Over a century ago, IBM founder, Chairman and CEO Thomas J. Watson Sr. (1874-1956) held a meeting with NCR (formerly National Cash Register) sales managers to brainstorm ways to improve the business. With little progress made, Watson’s frustration led him to declare the following:

“The trouble with every one of us is that we don’t think enough… knowledge is the result of thought, and thought is the keynote of success in this business or any business.”

These statements inspired the creation of IBM’s five letter motto: “T-H-I-N-K.” As a leader who always looked into the future, Watson knew IBM’s potential for creating technology that helped people think; he understood that knowledge led to innovation, and innovation had the power to transform the world.

Watson would have been proud to know that the THINK culture was promoted in a collection of posters during the 1960s-80s, designed by IBM’s former senior graphic designer Ken White. These posters quickly became popular, as they were seen displayed on walls and desks throughout IBM’s offices. Though this poster’s exact provenance is unknown, it is most probably part of the THINK propaganda collection.

Through a sophisticated design and a profound message, Ken White emulates Watson’s belief that knowledge is power. The poster depicts insects swarming around a light bulb, an iconic symbol that indicates a revelation or an idea. As insects attract and follow light, people attract and follow ideas. This reinforces Watson’s way of thinking, such that ideas are the result of thought and knowledge, all of which will bring success to any business, and most importantly, bring purpose to life.

The Ken White collection is housed in the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library at Yale University, his alma mater. The archives include publications designed for specific clients, such as IBM, Better Homes and Gardens, and the Phoenix Art Museum. In 1986, the collection was donated by his wife, Jo Ann White, and is open for research.

Carolina Valdes-Lora is a Masters student in the History of Decorative Arts and Design program at the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum/Parsons the New School for Design. With a fine art and design background from RISD and Parsons, she aspires to pursue her interests in late nineteenth and early twentieth century American and European design. Additionally, her Cuban-Spanish heritage inspires her interests in Latin American art history. She is a MA fellow in the Drawings, Prints and Graphic Design Curatorial Department at the Cooper-Hewitt, as well as an intern at Christie’s Auction & Private Sales, 20th Century Decorative Art & Design Department.

3 thoughts on “A Bright Idea

Excellent article about Ken White. His daughter, Wendy White, is also a talented artist and, I’m certain, appreciates this acknowledgement of her father’s work.

Ken White and I were IBM employees in the Boulder IBM Design Center. He was lead graphic designer and I was IBM’s only professional photographer. We worked under Jack Stringer along with two other graphic designers and three industrial designers. This “clan” was perhaps the finest bunch of fellows I ever worked with in my sixty-plus years of photography, and could be the heart of a story describing how to make work wildly productive and rewarding at the same time.

Of the many delightful posters Ken did, those involving photography were done by both of us – the duck, the foot-in-cast and so on. I had a free hand to use photography in many ways. Photograms. tonelines, max-contrast, multiple exposures, duotones, etc. Dozens of them. Most were handsomely silk screened by Fred Jurado in Denver. Their quality was most delightful and their effect was impressive.

The Watson duck poster became so popular that we repeat-printed it by the hundreds for IBMers who came from around the world begging for them.

I have a stack of these posters that I think are better than all the Rands put together – Ken was a wizard, an artist and had a comic sense of humor that I miss hugely.

I would be pleased to correspond with anyone interested in knowing more of this creative period’s output.

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