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A mix of factors, ranging from commoditization to evaporating barriers to competition, are conspiring to push design to the fore of business thinking.

When Thomas Watson Jr. told Wharton students in 1973 that good design is good business, the idea seemed quixotic, silly even. To many people, design still meant the superficial polish of nicer homes and cleaner graphics. But Watson had earned the right to his beliefs. The recently retired IBM CEO was a business oracle, having grown the company tenfold during his tenure by transforming its signature product line from cash registers to computer mainframes. Along the way, the perception of IBM had changed irrevocably. Once rooted in the grime of cogs and springs, Big Blue had become the face of a new computer age.

Watson had always been a pioneering advocate for design, going back to 1954 when he recruited Eliot Noyes to reinvent the street-level showroom at IBM’s Manhattan headquarters.

And as IBM transformed, it became synonymous with the rise of modernism.

Watson and Noyes commissioned Paul Rand to create its logo; Mies van der Rohe and Eero Saarinen to build its offices and factories; and Charles and Ray Eames to craft its legendary 1964 World’s Fair exhibit. But from our current distance we can see the cracks in Watson’s logic: Logos and buildings, nice as they were, weren’t central to how IBM actually made money–not compared with the engineers who were figuring out how to build ever more powerful mainframes. Back then, design was marketing by another name. The design and business symbiosis that Watson was advocating at the time was more prophecy than reality.

Only now, 19 years after his death in 1993, is Watson being proved right. Innovation today is inextricably linked with design–and design has become a decisive advantage in countless industries, not to mention a crucial tool to ward off commoditization. Companies singing the design gospel range from Comcast to Pinterest to Starbucks. You will see dozens of them in today’s world. But why now? What makes this moment different?

Source: FastCo Design

Oliver McDermott

Co-founder and Managing Director of Blender Design. He lives and breathes innovation and is passionate about using design to create products that make the world a better place.

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