Design by phone book, IBM style

IBM XT

If you ever wondered why many of the IBM product designs in the last two decades looked like they came out of a design shop whose principal customers were Bulgarian shoe stores during the Cold War, Fast Company has an answer in an interview with Sam Lucente, formerly of IBM and currently HP’s first-ever vice president of design:

Fast Company: IBM basically defined the pinnacle of corporate design—what was it like when you were there during the 1980s and early ’90s?

Sam Lucente: IBM had a very regimented, Bauhaus approach to design. There were strict rules about the color of the boxes, the way you ventilated a product, the actual design of the louver. Just massive levels of detail, which came out of a book of standards that everyone had to adhere to. It made sense, because there were so many different products coming out of IBM; we needed a uniform look-and-feel. Besides, a design team could bring down an entire development effort if, say, it went off on its own and crafted a delicate hinge that’s beautiful but not reliable. Imagine the warranty costs that the company would incur. So I really saw the power of a unified group of design standards. But I also saw how limiting they could be, from a creative point of view.     

It’s a good thing then that IBM got out of its most visible consumer-facing business line by selling its PC unit to Lenovo. It was one of the most spectacular failures of drigiste systems design:

IBM, the first big organization to pioneer its own consistent style, had maintained during Lucente’s tenure a binder of design standards nearly as thick as the Manhattan phone book.     

I guess we can now add design by phone book to our lexicon, alongside design by committee.