Elliot Noyes

When talking about the history of design at IBM, many tend to focus on Elliot Noyes who was hired in 1956 as a design consultant by the then IBM CEO and Chairman of the Board T. J. Watson Jr. who popularized the statement “Good design is Good Business”. Noyes was a well-respected architect with a history of design curation in the New York Museum of Modern Art, he worked only 50% of the time with IBM, the other 50% he was consulting with Mobil Oil, Westinghouse and Cummins Engine Company, etc. He built the basis of the ‘IBM design Program’ that is still running today, he did that by placing under the same program the products, buildings, corporate identity and marketing materials as an intentionally created program, deeply inspired by art & design. He brought into this endeavor many artists, designers and architects, among them Charles and Ray Eames, Eero Saarinen, Paul Rand. Perhaps Noyes’s was influenced by his former teacher Peter Behrens (1868–1940), whose work with the German industrial consortium Allgemeine Elektrizitäts Gesellschaft (AEG) in the early twentieth century at the epicentre of modernist design. Noyes identified himself as a curator of corporate character stating “It does seem to be a part of the role of the designer to help identify this character, and then express it in terms of the most meaningful goals and the highest ideas of the company and in the broadest context of our society and economy” (IBM 100, 2012).

This design program started in 1955 and was implemented throughout 1956, it existed for many years in only one document, a presidential letter which in IBM never changes, irrespective of who signed it, for many years the content never changed. There was also a corporate organization manual with 11 rights that are retained on the corporate staff and are not delegated to any division or operating units, things like finance, personnel relations, and design was one of them. In an interview by Peter Lawrence with Gordon Bruce (Lawrence, P., 2016), one of Noyes’ collaborators, Gordon described Noyes as someone who would listen closely to the CEO to get to the essence of the company, then build a strategy from the inside in, with internal staff, and work toward becoming dispensable.  Noyes pioneered in so many ways, like establishing internal design reviews, bringing all products into a big white room, four to six times a year, with internal and external design directors, sometimes the CEO would stop by.

Throughout the years and as IBM grew, Eliot Noyes did not attempt to replicate what was happening with IBM or with other contemporary American firms that combined architectural and design practices (Skidmore, Owings & Merrill SOM, Caudill Rowlett Scott CRS, Walter Dorwin Teague and Associates), Eliot Noyes and Associates remained small but did not lose influence, he sought to extend the designer’s “sphere of influence” over as many relevant aspects of IBM as possible.

His Title: The design curator.

A phrase to remember: “And this will happen only when good design—the awareness of it and the desire for it—begins to come out through their own skins. That is why this is not an outside movement. We are trying to start one within the company, using a variety of stimuli.”

Three qualities: Artistic, Collaborative, Empowering