An Interview with IBM’s Doug Powell

Case For Design is a series of written interviews that encapsulates the profound effect design has in our world.

Case For Design is a series of written interviews that encapsulates the profound effect design has in our world. Our interviews will cover some of the following segments: Consumerism, Impact on Business, Trends in the Industry and Diversity. We will investigate how design impacts decisions in the workplace, resulting in innovation that leads to successful business practices, workflows and/or increased sales.


Q: How do you define design?

A: In essence, design is creative problem solving. This can happen in many ways: visually, spatially, conceptually, multi-dimensionally. For me, the common thread is that a designer will always take a holistic approach to a complex problem, considering many options for possible solutions.

Q: What are the biggest misconceptions you encounter about design?

A: I think most non-designers think of design only in terms of aesthetics. That is definitely the first idea we have to correct when we are working with non-designers at IBM. In turn, there is an assumption that the designer should only come in at the end of the problem solving process to make the solution look pretty. If there is one sentiment I have consistently heard from designers for the last quarter century, it is that designers have more to offer than we are usually asked to contribute.

Q: How would you describe the philosophy that informs your creative process?

A: There are several core principles that I adhere to:
First, that a design-driven approach will always be rooted in a deep understanding of (or empathy for) the audience, consumer, or user. This understanding is what leads us to an authentic and meaningful outcome.

Second, that a designer will always explore many ideas en route to their eventual solution. This approach of creative, lateral, or divergent thinking is one way we distinguish ourselves from problem solving disciplines that are more linear in nature, such as a traditional business or academic research.

Third, that designers are most effective when they can be involved in the problem solving process from the very beginning.


Q: At IBM, what is the business value (in general) of design? How does it impact bottom line? Can you give statistics or stories of how design has impacted business revenues or operations?

A: At IBM Design we are building software and technology that is mostly used to drive businesses and large organizations. We are less than 2 years into building the IBM Design program and, while this might seem like a long time in the context of typical graphic design or branding projects, we are designing complex software and technology products, so the timeframes and product release cycles are often a year or more. All this to say we are just beginning to see some of our earliest returns on products that IBM Design has driven. And the results are exciting! For instance Bluemix, a new platform for enterprise app development, which was released in 2014 is already more than 10 times ahead of projections for the number of users.

One of the things that is really encouraging about our program is that it has support from the very top of our organization. Our CEO Ginni Rommetty is a strong believer in the power of design to build great products and, in turn, drive value for IBM.

Q: With design being such an integral part of some of the most successful businesses, why do you think many other business do not follow similar practice in using design to drive innovation?

A: I am as surprised as you are about this. I really think design is one of the few remaining differentiators for products, services and brands. At the same time, building a sustainable and effective design practice within a large organization is a huge challenge (as we are learning every day at IBM Design), which requires investment, infrastructure, talent, patience and a strong commitment from leadership.

Q: How do you (or others) measure the impact of design?

A: This is the key question that we in the design profession have been trying to answer for decades. The problem is that, unlike other parts of a business like manufacturing or supply chain, design never happens in isolation. Design influences, and is influenced by, many other factors which means that it is extremely hard to measure independently. One metric, obviously, is revenue (ie: did we sell more products after a redesign than before?) but in our context this can be a misleading way to measure success. Hence, we like to study various aspects of user activity—which is actually pretty easy to measure—in addition to simply looking at the bottom line. In very basic terms: if someone is actually using a product successfully that means it is providing value, and if it is providing value they will buy it and continue to buy it.


Q: Can you give any insights on what consumers tend to spend more money for. Services? Desired products? Value? What is design’s role in this?

A: I hate to use an obvious example but Apple illustrates this point perfectly. There are many smartphones and tablets on the market that are way less expensive that iPhones and iPads, but none that have such a delightful and distinctive user interface, or physical form. Apple is one of the most successful companies in the world and it’s because their products are driven by design and put the user first. Another example is my local cheese shop here in Austin, Texas, Antonelli’s. They have a case full of hundreds of different types of cheese, which can be a confusing and overwhelming experience. But their counter staff are super knowledgeable and engaging and they guide me through the process of choosing cheese in a delightful and engaging way. They turn a potentially negative experience into an awesomely positive one. This is great user experience design.

Q: How does design play a role in the way products are built, manufactured?

A: Design must be an equal partner with the all other aspects of developing a great product which, in our case, is mostly engineering (the people who build the software) and product management (the people who set the business strategy). Additionally, we are finding that designers often have a unique ability to facilitate the collaborative process—designers are the “connective tissue” that can bring together areas of a business that might otherwise be disconnected.


Q: How is design used to re-think, evaluate, and re-imagine new processes or products?

A: How does this impact the Industry? Design thinking is radically transforming how products are developed at IBM. This is the primary thrust of the design education program that I run at IBM Design. We are working with mutli-disciplinary product teams —usually designers bringing user experience expertise, product managers bringing business strategy, and engineers with the technical know-how—to develop a collaborative approach to envisioning awesome technology products. It’s pretty cool to see how non-designers are engaging with this new way of working.


IP: I’ve always been one of a few Black or Brown designer in firms and teams I’ve been on – and recently I’ve been happy to hear more and more folks talking about diversity and inclusion of underrepresented minorities in design and technology.

A: Yes, this is consistent with what I’m seeing and certainly true at IBM Design. IBM is a global company and we are recruiting designers from all over the world and from a variety of backgrounds. I don’t have actual data, but as I look around the studio here in Austin, it looks a lot like a cross-section of the community we live in. Of course diversity has been a historic dilemma in the design profession and we are nowhere near fully resolving it, but I am beginning to see some encouraging signs. Ultimately I believe it’s about how design shows up in the K-12 years. If kids are not being exposed to design at an early age, they simply won’t consider it as a possible career—and importantly for inner-city and immigrant kids, their families won’t consider it either (hence, bravo Inneract!).

Q: Based on your experience, what has been the role of underrepresented minorities in the field of design and where do see the opportunities for making progress?

A: Back to one of my original points about empathy for our audience/users: if creating great design requires that we truly identify with our audience or users on a human level, this would suggest that we should have as much range and diversity in our design teams as possible. We have a studio in Shanghai which fascinates me. China is like the Wild West (Wild East?) of design. They have only recently introduced graphic design curriculum into the university-level academic programs there, and there is a flood of young talent pouring into the profession. It will be really cool to see how they interpret and redefine design for their culture over the next generation. Perhaps it will be reminiscent of the mid-twentieth century in the US when design was defined by the likes of Paul Rand, the Eames’, Saul Bass and others from a mostly-European heritage.

Q: With design, do you see value of diversity toward increased innovation and connections to global markets? If so, why?

A: Absolutely! At IBM Design we are building products for a global customer and user base and our entire approach to design is grounded in empathy for these people. If our designers come from only a narrow slice of the demographic, geographic and socio-economic pie, this challenge becomes infinitely more difficult.


Doug Powell is the Design Principal, Program Director for Education & Activation at IBM.
Photos: Mari McCallion |