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The Designer Who Meant Business

It is somehow fitting that what is arguably corporate design’s most powerful mantra—”Good design is good business”—is widely credited to former IBM chief Thomas Watson Jr., but was in fact formulated by the architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes. Watson, who was chairman and CEO of IBM during its most explosive period of growth, used the phrase in a 1973 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. But Noyes, IBM’s consulting director of design from the late 1950s until his death in 1977, articulated the axiom a good decade before Watson.

It is somehow fitting that what is arguably corporate design’s most powerful mantra—”Good design is good business”—is widely credited to former IBM chief Thomas Watson Jr., but was in fact formulated by the architect and industrial designer Eliot Noyes. Watson, who was chairman and CEO of IBM during its most explosive period of growth, used the phrase in a 1973 lecture at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. But Noyes, IBM’s consulting director of design from the late 1950s until his death in 1977, articulated the axiom a good decade before Watson.

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Noyes, who did as much as anyone to demonstrate the power of design to corporate America, might well be the most famous designer you’ve never heard of—perhaps in part due to his premature death at the age of 67. But now a new monograph by Gordon Bruce, who worked for Noyes for ten years and went on to become a distinguished industrial designer in his own right, puts Noyes in his proper place: at the pinnacle of 20th century design.

The book, titled Eliot Noyes: A Pioneer of Design and Architecture in the Age of American Modernism (Phaidon Press) combines archival photographs, rare drawings, previously unpublished notes, and Bruce’s insightful text to introduce Noyes’ accomplishments to a wider audience. Noyes’ vast influence is instantly established on the book’s front cover, which consists of a “spider diagram” that traces his sprawling web of connections to some of the past century’s leading design innovators (Charles and Ray Eames, Alexander Calder, Paul Rand) and organizations (IBM, Westinghouse, Mobil, and New York’s Museum of Modern Art, where he was the first director of its industrial-design department).

Noyes penned some of the icons of 20th century industrial design, including IBM’s Selectric typewriter and Mobil Oil’s service stations, but his most lasting influence springs out of his “unified theory of design,” which held that all aspects of a corporation should be expressed “in the best possible way.” As Noyes put it in a 1962 speech, “In a sense, a corporation should be like a good painting; everything visible should contribute to the correct total statement; nothing visible should detract. Thus, a company’s buildings, offices, graphic design and so forth should all contribute to a total statement about the significance and direction of the company.”

Working in the era of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, when nearly every corporation regarded designers as mere stylists (when they thought about designers at all), Noyes was a tireless champion of design’s capacity to positively impact business. Bruce argues persuasively that Noyes’ holistic approach to design was, in a sense, one of his greatest architectural achievements, because it “reconstructed America’s corporate attitude toward design forever” and “laid the groundwork for the modern design ideals and global design principles…in the days when such principles were nowhere to be found.” Today’s industrial designers, who are reaping the benefits of design’s growing clout in business circles, owe Noyes a huge debt of gratitude.