Reflections on a Design Pioneer

American architect and designer Eliot Noyes made his mark on the world in a manner that is still felt today. Get a long term employee's memories on how the design legend thought, worked, and achieved the monumental success that he did.

Interview of Gordon Bruce by Peter Lawrence.
Eliot Noyes was born in Boston, in 1910. He began his career as an architect working in the office of Marcel Breuer and Walter Gropius. He was the first Director of the Industrial Design department at MoMA in the 1940s. From the late 1950s until his death in 1977, Noyes was Consulting Director of Design for IBM, Mobil Oil, Westinghouse and Cummins Engine Company, while working with a wide range of other firms.
Gordon Bruce is an industrial designer who worked for Eliot Noyes from the late 60's until Noyes's death in 1977. He works internationally as a design consultant and is the author of the book, Eliot Noyes, Phaidon Press, 2006.

PL: In summary, who was Eliot Noyes?

GB: Eliot was a pioneer of American architecture and design who brought credibility to these professions by articulating new design approaches in terms that were easily understood by business people at a time when design decisions were based on vague streamlining styles and planned obsolescence. Moreover, Eliot introduced a new American design attitude by creating solutions based on function and meaningful human interaction, which in turn introduced a new mindset for big business.

PL: What type of work did Eliot do?

GB: Eliot had three businesses operating in parallel at Eliot Noyes & Associates. He first considered himself an architect: he designed corporate buildings, private residences, schools, air terminals, and pavilions.

Second, he was also an industrial designer. Under his guidance, this part of his office designed the most visible products for the major corporate programs he ran at places like IBM and Mobil, and also at other companies for which he was not the consulting director of design, such as Rockwell International, Perkin-Elmer and GE.

Third, he served as Consultant Director of Design for major corporations with a self appointed title -- Curator of Corporate Character -- overseeing architecture, product, graphics, exhibit design and fine art. This work for IBM, Westinghouse, Mobil and Cummins required most of his time. The goal of this part of his business was to advise management on how to integrate all aspects of the design disciplines to create design continuity at all levels within the corporation. The aim was to express a design meaningfulness as well as embody the true corporate character, which is core to evolving a good reputation.

PL: For corporate programs, I believe Eliot advocated a level of excellence, rather than a corporate style. Is that correct?

GB: Exactly. Expressing the true character of the company took on a form expressed through the highest level of excellence within a given means and scope. Eliot believed in unity, not uniformity. Unity being a family of ideas with a distinctive character held together by excellence, while uniformity being more about following a consistent style like being a military branch where everybody wears the same uniforms and everybody looks exactly the same.

He also would assemble the best players, such as Charles Eames and Paul Rand, to work in concert with his office to attain the best teams of people; to deal with graphics, industrial design and architecture; and to search for the best solutions within the given constraints of the project.

PL: If Eliot were alive today, at his first meeting with a CEO of a new client company, what would he say? What was most important to him?

GB: He would want to know who the company is. He would want to know, what the company does, what their intentions for the future are, and who the CEO is. He would really try to understand the character of the corporation as best he could and would look for signs that were not simply mantras uttered by the people in the company.

At Westinghouse, Eliot said that he finally figured out who they were from this very simple little list, which he found in an internal company brochure that wasn't trying to sell anybody, but it just said, these are the things that we do. "So," Eliot said, "you are a company that helps people gain control over their life."

He would always look for a definition of what a company is in its broadest terms and then build from the outside inwards, a general direction that is based primarily on the true spirit of the company that extends from what it is and what it has done well.

Then he would build a design strategy and structure from the inside out by using an internal staff. That was another key idea: besides using the best designers outside the company, he also would try to help these corporations through internal education -- helping people evolve an appropriate attitude and respect for the internal designers, while guiding them regarding what they should be thinking about.

He hated what they called packaging jobs or "slip cover design," or a design house style. He wanted to get to the essence of the company. That's why he would listen to the CEOs.

PL: What did Eliot ask the company to do to ensure that the design program continued and was most effective?

GB: He always insisted that if you really want to do a good job, you have to set up an infrastructure that is going to support design. So, with the big corporations, he was given the title of Consulting Design Director, but he also made sure that there was a design person at an executive level. In the case of IBM it was a VP, the Director of Communications, whose responsibility was not only communications, but also being responsible for the design program within the corporation. In that sense, design was put on an equal par, not more important and less important, as marketing and engineering.

Eliot also said there had to be a separate budget just for setting up this design infrastructure at the executive level and if a company didn't have a budget set aside for this, then it wouldn't work. So, outside of the consulting fees for himself and the design done by the Noyes office (or the Eameses or Paul Rand,) the executive position for design within the company was a totally separate issue. He demanded that the corporation have a sufficient budget for internal people at the executive level to make sure that everything was managed well.

PL: Is it correct to say that Eliot did not see his outside consulting roles going on forever, that he aimed to facilitate the transitioning of these roles over to being done by internal people?

GB: Yes. He wanted to set up this evolutionary design heritage and this idea became the basis for what the corporation became famous for, and one of the many things that would help it turn around from where it was. He knew that he was not going to always be there so he wanted to set up a mechanism, internal to the corporation, that would always be an ongoing thing. I think it's done fairly well at IBM, as this design heritage has continued, and at Cummings Engine as well. Today, Mobil is another question simply because of the Exxon merger.

PL: Eliot had continuous access to the highest levels of the corporation, how did he achieve that?

GB: Eliot had that personal charm that you just can't find everywhere. He was very mild mannered. His goal was not for himself, but for the corporations -- he knew if the corporation did well, he would do well.

Another critical element to Eliot's success was the internal design reviews he set up. At IBM he started this, holding design reviews during which he had all the products brought into a big, white room. This was his method of creating consistency -- if you can't do anything else, at least design things in a way that everything goes with everything else. These corporate management design reviews would include Eliot, Walt Kraus (IBM's internal Design Director,) Paul Rand, and a boatload of internal design directors from all over IBM. Sometimes Tom Watson, Jr. would join them so that Eliot could bring him up to speed about what was important about design. They would do this maybe four to six times a year.

PL: Would it be fair to say that Eliot's approach was more comprehensive than any approach today? For example, it included architecture and that was just as important as everything else in the program.

GB: Yes, exactly. He once said that he would assemble teams of right minded people and he was the one who would decide the direction they should be going in. Another word he used all the time was appropriate. Everything he did had a sense of appropriateness to it.

Another key thing was ramping up, how to make the transition was very important. That's why at IBM he selected Paul Rand. He got Paul right away to do the graphics, because that could be done very quickly and it sent out a signal to everybody that this company was changing. He would then move onto the signage, because replacing it was an incredibly expensive thing. He would then move onto the product, and then move to the architecture.

PL: All of this work was expensive, the results unproven, and at that time, there were almost no examples of this kind of work to point to. How did he convince the CEOs?

GB: He was very smart in the way he would convince people with money about why this was necessary. In the beginning, it wasn't easy. He had to prove himself. It was very important to him to have a sufficient budget to do the right job. If potential clients seemed to be expecting everything for nothing, Eliot wouldn't take the job because it would ruin his credibility. Basically, before Eliot became the design director, for 10 years he worked with Watson Jr. He recognized the fact that he could not change Tom Watson, Sr., so he built up this relationship with Tom Watson, Jr. He realized that he was the guy who could enact the changes. It was also as much about the enlightened CEO's -- Thomas Watson Jr., Mark Cresap, Rawleigh Warner, Jr. Jr. and Irwin Miller, as it was about Eliot. This should not be forgotten.

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