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The Business of Design

A view from 1975, The Art of Design Management: Design in American Business bears new weight today

By Patrick Ciccone, Superscript September 20, 2013

Around the world, companies in every industry are considering how design can improve their bottom lines and public perception. And design schools are responding, placing more emphasis on integrating design thinking and business—four years ago, Business Week selected 39 master's and MBA programs from North America, Europe, Asia, South America, and Australia that have established a new type of hybrid curriculum that allows students to work across disciplines and learn to use design for strategy as well as aesthetics. As this new model emerges, Patrick Ciccone takes a look at one of the earliest books to address the business of design, bringing new weight to a decades-old discussion:

“Good Design is Good Business”—the phrase and the logic are commonplace enough that its origin may be surprising: it was the mantra of IBM’s corporate design program, instigated in the 1950s by company chairman Thomas Watson Jr.

Watson expounds this theory in a talk published in the 1975 volume The Art of Design Management: Design in American Business, a collection of seven lectures given at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School at the behest of Tiffany & Co. This pioneering work explores whether—to paraphrase Calvin Coolidge’s famous dictum—the chief business of American business was not business but rather design.

A full-scale mockup of the IBM Research Laboratory in Yorktown Heights, New York, by Eero Saarinen & Associates. Image courtesy of Yale University Manuscripts & Archives.

The idea, at least for schools of management, was novel, as traditional business curricula never dealt with the “ways things look,” as then Wharton dean Thomas F. Schutte (current president of Pratt Institute) calls design in the book’s introduction. The impressive roster of speakers aimed to educate Wharton students on the “art of design management,” and included, in addition to Watson, both the chairman and design director at Tiffany, the head of the National Endowment of the Arts, scholar Edgar Kaufmann Jr., and architect Louis Kahn.

The Art of Design Management: Design in American Business, 1975, written by Walter Hoving and edited by Thomas F. Schutte, current president of Pratt Institute. 

Watson’s argument is the most coherent, stating that graphic design, product design, and architecture should be a coherent, unified entity across the “whole spectrum” of a large company—even at the level of management. “Even a way an organization is designed can determine whether it is ugly or beautiful,” says Watson—suggesting a corollary, good business is good design.

Indeed, IBM’s collaboration with designer Eliot Noyes was so successful in its coherence, Watson reports that Lyndon Johnson asked them “to come down to the White House and tell us how you achieved your design program”—and not purely at the level of taste, but of organization.

The book's back cover.

The anecdote is telling. Together, the speakers (with the possible exception of the inscrutable Kahn) believed that the American industrial corporation cast a shadow comparable in spiritual presence to the government itself. IBM certainly promoted such a view: “It used to be Church and State. But today, Industry is the new and practical patron of art and architecture,” wrote the architectural critic Peter Blake in 1977 for IBM’s in-house publication Think. With a sympathetic design program, a corporation’s contribution to the material world was for the good of all people even if designed for profit.

It is not hard to point out the ironies in this conception of the large American corporation when viewed from the distance of four decades. Yet it would be unfair to blame the lack of foresight on the intervening years. Rather, the greater value of this collection is its persistent question—never resolved—of whether design can and should be anything more than exterior styling.

Watson again is prescient, especially as one now sees him in Steve Jobs’s terms as arch foil in the grand scheme of the computer age—the "Think" to Apple’s "Think Different." Watson maintained that the goal of IBM’s design program was for the “outside to match the inside” and describes how one IBM designer placed a glass panel on a mainframe to see into the working of the computer. Yet the analogy is analog—seeing a circuit board no more allows one to see a computer at work than does exposing the gears of a clock allow one to see time.

Now that we all carry such a window—in the miniature in the form of a smartphone—we might ask whether it is even possible for design’s outside to match the inside, when the inside of every machine contains the universe in a grain of sand.

The opening spread of Thomas Watson Jr.'s "Good Design is Good Business" chapter.


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