IBM Perfected the Art of the Anti-corporate Corporate Poster

A new book documents the stories behind the company's archive of clever mid-century posters

During the mid-twentieth century, perhaps no other American company exemplified technological achievement, business acumen, and good design better than IBM. Major advancements in data processing and mainframe computing brought forth an unprecedented investment in R&D within the company that provided a space for design to flourish. External consultant and director of design Eliot Noyes convinced IBM president Thomas J. Watson Jr. of the value that design could bring to the organization. He connected IBM leadership with famed designers such as Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, and others. In addition, Noyes initiated the company’s launching of a dozen Design Centers across the United States, each of which complimented a manufacturing facility’s needs for industrial design and model-making as well as graphic design and photography. 

The IBM poster program was first initiated during the 1960s by Ken White, a staff graphic designer in the Design Center in Boulder, Colo. White was recommend by Paul Rand, under whom he had studied at Yale University, to lead the graphic design efforts in the Boulder office. Shortly thereafter, White added two new designers to the staff, John Anderson and Tom Bluhm. While the graphic designer’s daily efforts typically focused on producing artwork and layout for packaging, equipment manuals, and product graphics for IBM’s external customers, White saw an opportunity for a creative outlet through which the design team could reach IBM’s own employees. Working closely with internal department managers, White secured funds to design and print “visual memoranda” that would engage employees through their bold designs and messages for the next 15 years. Many of these posters were designed in the International Typographic Style of the Swiss School and won Type Directors Club awards. Others were featured in Walter Herdeg’s groundbreaking Graphis annual. 

White initiated the idea of a poster program that would be a “stage for communicating” to all IBM Boulder employees. Each poster was designed using a Root 2 proportion measuring 15 x 21 inches and was printed either by silk-screening or offset lithography. Bulletin boards were strategically located around the campus—both in the laboratory and manufacturing areas, near the coffee machines, restrooms, and on the main corridors to the cafeterias—with pockets for 8 1/2 x 11 in (21.6 x 28 cm) announcements and two pockets for the posters. While the posters were originally designed for the Boulder campus, many became popular enough that IBM management reprinted them numerous times for other IBM facilities around the globe, and employees admired and collected them.

Today it seems ironic that while these posters were designed within one of the most advanced computing companies, none were created using a computer. Until the mid-1980s, most graphic design artwork was conceived of and developed on a drafting board employing hand drawings, intricate paste-ups, and film imagery shot on large-format stat cameras. The fact that IBM originally produced these for internal communication meant that, until recently, few source files were cataloged and most were never documented or digitized.

These posters by White, Anderson, and Bluhm represent a diverse collection of corporate graphic design, while providing a glimpse of employee communications in post-war America. They also show the degree to which Thomas J. Watson Jr.’s charge, “Good Design is Good Business” touched every aspect of IBM and created a lasting influence on corporate design in America.

How to Stuff a Wild Duck (1973)

Designed by Ken White, 
photographed by Rodger Ewy 
(screen print)

Thomas J. Watson Jr., president of IBM, referenced a Danish philosopher’s story of wild ducks that ceased to fly, due to their being continually fed by a benevolent farmer. The story’s moral, “You can make wild ducks tame, but you can never make tame ducks wild again,” profoundly parallels the natural inclination of people to shun uncertainty and creativity when they are too comfortable within an organization. Watson cautioned IBM’s employees and management against this tendency. 

During a Design Center meeting with department manager Tom Theobald discussing the spirit of Watson’s quote, Ken White struck on the idea of placing a humorous emphasis on the opposites of creative innovation. He then visualized the idea of how to typographically ‘fill a duck’ with as many “can’t do” statements as possible (Don’t Rock the Boat, It Doesn’t Matter, Not My Responsibility). Photographer Rodger Ewy located and photographed a stuffed duck from the University of Colorado Museum of Natural History and created the tone line conversion as the binding form for Ken’s statements. “How to Stuff a Wild Duck” would become one of the most popular and enduring posters from the program and is still used as a non-conformist memorandum on the walls of IBM offices today.

Equal Opportunity (1969-79)

Designed by Ken White (screen print)

As the first of three Basic Beliefs codified for IBM by Thomas Watson Jr. in 1962, “Respect for the Individual”  spurred employees to reach their potential, and encouraged management to compensate and promote employees based on merit. Through the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972, these core values were later mandated by the U.S. government. While the IBM poster program sought to remind managers of this foundational tenet and the newly created laws, it also became an ideal (and hip) platform from which to affirm the company’s progressive stance. Word lists were often used by designers Ken White, John Anderson, and Tom Bluhm to generate ideas, messages, and images for the posters. In this case, White used the flush-left list of words as the poster’s primary subject to mandate non-discriminatory hiring practices.

Poor Security Habits are Tough to Swallow (1969-79)

Designed by Ken White, Photographed by Rodger Ewy (offset lithograph)

Corporate concerns of the Cold War era often echoed the dire warnings in propaganda posters produced by the U.S. government during World War II. As the world’s leading developer of advanced computing systems, IBM required employees to be mindful of monitoring daily behaviors in the office, and to be vigilant in limiting work information to the workplace. While the designers often softened these messages with informality and humor, the directive was a serious matter for both corporate and, in some cases, national security. 

Although the culture within the Boulder Design Center was somewhat laid-back, IBM was still predominately a buttoned-down organization of scientists, engineers, and sales executives. White’s humorous prompt to be mindful of best security practices uses a photograph from Rodger Ewy of Ted Kelley, an IBM industrial designer who volunteered to stuff his face. Upon seeing the poster, upper management found Kelley’s bold stripe shirt too unorthodox and requested Rodger to have it retouched to white for the second printing to better align with IBM’s dress code (see first image).

Mile High IBM Club Holiday Program (1969-79)

Designed by Tom Bluhm (screen print)

IBM’s vast scale meant that staff were often relocated several times throughout their careers. To strengthen the bonds of community and foster collaboration, the company took an active role by enabling employees to cultivate relationships after work hours and beyond the doors of the office. This included providing opportunities for shared interest groups, creative outlets, and the inclusion of family members through “Family Fun Days” and other special events. 

Tom Bluhm, who designed this holiday poster, describes how he found inspiration in the ordinary: “Every year there was a holiday program. I had to find non-religious holiday symbols. I always had wooden clothespins around the house, so I brought them into work one day. I didn’t know what I was going to do, and this was one of those projects I had to do on a Thursday night, after work, as the cleaning lady was coming around. I noticed her feather duster. ‘Just a minute, can I borrow that?’ So, I took it in and made a photostat of it. Then I created this simple repetition and rhythm that work for so many things.” Paul Rand gave Bluhm a rare complement during one of the annual design review gatherings with IBM staff and management, despite Rand’s critique of Bluhm rendering the IBM logo “too small.”

Mess with Your Mind: Technical Vitality (1976)

Designed by Ken White (screen print)

The abstract, yet formal composition of this poster draw on influences of the International Style and Swiss typography that were revolutionizing graphic design during the mid-twentieth century. The structured, grid-based layout was ideal for creating bold, memorable impressions on employees walking through the IBM offices. The repetition and systematic constructions of the word “MIND” mirror the didactic approach of hand-drawn letterform exercises used in the Foundation Program of The Basel School of Design in Switzerland. 

Ride Share Month (1983)

Designed by Tom Bluhm (screen print)

Apollo 8’s 1968 space photo “Earthrise,” the first Earth Day in 1970, and the impending fuel crisis, created a collective reflection helping usher in a national awareness of environmental concerns. In contrast to the prevailing corporate stereotype of the 1970s, IBM made waste reduction a priority through a range of internal practices and policies. The Boulder community, in particular, was at the forefront of environmental consciousness. Several posters both evangelized and reported the impact of these programs that included reuse and recycling, as well as individual responsibility through energy conservation and carpooling. Bluhm incorporated a playful outline of his Volkswagen Beetle’s silhouette as the boundary for his hand-written reminder that “November is ride-share month.”

Wear Safety Shoes (1969)

Designed by Ken White, photographed by Rodger Ewy (offset lithograph)

In some cases, antics of Design Center creatives were humorously applied to communicate messages beyond the printed medium. After generating the macabre idea of a leg cast as a safety reminder, White devised “a scene” to make the idea even more memorable to employees. Bob Hofland, an IBM industrial designer, played along and was loaded into a wheelchair and whisked to the on-site nurse center while the designers yelled “Clear the way!” through the hallways. Every bystander took a moment to survey the potential accident, and the nurses were eager to join in the scene. Following the casting of Hofland’s leg, Rodger Ewy photographed it for this poster that commemorated the episode and created an unforgettable reminder about safety in the workplace.

Find more in Shea and Robert’s newly published book, The IBM Poster Program: Visual Memoranda, which features over 100 posters carefully reproduced to showcase their original colors and production details.

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Graphic design