How IBM helps designers build skills and grow their careers

Lauren Swanson
Oct 28 · 7 min read

After making the shift from marketing to design, I’m learning all the ways IBM is committed to being the best place for designers to work

I’ve been in marketing my entire career but recently felt like I wanted a change. I’m lucky to work at a company with an amazing growth mindset. IBM doesn’t want people to stay where they are and get stale; it’s a place that encourages you to go, explore, and learn in different opportunities across the company. Curiosity is our greatest asset.

After six years with IBM specifically working in social media, I was ready to grow my team leadership and program management skills in new ways. When I learned about an internal job with the IBM Designer Practices & Community team, I was intrigued. I’m not a designer myself but have worked with designers throughout my career and admire their creativity, inquisitiveness, and ability to reframe problems. During the interview process for the new role, my future team continuously stressed the importance of their team’s mission:

“Make IBM the best place for designers to practice their craft, grow their skills, and advance their careers.”

As an outsider looking in, it was this investment in designers that impressed me. And since starting my new role this summer, I’ve seen how seriously the team takes their responsibility. Over the past few months, these are several ways I’ve seen firsthand how IBM is passionately committed to designers:

Early career success

From a designer’s first day at IBM, their experience is thoughtfully architected by a squad on our team dedicated to early career designers’ onboarding and growth. Whether they’re new to IBM or it’s their first job out of school, designers attend a “bootcamp” of sorts called Patterns. These new practitioners from different disciplines — content design, design research, UX design, and visual design — learn about designing for user-focused products and services in a large, complex, global organization. They’ll use Design Thinking skills to learn to design human-centered solutions for real business problems.

Some projects have been so successful that they’ve even gone to market since the program’s inception six years ago. Our team is also looking for ways to connect these early career designers with mid-career designers to create mentorship opportunities that are mutually beneficial for skills growth.

A group photo of new employees
A group photo of new employees
The Summer 2019 Patterns cohort of new employees kicked off six weeks of human-centered projects before the designers went into their business units

Resources for designers

Being at the midpoint of any profession can be daunting with the always-lingering question of “What’s next?” To equip designers and their managers to thoughtfully plan career paths, our team’s mid-career squad has put together a lot of amazing resources. IBM designers have access to the Design Career Playbook and Mentorship Playbook while managers have the Design Career Manager Activation Kit to guide meaningful conversations to help their team members grow. There’s also a Design Opportunity Marketplace where people can find their next great opportunity within IBM, regular Ask Me Anything sessions with design leadership on Slack, and a show on IBM Community Radio called Designline that gives designers a forum to talk about different topics or tell their stories.

Another cool new resource is the Design Toolbox. Designers across the company are now empowered to “discover, procure, and use” best-in-class design tools. What was once a frustrating, unclear process to navigate procurement rules is now an easy way to search for tools by function and understand how to get a license — or allow designers to champion new tools they want to try.

A screenshot of the Design Career Playbook
A screenshot of the Design Career Playbook
Internal IBM resources like playbooks guide career mapping and manager conversations

Programs to help senior design leaders achieve distinctions

At IBM, design leaders can pursue either technical or management leadership tracks. (“Technical” is an IBM term that, in the design context, refers to a designer’s craft.) I’m on my team’s senior design leadership squad and am helping to run these programs.

For rising technical leaders, the Design Principal program equips best-in-class designers ready to move into technical leadership roles by identifying a mission that meets critical technological, business, and user needs. In 2016, IBM established the Distinguished Designer program to elevate the profession of design in order to give established technical leaders the same level of distinction as IBM’s most senior engineers. This executive-level distinction recognizes excellence in design craft, thought leadership both in and outside the company, and proven impact on the business. You can meet the 2019 class of IBM Distinguished Designers here.

Similarly, other IBM designers have advanced into senior management roles where they set the stage for design to thrive in their business unit. Designers at IBM now hold executive level positions such as Design Director and Design Partner across IBM’s product and services portfolios.

At IBM, we believe a critical part of solving complex problems relies on the strength of diverse, empowered teams. Diversity within our design community is a huge priority — and elevating women and under-represented minorities into design leadership helps us reach that goal. This is a hugely important issue for the profession of design, and one IBM has focused on with great intention.

Focus on learning and achieving skills

When I started my new role, one of my first tasks assigned was education: I needed to take the first Enterprise Design Thinking (EDT) course to get my Practitioner Badge. At IBM, learning isn’t a nice-to-have — it’s a priority. All IBMers are encouraged to complete 40 hours of education a year.

At no cost, anyone can log onto the EDT site and take the introductory course to learn the basics. Any IBMer, designer or not, can take the next step by joining EDT chapters on their local IBM campus to sharpen their skills and network with other practitioners. Skill building can also be honed through the IBM Guide to Critique, as well as Design and Development Essentials courses.

A man leads a workshop in an open team working space
A man leads a workshop in an open team working space
Distinguished Designer Adam Cutler leads an EDT workshop on empathy mapping in the Austin studio

Engagement

A designer’s sense of community, engagement, and happiness is also a huge priority. At IBM, the purpose of design is to guide the people we serve. And at the heart of everything the Designer Practices & Community team does everyday is serving the designers we’re entrusted to support. Twice a year, our team administers the Designer Experience Survey to designers at IBM that measures and monitors things like studio culture, relationships with fellow designers and management, growth opportunities, and work-life balance. This helps us understand how designers across the company are feeling about their experience — and identify what we’re doing well and how we can do better. We also share this information back to business unit leaders so they can improve the designer experience at a local level.

Culture

I work at IBM Studios Austin, which is on the larger IBM campus. There are artifacts on the walls to map out future products, groups of couches clustered in pockets for impromptu discussions, white boards for thinking through and visualizing ideas, and sticky notes everywhere for taking notes (So. Many. Sticky. Notes). While every studio has its own flavor, Halloween at the ATX Studio is next-level. From an Indiana Jones-inspired obstacle course to a delightfully creepy Bob Ross cult (my personal favorite), every year our studio hosts the rest of the Austin campus to enjoy a day of fun interactive experiences in hopes of taking home the top prize. Last year, my team recreated Westworld, with the entire crew outfitted in old-timey Western costumes. Guests walked though fully functioning saloon doors to drink Sarsaparilla in a saloon (complete with a full-size piano they somehow hauled up to the eighth floor). Design teams across studio compete for the best experience, and the winning team gets a trophy (a glitter lava lamp, obvi) and bragging rights for the year.

A small group of people meeting in a team working space
A small group of people meeting in a team working space
Members of the Designer Practices & Community team develop the Design Career Playbook in a collaborative team space in the studio

What’s next for designers at IBM

Not too long ago, my team had an all-day off site to ideate on where we need to focus our time and resources next to best serve designers. We found areas to iterate on and improve, and scrapped things that aren’t working (our team loves to “kill our darlings,” another thing I’m learning). I’m inspired by the talented people I get to work with who are so passionate about making IBM the best place in the world for designers to practice their craft and grown their skills. And I’m excited to see what we come up with next.

Interested in learning more about design at IBM? Go here.

Are you an IBMer? Check out resources for designers like the Design Career Playbook and Design Mentorship Playbook here.

Lauren Swanson is Design Leadership Program Lead on the Designer Practices & Community team at IBM, where the mission is to create a sustainable culture of design within the company. IBM has over 2,000 formally trained designers across 45+ studios worldwide. She lives in Austin, TX. Thoughts are her own.

Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

Lauren Swanson

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Design at IBM

Stories from the practice of design at IBM

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