IBM’s newly unveiled Design Language for Web and mobile doesn’t lock users into templates

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IBM’s reinvention over the last few years has revolved mainly around cloud and analytics. But Big Blue has also been asserting itself in areas normally populated by startups and smaller, speedier companies — not that its efforts in those new areas have been entirely successful.

IBM’s latest move in this vein is a set of Web design guidelines that bring to mind Google’s Material Design or Twitter’s Bootstrap. But IBM’s goals are far more modest than those projects — and, from the look of it, a good deal less immediately useful.

The IBM Design Language, the new framework, has been in the works for around a year, according to a blog post detailing the project. IBM’s rationale for the Design Language is “unity, not uniformity,” and it aims to be “more instructive than prescriptive.” This translates into less emphasis on stock designs or templates and more emphasis on guidelines and concepts.

“Off-the-shelf patterns and templates would actually stifle the innovation that we designed the language to encourage,” the blog post states. Rather, the design concepts revolve around a set of experiences — how users discover something, get started with it, get help with it, expand on it, and so on.

To that end, don’t look to the resources IBM provides for the Design Language for an out-of-the-box site design experience akin to Bootstrap or even a set of Web display elements in the same vein as Material Design. Among the few resources provided are an Adobe Illustrator template for icons, an online type scale calculator and color analysis tool (both provided by non-IBM sites), and a set of color palettes.

The one component IBM provides that most closely resembles anything from Bootstrap or Material Design is a SASS color mix-in system. The rest of what IBM offers is advice and design philosophies, along with a few examples.

If Design Language isn’t out to eclipse Bootstrap or Material Design, what’s the real plan? One possibility is that IBM aims to provide an overarching set of design guidelines to influence apps coming out its recent partnering with Apple, as well as future work leveraging Watson and Bluemix as those services ramp up. It makes sense for everything to have a consistent look and behavior.

IBM’s stated strategy is to have Design Language “intentionally crafted to evolve through feedback from product teams and users.” But if IBM wants others to take inspiration from what it’s created, it may find that having specific, concrete examples that can be re leveraged is a prime way to do that — in other words, the very templates and widgets that IBM eschewed in the name of not stifling innovation.