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IBM’s Iconic Identity Gets A Spinoff–With Help From A Lost Eames Sketch

“It seemed like they were talking to us. It was a link from the past to the future.”

IBM’s creative and design division, iX, launched publicly four years ago and has since grown into one of the largest digital agencies in the world—with more than 40 design studios in IBM’s various offices, and clients that include Nestle, Unilever, Audi, and General Motors. This year, IBM iX rolled out a new identity that reflects its prominence in the advertising industry while still paying homage to the IT giant’s rich design legacy.

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IBM iX generally works with clients that have been brought into the company through its IT services–but need the company’s marketing expertise, too. The division’s advantage over other digital agencies is its access to IBM technologies. For example, iX can use IBM’s artificial intelligence engine Watson to help develop more effective and targeted marketing campaigns. Liz Kiehner, iX’s Global Design Practice director, uses their work with the Atlanta Falcons as another example: with access to all of the Falcon’s athletic data gathered by IBM technology, Kiehner and her colleagues are able to design dynamic experiences for their campaigns—like letting people measure Watson’s game predictions against their own.

Yet for all its work branding and marketing other companies, iX felt like it didn’t have a strong enough visual identity of its own. “Considering our impact and the scale with which we’ve grown, we wanted to strategically orient ourselves and make a bold statement in the marketplace,” says Kiehner. “At the same time, we wanted to honor the design legacy IBM has as a company. We had to be conscious of the IBM brand, while acknowledging that iX is different because it is sitting at the intersection of strategy, creativity, and technology.”

[Image: courtesy IBM]
To help develop the rebrand, IBM brought on the global creative agency Moving Brands and Berlin-based CATK (the digital agency that gave Watson an avatar). The key to reimagining the IBM division, says Moving Brands design director Simon Chong, was to define iX’s positioning within the business design space while still building upon the company’s dedication to a high standard of design.

IBM’s legendary design history stretches back to 1956, when Thomas J. Watson Jr., then chief executive, hired architect and curator Eliot Noyes to create a corporate design program—the first of its kind. Noyes in turn hired most of the top design talent of the day to bring good design into every aspect of the company. Legendary graphic designer Paul Rand developed the iconic IBM logo, for example, a version of which is still in place today.

Charles and Ray Eames were especially influential to the company’s design culture, producing everything from the IBM exhibit for the 1964 World’s Fair to their famous Powers of 10 film to the company’s educational materials. Which is why it was especially fortuitous when Moving Brands and the in-house IBM team found in its archives a sketch by the Eames’ in one of their color palette guidelines for the company. The drawing, which the team later discovered was the design for a kite, became the genesis of the iX rebrand. 

“It seemed like they were talking to us. It was a link from the past to the future,” says Chong.

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[Image: courtesy IBM]
The kite design they stumbled across resembled an “X” made from panels. The redesign team added the “i” to it and created various applications and animations to bring the design into the 21st century. The result is a slick, elegant identity that shows off iX’s technological prowess while still nodding back to the design legacy the division was built on.

“It deserved the highest level of craft, because that’s what goes into every IBM application,” says Chong. “[The redesign] is smart in the way that it can be applied and the way it engages its audiences. But it’s also timeless in a way. It speaks to classic design, and is built to last over the course of time.”

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that IBM iX was founded in 1996 with IBM’s work for the Atlanta Olympics. iX was actually publicly founded in 2013, though the roots of its work stretch back to that project. 

About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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