A design for life revolution is sweeping IBM

8 Nov 2016

Lara Hanlon from IBM in Dublin is one of the young designers spearheading a revolution and helping the company rediscover its design heritage. Image: Conor McCabe Photography

The tech world – forever guilty by association with beige PCs – is undergoing a design renaissance and Lara Hanlon from IBM in Dublin is one of the young designers spearheading the revolution.

When I met Lara Hanlon during the summer, she had just come off the stage at Inspirefest 2016 where she spoke movingly about how design is transcending so many non-typical areas of life, including food.

As we spoke, she pointed to the work of 100 Archive – a kind of curated, living archive of Irish design. In exchange, I share what I learned of Eileen Gray, the Irish woman who led the modern design movement in the 1930s and who designed the famous dragon chair (which sold for $43m at auction in 2009).

‘Good design fosters inclusion’

As what typically happens when you have a meeting of minds amongst Irish people, the good-natured exchange of knowledge heartily continues. Hanlon tells me of the pioneering work of Paul Rand, the figurehead of graphic design through much of the late 20th century, who actually designed the IBM logo that survives to this day.

“IBM?” I almost splutter. “Design?”

When I think of tech companies and good design, I usually think of Apple, Tesla or Dyson; creators of shiny products designed to spark desire and the automatic emptying of wallets.

Surely, IBM is an enterprise company that makes business machines, I say out loud. Didn’t it bring us the PC in 1984? Why would IBM be tinkering with design of all things?

It is then that Hanlon diplomatically explained that she is one of 50 designers who work at IBM Studio in Dublin, the largest concentration of designers in any one place in Ireland. They are just one group of 1,500 designers that IBM now employs worldwide.

Amused by my bemusement, Hanlon merrily pointed out that design is at the heart of what IBM is all about, now more than ever. In fact, she said, IBM had been a strong proponent of design for a good part of its 105-year history.

Recalling IBM’s efforts at things like a wearable computer in 1998, a cumbersome thing with wires and an ugly forerunner of Google Glass, the notion of IBM and good design together doesn’t quite compute for me at first.

“IBM has a long legacy of design,” Hanlon pressed on with determination. “You are right, though, that heritage was actually lost when IBM became software-driven as opposed to hardware and the shift into technology-first and leaving everything behind. That shift from hardware to software and a total focus on technology actually damaged IBM from a design and user-experience perspective.”

The IBM design heritage reborn

But now Hanlon is amongst a gifted group who are rallying the design troops, including all kinds of designers in Ireland; from industrial to advertising, front-end design and more.

If you study IBM’s behaviour closely in the last two to three years, it is shaking off the mantle of Big Blue and the image of legions of blue-suited, closely shaven salesmen marching in step.

Instead, the company is designing its technology to fit around real-life scenarios and applications using artificial intelligence technologies like Watson. It has even formed an enterprise alliance with Apple which will see iPhones, iPads and Macs become the new arsenal – a long way from the beige PC of the 1980s and 1990s.

In its most recent Q3 results, IBM CEO Ginni Rometty revealed that “strategic imperatives”, like big bets on artificial intelligence through Watson and the internet of things (IoT) and analytics, are offsetting revenues from slower units.

An example of the changing IBM in recent days was the acquisition of XPS, a Watson-based AI chatbot for personal shopping from software firm Fluid. XPS will become part of IBM iX.

Where IBM is going with this is all about experiences. Design as we know it, in terms of the appearance of things, will be transcended by the experience of things.

Think about it. Amazon has designed a new retail experience through Echo, its voice-based competitor to Apple’s Siri. That is design in the 21st century – it’s not just visually appealing, it is a useful experience.

“The focus of design at IBM,” Hanlon explained, “is to put the user at the centre of everything we do. We use design and design-thinking to figure out problems.”

She said that within design at IBM, there are two divisions – products and services.

“In Dublin, the design teams are focused primarily on products. We conceptualise security, designing applications to protect against data loss and products for enterprise and health.

“These are complex systems with lots of data but until now, no one has thought about the person on the other end using the system.

“There are lots of touch points – one solution is not good enough for everyone. Our job is to go in and look at the problem, the current situation, and break it down and solve it by designing a more seamless experience.

“Crucially, it is about removing the barrier of tech between the user and the system and envisioning the ideal interaction required to get the job done.”

Design thinking and collaboration, Hanlon said, are transcending IBM’s almost 400,000-strong workforce.

“IBM is bringing in people from all kinds of industries and areas of life to help envision future products. It is no longer about the hard skills but also about the soft skills.

“We are moving away from the idea of fiefdoms, and one product owner and his or her empire, to where all 400,000 people are part of a collaboration and it becomes one vision,” Hanlon said.

“It is no longer good enough for technology to simply move too fast or for some people to ride the technology wave better than others. Good design fosters inclusion.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years