Good Design Is Good Business Part III/III

IBMers believe in progress—that the application of intelligence, reason and science can improve business, society and the human condition. Given our scale and scope, ‘good design’ is not only a requirement, it’s a deeper responsibility to relationships we seek to serve.

–IBM Philosophy

Many organizational challenges present themselves in their full complexity. It’s challenging to assign them to a single department or team. In fact, good solutions rarely spring from a solitary source. In part III of our series Good Design Is Good Business, we take a final look at IBM breaking down silos and encouraging cross-disciplinary work. With a corporate lineage that spans over a century, IBM’s company credo THINK has allowed them to evolve their definition of technology from punch cards and electric typewriters to AI and quantum computing. Through perseverance, adaptability and experience, IBM continues to evolve by keeping the IBM brand focused on the horizon.

At the moment, for technology brands at least, one of the mighty ships on the horizon is Quantum computing. Since the 80s, the field of Quantum computing has been steadily developing with IBM securely poised at the helm as a leader in the field. The big idea behind quantum computing is that faster processing will be able to parse, simulate and solve humanity’s most complex problems. And while the competition to be the biggest, baddest player in Quantum computing remains fierce, IBM’s early support of mathematician and IBM Fellow, Benoit Mandelbrot set the play in motion by changing the way we understand the natural world with his fractal theory and the introduction of the Mandelbrot set.

The Thumbprint of God

“The father of fractals” Benoit Mandelbrot joined the research team at IBM in 1958. He remained at IBM for 35 years, his research ultimately impacting the field of quantum mechanics. Mandelbrot sought to describe “the shape of a cloud, a mountain, a coastline or a tree” with a new geometry that accounted for irregularity and “roughness” in nature. The standard geometry of Euclid and laws of Newton could not demonstrate how visual complexity can be created from simple rules. IBM’s support allowed Mandelbrot access to the powerful computers which ultimately led to the creation of the Mandelbrot set in 1980. In a glimpse at infinity*, the set has been called the “Thumbprint of God”. It is one of the most admired examples of mathematical visualization and beauty, and its discovery widened the window on the Quantum world.

The World’s Smallest Movie

Continuing to push the boundaries of technology and art, in 2013 IBM created “the world’s smallest movie” by moving atoms around in a subatomic world. The simple visuals tell a story of a boy and an atom who become friends. But it’s not the storyline or elemental pictographic images that make the one-minute, stop-motion animation exceptional. It is the advanced technology involved in the production of the film. Working with Ogilvy & Mather, IBM Research created the frames using a Scanning Tunneling Microscope (STM), which is capable of imaging surfaces at the atomic level. The STM allowed individual atoms to be manipulated into simple pictorial arrangements. The multi-disciplinary team of scientists and creatives created 242 frames with 65 carbon monoxide molecules.

“This movie is a fun way to share the atomic-scale world. The reason we made this was not to convey a scientific message directly, but to engage with students, and to prompt them to ask questions.” —Project Leader, Andreas J. Heinrich

“Watson, look up in the sky and tell me what you see.”

–Sherlock Holmes

Artificial intelligence (AI) makes it possible for machines to learn from experience, adjust to new inputs and perform human-like tasks. It can be uncomfortable to think about AI influencing music or visual arts—appealing to our emotions by learning and recognizing patterns in basic human emotion—but IBM is embracing the possibilities. The project with Grammy Award-winning producer, Alex da Kid produced the 2016 hit It’s Not Easy. His collaborators included The Artificial Intelligence System, Watson BEAT and humans—X Ambassadors, Elle King and Wiz Khalifa. For Watson’s part, the process began by analyzing cultural artifacts over a time period of five years. Watson was able to take an “emotional temperature” and translate the data into a visualization made up of colors, words, patterns and textures. Trained for emotional ranges, Watson tapped into a global community of feeling that inspired Alex da Kid’s and his crew’s creative process. The result? A pop-culture hit inspired by AI, not created by AI.

“Normally, I start my creative process just like conversations, by asking people really personal questions. Watson enabled me to do that on a massive scale.”

–Alex da Kid

The synergy between art, science, technology and design should not be separate from academicism. They should be organized to work in tandem—to provide mutual reinforcement, to spur the imagination, and to lay the groundwork for future technology. Here at TBGA, we salute IBM’s corporate lineage for their active commitment to weave disciplinary connections into the fiber of their brand, by design. Good design makes the world more understandable, more accessible and more transparent. TBGA is a company that relies on the interplay between “systems and stories.” We respect the IBM design-think mindset because forging new frontiers in AI, nanotechnology and quantum mechanics—the technologies that will shape our future—will require both intuition and analysis, exploration and application, art and science.

*Exponential infinity can be observed as an early interest at IBM as explored in Charles and Ray Eames’s film The Power of 10 in part II of this series.