Why Good Design Is Finally A Bottom Line Investment
When Thomas Watson Jr. told Wharton students in 1973 that good design is good business, the idea seemed quixotic, silly even. To many people, design still meant the superficial polish of nicer homes and cleaner graphics. But Watson had earned the right to his beliefs. The recently retired IBM CEO was a business oracle, having grown the company tenfold during his tenure by transforming its signature product line from cash registers to computer mainframes. Along the way, the perception of IBM had changed irrevocably. Once rooted in the grime of cogs and springs, Big Blue had become the face of a new computer age.
Watson had always been a pioneering advocate for design, going back to 1954 when he recruited Eliot Noyes to reinvent the street-level showroom at IBM’s Manhattan headquarters. And as IBM transformed, it became synonymous with the rise of modernism. Watson and Noyes commissioned Paul Rand to create its logo; Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen to build its offices and factories; and Charles and Ray Eames to craft its legendary 1964 World’s Fair exhibit. But from our current distance we can see the cracks in Watson’s logic: Logos and buildings, nice as they were, weren’t central to how IBM actually made money–not compared with the engineers who were figuring out how to build ever more powerful mainframes. Back then, design was marketing by another name. The design and business symbiosis that Watson was advocating at the time was more prophecy than reality.