Fortifying the design career path at IBM

A snapshot of how IBM’s Design Career Playbook marks a steadfast commitment to the people of design

It’s not news that IBM is undergoing a business and design transformation. One hundred million dollar investment to build the design program and practice? Check. Develop and roll out a design thinking framework for the enterprise? Check. Create the largest design workforce? Check.

Since the wake of the renewed investment in IBM’s design program in 2013, over 2,000 formally trained designers have threaded into virtually every part of IBM’s business. Design thinking (both as an empty buzzword and a meaningful problem-solving framework), has rippled throughout the company and the industry — returning real value to IBM. Through all this change, one core theme has emerged from my experience: it’s the people who are central to transformation journeys. A truly integrated, diverse group of people across business functions (including designers, developers, product managers, marketers, sales, etc.) rallying around delivering quality client and user experiences is what really can differentiate what we put out into the world.

But what do designers bring to the table, anyway? IBM designers are people who hold a deep conviction about bringing a human-centered lens to our solutions while intentionally crafting digital and offline experiences — often in complex systems. We continuously observe, reflect, and make to infuse the needs and realities of the end users in our problem solving. Not all designers in the world see their jobs that way, but at IBM, this mindset is deeply integrated into the ethos of the design community. To create the organizational conditions for our designers to continue this role, grow their skills, and increase their influence, IBM’s design program has invested in creating a design career framework that opens new doors for the designer and the design profession at large. And that’s a pretty big deal.

Day 1

I started as a newly minted software product designer at IBM in 2013. Day one of my IBM career started with sixty or so dewy designers coming from all over the country — landing in Austin, Texas, which would become the flagship location for the renewed IBM design program. I was joining IBM, but I knew what I was really joining was a movement to spread the value of a human-centered approach in order to solve for some of the most complex problems in the world. And just to name a few, we’re talking about solutions like improving diabetic care with AI, proactively managing data security threats, and making our world go ‘round with powerful transaction systems capable of running more than 12 billion encrypted transactions per day. There was an audacious spirit to the movement. Underlying this, the mission to “create a sustainable culture of design” was the song and beat of our drums.

And there we were, bright-eyed and ready to take on the world.

Have you seen a happier bunch of designers? Day 1 with first design cohort hired in 2013.

Establishing a design career infrastructure

Before the first cohort was hired, there was no job classification that existed in our HR systems for so-called “Designer.” A handful of visionary, gritty design advocates including Fahad Osmani, Design Director, and Jodi Cutler, Design Principal, paved the way when they created a design-specific job classification within our HR systems and defined a design career framework at IBM in 2013. It was one of the earliest and most essential structural artifacts that built momentum to create a sustainable culture of design.

The initial versions of the career framework, now known as the Design Career Playbook, captured the design program’s point of view on design job roles, definitions, skills, and expectations. The work that led up to it also instantiated a designer job classification in our HR system, affecting business processes and policies. The next iteration introduced the new roles of Design Principal and Distinguished Designer, which are leadership positions akin to the engineering leadership roles that have existed in IBM since 1996. For the first time, designers had a clear career path at IBM. It was one more milestone achieved to say, “Design is here to stay.” The playbook was not only important for designers and design managers, but important for other influencers of the design profession including HR partners and executives so that the design profession had the right advocates throughout the business. Every iteration of the playbook reflected the evolution of the design program, which brings me to the latest iteration at the end of 2018.

The IBM Design Career Playbook

My team published the latest iteration of the Design Career Playbook which was built on top of the trailblazing work of other IBMers, with a few major updates. First, the playbook is now a broadly-scaled, digital experience, written for all designers at IBM. As a result, the new playbook is opening doors wider for IBM to truly have one of the world’s richest design career opportunities, with roles across a wealth of different problem spaces. Secondly, the timing of this iteration presented a ripe opportunity for the design bridges across IBM to be strengthened. Historically, designers have been scattered across disparate pockets (products, services, corporate functions, brand, marketing) and across the globe. Along with many other efforts happening now, the Design Career Playbook is an artifact that helps us build a singular design voice and community.

A snapshot of the latest iteration of IBM’s Design Career Playbook (internal resource only, sorry!)

On a practical level, the playbook does the following:

  • Clarifies the value proposition of each design discipline
  • Provides guidance to grow skills holistically
  • Presents a clarified career progression
  • Provides greater definition for leadership roles and tracks
  • Gives actionable guidance for self-evaluation
  • Provides guidance for communicating design impact

This effort allows designers to envision a clear career path at IBM, and reinforces that design is much more than a trend at IBM. The Design Career Playbook is a practical framework for designers and managers to navigate career conversations, but it is just as much a meaningful cultural artifact for the company.

A sustainable culture of design

It’s a cultural artifact because it reinforces the mission of “creating a sustainable culture of design at IBM” and illuminates the progress we’ve made as an enterprise design program. Each iteration has reflected a unique moment in our history that drives design even more deeply into the DNA of IBM. When I think about how far our design community and the organization’s understanding of design has evolved since 2013, I am humbled and optimistic about our future. I remember the earlier days when my colleagues and I were experiencing the crude collisions of change on the front lines of sparring organizational cultures; design encroaching on cultural territory that had existed for years. I ended up collecting a list of (desperate) needs that my design colleagues and I were experiencing and mapped it to a diagram of Maslow’s Hierarchy. I shopped that thing around to anyone who would listen! Each of the five layers (physiological, safety, belonging, esteem, self-actualization) were overstuffed with the needs of many newly hired designers — the words just about to spill out like the fillings of an overstuffed taco just before biting into it. We had a lot of complaints. We had a lot of doubts. Was IBM actually committed to building a sustainable culture of design?

That was six years ago, and although it hasn’t all been a rosy journey, I am certain of IBM’s commitment to building a sustainable culture of design. There are so many people here who are actively working to improve our teams, solutions, and client experiences alongside internal efforts like the playbook. I see a deep sense of responsibility in the design community to steward design thinking and the design practice in a way that will benefit the larger opportunity to provide our world with better solutions and outcomes.

The people make it happen

We talk a lot about products, services, and outcomes, but let’s not forget that the people are the ones behind them all. It would be shortsighted to categorize an artifact like the Design Career Playbook as a simplistic HR document. Through this work we are setting the stage for our design community to enter new problem spaces and create new relationships across industries. And as we continue to mature, the playbook will also continue to evolve, taking snapshots of our design transformation story. Investing in our people is an essential part of the transformation strategy. It’s been a privilege to be a part of IBM’s design transformation through this role. I can’t wait to see the next level of IBM’s collective potential unfold as designers become even more integrated into the company.


Eunice S. Chung is a Design Manager on the Design Program Office team at IBM. The team’s mission is to create a sustainable culture of design at IBM. IBM has over 2,000 formally trained designers across 45+ studios worldwide. She lives in Austin, TX. Thoughts are her own.

Interested in learning more about design at IBM? Go here. 
Are you an IBMer? Check out the Design Career Playbook
here.