I finally got around to follow up on the invitation by IBM’s GM of Design, Phil Gilbert, to visit the campus in Austin, which hosts the nucleus of the IBM Design activities. Needless to say – it was an insightful visit. Here are some highlights:


The Austin Design Studio is where IBM’s quest to infuse more Design Thinking into its products began. The design center remains the core of the effort, though IBM has been opening more design centers across the globe – counting more than 30+ as of right now. And IBM keeps investing into these centers, with 11 of them becoming ‘flagship’ centers, a status that in 2015 only Austin holds.

The Space

Location and space is always a key decision to make for innovation and design centers, and IBM chose an unusual approach with opting to co-locate the design center into an existing IBM office and going to a ‘non-coastal’ location with Austin. A number of factors played a role to start in Austin, embedding the design center physically with a development office was a prominent factor and Gilbert did not want to create a satellite that could create a lot of ‘it can’t be done here’ syndrome. And Austin has a growing reputation in design cycles since quite a while, more importantly IBM sees no challenge to attract talent to the Austin locaton.

The Design Studio now occupies over 50k square feet on two stories and is expanding by another 25k square feet soon. A regular office building poses some challenges to create the wide open spaces with adjustable furniture as required by state of the art design centers, but the design center’s space architects found a way of working with Steelcase to allow for flexible, hanging partitioning walls. And the rest the design center does not differ from other places, with an emphasis on furniture on rollers, frugal means to create new furniture (for example Z-Bars with pipe plumbing to affix whiteboards) and the usual creative ‘hacks’ you find in design centers. And no surprises – designers in Austin gravitate towards the lounge setup as a working and review environment like their peers in Silicon Valley, Seattle, New York, LA and Potsdam (more site visits to come).

What is different in Austin is, that the key design teams for specific products are co-located on the floors, creating their own distinctive spaces. And while IBM ‘forward deploys’ designers into development locations, it maintains these core groups at design centers. It’s a sign for IBM’s outcome orientation when it comes to design, and likely a key contributing factor to the quick turnaround and immediate results in the usability of its products. At the same time IBM knows it has to collaborate across physical locations and time zones and it is good to see that designers are equipped with the necessary modern tools to make this happen.

Very tough to pick the top three takeaways – but here you go:

Pragmatic Approach – As mentioned above, IBM is pragmatic about using Design Thinking to move the bottom line regarding usability of its product. It’s pretty much a no-nonsense culture (saw a motto: ‘Don’t Ship Sh…!’) measured by product progress in usability. And the team’s charter is a focus on creating a global sustainable culture of design across the vendor.


Taking the approach of not limiting the physical design of its products through one common technical framework but opting for a ‘meta’ design language (learn more about it here) instead is a unique approach for almost all of the industry. Though sceptics thought a descriptive language would not be able to hold up uniformity of actual user interfaces, the proof of the contrary is by now in the famous ‘pudding’ – as the IBM products look more uniform across product families than ever. 

Design Infiltration – It is relatively easy to establish a new innovation / design center with a substantial investment, the key measure of success is a lasting ‘lift’ in product usability and quality as well as the moving of the overall product development organization to a higher level of performance. Never an easy task to solve, it looks like IBM has achieved the right balance between central product design teams and embedded designers at the various development locations. At the same time IBM has an ambitious hiring goal (ultimately 1000 designers) and has been able to train them, bring them up to speed and achieve a level of consistency that matters for making products usable for the same users across product groups. Using an incubation program at the same time to train the new hires – while supervised by senior designers – and allowing product team to ‘test drive’ for a limited time the design center is a win / win move.
Beyond Designers – It certainly helps that Design Thinking and the design centers have support from the top at IBM, CEO Rometty is a driving force behind the design approach. It is no surprise that the only 2nd time the worldwide IBM leadership team has come together in the same place other than Armonk, has been in Austin. And IBM has a lot of design tradition, starting with former CEO Watson’s memo of ‘design is good business’. Rometty sees client experience as the key path to future growth for IBM.
Even more interestingly IBM is implementing lessons learnt and best practices across more IBM offices, not only briefing centers (as IBM calls customer visit centers) but also regular office. More configurable space, more furniture on rolls is supposed to create an overall more agile, dynamic, project oriented IBM going forward. The success of this massive change management endeavor will be interesting to watch going forward.


Always great to visit design centers, especially when they are successful and have moved the needle for their respective organization. It is fair to say that Design Thinking, the IBM design centers, starting with Austin and the designers have made a substantial difference to current IBM products. When mainframe engineers use Design Thinking for a zOS upgrade – you know IBM is onto something that works and transforms the way how the vendor builds its products. It is also very good to see that the core design team is not resting on its laurels, but actively working on re-thinking (pun intended) the way how IBM practices Design Thinking, stay tuned for more in 2016.

Overall a very promising state of Design Thinking at IBM, but changing the way to work, do business, and how products are imagined and built for a 380k+ employee organization and their customers takes time – and the next years will show how lasting the new approaches are. 2016 with the rollout and upgrade of more design centers will be a key year. We will be watching.


If interested in more 'Site Visit' blog posts - many remain confidential (unfortunately) - but this one with ADP is public.
Find more coverage on the Constellation Research website here and checkout my magazine on Flipboard and my YouTube channel here