Guided Serendipity: On Building IBM’s New Design Studio

I’m about to start my second year as design studio director of IBM Design. Looking back, I’m reminded of how much my team has learned and delivered. Yet for all of our planning and strategizing for the opening of IBM’s new studio in November 2013, nothing prepared us for the effects of what happens when adding more than 100 designers—all new hires—simultaneously.

The experience has convinced me that guided serendipity is the way forward for our studios.

Me and my role

IBM Design was formed in 2012 to help our company impact humanity in ways that matter and endure. We do this by partnering with disciplines across the business—project management, engineering, marketing and sales—to make the user the center of our products. Aligning everyone with the user, we apply IBM Design best practices, ideas and skills in an environment that cultivates creativity, curiosity and empathy.

I was brought on as a design studio director to bring this to life at the level of practice. No matter how I slice it, it’s a sizable and juicy design problem to solve.

Initial conditions

Something I learned quickly is that our best guesses only served as the jumping off point for how we thought the IBM Design studio could, should or would work. As I grasped this, I started thinking about how to harness these initial conditions as raw potential instead of treating them as something to dominate.

This led me to believe that mastery isn’t so much an attainable end result as it is a quest; it’s the application of ongoing curiosity to continuously expand and improve our skills. Iteration and refinement is how we’ll succeed, not just ambition and expertise. If we are to provide an environment in which our designers create their best work, we must respond, flex and adapt the environment to the endless variety of design problems we encounter.

We originally designed our studio space around the concept of semi-autonomous design teams working in close proximity in order to cross-pollinate across products and portfolios. Each design team has a pod of adjustable desks, three to four moveable white boards and a 60-inch monitor to project their work. This was my set of initial conditions.

The day after we opened the studio to the world, I told each pod of designers that I expected them to make their space their own—to arrange it in any manner that would help them do their best work. As a result, no two pods are the same. They’re constantly shifting in ways that I could never have planned.

Now, I optimize for possibilities rather than outcomes at IBM Design. I give each pod the basics, and they show each other what can be done—and they show me ways to take their ideas and scale them globally.

Guided serendipity

serendipity |ˌserəәnˈdipitē|
the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way

As our design teams flow through their tasks, so do their spaces. The recursive effect through the studio helps spread ideas that, in turn, influence the quality of everyone’s work.

I just returned from a field trip to Steelcase world headquarters, where I was lucky enough to speak with some of their most talented and visionary designers and get their point of view on workspace design. Our discussions spurred many ideas for the studio of 2015, but none so compelling as the concept of a “Serendipity Engine.”

Generating the much-sought-after state of flow so many designers crave is more than providing conditions like open space and quiet areas with mobile furniture. Rather, true serendipity is found in the circulatory flow of a space. To design with the intent of providing “a-ha” moments for all is a much different way of looking at things.

By designing the circulatory flow of our studio, the hope is to create a self-sustaining culture of curiosity and collaboration that feeds itself by mobilizing thoughts, ideas and possibilities. If our circulation is open and free, it provides every designer more and better opportunities to take quick, exploratory laps around a problem to arrive at the best solutions for our users.

Challenges and problems to solve

Inculcating a design culture is not an overnight process. I was reminded of this during my Steelcase visit, as I furiously scribbled “behavior/time=culture.” When considering goals for the studio of 2015, my focus is reducing and removing drag from collaboration, whether in a physical or virtual studio. Since the majority of IBM designers are not located in a studio environment, my next real challenge is to foster guided serendipity and flow beyond a four-walled structure. What we need now is a virtual studio model, wherein all IBM designers are not just linked together, but enabled to do their best work, regardless of how and where they sit.

One idea we’ve been experimenting with is ad hoc avatars. One of our designers is working remotely for the next three months. Neither she nor her team want to be disconnected, so they bought an IV pole from a seller on eBay and rigged a support clamp for an iPad. Now they connect with her over FaceTime and “seat” her at her desk or raise the pole and wheel “her” around the space. Now, if we can hack a Roomba so she can control her own movements, I think we might be onto something.

If we’re successful with this blending of virtual and physical workspaces, we’ll be able to design against values, instead of trends, at a global scale. The result? Products and experiences that are idea-driven and executed with the amazing technological capabilities that IBM has been known for over the years.


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