From THINK to FEEL: The Design transformation of IBM

by Digital Europe

Posted on 02-27-2018

As part of our exclu­sive Design is Pow­er pro­gram, you’ll get arti­cles like this, plus resources and inspi­ra­tion just for design lead­ers. Join here: [](

“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-cen­tred 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 way across dif­fer­ent devices and platforms.

Cus­tomers want­ed things to be famil­iar and intu­itive. They want­ed things that were 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 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.

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 ground-break­ing 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. IBM did more than just expand design­er ranks—it cre­at­ed a core team that focussed 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. IBM Design Think­ing con­sists of a repeat­able set of practises:

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 have an impact on 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 organ­i­sa­tion, 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.

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-cen­tred 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-cen­tred com­pa­nies sup­ports the con­clu­sion that “Design Think­ing wins.” When slow-out-of-the-gate com­pa­nies such as Airbnb and Slack turned their atten­tion to user-cen­tred design, their for­tunes fol­lowed. 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. (1)

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.

Want to get more arti­cles like this deliv­ered to your inbox each month? Learn more about our Design is Pow­er pro­gram and sign up here: [](

(1) “Design-Led Firms Win the Busi­ness Advan­tage,” For­rester, com­mis­sioned by Adobe,

Topics: Design, customer experience, experimentation, Innovation, UK, UK Exclusive, Digital EMEA