How IBM found unity in its global design language

IBM was caught between its legacy in engineering and the demand for a more human approach, and the company found itself in need of a design overhaul. In a webinar with Monotype, IBM Design Language Lead Hayley Hughes explained how a company as massive as IBM was able to bring cohesion to its design not through rigid guidelines, but through an approach that embraced the very creativity that makes IBM what it is.

IBM’s design language project began in 2014 and focused on three categories: visual design consistency and quality, the user experience, and brand personality.

At the time, IBM’s products had outdated user interfaces with nothing particularly “IBM” about them, Hughes said. IBM’s business had evolved, and the company was now making products for non-technical people, like doctors, which meant it needed to modernize the look and feel of its software to be simpler, more approachable and more intuitive.

In the webinar, Hughes said there was too much focus on the machine and not enough on the users. Existing design guidelines were rigid and stifling, focused on consistency rather than usability and creativity. Hughes said her goal was to “empower product teams to transform human needs into thoughtfully made products and connect design and development professionals together.”

“If we were to be hard-headed about the brand and say that our corporate image is more important than our users, that wouldn’t actually be true to IBM’s values,” Hughes said.

Put another way: If the user comes first, everything else will flow from there.

Consistency not a goal

A global company like IBM needed a design language that was flexible and allowed product teams to respond to their particular customers’ needs.

“The purpose of the design language should be to drive unity into the look and feel of our offerings,” Hughes said, “not uniformity and absolute consistency.” Besides, she said, “Consistency doesn’t necessarily mean ‘good.’ You can write guidelines that consistently make poor software in the absence of design.”

The purpose of the design language should be to drive unity into the look and feel of our offerings.

Instead of a rigid set of guidelines, Hughes sought a design language that would convey IBM’s personality, “a marriage of art and science [that would] express something uniquely IBM in our software,” she said. “Sharply intelligent but warmly approachable.”

The design language project took shape around three key elements: color, typography, and iconography. The team created a subset of each and made them available for designers to use however they wanted.

“Lots of pieces are the same,” Hughes said, “but they’re put together in different combinations.” This gave teams the freedom to produce the best designs possible while maintaining a cohesive look and feel.

“We needed to make sure that our designers had enough flexibility to design in context of the user’s real world, no matter who they were or what country they lived in,” Hughes said.

Typography an essential element

IBM used system fonts for its digital needs prior to the design language overhaul, but the quality of those fonts didn’t adequately represent the brand.

System fonts also pose challenges for companies operating in more than one language or geographic region.

“You’re not going to get as much unity in the brand experience,” Hughes said, “because not all system fonts offer the same degree of global language support as others.”

Using a system font means the brand experience is entirely dependent on what fonts the user or manufacturer has loaded on a given device. This could easily mean relying on a scaled-back version of the font family, which might not include Asian languages, for example.

[Using system fonts] poses major risks for design unity if you're serving a global marketplace like we do.

The company had been using a custom-made Neue Helvetica typeface in print, but it fell short in digital applications. IBM worked with Monotype to come up with what Hughes calls an “industrial strength” Neue Helvetica that worked everywhere, and this, along with Neue Helvetica Global World fonts, enabled the company to deliver a consistent typographic experience across devices and languages.

When language sets are missing, it‘s hard to know what users will get. In many cases, the UI will default to something with a limited font set. In extreme cases, nothing will load at all. “Either way,” Hughes said, “it poses major risks for design unity if you’re serving a global marketplace like we do.”

It may seem like these challenges are unique to a company of IBM’s size and complexity. But simplicity and flexibility—choosing unity over uniformity—are fundamental aspects of any healthy brand, big or small.

Flexibility “means you can be more relevant and essential to your clients and your customers,” Hughes said in a Q&A following the webinar.

That’s a goal any brand ought to get behind.

For the full IBM story, check out Hughes’ webinar.