Recap: IBM Pittsburgh Lab Studio Tour

This fall’s Xposed tour took us to the local outpost of a global company: IBM’s PGH HQ (sorry, couldn’t resist). I’m brand new to Pittsburgh and AIGA so I’ll admit I was a little nervous as I made my way up the stairs of the Squirrel Hill building, but several IBM designers greet me warmly at the door. They usher me into a large conference room with a bounty of pizza, beer, and post-it notes. Yep, this must be the place.

After several minutes of small talk, Design Program Director Kim Callery leads us into the main office for a taste of the IBM daily routine: stand-ups. No, unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the IBMer’s stand-up comedy routines (apart from Kim’s frequent humorous interjections). Instead, she explains that stand-ups are the casual daily check-ins where team members report on their current projects.

Today we’re checking in with Fahad Osmani, IBM’s Director of Design, whose face appears on a large video conference screen. After a brief intro, Kim opens up the mic for questions. It’s a rare opportunity to get to pick the brain of someone like Fahad, and it’s cool to hear his take on the biggest challenges in his industry (“making AI accessible to people without data science backgrounds”) and his favorite part of his job (“creating space for blue-sky vision planning even when we’re under day-to-day pressures”). When Mimi Albon steps up to the mic to ask how he stays focused his answer is both light-hearted (“I’m distracted all the time”) and perceptive:

“Get clear on the problem you’re trying to solve and why it needs solving…you’ve been hired for your critical thinking skills, so it’s up to you to decide which problems deserve your attention and why.”

Fahad signs off and we split into two groups. Kim leads us along a curving, brightly-colored wall, enthusiastically pointing out photos from office events (“Pi day—SO much pie!”) and the open office layout that intentionally mixes developers and designers. We arrive at a desk showcasing a sleek blue typewriter. A​shley​ dives into the history of design at IBM, starting with a quote from early IBM leader Thomas J. Watson Jr.: “Good design is good business.” The company’s roster has boasted names like Charles Eames, Eliot Noyes, and Paul Rand, creator of the iconic IBM logo. The blue typewriter is another example of IBM’s design legacy: the Selectric typewriter featured an innovative ball design that enabled faster typing speeds in the early 60s.

I’m a designer who loves process, so our next stop was really my favorite part of the night. Senior Designer Adi took us through the IBM design process, which relies heavily on Design Thinking principles and a 1st century Chinese technology: paper. She makes the case for paper prototyping, saying it’s the most accessible tool for collaboration between designers and developers. Plus, it’s quick and cheap. On her​ ​desk, she has a sampling of recent mockups, i.e., sheets of copy paper with scribbled menu bars and colorful post-its mimicking the page architecture and interactions. Accordion-folded post-its simulate drop-down menus. According to Adi much of their design work happens in this medium, even user testing. Sketch mockups come after many rounds of paper prototypes and only a few complete high-fidelity comps will be generated for a given project (the rest of the pages are systematically assembled from components).

It’s not all paper mockups, though: the Watson team employs a multitude of approaches to think through the systems they’re building. Adi and Kim list off some of their techniques—flow charts, user stories, hills, and concept cars—sometimes excitedly interjecting over the other person to provide context or clarification. It’s clear that they enjoy the complexity of their work. Adi echoes Fahad’s sentiment, saying one of their major challenges is figuring out how to make their tools simple enough to be accessible to users without a technical background, while still providing enough customizability that those tools can be modified to serve specific needs.

After Adi’s presentation we head back to the conference room for a crash course lecture on AI, defined here as “the science of creating a machine that can have a human-like relationship with its users.” Ashley outlines the features of “human-like” cognition, the type of data-gathering required for AI, and the advantages conferred by endowing machines with AI capabilities. Next Danielle takes the floor, describing the shifting theoretical models for human-computer interactions as well as the organizational structures and brand guidelines behind the IBM identity.

We close out the night with a great Q&A session that covers ethical issues within AI, the challenges and delights of working across time zones and cultures, and how these designers establish a work-life balance. In response to this last question, the designers report feeling enough flexibility and support from IBM to manage their own time and unplug as needed. Their answers also betrays how much satisfaction they get from their work; for these curious and driven designers, the challenges are part of the fun.

Many thanks to the IBM team for staying after hours to share their work with us!

Kim Callery: Design Program Manager | Danielle Demme: Visual & UX Designer | Ashley Johnston: Senior Product Designer | Jeremy Burton: UX Designer | Stephanie Brunner: Senior Designer | Joanne Lo: UX Designer | Adi Veerubhotla: Senior Designer

And thanks to Emily Conti for organizing AIGA’s semiannual Xposed tour!

Author: Kat Hartley
MICA Graphic Design MA ’19


By aigapittsburgh
Published December 3, 2019
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