The decades following World War II ushered in an era of unprecedented growth for International Business Machines (IBM), as innovations in electronic data processing and the miniaturization of transistor-based electronics transformed the Armonk, New York company into a multibillion-dollar colossus. Prior to the ubiquitous computer landing on every desktop in America, large organizations employed IBM’s ‘room-sized’ mainframe computing systems for large-scale scientific and commercial applications. When IBM’s mainframes helped land a man on the moon in 1969, the company employed over 250,000 people in 100 countries and was producing some of the most advanced products on earth.
Thomas J. Watson Jr., president of IBM, sought to elevate the company’s image as a forward-thinking, technologically-advanced organization by hiring world-renowned design consultants, among whom included Eliot Noyes, Charles and Ray Eames, and Paul Rand to lead strategic design efforts. Noyes initiated IBM’s Corporate Design Program in the 1950’s, and asked Rand, preeminent U.S. graphic designer of the twentieth-century, to develop a comprehensive approach for visual communications within the company. In addition to developing the instantly recognizable IBM logo and a corporate design guide for the application of graphics across the organization, he also held a remarkable influence over internal staff designers.
The IBM Poster Program was first initiated by Ken White, a staff graphic designer, during the late 1960’s. White, who had studied under Rand at Yale University, was recommended by him to lead the graphic design efforts within the new IBM Design Center at Boulder. It was also during this period that Tom Bluhm transferred into the team, having worked as a contract illustrator for IBM in Rochester, Minnesota. Shortly thereafter, Ken’s former colleague John Anderson was also added to the staff.
As a creative extension of Rand’s influence, designers White, Anderson, and Bluhm developed posters as a platform for elevating internal communications and initiatives within the company. While daily tasks for corporate graphic designers often included layout work on newsletters, binders, symbols, booklets, and brochures, the visually clear, single-message format of the poster offered a unique creative outlet and latitude for experimentation. Due to the continual demands for internal communications, designers often found themselves working after hours and on weekends in order to meet print deadlines. Each poster was designed within a Root 2 (15”x 21”) format, and painstakingly produced, using silk screen or offset lithography, by two local print houses in Denver. Posters were then shipped to multiple locations to be displayed in hallways, conference rooms, and cafeterias throughout IBM campuses. Subject matter included everything from encouraging equal opportunity policies to reminders on best security practices to promoting a family fun day.
Designers often incorporated figurative typography, dry humor, visual puns, and photography using fellow employees as models to craft more memorable and compelling messages. Many posters were designed in the ‘International Typographic Style’ of the Swiss School and won awards in Walter Herdeg’s groundbreaking Graphis annual. Perhaps the greatest compliment for the designers, however, was witnessed in the large number of posters ‘re-appropriated’ from walls by enthusiastic IBM employees.
While Paul Rand’s creative genius has been well documented in exhibitions and publications, the work of the IBM staff designers who executed his intent outlined in the IBM Design Guide have often gone less noticed. These poster designs by White, Anderson, and Bluhm represent some of the most creative examples of mid-century corporate graphic design, while offering a unique commentary into corporate employee communications of the period. They also showcase the full extent to which Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s mantra, “Good Design is Good Business” permeated every facet of the IBM organization, and created a lasting influence on curated corporate design in America.