Big Blue's Design Guru Moves Up

IBM Vice-President Lee Green talks about how the world-class tech company is learning to put design first

Taking the stage at the Corporate Design Foundation's recent @issue Business & Design Conference, Lee Green recounted his early years as a designer at IBM (IBM). His manager sent him to Florida to work on a new project -- something called a personal computer. Nearly three decades later, as director of corporate identity and design, Green oversaw the handoff of Big Blue's PC business to Lenovo.

While the sale of a company's consumer-product line might seem like bad news for its design chief, that's hardly the case. Green was recently promoted -- bringing design to the vice-president level for the first time in IBM's history -- and is helping to launch the Big Blue's next design initiative. Green recently spoke with BusinessWeek Online editor Jessie Scanlon about IBM's move into design services, working with the New York Stock Exchange, and the state of design innovation in China.

Your title recently changed to Vice President, IBM Brand and Values Experience. Setting aside the personal promotion, what does the new title say about how the role of design has changed at IBM?

First of all, it's an elevation of design's reporting position -- I'm now a VP. It's also a testament to IBM's feeling about the strategic value of these areas. Not only the strategic value of IBM's ability to leverage these design capabilities, but the opportunity to provide strategic consulting services to our clients.

IBM's designers used to be responsible for the look of IBM's products -- the Thinkpad perhaps being the most iconic example. Now that IBM has sold off its PC business to Lenovo, what are you focusing on?

Design has been a cornerstone of IBM's offerings and of high importance to the corporation for decades. As a result, we've developed an internal capability that is highly skilled and highly diverse.

As IBM's strategy has changed, and we've moved towards consulting and services, and away from our commodity offerings, we realized that this was a skill that could be of value to them. What they found most appealing, and what differentiates us from other industrial design firms, is the link between our design talent and world-class technology. When a client brings us in to talk about next-generation innovation, we bring design expertise, we bring connection to our research partners, we have information on emerging technologies, et cetera.

Can you give me an example?

A few years ago we worked with the New York Stock Exchange to develop a handheld wireless device for its floor traders. They had been using a couple of small tablets or PDAs and wanted something more robust, more secure. We talked to their IT department and learned what they thought they needed.

Then we went back to our traditional design process, which is focused on uncovering user needs. We developed initial prototypes to meet the specs, and then watched the traders using it and talked to them. We found that they interact with the device for some portion of the day, but other times don't need to use it. And it just gets in the way because they're very active.

We went back to IBM and told them that they had over-spec'd the device. It was going to be too heavy.

You mean the initial design brief had focused on tech requirements like data throughput and battery power without taking the trader's needs into consideration?

Yes. We not only helped the NYSE understand the key usability issues associated with the device. We then engineered it and manufactured it for them. And through our infrastructure capabilities, we were able to integrate the device into their back-end systems in a way that helped them transform their business.

Have "design services" been a hard sell for IBM? As you've said, you're not a typical ID firm.

Two things interesting happen when we meet with client teams for the first time. Almost always they expect that the initial conversation is going to be about technology. We try to suspend that conversation and talk about their business, what they do, and perhaps how to understand their customers.

That helps us identify new opportunities that they might not have seen. In some cases, the clients' perception is that the engagement is going to be more about industrial design -- the look and feel, textures, shapes, aesthetics. A project may eventually include that. But that's not how we start. The real opportunities to help them innovate have to start from the market and their business. It's not about devices.

What kind of clients are you working with?

Consumer electronics, health care, manufacturing, aerospace, and defense -- it's a broad spectrum. We've also had some interesting engagements with companies in China and Japan, trying to understand how to move into European markets.

A few years ago, every CEO developed a China strategy. Now it seems like every design firm is trying to figure out what opportunities and challenges the China market -- or as Patrick Whitney says, markets -- holds for them.

What we've seen in China is that we have many companies that are extremely proficient and efficient at manufacturing. They are world-class leaders at manufacturing for themselves and others. Now as many are looking to expand and become more global, they realize that they need to compete at a different level.

That competition means that they need to provide some competitive differentiation. They need to build their brands, and sharpen their skills, and go beyond traditional design methods and to embrace more of the strategic approach that forces them to understand their customers and how their customers are different from others. There is a growth curve. But I'll tell you they are extremely focused on doing this.

Doesn't this user-centered design approach that you're describing run counter to IBM's tradition as a technology-driven company?

The reflex for IBM used to be to focus on technology first and user considerations second. But you've got to reverse it.

You can have world-class technology. But if you miss the sweet spot in terms of understanding your customer's needs and wants, you're misappropriating that tech skill and you don't end up with a product or a solution that's going to allow you to create the next innovation. The next innovation is almost always about a holistic experience, enabled by technology, rather than the other way around.

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