Good Design Is Good Business Part II / III

“To visualize the future of IBM you must understand something of the past.”

–Thomas J. Watson Sr

In part two of our three-part series TBGA highlights IBM’s creative partnerships with some of the greatest design icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. We will look at some of the work produced during their longstanding collaborations with Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, as well as a commissioned work by Renzo Piano. These notable relationships reflect IBM’s bold corporate belief that art, design, and architecture must stand alongside science and math when exploring the future and translating complex concepts into engaging learning experiences for general audiences.

“In one fell swoop he humanized the corporation.”

–Louis Daniziger on Rand’s IBM rebus

Paul Rand (1914-1996) is perhaps the best-known American graphic artist of the 20th century and his enduring relationship with IBM defined the company’s corporate identity for over four decades. Rand was originally brought in by Eliot Noyes in 1957 to help transform IBM from a conservative organization into a progressive one. As a consultant, Rand worked with IBM’s in-house design teams, his purview growing steadily over time to ultimately include all major corporate identity components — logotype usage, packaging and revisions of house style items such as stationery and signage as well as special design projects. One of his biggest challenges was setting standards to be followed by global in-house teams. A colorful palette, lively geometric forms, and playful application of the logo lent energy, humanity and serendipity to the future-forward technology company. Rand’s 8-bar logo and rebus are still cornerstones of the B2B brand today.

“With IBM as partners, we ‘let the fun [of math and science] out of the bag.'”

–Charles Eames and Ray Eames

Charles and Ray Eames, the husband and wife industrial design team, are perhaps best known for their chair design. However, their work extended far beyond furniture. Their pioneering work with IBM was published over the course of 2 decades and included promotional films, presentations, and educational products. They created more than 15 films and 30 exhibits for IBM. One of my favorites, Powers of Ten (final version, 1977) is “A film dealing with the relative size of things in the universe and the effects of adding another zero.” The short takes us on a macro- to microscopic journey through space to the edges of the universe, from galaxy to proton in 9-minutes, on a picnic blanket rocket ship.

I was lucky enough to recently experience the Eames’ widely exhibited, Mathematica: A World of Numbers… and Beyond at The Henry Ford in Dearborn, MI. Now a part of their permanent collection, the exhibit encourages visitors to “get inspired by the playfulness of math.” It’s a data visualization playground that inspired my inner-infographic muse to the hilt. Mathematica delights with its aesthetic, accessible, informal approach. It never condescends but rather offers innovative ways (by merit of their simplicity) to relate to complex subjects.

Like a modern-day equivalent of the circus, this demountable pavilion travelled from city to city in a fleet of specially-built and emblazoned trailers. Instead of showing off the physical feats of man and beast, however, the exhibition showed off the intellectual ones of machines. And instead of being set up in open ground, it was set among the trees of lush and manicured parks.”

–Peter Buchanan, Author

In 1983, IBM approached Renzo Piano, the talent behind architectural marvels like The Shard in London, and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, to design a traveling exhibition to promote advances in computer technology for telecommunications. Piano conceived a vaulted structure, designed to be assembled, exhibited for a month, and then dismantled. By relocating the pavilion in different European locations in green spaces in urban parks, IBM reinforced its vision that workstations could be located anywhere. And while the pavilion was notably made with laminated wood struts and cast aluminum joints crafted to the highest quality standards, the batch production of identical components confirmed it as a system building1. This traveling exhibition, which brought IBM’s vision of the future of technology from city to city, was seen by 1.5 million people between 1983 and 1986. I’m still waiting to experience the pavilion in person — it has not been reassembled since 1986.

At TBGA we recognize that successful brands poised for growth balance data, design, and technology. We are inspired by IBM because from a design standpoint, it stands out among B2B brands. IBM’s ongoing commitment to various disciplines within the arts is noteworthy. It keeps the company pointed towards the future by reminding us all that, whether scientist or artist, we are not so far apart.

1Renzo Piano Building Workshop, Complete Works, Vol I by Peter Buchanan, Phaidon, London, 1993