Creating a culture of design

Some reflections on the culture I’ve experienced at IBM Design.

The studio where I work is a busy, collaborative hub of design activity.

I’ve worked for a few different organizations over the last decade and I’m always fascinated by how each one has its own unique culture.

If you work anywhere for more than a few days I think you can start to pick up the feel of the place. This might be partly based on the physical environment (e.g. are broken chairs and light bulbs replaced or left hanging around for months?), how colleagues interact with each other (with warmth and openness or with hesitancy and suspicion?), how hierarchical the org seems (e.g. do managers listen as well as direct?), or on how open (or not) people are to new ideas and ways of working.

In truth, anything can contribute to the culture of a place, and often the factors involved can be hard to put your finger on. Yet some places do just feel stale and static, for example, while other places feel fresh and vibrant. And while the norm in some places seems to be for teams to just plod along doing what they’ve always done, in other places teams regularly try out new initiatives.

I joined the IBM Design org last summer and have been really impressed with the design culture that they have developed. It feels creative and productive at the same time, which I love. And while there is clear structure, there is also a playfulness and a passion for innovation that permeates the whole.

As I’ve reflected on this design culture over the last year, I’ve identified a few key factors that I think have made all the difference.

1. The people

Ultimately, nothing influences the culture of a place half as much as the people involved. Keep this at the forefront of your mind when hiring. After all, the people that you bring on board are going to be the people who shape the future culture of your org.

Designers using one of the break-out spaces in the studio where I work.

I’m very fortunate to be surrounded by some very talented and passionate designers, and it is perhaps this more than anything else that makes IBM Design a very inspiring place to be right now. My colleagues eat, sleep, and breathe great design. They’re creative, energetic, and fun. And they are also deeply committed to finding usable solutions to what are often highly complex problems.

But as well as having great individuals on the team, there are some organizational approaches that I think really help nourish the design culture.

There’s little sense of hierarchy.

In a healthy design studio there’s a lot of team work, and people need to be team players. In my experience at IBM Design, little significance is placed on a person’s age, years of service, or rank. Rather, all team members are assumed to be capable, and given significant areas of responsibility. Yes, there are design leads and managers who sometimes need to make decisions, but in general there seems to be little emphasis on hierarchy and more focus on collaboration and team.

Managers facilitate; designers design.

There is little micro-managing of low level work. Instead, managers set direction and then entrust their teams to execute. Project reviews are then held at intervals to check cross-team alignment and quality. The vast majority of designers that I’ve worked with really take ownership of their work and are very pro-active in doing whatever needs to be done. It’s also been great to see managers in the org take on broader initiatives aimed at further developing our design competencies.

Fun is taken seriously.

In many of the other places that I’ve worked, I would say that the attitude tended to be: We do serious, important work here, and very occasionally we schedule in some fun. By comparison, the vibe within the IBM Design org seems to be much more along the lines of: Each day we engage in serious, important, pressured work AND we have some fun.

To be clear, the designers I know absolutely take their work seriously. Very seriously. But they tend not to take themselves too seriously. And this is a great dynamic.

Some of our interns taking a break outdoors. (Photo courtesy of: Sam Winslet)

2. The physical environment

In previous roles, I’ve worked in damp basements and in drab grey cubicles. I’ve sometimes spent my days in places that were cramped and littered with broken chairs and whatnot. Now, I know there are greater hardships in the world, but these things still matter. A broken desk in the corner of a tiny dull box room is hardly likely to lead to innovative design work.

So, I love the fantastic facilities that we have in the design studio where I work. The whole area is clean, bright, and versatile. It’s mostly open-plan and all desks, chairs, whiteboards, etc. are movable, meaning that the space can be reconfigured day-to-day to suit the particular needs of each project team.

Making use of wall space to map out a user experience journey.

There are 3 glass-fronted meeting rooms, each equipped with white board walls. There are also some informal break-out areas that teams can make use of, plus a modern kitchen and eating area.

Now, the reason I mention these facilities is not just to say how nice it all is; the real point I want to make is this:

Having such facilities really does make a huge difference to the way we work and to the results we produce.

I now know first-hand that working in a well-designed collaborative space really does lead to teams working, er, more collaboratively.

We don’t just talk about work, or (much worse) email each other about work, we get up, congregate around a whiteboard and draw out our thoughts and ideas visually, then iterate over them. This might seem like a small difference in approach, yet it really helps us to communicate and develop our ideas quickly and collaboratively.

One of the many moveable whiteboards that aid collaborative working in our studio.

Is the studio environment perfect? No. It’s often noisy, messy, and sometimes downright chaotic. After all, it’s a busy, working studio. But for me, the benefits far outweigh these niggles. I could work from home a fair amount of the time, and it would save me a tedious commute twice a day but I never do because the studio is such a great place to work. I love the buzz, the creativity, and the fun of working in a well-designed creative physical environment.

3. The tools

In addition to the great physical environment that I get to work in, I’ve also seen the impact that having quality tools has on the work our design teams produce.

Everyone has a MacBook Pro and a large, high-resolution external monitor. To be frank, I can’t image doing design work without these essential tools.

Access to great tools enables talented people to produce their best work. (Photo courtesy of: Sam Winslet)

Then there’s the toolkit of great software that we get to use: Sketch and the Adobe Creative Suite for wire-framing and producing visual designs; GitHub and Box as repositories for shared code, docs, artifacts, etc.; and Slack, Zoom, and Mural for collaborative working. (Note that email does not feature in my list of essential tools!)

Obviously all this costs money. Now there are plenty of financial constraints where I work, so it’s not that we have a limitless pot of money to splash around. The key point is that when it comes to tools, IBM Design does seem to recognize the following fact:

Having the right tools enables people to produce their best work. Or, to put it another way, poor tools limit what people can achieve.

So, if you want first class visual design, for example, you need to hire talented visual designers and give them professional tools (the Adobe Creative Suite, etc.).

Again, I’ve worked in enough places and witnessed enough expense discussions and trends over the years to know what a difference it makes when your people are properly equipped. In my experience elsewhere, companies so often focus solely on the “countable” cost of buying a piece of equipment or a software license yet fail to think more broadly. What I’ve learned is that:

Yes, there’s a cost associated with having quality tools. But let’s never forget that there’s a potentially far greater cost to your business if you don’t.

4. The practices

Again, much has already been written about many of the design thinking practices (user research, personas, user stories, agile, squads, prototyping, playbacks, retrospectives, workshops, etc.) so I won’t go into these. But I will briefly mention a couple of other practices that I believe have had a direct and positive influence on helping IBM establish its culture of design.

Forming multidisciplinary teams

Some people seem to think that you can hire a “generic” designer and expect them to carry out in-depth user research, design great workflows, deliver awesome visual designs, focus on optimizing the user’s experience, code up some cool micro-interactions, and write compelling content.

Thankfully, IBM Design does not share this view. That’s why they hire designers with specialist skills, such as User Research, UX, Visual Design, and Front-End Development.

So, our design teams themselves are multidisciplinary. But they are also just one partner of several involved in the bigger endeavor of delivering great products. The reason we have design teams in the first place is to help solve real-world problems and to produce great tools and solutions for real people. This is why it’s essential that design professionals work closely with engineering and product management colleagues.

For just as producing a beautiful hi-fi visual design artifact is never really an end goal in itself, so having a kick-ass design team is also not the end goal.
Our design thinking workshops typically involve colleagues from design, engineering, product management, and other areas of the company coming together to explore new problems and possible solutions.

Holding regular “Design Share” events

When you’re working away on something, it’s tempting to want to hold back from showing others until you believe it’s really polished. After all, it’s your work, and you only want people to see your best, right?


Design thinking teaches us that it’s always a better idea to get feedback early and often. This is why we hold weekly “Design Share” events in the studio, and fortnightly Design Share calls with the broader worldwide design team that I’m part of. These are a bit like school show-and-tell sessions, but with much more emphasis on feedback and on engaging the design community in discussion about particular topics.

As the primary purpose is to help us learn from each other, what we don’t do is have teams just present their final designs and then sit back and bask in their glory. Instead, design teams typically talk through how they approached a particular piece of work, what went well and what didn’t, and what they learned through the process. Questions and suggestions are actively encouraged so the format is less formal presentation and more group conversation (accompanied by much banter in Slack…). We have a rough rota so that each team shares something over the course of a few months.

There are so many advantages to running this simple practice. It reinforces the “everything’s a prototype” mentality, encourages us all to regularly ask for and provide constructive design feedback, and also helps build relationships across teams and geographies.

In conclusion, I can’t overstate how important culture is. I’ve worked in enough places that have had grand strategies about how they intend to or claim to operate — but which in no way live up to their stated ideals to recognize the truth contained in the old maxim, that:

Organizational culture eats strategy for breakfast.

Now, creating and sustaining an innovative, open design culture is tough. It won’t just happen. It takes thought and effort. And not just once but continually. However, we can learn from each other, and — in the spirit of design thinking— we can and should have the confidence to experiment, to fail fast, and to refine things as needed. After all:

One of the key indicators of a healthy design culture, is that its principles are regularly applied to the organization itself.

Do leave a comment below to let me know what other factors you think help contribute to creating a healthy design culture.

Tom Waterton is a Design Content Specialist at IBM based in Hursley, UK. The above article is personal and does not necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.