The man helping IBM rediscover its commitment to a strong design ethos

Phil Gilbert has creative and innovative vision for the computing giant

You might not be able to herd software programmers – the old joke is that this is like herding cats.

But computing giant IBM is proving that you can certainly round up designers. In a corporation-wide move to re-insert design at the heart of its products and services, IBM has been hiring hundreds of designers globally, and aims to hire hundreds more, including in Ireland.

The man behind this re-Think (to rephrase IBM's famous, single word internal slogan) is general manager of IBM Design Phil Gilbert, a tall, baritone-voiced American based out of the company's Austin, Texas offices.

“Design is about how you approach a problem. It’s the thinking of how you frame the problem, and then an intention behind the solution, so that it is grounded in empathy for a human being,” he says.


It’s not the same as art, he notes. The difference between art and design is that “with art, you’re doing it for yourself. With design, you’re doing it for others.”

Gilbert’s approach to design was shaped by his first startup, he says. He had to sell his software to pay the bills, but this was at the dawn of the personal computing era. He found the possibilities of PCs inspirational, but most people in business could just have another person do the work of a PC, a problem he frames as “why pay for a computer when I have an assistant in the typing pool who can do this?”

The answer was to design software that made using the tool the PC – easy and pleasurable.

He was deeply influenced too by the famed software designer Alan Cooper, who brought in the concept of ‘personas’ - varied but generic types of users to be kept in mind during product design.

“That was the first time I realised there was a formality to what I’d been trying to do.”

He developed an approach to software design that was used by the employees in his business software company, Lombardi, acquired by IBM in 2010. That brought Gilbert into the senior management team at the computing giant, where he was tasked with bringing design back to the forefront of the company.

IBM has a long and venerable history of employing top designers, including monumental figures such as Charles and Ray Eames and Paul Rand, he notes. The company's logo is itself widely considered exemplary corporate branding, simple yet full of symbolic subtlety.

But in recent years, in contrast to companies like Apple, IBM has not been a corporation closely associated with a strong design ethos. Many would argue its last iconic design was the ThinkPad, created by industrial designer Richard Sapper in 1990 (and no longer an IBM product, as the personal computing division was sold to Chinese electronics firm Lenovo a decade ago).

Gilbert aims to change that through the corporation-wide introduction of a critical thinking process named IBM Design Thinking, rooted in the approach from his own company and based on established methods from leading design thinkers, but on a much larger scale. Employees and management go through week-long “design camps’ within the company to learn the process.

“The foundational methods we’re bringing to bear are rooted in design thinking and human-centred design, but the complexity of solving these [large-scale] problems, and doing it in teams around the world, is a very different problem than those designers were solving [with small teams based in a single location].”

The IBM approach is to have collaborative, design-focused, cross-disciplinary teams working on sub-chunks of these big problems using a system that comes from the “commander’s intent” approach of military thinking, where dispersed teams are “tightly linked but loosely coupled”, says Gilbert.

The commander knows the ultimate intent. Teams have their own sub-objectives to solve creatively and efficiently, without being constrained by knowing, or assuming, the full intent.

Sub-chunk problem

Gilbert says IBM brings in this framework to enable collaborative, geographically dispersed teams work out their best approach to a sub-chunk problem. Within each sub-chunk are “hills” – objectives defined by each team, with a user (who) and action (what) in mind, as well as a ‘wow’ element.

“An example is one of the teams was working on a business application program. We asked, what is one of your hills for the next release, and they said ‘disaster recovery’.”

Gilbert asked if they would go write a 250-page manual as a solution.

They were shocked and said they would never consider that to be a solution – who would read it? And I said, ‘so what are you trying to do?’ And that’s when the lightbulb went off.”

By the end of the week, the answer was: to provide a data centre operator with a data recovery system that operates without any loss of data and does full recovery in under six hours.

“That was a phenomenal hill because it did not presuppose any intention, but would make a huge wow in the market. The head engineer told me if they’d had that idea in place earlier, they would have saved hundreds of hours of engineering time.” He adds as an aside: “The biggest killer of startups is lack of focus. You try to do too much. And that’s a problem for big companies, too.”

Teams focus on a series of three hills at a time, to be tackled within roughly a six-month period.

Customers are also involved in the design loop, giving feedback early on in the design process. That’s a new level of openness, he says – usually, software companies operate in stealth mode until a beta release, but beta is too late to make a difference.

“This isn’t a telling thing any more, this is a listening thing,” he says – a big philosophical change.

IBM is also working to bring transparency to the teams, opening the door for candid feedback and critiques.

“And we’re starting to see fundamentally better outcomes,” Gilbert says, adding that much of IBM’s earnings growth in its last quarterly report came from the areas which use this new design-led approach.

Still, there’s a long road ahead.

“Two and a half years ago, when we started this design programme, the best product team was not doing best in class [compared] to the rest of the world. The best of what we’re doing now competes with the best, but our average needs to be raised.”

IBM has some 3,500 products being worked on at any given time, and Gilbert says he would like to see 300 of them become part of the Design Thinking approach: “We have the capacity today for about 100.”

Design schools

That’s why the company is on a major designer search to round up the best people from design schools across the world, including Ireland, he says.

“When we started this, we had about 250 designers in the products area, but spread everywhere in the company. We had virtually no designers reporting to designers.” Instead, a designer would be just one member of a discrete group.

“Designers were treated as if a designer was a designer was a designer.”

Now they focus on five categories of designer – visual, industrial, user experience, front end, and user research design – and since January 2013, have hired 350 formally trained designers to the product group.

IBM has also just launched a design studio at its Irish campus with 20 designers already in place, a number it intends to double this year and pledges to increase further. Called IBM Studio – Dublin, it will be one of five flagship product design studios within IBM, he says.

Was it a challenge to bring in such an overhaul to old ways of doing things?

“We’ve had tremendous support from our senior leadership. Our chair [and IBM CEO Ginni Rometty] and her team have been to a design camp.”

And for Gilbert, design isn’t just work, it’s life. “I’ll never forget the day I felt I really understood design thinking: everything is a prototype. I approach life like that. Everything is a prototype.”