Tuesday, June 16, 2015

On Design Language Systems 01: IBM

One of my key professional activities is writing and designing brand guidance systems for companies and organisations. It has been a pillar of my practise for over twenty years. So I have spent a lot of time thinking about how to help people understand their organisation’s visual identity systems, use them effectively, improve them logically, and extend them thoughtfully.

Spread from Manuals One. ©Unit Editions.

As a corporate design aficionado, I have enjoyed spending many evenings pouring over esoteric design details in my copies of Unit Editions’ handsome publications Manuals One and Manuals Two. These two books, reproducing a rich selection of corporate design and identity guidelines from 1963 through to 2008, are an unrivalled design reference resource.

Cover of Manuals Two. ©Unit Editions.

However, examining the requirements of corporate design from the sixties and seventies inevitably got me thinking about the differences in how organisations use design today. At the simplest level, the underlying principles of corporate design still stand; while many of the various technologies of production, manufacture, and distribution have altered significantly, evolved, or have been replaced completely. At the more profound level, it is the ways that companies operate, organise themselves, deliver their services, and communicate with their customers, that have all changed most fundamentally in the last fifty years.

So it is worth asking whether the existing forms of design and brand guidance have kept pace with the ever-changing nature of the commercial entities which are their subject matter.

That line of thinking eventually leads one to enquire: what should designers strive to give as the most useful design guidance for the ever-increasing scope of digital expressions which are central to all experiences delivered by today’s organisations? While organisations will always require some form of brand guidance, I no longer think that itself is sufficient any more. I believe that the most interesting organisations today are having to evolve a more valuable approach of also defining their overall design experience frameworks. These frameworks are more all-encompassing than traditional brand guidance systems.

Four Design Language Examples

I think it is worth investigating some examples of the novel kind of design experience frameworks that I have in mind. These four organisations have each addressed different aspects of the overall corporate challenges to be expressed by design. They form a useful basis for study as they have made much of their design experience framework systems available online. These four sites are all rich in information and each is well worth delving into.

— IBM Design Language
To establish a unified digital experience across many digital products delivered by one global organisation.

— Google Material Design Framework
Towards a consistent digital user experience across many digital products delivered by multiple organisations, (but stewarded by one).

— BBC Global Experience Language
To establish a shared framework for a widely diverse range of content delivered by one global organisation.

— UK GDS Government Service Design Manual
To establish a shared framework for the digital delivery of a whole country’s public services.

(I like the elegance of IBM’s term ‘Design Language’, and will use that for the rest of this article.)

For the multinationals who are now the prime exemplars of these new corporate Design Languages today there are also larger strategic imperatives driving their investment in building these sorts of design systems. As such, their Design Language initiatives are just one strand within those organisation’s broader coordinated strategies: addressing their pressing need to engage with, and leverage, design far more seriously than before. (And also their equally important need to be seen as doing so.)

About Design Languages

The parameters of each Design Language depend on the characteristics of the each organisation’s products or services. For some organisations their Design Language would have more of a visual design emphasis. For others it would primarily address experience design, and for another group it would focus on digital design.

It is important to observe that all of those novel Design Language systems are discrete, and each is separate from their organisation’s brand guidelines. That point may seem somewhat nuanced, but awareness of that distinction is key to understanding the value that is unlocked by such Design Language systems.

Design Languages are primarily about designing the experiences of using an organisation’s products or services. They do not concern themselves with how an organisation communicates, promotes, explains, and sells what it does. Brand Guidelines are about designing those messages and communications around the products and services. The Jobs-To-Be-Done of these two complementary systems are different, so their incentives for excellence diverge.

So comparing them would be of little value. However, I think there is something to be achieved in exploring some contrasts between these two classes of organisational systems. My own professional experience primary concerns brand guidance systems, and my dissatisfaction with their inherent limitations has lead me to investigate Design Language frameworks.

Not every organisation has the need for a Design Language system. In contrasting Design Languages with brand guidance systems, I think that a critical, almost philosophical, difference is that a Design Language must start from the basis that everyone agrees that *design is what the organisation does*. If an organisation’s culture excludes that shared belief, then agreeing upon any shared Design Language is not relevant. Therefore, one significant issue to be aware of is that building any Design Language inevitably requires decisions about how broad or narrow an organisation’s definition of ‘design’ truly is.


Some thoughts on IBM’s Design Language

Starting with the first of the four organisations on my list, I have familiarised myself with the IBM Design Language system. Introduced in 2014, this is a significant organisational effort to collect a corpus of the essential principles of design that apply to IBM’s customer’s experiences of using all IBM products.

IBM delivers hundreds of products with a global organisation of around 380,000 people. Given that IBM is now building a substantial internal design function and is hiring ambitiously to populate that division, it needs a cohesive design system to operate at a global scale, and at the pace of the Internet economy. Explaining the reasons why design has become such a priority now, at this particular point in the lifespan of a one-hundred-year-old organisation, is beyond the scope of this article. For an insightful overview of their design vision and priorities watch this presentation by Phil Gilbert, IBM Design’s General Manager, at this year’s IBEC ‘Better Business By Design’ Conference here in Dublin.



IBM’s new Design Language system aims to bring a renewed focus on human-centred, empathic thinking to what has been an engineering-driven culture. This is now a critical corporate imperative in today’s world, where it is the experience of using digital products and services that is delivering true competitive advantage, more-so than brand reputation or authority. This has not traditionally been the case in the Business-To-Business sectors IBM operates within, but has now become one of the critical metrics for success.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.


IBM’s Design Language is evolving. It cannot remain static. Their online Design Language resource records the current state of what has to be an ongoing dialogue within IBM. As IBM’s brand guidelines are tools for certain internal audiences, such as marketing managers, and external design and advertising agencies; so their Design Language is a shared framework for IBM’s designers and developers to build the organisation’s products. As such, IBM have structured their Design Language into four sections on Experience Design, Visual Design, Interaction Design, and Front-End Design.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.

IBM’s Design Language does not instruct their designers how to achieve any particular desired design outcomes, rather it provides a shared conceptual framework. The system is primarily concerned with outlining their high-level design principles and is not intended to be an exhaustive explanation of every aspect of design. (IBM has an ever-growing cohort of trained designers on staff, who will be carrying such design fundamentals around in their heads.) So it is not a suite of integrated design elements providing libraries of digital assets and resources, like Google’s Material Design. Nor is it an out-of-the-box design toolkit, such as Twitter’s Bootstrap. Yet, in publishing most of their framework online, they have also expressed greater ambitions for its wider adoption outside of IBM.

My reaction as I read through the IBM Design Language site was that, although it is already a large corpus of information, I initially thought it was perhaps too high-level and lacking in specifics. In many paragraphs, the authors could have extracted every single sentence to serve as the title for a sub-section detailing how to deliver on that specific statement or goal. However, when I had read and absorbed everything, I understood how their intent was not to specify the answers to all design problems with a toolkit of detailed design patterns. Rather their goal seems to be build an extensible framework which they can improve and refine over time with further inputs as IBM’s designers apply it to ever more real-world products and services.

A feature graphic from the IBM Design Language website. ©IBM 2015.

The significant focus of the IBM Design Language is on design-for-use. They aim to build products which serve as tools that make their customers more effective and efficient. One relevant quote from their framework is that: “a design is not done until a person interacts with it.”

An important outcome of keeping their Design Language at a high-level is that aspects of the IBM Design Language can also inform design thinking. So the organisation can apply their core design methodology to many types of business use cases.
“To emphasise how Design Thinking is not solely about visual design, IBM have used this approach with internal teams creating APIs. In the case of an API there is no UI at all.” 
‘IBM Design: Think before you speak’ – Creative Intellect UK

Additional benefits of developing a Design Language

The key benefit derived from the effort expended in defining a Design Language lies in the organisation’s enhanced design output. That said, they also seem to deliver ancillary benefits as well.

One benefit of a Design Language is as a tool which sets a baseline for all design conversations and feedback within an organisation. Some of its utility must arise from the act of taking certain aspects of design discussions off the table. It must allow the organisation’s design leadership some additional leverage when having the kind of conversations that start like this. “Today we all need to focus on this specific aspect of this design challenge – as our high-level design principles are already in place and so are not for interrogation as part of this project.” Brand guidelines also play the same internal management role for communications design projects.

I can see Design Languages also providing better organisational focus through educating internal clients; by better explaining aspects of what designers do. So that, when evaluating design work, internal clients can hopefully display a greater understanding of the various strata of thinking underlying the design decisions being reviewed. Considering Design Language frameworks through that lens, then they do not need to be exhaustively comprehensive. (Any expanded encyclopedic version, if it was ever to exist, could be a dedicated resource for the organisation’s designers alone.)

Language-In-Progress

The defining characteristic of all Design Languages is that they are never finished. They are an artifact of an ongoing conversation that each organisation is always having with itself. As such, rather than being outsourced to external design agencies or brand consultancies, the onus is on organisations to develop, manage, and steward their own Design Languages. The organisation needs to own design.

The macro-trend of the resurgence, increasing relevance, and importance of in-house design departments is a significant topic I have addressed in previous posts and will return to again. John Maeda recently published an insightful contribution to that ongoing discussion: Why Design Matters More than Moore’s Law.

The potential of Design Languages

The theoretical ideal of an organisation’s brand guidance system is as a platform for establishing a complete, coordinated, and coherent suite of messages, communications, and brand experiences. It must strike a fine balance between the quotidian, tactical, operational requirements and the long-term vision and goals of the organisation.

Unfortunately, in practise, many brand guidelines become used politically. Rather than opening up the complete range of possible expressions within any brand framework, they can become more focused on limiting options. Effectively, they become used as one mechanism to corral the divergent incentives and strategy taxes which exist within the organisation’s power structures. Robert Jones, the Head of New Thinking at Wolff Olins, has written about this limitation of brand management in companies lacking a shared unity of purpose.

It most likely may be naive to imagine that corporate Design Languages can deliver on some of the ideals which brand guidance systems still struggle to achieve. Particularly given that such design initiatives are inevitably subject to the same organisational political forces that influence brand management activities. Yet perhaps the fact that Design Languages have user-centred mindsets embedded within their foundations may make them less prone to being undermined by organisational priorities.

To me the most interesting aspect of the potential of  Design Languages lies in applying design thinking, methods and insight to the core of what organisations do as opposed to what they tell people about what they do. Writing as someone who enjoys problems requiring systems-thinking solutions, I am fascinated by the intellectual endeavour involved in developing a complete Design Language. It is a significant challenge; one I would relish contributing to.

Home page for IBM’s example designs section. ©2015 IBM.