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The Radical In-House Design Program That Shaped IBM

This vintage poster collection is a must-see for any graphic design junkie.

Everyone knows the Eye, Bee, M poster designed by Paul Rand in 1981–the same legend who drew IBM’s blue stripe logo. His playful remix of his own creation has gone down in history as a landmark moment in branding, in which the stuffiest of corporate giants embraced its playful side. Remember, this was the ’80s–long before you had companies like Arby’s making pop culture puns on Twitter.

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But perhaps Rand gets too much credit, and IBM’s own wild side deserves a bit more. Because a collection of IBM posters from 1969 to 1979, on display at the Julie Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art until July 22, tells an intriguing story, in which IBM is a strange, experimental, and woke design powerhouse in its own right.

Tom Bluhm [Image: courtesy International Business Machines Corporation/© International Business Machines Corporation]
The posters make the sans serif design of today’s tech giants like Google, Facebook, and Apple look downright tame. The approach wasn’t necessarily the result of any forward-thinking business plan, but of the company’s deep pocketbooks to spend on the best talent for just about anything.

“At first glance, it is a bit surprising, due to our traditional impression of IBM as a ‘buttoned down’ corporation . . . This was the Goliath tech company of the era helping launch Saturn V rockets in the ’60s and ’70s,” explains Shea Tillman, co-curator and associate professor at Auburn University, over email. “On the other hand, we should not be too surprised . . . IBM had (and still has) immense resources that allowed them not only to hire the leading design consultants of the day (Eliot Noyes, Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames), but also some of the best and most creative internal staff designers. It is no secret that in each and every aspect of the business that they pursued, IBM aimed for top shelf.”

The 20 posters on display feature quips, puns, and, most of all, loads of inventive graphic design. Unlike Eye, Bee, M, they were all designed in-house, by members of IBM’s own design team: Ken White, John Anderson, and Tom Bluhm.

Ken White [Image: courtesy International Business Machines Corporation/© International Business Machines Corporation]

“All three of these talented designers approached each assignment as a unique communication problem to be solved for IBM. This is the approach that Paul Rand practiced and preached. The sometimes dry, corporate content of internal employee messages became a fresh challenge for them to creatively engage their audience,” says Tillman. One poster that reads “badger the badgeless” seems like it was just a fun spin on a corporate mandate to wear badges around the office. “Many of these designs require an additional moment in order to interpret the message (visual puns, figurative typography, etc). This active engagement with the message was a continual goal of the designers to make the messages stick and become memorable.

Tom Bluhm [Image: courtesy International Business Machines Corporation/© International Business Machines Corporation]
The posters were a creative outlet for imaginative minds working in a corporate job. Even projects that were clearly made for internal use only–like a Family Day at the local fair grounds–became artistic experimentation. John Anderson turned the word “Saturday” into something like a Kandinsky.

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Meanwhile, many of the projects feel downright prophetic to the internal propaganda campaigns we’ve seen at modern-day companies within Silicon Valley, which use mantras on signage to keep employees convinced that their work has real meaning. One print reads “Suggest!” over and over, a rallying cry to passive employees. Another both promotes inclusiveness, with the IBM logo appearing in red on a petri dish with the headline “Color Blind”–because in a twist of irony, if you were actually colorblind, you wouldn’t be able to make out the IBM logo at all in the image. Think about what that means for a moment: Without inclusiveness, IBM is literally nothing.

John Anderson [Image: courtesy International Business Machines Corporation/© International Business Machines Corporation]

The posters were created quickly but with love, all grounded in a fundamentally odd perspective that feels born from a slaphappy mind. “They were often designed after hours with tight deadlines,” Tillman says. “Two local print houses in the Denver area were employed for the meticulous silk-screen printing, and they were shipped and distributed for posting across the multitude of IBM campuses.”

My favorite of the collection is a print that reads “mess with your mind”–and it uses a complex array of broken, and spaced characters to turn the simple act of reading into a mind-mess unto itself. I can’t stop looking at the words. And I can’t stop thinking differently about IBM as a result.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day.

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