IBM and these like-minded companies have discovered one secret to success — the knowledge that Design is Power.

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[i] “Design-Led Firms Win the Business Advantage,” Forrester, commissioned by Adobe,

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