Restless reinvention

Company size

  • 350,000


  • Armonk, NY


  • Artificial intelligence
  • Computer hardware and software
  • Cloud computing
  • Professional services

The story of design at IBM traces back many decades. In the last century, the company was associated with names like Eliot Noyes, Eero Saarinen, Charles and Ray Eames, I.M. Pei, Paul Rand, Isamu Noguchi, Marcel Breuer—luminaries who need no introduction. In a 1973 speech at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton business school, the company’s chief executive, Thomas J. Watson Jr., famously stated: “good design is good business.”

Like many large, long-standing enterprise companies with strong engineering traditions, IBM needed to intentionally design its current design thinking-driven corporate model to meet the needs of the market—and users—today.

Backed by its highest executives, the 100-year-old company made a strong investment in design and designers in 2012. Leaders like Distinguished Designer Doug Powell helped shape a new IBM Design practice to transform the company’s products and services across every line of business.


Today, IBM designers, offering managers (IBM’s title for product managers), and front-end engineers undergo design thinking training—along with a significant number of engineers, managers of all types, and executives.

With formally-trained designers and design thinking advocates embedded in product and consulting teams across the company, IBM has built a strong foundation for shifting to a more user-centered culture. This includes a design language, design system, and standardized training programs for designers and non-designers.

We’re living in a continuous delivery world now. Our users and our clients, they’re not going to sit around and wait for IBM to release a new product or service 6 months down the line—they’ve got needs right now. We have to be responsive to that. We have to build an operation here that meets that need. If we don’t, we’re irrelevant.

Doug Powell

Distinguished Designer, IBM

Scaling design thinking at IBM

IBM Distinguished Designer Doug Powell talks about why IBM needed to build its own practice of design thinking—one to be practiced with speed at enormous global scale.

IBM’s unique Enterprise Design Thinking framework fits the needs of modern business, promoting speed, scale, and quality user-centered outcomes. Their design thinking principles are driven by an idea called “The Loop,” a continuous cycle that encourages teams to Observe, Reflect, and Make, over and over again.

The company’s diverse teams of designers, offering managers (IBM’s term for product management), and engineers maintain a constant focus on helping users achieve goals, and staying nimble with ongoing prototyping.


1. Observe - Immerse yourself in the real world

2. Reflect - Come together and look within

3. Make - Give concrete form to abstract ideas

4. Repeat - Continuously…

We’re trying to move away from the mental model of a process. The idea behind the loop is to get teams to be in constant motion. Not stagnating is the key.

Doug Powell

Distinguished Designer, IBM

5. Explore more - See: IBM Design Thinking - The team uses key elements (Keys) to scale their design thinking framework. Statements of user intent called Hills contain Who, What, and Wow (delight moments) of meaningful user outcomes. Stakeholder alignment meetings called Playbacks keep everyone informed of a project’s constant evolution. And drawing domain expertise in an ongoing way from actual users, called Sponsor Users, ensures teams understand the real-world where their users live.

Developing the mental model of "The Loop"

See how IBM Design created their own design thinking framework. Featuring GM of IBM Design Phil Gilbert, and Distinguished Designers Doug Powell and Adam Cutler. For the full film, visit THE LOOP.

Org design

Decentralized org structures embed design within cross-functional teams—engineering, design, product—where teams tend to have more autonomy to make key decisions and communication based on specific business needs.

  • IBM Fellow Charlie Hill is the first designer to rise to IBM’s highest technical role, traditionally for engineers
  • General Manager Phil Gilbert oversees IBM Design, which is a center of competency in the business
  • On the product side, business clusters sit under an SVP, and include a GM, under which sit Directors of Design, Engineering, Offering Management, Marketing, and more
  • Design directors in the business clusters have a dotted line to GM of IBM Design Phil Gilbert (and can use his seniority as leverage as needed)
  • Pros - Fast communication, autonomy, can organize around the user experience, technical feature or business need effectively.
  • Cons - Designers may feel isolated if left without peers, design may be driven by engineering or other business goals, hard to develop a strong design culture when designers are divided. One key principle of IBM’s decentralized approach is to co-locate designers in studios with other design teams in order to counter isolation.
On the consulting side, designers are building solutions specifically for clients. On the product side, designers are delivering to the market.

Doug Powell

Distinguished Designer, IBM

Tool stack

How IBM uses InVision

  • Prototyping
  • Communications around design concepts
  • User testing
Transform your team with InVision. Here’s how.