Remembering the IBM Design studio in Austin, Texas

Picture of IBM Studio neon sign

As many of you have heard, the IBM Design studio in Austin was heavily damaged last week when a pipe burst during the severe winter weather in Texas, flooding the entire 8-floor building. We haven’t been able to access the building yet to fully assess the damage, but the assumption is that the studio floors are a total loss. Nobody was in the building at the time, so thankfully there was no danger to team members or others.

Thanks so much to all of you who have reached out with words of concern and kindness as this news has spread. After nearly a year of working from home and missing our teams and the vibrant energy of the studio, this is a crushing blow for the community of designers at IBM who call the Austin studio their design home.

We opened the studio in November of 2013 and by last year more than 300 designers worked on four levels of the building, with another 100+ based in other buildings on the IBM campus that were undamaged last week. The design of the studio — with an emphasis on open, agile, modular spaces — became the model for other IBM Studios around the world starting with satellite studios in Boeblingen, Germany; Dublin, Ireland; Hursely, England; Raleigh, North Carolina; Shanghai, China; and Astor Place in lower Manhattan. Now more than 50 IBM Studios comprise our global network of design workspaces, all inspired by the design language of the Austin studio. In fact, former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty was so impressed by the space when she visited for the studio opening, she commented, “every IBM work space needs to be like this!” A declaration that led to a major redesign of IBM’s global facilities program.

Design team working in the 7th floor studio
Design team working in the 7th floor studio

The 7th floor was the heartbeat of the studio, with four large open bays expressly designed for the multi-functional collaboration that is central to our human-centered design practice. Equipped with lightweight, moveable panels suspended from tracks in the ceiling, the 7th floor spaces could be reconfigured in minutes from an intimate “war room” for a small agile team, to an all-hands meeting with our entire community of designers.

DJ Stout of Pentagram visited the studio to discuss his work.
DJ Stout of Pentagram visited the studio to discuss his work.

The studio had a magnetic quality, and we were always eager to open the doors to our friends in the industry and the broader community — many of you visited the studio over the years for workshops, events, tours or classes. Magnetic as it was, however, the studio was NOT sleek, sexy, or precious like many design spaces. To the contrary, the Austin studio was intentionally a hard working space, and always had a very “lived in” vibe, with layers of design artifacts and kitchy cultural ephemera adorning team work spaces. This was a studio that did not take itself too seriously. Teams were encouraged to make the space their own — and they did! This core principle allowed the culture of our design community to take root and thrive there.

Designers in the IBM Make Lab maker space
Designers in the IBM Make Lab maker space

This thriving culture was evident not only in the space itself, but in the way it was used. Soon after we moved in eight years ago, designers began bringing in their home screen printing gear and setting it up in an unused alcove which soon became the IBM Make Lab, a scrappy maker space that was used to create scores of posters that covered the walls. A group of designers with a passion for music and dj-ing got together and formed IBM Community Radio in another part of the space, and now IBM designers from around the world host and broadcast shows on the channel. The studio’s Halloween parties are, quite simply, epic.

A global cohort of designers came to the Austin studio to attend the Summer 2016 session of Patterns.
A global cohort of designers came to the Austin studio to attend the Summer 2016 session of Patterns.

Over the course of eight years, more than a thousand designers from around the world began their careers at IBM by attending our award-winning “Patterns” design bootcamp in the studio before dispersing to their team assignments around the world. The deep bonds and friendships that formed during Patterns and other team-based programs we held in the studio further strengthened the design culture we were building.

For me, the studio was a deeply meaningful place to work, make, teach, learn, collaborate, and to connect with remarkably creative, talented, and committed people. I loved to simply take 10 minutes and walk around one of the floors to see (and hear) what was happening. Inevitably I would run into someone unexpectedly and have a quick laugh or a surprising chat, or I would stumble upon a design workshop or a client session that gave me a glimpse into some new idea, or practice, or design approach. The studio was a non-stop source of inspiration. To be clear, it was just a building, but as my friend and colleague Joni Saylor said on our internal Slack channel, the studio held “a lot of the sweat and love that we all put in for years, bringing our big dream for design at IBM to life.”

If there is one quality that defines the community of design at IBM it is resilience, and we will indeed rebuild and reinvent our studio. For now we’re taking a few moments to reflect on this rare and magical space that will always be a symbol of the culture of design we have built at IBM.

Vice President of Design & Distinguished Designer at IBM focusing on designer practices and community.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store