Good Design Is Good Business

It is absolutely amazing that despite the fact that IBM’s Corporate Design Program, the first of its kind in America,  has practically only one serious attempt to analyze it, to history it, to understand it, to put it into perspective, when we know how many billions a brand is worth, and IBM has been one which more consistently kept its value. I would risk to say that IBM as it was on the mind of the Watsons, father and son, has vanished and it hasn’t vanished for good yet, because of its image. This book is The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976 (A Quadrant Book).

Design to what?

We should have in the back of our minds the whole “tour de force” article of Thomas Haigh Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 1, Pages 32-37, because it’s not obvious what the design shouldexpress and, as matter of fact, it is subtle and it seems to me most people don’t realize that what is in every body’s mind as Big Blue can be realized under two sets of perception:

  1. Predominant, prevalent, “to the eyes” impression
  2. Computing and human relationship “in deep” impression
 I -Predominant, prevalent, “to the eyes” impression

Everything that takes form physically in three or two dimensions or you can see it printed as a logo, for example, or in pictures. Buildings, the machines themselves.The IBM logo  in this category.

II-Computing and human relationship “in deep” impression  
This is about what the computer actually does. Generally associated with science, specially under mathematics. You can’t see it not only because millions of such things are taking place in a blink of the eye, but also because it involves trainning to understand what is happening.

 I -Predominant, prevalent, “to the eyes” impression

Before we tackle this subject, it should be said that the title, Good Design Is Good Business is from 1973 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania, Thomas Watson Jr delivered, despite he was the father of it all almost immediately after his father’s demise when he became President, back in 1956, when he hired as the company’s design consultant Eliot Noyes.

There is the “oficial version” at IBM’s at 100’s commemorative site, created in 2011, where basically the history goes that Thomas Watson Jr, strolling the neighborhood of 590 Madison Av. NY headquarters was impressed with Olivetti’s typewriters shop, not only with the machines themselves, but with the brightness and modern looking of the building.  This was 1956 and I quote from the above site:

“In 1956, Watson Jr. hired as the company’s design consultant Eliot Noyes, a well-respected architect and former curator of industrial design at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Noyes’s goal was to create a first-of-a-kind corporate design program that would encompass everything from IBM’s products, to its buildings, logos and marketing materials. The goal was much more than consistency of look and feel. It marked perhaps the first time in which a business organization itself—its management, operations and culture, as well as its products and marketing—was conceived of as an intentionally created product of the imagination, as a work of art. “In a sense, a corporation should be like a good painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract,” Noyes wrote.”

The rest is history and the first suggestion I have for readers is to read the entire entry on the quoted site, for starts.

If you can’t or does not want to buy the only book on the subject there is to it to my knowledge, it doesn’t matter, you can read only what it is offered on line by Amazon, which is enough. Including one review from an old timer IBM r, criticizing the book.

From the benefit of Internet and since we are now in 2018, you should read the the amazing tour de force from Thomas Haigh Communications of the ACM, Vol. 61 No. 1, Pages 32-37

Before I elaborate my considerations, after living there 22 years, let’s first take a look at a visual list of  10  IBM Design Gems:


Elliot Noyes, pictured, was an architect and former curator of industrial design  at MOMA,  NY and became responsible to implement a corporate design program not only to atend the huge expansion of plants and office but also graphic and industrial design. He personally designed the iconic IBM typewriter. Among the artists, designers and architects he hired were: Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe.

ibm logo history

Noyes hired Paul Rand which woul later modify again the IBM logo and the THINK

IBM 702 Display at 590 Madison Av. created by Elliot Noyes

IBM 702 at 590 Madison av NY

ibm-thomas watson jr



Eero Saarinen Rochester, Minn., 1958 IBM 576 000 sq feet facility


Eero Saarinen second building for IBM, the Thomas J Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, NY, completede in 1961


IBM Aerospace Defense building

IBM aerospace 1

The IBM Pavillion at the 1964 World’s Fair in New York, designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen.

IBM 1964 W Fair Pavillion

Mid 1960’s Isamu Noguchi Armonk Headquarters gardens

IBM Armonk I Noguchi gardens

Marcel Breuer and Thomas Tatjie Boca Raton, Flafacilities, 1970

IBM Boca RAton

Norman Foster, british architect IBM Pilot Head Office in Portsmouth, England, 1971

IBM Portsmouth

Mies van der Rohe 1971 (after his death in 1969) One IBM Plaza, Chicago (landmark, 2008)

IBM Chicago

II-Computing and human relationship “in deep” impression 

No body, architect, designer or anything else, contributed more than Charles and Ray Eames to making it possible to figure ou what happens inside of a computer, specially an IBM one. The subject will be covered using their approaches as it was possible ate the time they did it,  but a bit of consideration from the benefit of today (2018) is worth an attempt and the reader should go there and come back here:

What actually happens inside of a computer?

Charles and Ray Eames

Charles Ray Eames

“Charlie can put what a computer does into a little cartoon-like film and in the course of twelve minutes have everybody in the room understanding—how they work.” – Thomas Watson Jr.Designers and artists, Charles and Ray Eames created during their long career a prodigious body of work that includes sculpture, installation, film, photography, furniture and toys. The Eames Office was frequently hired to create educational installations for museums and companies that benefited from the couple’s experimental approach and pioneering use of innovative technologies. Charles and Ray Eames worked as design consultants for IBM from 1953 until their deaths in 1978 and 1988, respectively. That body of work includes exhibits and films for the IBM pavilions at the 1958, 1964, and 1968 world’s fairs, including the films The Information Machine: Creative Man and the Data Processor and Think. Their iconic 1968 film Powers of Tenremains a classic to this day.

(From IBM 100)

Although Charles and Ray Eames had projects which touched architecture, such as they participation in the IBM Pavillion of the World’s Fair ad 1964, their contribution deserves an understanding because what they did has a kind of its own.  It’s not obvious and subtle and it seems to me that because of that they haven’t yet deserved the differentiated role that they had in the imagery has in the back of every body’s mind of Big Blue. This can be perceived under the two sets of perception aforementioned:

  1. Predominant, prevalent, “to the eyes” impression
  2. Computer and human relationship “in deep” impression
 I -Predominant, prevalent, “to the eyes” impression

Supporting Great Design

For Watson Jr., greatness included a commitment to elegance in design and the finest in modern architecture. An IBM System 360 featured prominently in the recent TV show Mad Men, where its stylish complexity symbolized the rise of analytic approaches to advertising. Today the clean, confident design aesthetic of the 1950s and early 1960s is more popular than ever. Period houses, furniture, and consumer products sell for a premium. No company did more to popularize that aesthetic and bring it into the American mainstream than IBM.

As documented by John Harwood in his book The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976, IBM’s design chief, Eliot Noyes, assembled one of the most influential teams in history. Their skills were applied not only to the firm’s computers and office products, which received a unified and stylish industrial design language, but also to documentation, public exhibits, and architecture. IBM hired Charles and Ray Eames, probably best remembered today for their iconic chairs, to produce one of the earliest exhibits on the history of computing. Its landmark buildings, which hoisted the firm’s logo like a flag in the leading cities of the free world, were designed by star architects such as Mies van der Rohe.

IBM’s greatness also rested on its commitment to science. For its research headquarters, in Yorktown Heights, IBM turned to industrial architect Eero Saarinen, responsible for such futuristically iconic structures as the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the TWA terminal at JFK airport. The lab curves in an oval shape, glowing in the dark like a flying saucer. Into the 1950s IBM retained a hands-on, product-centered engineering culture, long after Bell Labs and General Electric hired scientists and built up centralized research and development centers. By the 1960s, however, its international network of research facilities set the standard for corporate commitment to research. Its researchers, envisioned by Saarinen as “tweedy pipe-smoking men,” enjoyed the enviable conjunction of university-like research facilities with IBM’s generous pay and benefits and freedom from teaching duties. The firm’s Nobel prizes came from basic research into fields such as superconductivity and electron microscopy. IBM’s willingness to fund basic science reflected the many possibilities for payback across the huge range of products it developed and manufactured, from semiconductors and core memories to disk drives, keyboards, punched cards, printers, and dictating machines.

From 1853 to 1978, Charles and to 1988, Ray, were involved in the following projects: (Before that, take a look in this set of questions and answers):

1 – What is design?

The questions and answers below were the conceptual basis of the exhibition Qu’est ce que le design? (What is Design?) at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Palais de Louvre in 1972. Questions by Madame. L. Amic, answers by Charles and Ray Eames

During the interview, Charles Eames answers questions about the role and meaning of design in society but also the constraints in furniture and industrial design. The interview is a complete and interesting overview about the principles that drove Charles Eames across his fortunate and successful career as furniture designer, illustrator, movie director and architect.

Video Transcription:
Mme. L. Amic: What is your definition of “Design,” Monsieur Eames?
Mr. Eames: One could describe Design as a plan for arranging elements to accomplish a particular purpose.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design an expression of art?
Mr. Eames: I would rather say it’s an expression of purpose. It may, if it is good enough, later be judged as art.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design a craft for industrial purposes?
Mr. Eames: No, but Design may be a solution to some industrial problems.

Mme. L. Amic: What are the boundaries of Design?
Mr. Eames: What are the boundaries of problems?

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design a discipline that concerns itself with only one part of the environment?
Mr. Eames: No.

Mme. L. Amic: Is it a method of general expression?
Mr. Eames: No, it is a method of action.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design a creation of an individual?
Mr. Eames: No, because to be realistic. One must always recognize the influence of those that have gone before.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design a creation of a group?
Mr. Eames: Very often.

Mme. L. Amic: Is there a Design ethic?
Mr. Eames: There are always Design constraints, and these often imply an ethic.

Mme. L. Amic: Does Design imply the idea of products that are necessarily useful?
Mr. Eames: Yes, even though the use might be very subtle.

Mme. L. Amic: Is it able to cooperate in the creation of works reserved solely for pleasure?
Mr. Eames: Who would say that pleasure is not useful?

Mme. L. Amic: Ought form to derive from the analysis of function?
Mr. Eames: The great risk here is that the analysis may be incomplete.

Mme. L. Amic: Can the computer substitute for the Designer?
Mr. Eames: Probably, in some special cases, but usually the computer is an aid to the Designer.

Mme. L. Amic: Does Design imply industrial manufacture?
Mr. Eames: Not necessarily.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design used to modify an old object through new techniques?
Mr. Eames: This is one kind of Design problem.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design used to fit up an existing model so that it is more attractive?
Mr. Eames: One doesn’t usually think of Design in this way.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design an element of industrial policy?
Mr. Eames: If Design constraints imply an ethic, and if industrial policy includes ethical principles, then yes: Design is and element in an industrial policy.

Mme. L. Amic: Does the creation of Design admit constraint?
Mr. Eames: Design depends largely on constraints.

Mme. L. Amic: What constraints?
Mr. Eames: The sum of all constraints. Here is one of the few effective keys to the Design problem: The ability of the Designer to recognize as many of the constraints as possible. His willingness and enthusiasm for working within these constraints- constraints of price, of size, of strength, of balance, of surface, of time, and so forth. Each problem has its own peculiar list.

Mme. L. Amic: Does Design obey laws?
Mr. Eames: Aren’t constraints enough?

Mme. L. Amic: Are there tendencies and schools in Design?
Mr. Eames: Yes, but these are more a measure of human limitations than of ideals.

Mme. L. Amic: Is Design ephemeral?
Mr. Eames: Some needs are ephemeral. Most Designs are ephemeral.

Mme. L. Amic: Ought Design to tend towards the ephemeral or towards permanence?
Mr. Eames: Those needs and Designs that have a more universal quality tend toward relative permanence.

Mme. L. Amic: How would you define yourself with respect to a decorator? an interior architect? a stylist?
Mr. Eames: I wouldn’t.

Mme. L. Amic: To whom does Design address itself: to the greatest number? to the specialists or the enlightened amateur? to a privileged social class?
Mr. Eames: Design addresses itself to the need.

Mme. L. Amic: After having answered all these questions, do you feel you have been able to practice the profession of “Design” under satisfactory conditions, or even optimum conditions?
Mr. Eames: Yes.

Mme. L. Amic: Have you been forced to accept compromises?
Mr. Eames: I don’t remember ever being forced to accept compromises, but I have willingly accepted constraints.

Mme. L. Amic: What do you feel is the primary condition for the practice of Design and for its propagation?
Mr. Eames: The recognition of need.

Mme. L. Amic: What is the future of Design?

…. (no answer, perhaps Eames already dit it when saying The recognition of need… which, after all, it is also the past and the present…)

2- A Computer Perspective

From the perspective of today (2018) probably the best start is to  look carefully at the book which resulted from a permanent exposition IBM used to have at 590 Madison Av. NY, at the floor level about the inception of the computer.

3 – Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond

4 – Powers of Ten


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