Creating a design language that’s uniquely IBM

4 min read
Claire Karjalainen
  •  Nov 13, 2017
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Four years ago when IBM set out to transform its 100-year-old culture with design thinking practices, the early team at newly founded IBM Design faced an enormous challenge.

“There was no design language, there was really nothing,” says Liz Holz, IBM Distinguished Designer, in the design transformation short documentary, THE LOOP.

The IBM Design Practices team, headed then by Distinguished Designer Adam Cutler, needed to build out the entire foundation for the way IBM would practice design—and spread it to a company of more than 380,000 around the world, in the face of a long, storied engineering-centered culture.

As part of our research for THE LOOP documentary, we spoke with many IBMers about how design practices spread throughout the company to create the remarkable product and business outcomes IBM and its clients are seeing.

Joni Saylor, IBM Design Practices Program Director (left), Hayley Hughes, IBM Design Language Lead

Earlier this year at the Austin IBM Design Studio, IBM Design Practices Program Director Joni Saylor and IBM Design Language Lead Hayley Hughes spoke with us about creating the IBM Design Language, measuring adoption, and the other design practices contributing to IBM’s robust transformation.

Igniting transformation through shared design vocabulary

The overall structure of IBM’s corporate design program is “People + Practice + Places.” Says Saylor, the motto represents the idea that “careful attention to those 3 things will bring the culture change we seek with respect to design in the company.”

Practice, the middle pillar, is a crucial part of the equation and the charge of the IBM Design Practices team. The team knew they wanted to build out 3 distinct Practices at first: Research, Language, and Thinking.

They started with the IBM Design Language.

“The design language was the first thing we created,” says Saylor. “Strategically, it was important to make it first. We got quick wins out into the market and were able to show value clearly and qualitatively. People could see the change—this screen or product or experience is irrefutably better than what came before it.”

After the first 60 new IBM Design hires went through Bootcamp—an intensive program created to create a shared understanding of how to practice design at IBM—they were assigned directly to strategically important and valuable projects.

“That was the approach—staff up about 7 projects that matter, right away, and demonstrate what it looks like when you have human-centered design leadership at the table,” Saylor says. “Show the iconic results you get from the craft and skill of a design language, best practice visual and experience design, and user research. These projects were finally staffed to win.”

“Strategically, it was important to make [the design language] first. We got quick wins out into the market and were able to show value clearly and qualitatively.” –Joni Saylor, Program Director, IBM Design Practices

“You could look at these projects and see, ‘Wow, these aren’t just updated UIs,’” Saylor says. “The concept, fundamentally, was and is striking a chord with our clients and users. That’s how we started to build momentum.”

Creating a shared vocabulary and guidelines gave existing products quick lifts and instantly improved the consistency of user experiencesTwitter Logo across IBM’s many product lines—including legacy systems.

Measuring design language adoption

Last fall, Hughes and her team took a deep dive into the best ways to continue scaling the language throughout the company, and qualitative and quantitative ways to measure adoption.

“We wanted to understand not only how well people have adopted [the design language], but also how well they feel they’ve been heard and listened to. Is the language reflective of their actual practice and meeting their needs?” Hughes says.

Related: Scaling design thinking in the enterprise

Net Promoter Score forms a core part of how all the Practices teams gather feedback on adoption, and the Language team uses it as well.

“I can look at my NPS dashboard at any time and see how well the design language is being received, or whether internal and external people would recommend it,” Hughes says. “It gives me perspective on both needs and perceptions—and it also gives me sentiment.”

Hughes’ team’s research uncovered a few potential pain points, including the realization that teams outside design or immediately adjacent to design needed to be included moreTwitter Logo.

“The designers could use the language effectively and apply the assets,” Hughes says, “but they were getting a lot of conflicting guidance from other parts of the business on what worked best for the types of experiences they create. For example, designing an event experience has its own considerations, and we wanted every piece of the user experience to work together. That’s what drove us to start engaging more with other parts of the business—brand, marketing, and sales.”

Hughes and her team continue to evolve the design language, as the adoption research uncovered an uneven distribution of design. “Today, every group has their own flavor of IBM, but what makes us instantly identifiable in the marketplace? We need to differentiate ourselves in a way our clients recognize, and bring our company together around a common ethos.”

“Today, every group has their own flavor of IBM, but what makes us instantly identifiable in the marketplace?”
–Hayley Hughes, IBM Design Language Lead

Evolving into the language of business

Now that the IBM Design Language is a few years old, Saylor and Hughes say the next priority is continuing to evolve—and to prioritize outcomes as much as process.

“In the first phase, we were really focused on this idea of helping people see what design could do. Now, we’re more focused on ensuring the IBM core beliefs and values come through. We want to drive more consistency across our offerings, but with unity, not uniformity,” Hughes says.

In the past few years, as more companies recognize the competitive advantage of design, many are doing as IBM did and releasing their design language and design system publicly. Hughes’ focus is on ensuring the IBM Design Language reflects the company and all its differentiators.

Related: Your guide to design systems from the world’s leading brands

“We’ve gotten a lot of great feedback that the first release of the design language helped people design for their users,” she says. “Now, how do we help design for users in a way that’s uniquely IBM? How do we make sure the experience of an IBM product is recognizable in every way? How can we prioritize that outcome and put the client’s success first? That’s what’s next for us.”

As for the whole Design Practices group, Saylor says they’ll continue to evolve the existing Practices—Research, Language, and Thinking—but are also working on developing 2 new practices. The Design Transformation practice will codify the company’s approach to design culture change, and the Essential Experiences practice will take on the idea of end-to-end experience and what that should feel like for an IBM offering.

“I think these practices will be particularly valuable for our designers,” Saylor says. “The whole conversation of ‘design plus business’ has really started to evolveTwitter Logo in the last few years. Our designers are embedded in product teams and service delivery teams—we need to equip them to have relevant business conversations and make advocates out of our clients and users.”

As for imagining the future of design at IBM, Saylor takes an even larger view. “For me, the question is less ‘What’s the future of design in business?’ and more ‘What does the business look like when designers are leading?’” she says. “Does it mean we’re creating this different kind of environment where all the disciplines are working together in a totally new way? I think that’s really exciting.

“Now the work is about elevating the design profession at IBM and across the industry, and preparing ourselves to take a real seat at the table.”

Experience IBM’s inspiring design thinking transformation in our documentary, THE LOOP.

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