Exploring how studio spaces at IBM enable collaborative teams to create user-centered experiences.

As the IBM Hybrid Cloud Design team recently opened a new studio in the Bay Area, CA, I wanted to reflect on the beginning of the studio story at IBM and take a look at how our design studios are exciting places to craft unique, user-focused products.

Hybrid Cloud Design family at the new IBM Studios Bay Area

Transforming work places to support a design culture

When IBM began the shift to a design-driven culture, there were few design friendly spaces in which to work. Many people were in cubicles or private offices, making it difficult for teams to embrace collaborative practices and align across disciplines. Part of the transformation to come was the creation of design studio locations around the globe to support this new culture.

What makes a studio a studio?

Studios at IBM promote a new way to work. They are places to engage in design thinking, foster collaboration between IBMers and clients, and nurture vibrant and inclusive design cultures. So what makes a studio a studio and why are they so important?

Adding some personal touches to the new studio

They’re set up for collaboration

Big open work spaces allow teams to work closely, face to face. This makes collaboration seamless by enabling and other colleagues to rapidly iterate on ideas and get feedback by simply looking up and asking. Whiteboards are abundant so it’s easy and quick to engage in design thinking activities any time the need arises. Lounge setups provide comfortable and casual places to chat, review work, and of course share food.

Enjoying a bite with studio mates (Photo courtesy of: Cale Vardy)

Modular furniture on wheels is a staple in the studio. Everything is mobile and can conform to the needs of the moment. Studios are WiFi enabled, reducing the amount of cabling that is required to hook up equipment. One day a team might need three whiteboards and one table to meet and work through some story mapping. The next day, they might only need one whiteboard but more table space to bring their developers and offering managers into the discussion. The ability to rapidly adapt is essential for design thinking activities, which help teams work in an agile manner and stay aligned on goals.

There are also lots of options for remote collaboration because broader teams are not always co-located. Big screen TVs allow for teams at different studios or locations to work on problems together during remote video conference sessions.

Getting ready to start a meeting (Photo courtesy of: Keesa Robinson)

They’re composed of flexible work spaces where design thinking thrives

When you walk into a studio, you can see that design thinking is what it’s all about. In every direction you look, there are sticky notes, whiteboards, and remnants of frequent design collaboration activities. Clients attend top notch design thinking workshops in dynamic spaces that can be rapidly adapted for different agendas.

On an average day in the studio, you’ll likely find designers busy working at common tables surrounded by whiteboards and walls full of design artifacts. But, big open spaces might not be everyone’s cup of tea all the time. Sometimes designers need a quiet to work heads down or talk privately to a remote colleague or manager. They might need to get a small group together for an informal feedback session. Retreat in these situations is possible — to private “phone booths” or smaller meeting rooms where one or a few people can settle in for a less public session. For bigger groups or meetings that could get a little rowdy, more traditional conference areas with longer tables and chairs are available.

Gathering for an on the fly design session (Photo courtesy of: Keesa Robinson)

Maker spaces are designated for creating — they’re large and open and everything in them is movable so that teams can make the space their own based on the activity they’re conducting. They’re typically put together using lots of mobile whiteboard partitions and desks that can easily be reconfigured. This is where designers facilitate workshops, engage with customers, and impart their knowledge to design thinking newbies.

A design thinking workshop in action (Photo courtesy of: Sean Warsaw)

They exude a vibrant design culture

Not only are studios filled with versatile work spaces that allow teams to design the way they need to, they also include lots of local culture and personality. Each studio has its own distinct vibe that represents the designers who work there. Visitors are given a tour of IBM design culture and experience a little of it for themselves. Studios are set up to show off local designers and the culture of the city in which they live, while blending in distinct hallmarks of IBM Design.

For example, Austin has a laid back feel. When you step off the elevator at the main studio floor, you’re greeted by a warm and unique sign welcoming you to design, IBM-style, in the fun and funky city of Austin. The message area on the lower part of the sign is updated often by members of the studio. The brand new IBM Studios Bay Area team created a beautiful mural map of Bay Area locations and attractions. Their new space has a modern and sophisticated atmosphere. Studios are where designers spend 40+ hours of their lives each week and work their design magic on our IBM Hybrid Cloud portfolio. Our studio spaces are not only tailored for daily design work, they showcase the creativity, passion, and spirit of the people who inhabit them.

You have arrived in Austin! (Photo courtesy of Peter Michael Perceval III)

Hybrid Cloud Design’s latest opening

IBM design studios are located all over the world. The most recent launch was the IBM Studios Bay Area in Foster City, CA. The location is on the smaller side (about 2000 sq feet) and can house 24 designers. The Foster City team designed all of the brand assets and personalized the space, working together on the plans. It took almost two years from the start of the project to the studio opening.

“The studio provides a space for our local community of IBMers, customers and other guests to thrive as it promotes a culture of connection and creativity. And it was worth the wait!” — Eric Mahlstedt, Design Principal, Head of User Research, Hybrid Cloud Design

Welcome to IBM Studios Bay Area! (Photo courtesy of: Keesa Robinson)

Co-creating the designs

To kick off the studio design process, the Foster City team split up into three groups, each responsible for one section of the space. The first group created a land and sea themed mural for the large glass windows that serve as the entrance and main source of natural light for the studio. They wanted the design to be airy and take advantage of the glass structure while tying in local landscape elements that represented both city and water.

The second group focused on the two interior walls perpendicular to the glass entrance. They wanted to provide whiteboard space for the designers, keep the theme of local elements going, and also include some IBM branding. Their final design was a full-scale rendition of the Eye Bee M logo for one of the walls and a large whiteboard space with a bee pattern on the lower portion for the other. The team also included some floating bookshelves for design reading materials, a very cool map mural of the Bay Area, and a special Bay Area-branded version of the Eye Bee M logo.

The Golden Gate Bridge, Bay Area Rapid Transit, and a California redwood infuse the traditional Eye Bee M logo (Photo courtesy of: Keesa Robinson)

The third group worked on creating an engaging area for the outside wall of the studio. They used pickled wood that had been recycled from their San Jose work location to construct a large scrabble board. Designers can put together custom phrases like the one displayed for their opening celebration: “California knows how to party.” A lot of thought and time went into every aspect of the design planning. Just as in the products we deliver, the design’s in the details when it comes to creating our studio spaces.

Determining the right layout

With a rectangular shape and limited square footage, figuring out how to arrange everything was a bit challenging. The plans went through a few iterations to find just the right balance of the versatile spaces that larger studios boast. The final design placed team desks parallel to the large glass wall, giving designers a nice view out of the studio and others a nice view of the design magic happening within. Breakout spaces and the more private meeting rooms were set along the back wall. The team moved in to the space in April and have been enjoying their new digs. They celebrated the opening in style on July 16th.

Beautiful new design space (Photo courtesy of: Keesa Robinson)

The global network of IBM Studios strives for a relentless focus on quality and a user-centered approach to product creation. Knowing that happy designers are designers who work hard, love their jobs, and enjoy spending time where they work has helped push the development of the studio program. With every new location launched, the goal to increase co-creation spaces where IBMers can work hand-in-hand with users is met. By marrying highly collaborative spaces with local culture unique to each studio, IBM has built a platform for continuing our unique design-driven solutions.

A special thank you to my colleagues Eric Mahlstedt and Keesa Robinson for sharing their story of the IBM Studios Bay Area launch.



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