From Art to Science to Function

For the past 60 years, corporate executives have increasingly sought to employ design methods to grow their businesses.

Design was not new to business – it has always been the source of new products. But the methods of design have only recently escaped the narrow confines of Research & Development. Here’s how the genie got out of the bottle.

IBM Introduces Design as Good Business

IBM brought mid-century design into the broader sphere of International Business by reconsidering and then moving beyond the design of the Machine. Thomas Watson Jr, the founder’s son, was inspired by one of the great sources of midcentury industrial design, described in this excerpt from IBM’s Design Is Good Business page.

IBM’s focus on design has its roots in a stroll down Fifth Avenue in New York that Thomas J. Watson Jr. took in the early 1950s. He stopped at an Olivetti shop where typewriters were set out on sidewalk stands for passersby to try out. The machines had sleek designs and a variety of colors. Inside, the shop was bright and modern looking. 

&olivetti lettera 1955

In contrast, the display areas in IBM’s offices in those days were dimly lit and its computers were drab and boxy.

&IBM typewriter ad 1953

A few years later, as Watson Jr. was preparing to take over as IBM’s chief executive, he decided, “I could put my stamp on IBM through modern design.”

To build out Watson’s design thesis, he famously hired Eliot Noyes, a harvard-trained architect and MoMA’s industrial design curator. Noyes had worked for some time under contract to IBM, but always in a narrow sphere of one-off projects. Now he was allowed to imagine a comprehensive design program for IBM. He started with products (he designed the breakthrough Selectric typewriter) but extended his ambition across all touch points with the company.

Noyes retained famed “starchitects” such as Finland’s Eero Saarinen to design iconic IBM buildings. Paul Rand updated the logo and produced other iconic brand work. And maybe most provocatively, Charles and Ray Eames – the Venice Beach architect and painter and their multifaceted design team – to craft public displays, events, continuing into the 1970s with cultural emblems of IBM’s design leadership.

“A corporation should be like a good painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract.”
~ Eliot Noyes. 

Years later, Watson declared the impact of design at IBM – good design is good business.That lesson has taken too many decades to begin mass adoption. Ironically many corporate design chiefs and innovation executives describe today’s inspiration as Apple’s successes under Steve Jobs. In the early 1980s, just as IBM drifted from their design vision, Apple was there to accept the mantle as the next generation of information age leadership for innovation by design.

Design Deployed: From Industry to Academia and Back Again

Historically, when corporate leaders recognized the need for design savvy they turned to a small coterie of outside experts. These early advocates for design-as-growth tool originated from academia.

The late great American industrial designer and educator Jay Doblin serves as an early icon for the insights that took root in the corporate lexicon. His work would provide the vision that the next generation would proclaim as the methods to achieve “disruptive innovation.”

Doblin trained at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where his thesis work transformed military camouflage – a simple aesthetic that made all the difference. As a student in the grip of World War II, Doblin recognized the limits of painting green and brown splotches on the US tanks that were exploding on the fields of Europe. He designed a lightweight and compactable mesh, interwoven with organic shapes – plastic leaves. This flexible, easily transported alternative, when tossed over the sharp edges of equipment or encampments, transformed hard man-made edges into nature’s sloping curves and creases. Doblin’s thesis work provided the military’s first invisibility cloak.

Doblin graduated to quickly rise to the top of each of the three main design firms of the era – Unimark, Lippincott and Raymond Loewy. His work transformed product makers like Whirlpool, and then progressive retailers like JC Penny.

&doblin whirlpool prototype

Jay Doblin applies final hand-painted touches to his iconic Whirlpool Hot Point line of stoves

Despite his many successes, Jay Doblin remained unsatisfied as a celebrated expert in product design. He aspired to greater impact. He believed that design methods could solve bigger problems, even intractable social ills.

At the pinnacle of his powers, Doblin resigned his commercial career to take over as the Director of the Institute of Design in Chicago. He accepted the position at what was then the premiere US Bauhaus art school on the strict condition that he was allowed to remake the curriculum to conform to his vision. His bold proposal was initially rejected – a veto by the widow of the Institute’s late founder, the renowned constructivist artist, László Moholy-Nagy.


The board however was inspired by Doblin’s vision. After heated debate, he was recalled to the post. Agreeing to his terms, the board muzzled the recalcitrant widow and unleashed Doblin to perform his most enduring work – represented in the generations of students minted in his image over the subsequent 50 years.

Doblin left his educational legacy in the capable hands of Patrick Whitney, one of his early acolytes. His other lieutenant, Larry Keeley, would become his partner in The Doblin Group, a modest Chicago design firm that first applied design to the thesis of corporate innovation.

Now that we enter the third generation in a maturing field, fully-formed specialty agencies proliferate, including IDEO, Continuum, Doblin, Smart Design, Gravity Tank, Lunar, Fjord, Frog, and my colleagues at Ampersand among many others.

In academia, Doblin’s insights have been repeated, expanded and independently rediscovered. Clayton Christensen at Harvard, and successors at MIT, Pratt, Carnegie Mellon and now the Stanford all offer versions of industrial design, poorly relabeled for application beyond products as “design thinking”. Increasingly the methods of design and innovation are working their way into MBA curricula, as at NYU Stern, Wharton, Northwestern’s Kellogg, Cornell, UC Booth, Rotman, and INSEAD among other leading programs around the world.

With utter predictability, when an art becomes a science, it inevitably evolves to a repeatable function. The leading indicator, as with Strategy and Marketing in past decades, appears as a new topic in the syllabi of top business schools. Finally. It’s time for design and innovation to move indoors. Chief strategy and marketing officers now welcome the chief design and innovation officers to the table.

As Watson recognized, and as his successors at IBM are learning all over again now, design serves customers better. Design really is good business. Its time has come around again. This time it looks to stick.

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