How IBM is building the world’s biggest design team

IBM is reported to have the biggest design team in the world, at 1,000 people around the globe. Now the company is bringing its weight to bear on London, with the opening this week of the new IBM Studio on the Southbank. We caught up with IBM Design director Karel Vredenburg and IBM Interactive Experience European Leader Matt Candy to find out more.

IBM's new London studio. Image by Tim Crocker Photography
IBM’s new London studio. Image by Tim Crocker Photography

This week IBM officially opens its new London studio, at offices on the Southbank.

The company has spent recent years investing heavily in design – its London studio will join a global network of IBM design hubs which the company says is the result of a $100 million investment in design. Meanwhile an article in Wired at the end of last year suggests that IBM is on track to grow its worldwide design team to 1,000 people, making it “by many measures the largest design firm in the world”.

In the UK, IBM is already working with clients including Wimbledon, for whom it has created the wimbledoninsights.com data and analytics platform, and Nationwide, for whom it developed the new mobile banking app.

Its new London studio will initially employ around 40 designers, who will work in teams alongside other technical skills, depending on the project requirement.

The space has been designed by architect Fraser Brown MacKenna and will join a global network of IBM design centres, which already includes major outposts in New York, Austin and Mexico City.

IBM's new London studio. Image by Tim Crocker Photograhy
IBM’s new London studio. Image by Tim Crocker Photograhy

IBM Design director Karel Vredenburg says that whatever the project, IBM’s focus will always be on the end-user. He adds: “We base this on observing, empathy mapping and a full 360º view of the users – what they do, say and feel.”

Vredenburg says that the new London studio will cover all design touchpoints and be “more focused on creativity and design than engineering”. He adds: “We’re purposefully launching studios and creative spaces as that is what the heart of the direction is here.”

As well as client work, Vredenburg says the role of the IBM design team is also to influence the rest of IBM as a whole – what he describes as “deploying resources for the strategic direction of the company”.

With this in mind it is essential, he says, to get the right talent. Vredenburg says IBM recruits around two-thirds of its designers from colleges while around a third are more senior professionals. Wired’s article reported a rumour that IBM had offered a job to every single graduate from Carnegie Mellon University’s interaction design programme.

IBM’s new London studio will be headed up by IBM Interactive Experience European Leader Matt Candy. He says that as a company with more than 100 years of history (IBM was founded as the Computer Tabulating Recording Company in 1904) IBM has had to reinvent itself several times – and design is a massive part of its new strategy.

Candy says: “We had to reinvent ourselves in the 1960s for example when we put out the first formal operating programme, and as the technology changes we have to change our emphasis. Our overall programme now is to focus even more on design.”

Candy adds: “We’ve been looking at bringing in experienced people and we now have sufficient numbers of formally trained designers across disciplines including front-end, user-experience, visual design, user research and understanding empathy.”

IBM’s design team, according to Candy, has been doubling every 18 month and currently reports to a 20-strong leadership team.

This recruitment drive, Candy says, has run in parallel with a programme to bring design thinking into IBM. He says: “We wanted to make sure we had a design language that expresses the IBM brand and a fresh look and feel. While other companies might focus more on the consumer we largely work with companies and enterprises so we had to bring in design thinking and make it appropriate for our enterprise.”

Candy is also resolute though that what IBM can offer is not just design in the cosmetic sense, but a deeper understanding for clients about how their organisations, products and services can work. To do this, IBM can call on a large in-house development and technology resource.

One rather compelling example of this bespoke IBM technology is Watson, which the company describes as “a cognitive system that enables a new partnership between people and computers”, and which Candy describes as “a machine that can think like a human brain”.

In 2011, IBM took Watson on to US game show Jeopardy, where it defeated two human finalists and scooped the $1 million jackpot. Watson answered questions about characters in Beowulf, named the decade in which Disneyland opened and correctly identified Beatles lyrics.

This is all very entertaining, but the real value of Watson, as both Vredenburg and Candy say, could lie in big-data analysis projects for sectors such as healthcare. Candy says the platform is currently being commercialised from its base in New York.

Candy says it is projects like Watson that demonstrate how IBM can marry its design expertise with deeper knowledge, technology and insight to provide a more holistic service for clients – a position its new London studio will aim to take advantage of.

He says: “A design studio can create the stuff that’s on the glass – whether that’s an app or an interface – what we can do is bring to bear deep knowledge of those enterprises. This is because of the flow of information we have and the technology at our disposal.”

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