IBM Perfected the Art of the Anti-corporate Corporate Poster – Eye on Design
During the mid-twentieth century, perhaps no other American company exemplified technological achievement, business acumen, and good design better than IBM. Major advancements in data processing and mainframe computing brought forth an unprecedented investment in R&D within the company that provided a space for design to flourish. External consultant and director of design Eliot Noyes convinced IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr. of the value that design could bring to the organization. He connected IBM leadership with famed designers such as Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, and others. In addition, Noyes initiated the company’s launching of a dozen Design Centers across the United States, each of which complimented a manufacturing facility’s needs for industrial design and model-making as well as graphic design and photography.
The IBM poster program was first initiated during the 1960s by Ken White, a staff graphic designer in the Design Center in Boulder, Colo. White was recommend by Paul Rand, under whom he had studied at Yale University, to lead the graphic design efforts in the Boulder office. Shortly thereafter, White added two new designers to the staff, John Anderson and Tom Bluhm. While the graphic designer’s daily efforts typically focused on producing artwork and layout for packaging, equipment manuals, and product graphics for IBM’s external customers, White saw an opportunity for a creative outlet through which the design team could reach IBM’s own employees. Working closely with internal department managers, White secured funds to design and print “visual memoranda” that would engage employees through their bold designs and messages for the next 15 years. Many of these posters were designed in the International Typographic Style of the Swiss School and won Type Directors Club awards. Others were featured in Walter Herdeg’s groundbreaking Graphis annual.
White initiated the idea of a poster program that would be a “stage for communicating” to all IBM Boulder employees. Each poster was designed using a Root 2 proportion measuring 15 x 21 inches and was printed either by silk-screening or offset lithography. Bulletin boards were strategically located around the campus—both in the laboratory and manufacturing areas, near the coffee machines, restrooms, and on the main corridors to the cafeterias—with pockets for 8 1/2 x 11 in (21.6 x 28 cm) announcements and two pockets for the posters. While the posters were originally designed for the Boulder campus, many became popular enough that IBM management reprinted them numerous times for other IBM facilities around the globe, and employees admired and collected them.
Today it seems ironic that while these posters were designed within one of the most advanced computing companies, none were created using a computer. Until the mid-1980s, most graphic design artwork was conceived of and developed on a drafting board employing hand drawings, intricate paste-ups, and film imagery shot on large-format stat cameras. The fact that IBM originally produced these for internal communication meant that, until recently, few source files were cataloged and most were never documented or digitized.
These posters by White, Anderson, and Bluhm represent a diverse collection of corporate graphic design, while providing a glimpse of employee communications in post-war America. They also show the degree to which Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s charge, “Good Design is Good Business” touched every aspect of IBM and created a lasting influence on corporate design in America.