Joni Saylor hero image

Joni Saylor
Distinguished Designer,
Design Program Office

Introduce yourself.

I’m a designer who gets equally excited about beauty and business impact. My background is in industrial design and design research, which grounds my thinking most of the time. I’d say I particularly love the challenge of elevating an “unsexy” project! In 2003, I joined IBM as an intern. Seventeen years later, I’ve had the opportunity to work on a ton of fascinating and complex projects across Systems, Cloud, Services, and most recently within the Design Program Office as Distinguished Designer for IBM’s Enterprise Design Thinking mission. My husband and I just had our second child: a baby boy. He seems to be above average in every way!

Which career stage is the hardest for women?

You hear a lot about mid-career being one of the tougher times for women, given the challenge of potentially caring for kids and parents alongside work. I feel that in my own life, but I’d say at 41 I’m equipped to handle it.

I found the earlier years more challenging. When I first started working as a designer, I was honestly shocked and confused by some of the attitudes and situations I experienced. Coming from what I would call a healthy university environment, I often didn’t even have the language to call out what was happening in my teams, even to myself. When you combine that with the reality that design itself is often the minority perspective in business, even simple product team meetings felt daunting to me sometimes. I came to appreciate formal design reviews and group critiques as important moments of truth, where expertise and new ideas get their best chance to win the day.

What are your hopes and aspirations for women in design at IBM?

In general, the women coming into the design profession right now are blowing my mind. They’re bright, talented, and they have strong expectations for themselves and their careers. In the last few years as I’ve been part of our leadership team that onboards designers into IBM, a lot of these women have opened my eyes to the admittedly lower expectations I had for myself. So, I don’t worry about them as much in their first few years. In fact, we have more women than men working as designers at IBM today. Think about that.

What’s critical, though, is that these women be trusted with more in terms of their project work and team leadership as they approach about the 5-year mark of their careers. That means “leaning in,” yes. But more so it means management that intentionally prioritizes equality in career development. I see a lot of that happening at IBM right now, and it fills me with optimism.

Name two projects that made you the designer you are today.

First, the IBM N Series hardware experience design project put the IB in IBM for me. It was the first portfolio-level design project I had responsibility for, and the work was overseen by renowned industrial design consultant Richard Sapper. The design challenge was about orchestrating a very intentional brand expression and user experience for a hardware portfolio that incorporated about a zillion product assemblies, sourced from various IT vendors and manufacturers.

Reflecting back, this is where I learned my most important lesson as an enterprise designer: good design is the easy part. If that good design never ships, you failed. To succeed with this project, I had to collaborate across IBM, with our partner NetApp, and with about a dozen businesses up and down the supply chain, all over the world. (Side note: Have you ever been lost and alone in the wrong train station in Dong Guan? That is a character-building experience!)

This little suite of products filled an important niche in our Storage portfolio for about a decade, and on top of that we received an iF design award recognizing excellence in hardware design and usability. I keep that project in my portfolio to this day because, years later, I’m still proud of a timeless design that shipped.

Second, while at IBM, I also worked as an InnovationSpace Instructor at Arizona State University. InnovationSpace is a multidisciplinary design studio that partners senior design, business, and engineering students with sponsor companies who are on a mission to incubate. After having been a student of the program myself 10 years earlier, I returned to teach the course in 2010 alongside one of my design heroes, Professor Prasad Boradkar. It’s notable that ASU has had this program in place for actual decades, long before most of design academia woke up to transdisciplinary teams as fundamental to the future of design. The program very much shaped how I think about the role of a designer in business situations.

As an eventual instructor of it, I learned how to coach teams and how to think about not just teaching but designing a learning experience. I’ve drawn from this gig over and over again both as a designer in IBM’s Design Program Office and as a manager. If you haven’t taught university in some way, go do it!

How would your career have been different if you were a man?

My ideas and contributions would be more valued in the moment, I assume. I’d be comfortable in every room. I wouldn’t spend so much time crafting how I’m overall perceived as a professional and leader. That would free up a lot of mental energy! All told, I’d probably be about where I am in terms of career progress, but there’s no way I would have worked as hard to get here.

Any last thoughts?

Design managers in and outside of IBM often have the good intention of connecting their rising women stars with semi-random women mentors—sometimes I am that random lady! This is great and is no-doubt helpful for some women. But emerging women in design also need mentorship from men who have deep and relevant experience to them—and men who are in positions of authority in and around their domain—maybe even more so than mentorship from other women. IBM has formalized some great programs that help with this mentorship gap, but I think more can done. For example, let’s measure men in power on the impact they are able to make in terms of boosting the careers of women and other underrepresented minorities.

Until then, if you’re a design manager, encourage your rising stars toward business and technical leaders who are recognized as the best in their field. Hint: Many of these people will be men, and that’s fine! And if you are a man established and excelling in your career, take a few women mentees under your wing. You will learn something from them, too.