Ki Hackney
Graphic Design Grand Scale: IBM Interiors

In recent years, U.S. corporate design has heralded the acquisition of contemporary art collections. Paintings and sculpture then become the decorative focal points of office spaces and hallways, and rarely are interior graphics included in a major expansion effort.

However, graphic design replaced fine arts in 1975, when IBM decided to increase its Midwestern Sales and Service facility in Columbus, Ohio, from one to seven floors, including an employees’ cafeteria in the basement level. The project architects, Stephen S. Schwartz & Partners, contracted designer Willi Kunz to create a series of wall graphics to be applied throughout the building.

“The space planning team had completed the layout when I was retained as the graphic design consultant,” says Kunz. “My assignment was to help create a visually stimulating atmosphere in large open-office and recreational spaces,” continues Kunz, who was teaching Visual Communications at The Ohio State University when he accepted this project. “After studying the layout of the offices and traffic flow on each of the seven floors I started some conceptual studies.”

“My goal was to develop a system that would provide an unlimited number of variations,” continues the Swiss-born designer. “It had to be flexible enough to flow from wall sections to long hallways without serious interruptions. I wanted the design patterns clearly defined, in simplest terms because, due to the grand scale of the project, the graphics were going to be applied by professional painters versus individual artisans. And, finally, I wanted something that could be retouched with minimum effort, in case of damage.”  “I presented three approaches in model form,” explains Kunz. “One design, based on IBM’s logotype was eliminated because management felt it was psychologically improper to overexpose employees to the corporate logo. It also involved the use of curved lines, which I found unsuitable for application by professional painters. It would have meant too much complicated advance preparation and time consuming supervision.”

A second design, using IBM computer punch card patterns was discarded as narrow in scope. It was also limiting in terms of corporate image since computers represent only a portion of IBM’s business.

The third, Kunz’s recommendation, was eventually selected. “It is a geometric design based on a square grid, with a left to right division in each grid unit; initially derived from the architectural concept of the building which is a cube and also based on a square grid.” says Kunz. “I recommended it because it best suited the technical requirements. It could be applied in an unlimited number of variations and was capable of carrying the most color.

I wanted the interaction of two color ranges: a cool range combining light blue and green with contrasting amounts of warm yellow and red; and a warm range utilizing the same red and yellow, played against contrasting amounts of beige and brown.”

The two color ranges present a complimentary balance, whether juxtaposed in a long narrow hallway or in step with each other on a series of staggered walls and spaces. All together the design stretches over forty-eight walls or wall sections, each ranging from ten to sixty feet long, on seven floors.

While the design itself takes maximum advantage of all restrictions, the color highlights softer tones. This was unique in a time when primaries were de rigeur for interiors. And while each unit is carefully centered to avoid the bold intrusion of an office doorway or the abruptness of a corner, the left-to-right slant of each design establishes a forward flow that is emotionally comforting.

It is an exciting project that is not only well executed, it is newsworthy.