Gerhard Pfau: How IBM Builds a Design-driven Culture At Scale

I have always considered IBM a powerhouse player in the corporate business of product, design, engineering and technology, so naturally I was curious to see and hear Gerhard Pfau share where IBM design and culture are at, and how it’s getting on with reinventing itself.

© Gerhard Kassner / Monotype

As a child, my first impressions and exposure to the Big Blue (apparently its nickname to some) was the 80s and 90s age of info revolution and the rise of PCs. More vividly; the big, grey, box-like machines that spat out matrix green text, line-by-line on tiny black screens. The company that created them were very much a known thing to me, despite having zero interest or desire for computers and electronics. That is, until I grew up and became a designer (and one who works for a product company), which led to IBM meaning much more to me.

Flash to now, and I am again reminded of the greatness and significance of IBM’s design heritage and legacy, and its place in the world.

Gerhard Pfau is a Designer, Design Thinker, and a Member of the IBM Academy and currently a Lead in Europe for IBM Design Education and Activation. He took us back to the Mid-century modern age, a time when IBM had enlisted the leadership of Eliot Noyes as their first Director of Design. It was Noyes who brought in the likes of Charles and Ray Eames, Paul Rand, Isamu Noguchi and Jim Henson– some of the greatest creative talents back in the day. As Thomas J Watson Jr. (IBM CEO, 1973) said, “Good design is good business”, and it’s fair to say that IBM did indeed do a remarkable job of realising that.

But what about IBM today? I myself (and I think along with the full auditorium out there), was quite keen to hear direct insight and context into what IBM are making and doing now. It was however, clear from the start that much of what we were about to see was to be more orientated around people and design. More specifically, a weighted desire to hire “magic people”—right here, right now.

Gerhard explained that in 2012, they tasked themselves to refocus on client experience and design to create iconic user experiences. He spoke about people, places and practices; humbly and proudly showcasing their working spaces, staff talent, profiles and education initiatives, though only just skimming over products and outcomes.

© Gerhard Kassner / Monotype

The crux of the talk was an overview into the pillars that surround IBM design. Minimalistic diagrams, keywords, buzzwords along with bite-sized points and descriptors have been used and formulated into sets of tools and documentation to help articulate and facilitate the “IBM Design Thinking” approach. I won’t go further into specifics as I won’t do Gerhard’s overview justice. The bulk of it is also available online for our viewing pleasure.

Did I get to know more and understand how and what IBM do to build a design driven culture at scale? I’m not sure. I would have loved to have gained more of an insight into the context of the people, how they use these tools and more importantly why and what they have made with them.

What I did come away with was a good sense of IBM’s commitment, desire and quest to build and hire for culture and the fundamental remembrance of the importance in working with great people and fostering great relationships.

Good design IS good business, but you can’t do it without good great people.

Written by Maggie Tang •