IBM and Pencils

Late Fall, 1969: a kid rides in the back of his dad’s red Volkswagen Beetle snaking through the back roads towards a modern mirage: the IBM Research Center in the thinly settled northern reaches of Westchester County New York. It was the first of several visits through the years that gave me a glimpse into technology and its trappings. Unlike the southern and central parts of gold coast commuter Westchester, it was country up there, more Catskills than Madison Avenue. But IBM went all in with design and picked sleepy Yorktown Heights for its experiment. Eero Saarinen’s 1961 Research Center was the original American center of tech thought and innovation. And for the kid in the back of the Bug, the message was in the pencils.

They were a bit out of the ordinary, colored and letter-graded. Some had slogans or mottos. What they all had was design DNA passed down from a group of visual wizards who may have been the most talented assemblage ever to have been tasked with creating an identity for a single company.

Saarinen’s building was the Apple headquarters of its day. Born in Finland, the architect came to the US as a twelve year-old and studied at the Cranbrook Academy in Michigan where his father Eliel, also an architect, was the dean. After attending the Yale School of Architecture, the younger Saarinen went on to design masterpieces like the Gateway National Park (and Arch) in St. Louis and the TWA terminal at JFK Airport in New York.

When viewed from above, the Research Center had been designed to look like an eye staring into the sky. Outside, it was a lithe cascade of glass and steel curtain wall that appeared to grow from the earth. The Research Center was a tangible manifestation of chairman Thomas J. Watson’s exhortation to “Think.” By 1961, IBM’s head of design, Eliot Noyes and his all-star design team, had incorporated this one-word motto into banners, memo pads, and signage.

But it was more than a beautiful building plunked down in a suburban setting. It smelled faintly of ammonia and chalk. There was a low-key thrum from all that thinking. Ideas and equations seemed to explode from blackboards and whiteboards around every turn.

I had no idea what my dad actually did. For a kid, engineering is too esoteric, but it was clear he worshipped in a shrine to design. We ate in the building’s cafeteria where communal tables designed by Saarinen encouraged shared theories and projects. After lunch, we strolled back to my dad’s shared office. The main hallway brought in abundant natural light for walks that had no defined beginning or end point. Folks came and went without planned meetings or schedules. Nothing about the place seemed like work to me.

The Pencils

My dad started bringing pencils home for me a few years before I got the chance to visit the Research Center. He’d time the delivery right before the school year. Before big box stores made “back to school shopping” a national holiday, restocking school supplies meant getting a few new pencils and a notebook or two. He never announced that he hbrought home pencils, but I could tell by the way he lingered for a moment after he came home that a shipment had come in. Whether he thought so or not, the implicit message that came with the pencils was that I was a kid that deserved a better-than-average pencil.

They were richly lacquered in black, red, tan, and green. Other ones had the “Think” slogan or had corporate mottos and exhortations like the one in the photograph below. I didn’t know what corporate secrets I had to guard, but the pencils gave me a sense of belonging, albeit a second-order connection through my dad. Holding them, I felt part of something fun and important, and that IBM as a collective enterprise could achieve far greater things than the sum of its individual parts.

For most kids in the 1960s, the school pencil was about as exciting as a toothbrush. Colorful IBM pencils invited me to look at pencils and other daily objects differently. Its pencils were irreverent, whimsical, and colorful. They had the allure of contraband — something unobtainable relating to the then recondite world of computers. Using them for exams gave me a psychic boost; if these tools were good enough for the illuminati who graced the arcing halls of the Research Center, then surely they were enough for me to ace some simple equations.

The pencils slotted neatly into the nascent tech-geek aesthetic at the Research Center. My dad also brought home other things: memo pads, and surplus items like the pastel colored punch cards used for early computers and Cobol programming. I could never quite think of anything constructive to do with the punch cards except to horde them. Aside from the pencils, the tan, vinyl covered memo pads that came with “Think” slogan imprinted on the cover were my favorite item.

Through typography, use of color and the mixing of letter and color grades, IBM pencils were distant, superior cousins to the quotidian №2 pencil. Some of them had cryptic notations and corporate propaganda, including a red one with the exhortation:



The black “Electrographic” pencil was made with special process graphite that laid down a dark, smooth line. It was developed to work well with IBM scanning equipment that used a trademarked process called “Mark Sense.” Although long discontinued, there is still a fairly abundant supply of these on the market today.

IBM’s pencils became its de facto design ambassadors and signifiers of corporate purpose and unity. Colorful, accessible, and in most instances, free, the pencil was an avatar for progress and innovative products. Thinkers and workers from all strata — from Benoit Mandelbrot, the inventor of fractal geometry, to the cleaning staff — were connected through using the same pencils.

“Good design is good business.”

  • -Thomas J. Watson Jr. (from a lecture delivered at the University of Pennsylvania)

In college, I used an elegant Olivetti Lettera 22 along with my IBM pencils. They were good companions. The Lettera 22 was a gorgeous piece of industrial engineering, but it required a lot of maintenance to keep its keys from sticking and the ribbons fresh. Like pencils, typewriters have regained favor with the public, but the paths of these two analogue darlings have diverged quite a bit. Pencil manufacturing and product development is resurgent today, and there is a growing market for wood-clinched and mechanical pencils, but typewriters are no longer manufactured (or if they are, it is not readily apparent where this is the case.)

To get a complete picture of the role of the pencil at IBM, it is helpful to get a bit of the backstory about how its chairman Watson Jr., was inspired to overhaul the company with designers taking the lead. His misson (and the genesis of IBM pencils) can be traced to the Italian company Olivetti during the mid-1950s. Olivetti’s colorful typewriters caught Watson’s attention strolling down 5thAvenue in Manhattan. He was so captivated by their color palette and design that he planned a trip to the company’s headquarters.

Watson clearly had an eye for design, and it seems that it was not entirely an accident that he found the showroom. Olivetti’s lead designer, the architect Marcello Nizzoli, had won Italy’s top design award, in 1954. His boss, founder Adriano Olivetti, was known for bringing his designers and engineers together at the beginning of project, a departure from letting the engineers design first and having the designers pretty things up afterwards.

After his Olivetti trip, Watson hired the architect Eliot Noyes to create a comprehensive design program that would pump life into every aspect of IBM’s business: products, logos, buildings, and marketing collateral. For an American company in the 1950s, especially in post-war, Eisenhower America, leading with design was a radical concept. Noyes took his mission seriously. In addition to Saarinen and his classmates Ray and Charles Eames, Noyes hired the sculptor and furniture designer Isamu Noguchi and a New York based graphic design firm headed by Paul Rand. The team set out to create an entirely new visual vocabulary for the company. The “Think” logo was the visual evocation of Watson Jr.’s corporate philosophy. “Think” was everywhere: product packaging, memo pads, signage, and stationery, and, of course pencils.

IBM and Pencil Hoarding

Is it possible that IBM pencils are at least partly responsible for the culture of hoarding pencils that exists today?

Even the best pencils like Blackwings that date from the same era were intended to do a job with little fanfare and were certainlynot considered collectible. In the heyday of IBM pencils there was no public forum to discuss, review, and debate the curatorial nuances of pencils. The notion of manufacturing a pencil with the geological contours of Lake Tahoe or one developed based on the extemporaneous and avant-garde exigencies of the Dadaists would have been considered patently absurd decades ago. But IBM’s designers indeed saw the value in expressing the decorative qualities of a pencil long before the contemporary resurgence of interest in analog tools.

I can trace my pencil hoarding urges to my IBM pencils. They were the first pencils I saw with letter grades, and the first non-color pencils I saw that were varnished in an array of vivid shades that weren’t yellow. The color/non-color duality was for some reason particularly interesting to me. Letter grading the pencils suggested that they were more tools than toys, but they could have easily just graded the pencils and made them all the same color. Clearly someone in the design chain decided that creating a palette of different colors would add to their appeal.

Strangely the net effect of classifying pencils by color and grade made me hesitate to use the pencils. I would pick up an “F” grade and wonder whether I made the right choice or should have used an HB or a 2 instead. I also started to use the pencils based on their supply: if I only had one or two of a particular grade or color, I would save it, despite the fact that I could replace it fairly easily. It is fair to say that I became gripped with an incipient hoarder’s mindset. The mere fact that I have a decent stash of them left after nearly a half-century of moving around the country is a testament to more than a passing compulsion to collect things.

The Ride Back

Looking back on my relationship with the pencils, it seems that IBM’s design vocabulary was used partly to boost corporate morale, but also as a tool to ensure a measure of conformity among in its scientific ranks. My dad, on the science side of the house, grumbled about his managers and barely could stomach the fact that salespeople had to do ordinary business things, such as actually selling IBM products.

From his perspective, it seemed that the crew at the Research Center would have been happy to perform pure research unencumbered by the need to generate revenue or to ever talk to people outside their department. The exception to this disdain for corporate conformity seemed to be in the apparent pride he took in the pencils and other logo-branded supplies. Merely writing with an Electrographic pencil could make even a mildly disgruntled employee smile for a moment, and surviving IBM pencils link many people to memories and people from a couple of generations ago.

The kid rides back to Connecticut. There’s nothing much to talk about with his dad. For all its design glory, the Research Center is a tiring place to spend the day, and more than a bit intimidating. The laboratories are mysterious, impenetrable spaces clogged with odd machines performing information alchemy. I have the pencils to prove it.