Stories williams 01.02

A Simple Card

by JP Williams

Before I was born, my father worked for IBM, as did my uncle. Growing up, my dad always kept the famous THINK sign on his desk—a constant presence every time I visited his office. I remember believing that IBM stood for “International Brotherhood of Magicians.” My cousins tried to convince me that it stood for “I’ve Been Moved,” because working as a salesman meant relocating quite a bit. 

It was not until college that I became conscious of IBM as a design leader. I started out as a fine arts major and switched to graphic design. In 1980, one of my teachers, Tom Coleman, urged me to take a summer course abroad sponsored by Kent State University. It was an opportunity to study design in Switzerland with Paul Rand, the modernist graphic designer responsible for famous identities like IBM, ABC, UPS, Enron, and NeXT. While I did not attend that summer program, I took the opportunity to study with Rand in graduate school at Yale University. As I began to focus more and more on graphic design, specifically corporate identity, I came to see Rand’s work for IBM as the gold standard of design with specific and lasting impact.

Later on, I became a collector of design ephemera and began attending paper and antique fairs, where I would always pick up the odd IBM-branded item. When I heard that Rand’s library had been sold to the Brattle Book Shop in Boston, I made the trip to see what I could find. I spent most of one morning searching the stacks without much success, until luckily I opened an old book on Mondrian and discovered a page with marginalia that I felt was surely in Rand’s handwriting. What made the book even more special was that within its pages I found the business card of Thomas J. Watson Jr.—the president of IBM circa 1956. As corporate titans go, Watson Jr. was certainly one of the most powerful businessmen in America and possibly the world. It was Watson Jr.—the son of IBM founder Thomas Watson—who hired a team of designers to shape the identity of IBM. The team was lead by architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes (a friend of Watson’s), who brought on Paul Rand, Charles and Ray Eames, George Nelson, and others to contribute to this effort. Rand was the one to established the guidelines and corporate image of IBM, an ambitious undertaking described vividly in The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945–1976 by John Harwood (2011). A version of the original 1956 logo that Rand designed for IBM is still in use today.

It was great to find an example of Rand’s early work for IBM. The card was designed in Bodoni with the IBM logo blind embossed. Watson’s title flush left, in italics, and no phone number. How about that? No flash. No color. Engraved black on off-white stock. Here is one of the most influential executives in the world and his card is simple elegance. I wouldn’t have expected anything else.

JP Williams is an artist, designer, and creative director based in New York City.