David Hill on ThinkPad’s evolution design strategy

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Gerry Gaffney:

This is Gerry Gaffney with the User Experience podcast. My guest today has received a multitude of international design awards and accolades. He originally spent almost twenty years at working at IBM on a wide range of products including servers and PCs.

He’s currently the vice-president of brand management and design at Lenovo.

David Hill, welcome to the User Experience Podcast.

David Hill:

Thank you very much, Gerry, it’s good to be here.

Gerry:

David, you’ve got a very strong design aesthetic. For example, you wrote in a blog entry: “Design is a career, a hobby, and a way of life.” Where does this interest in design come from – is it innate or is it something that you’ve learned?

David:

I think that’s an interesting question. A lot of people go to design school to study design, which I certainly did, but I think you’re actually born with an ability and an interest that’s cultivated over time.

I think it would be very difficult to take the guy off the street and send him to design school and out comes a designer. I think you have to have at your core something in your brain, in your DNA, that makes you think about the world and the things around you in a different way.

Gerry:

I guess one of the things that you seem to manage to do fairly effectively is to also, if you like, balance that design aesthetic with a fairly strong sense of business. For example, I read with great interest Steve Hamm’s book The Race for Perfect: Inside the Quest to Design the Ultimate Portable Computer, and he devotes a lot of that book to the design and development of the X300 ThinkPad. One thing that struck me in the book was your ability to be a very, very strong advocate for a design concept, but to relinquish it when it became, I guess, appropriate to do so. Is that something that you find difficult to manage?

David:

I think there are different kinds of designers… There are designers who are very fixated on their own personal gesture or concept of a product, and then there are designers I think who are more dedicated problem-solvers, who are highly connected to a business, and what the results of that business may be, or the goals of the business might be.

And I personally have a lot of experience both in a consulting role, because I worked early on in my career as a consultant and I saw how consultants work, and I have a great deal of corporate experience both at IBM and Lenovo. And I think what I’ve learned throughout the years is that design is very much about compromise, but it’s also about learning how to take a negative and turning it into a positive.

So, my example of that is if somebody tells you that something has to have a hinge and you can’t figure out a way to hide the hinge and solve all the technical problems, then turn it into a beautiful looking hinge. Make it a part of the design.

So I think a lot of it has to do with a willingness and an understanding of what the big problem is for a company, not just the short-sighted view of the designer, who often can be seen as being kind of a prima donna in a company.

Gerry:

Talking about IBM and Lenovo. I hope I’m not misquoting you but I believe you’re on record as saying, as commenting on the fact that in the days before IBM sold the business to Lenovo there was a very, very strong focus on cost-saving. And then when you moved to Lenovo there was a much stronger focus on research and putting money into design.

Is that a fair representation of what you’ve said and can you tell us a little bit about that?

David:

Sure. It was clear to me during the last five or six years managing the design of IBM’s personal computer business that they were slowly shutting off the hot water if you will in the shower. That the development budgets were becoming smaller and smaller and it was more and more focused on product areas outside of the personal computer.

So it was really very refreshing for me to walk into this new company, Lenovo, and see that their focus was 100% on making personal computers. I have often stated that IBM never would have made the ThinkPad X300. And I believe that to be true, because they were turning their sights in a different direction, on services and software and more on servers and this sort of thing.

And it was a welcome and refreshing experience.

Gerry:

And I guess a follow-on to that is, presumably all companies go through phases when the cost-cutting does come to the fore a little more. Has that been the experience at Lenovo or do you still feel that there’s adequate attention being paid to the design element?

David:

Well the design element is still front and centre at Lenovo. We’re smart enough to realize that it’s not just about gluing the components together and touching the wires to make these things light up. It’s also about delivering a user experience and design that gets people excited about your products.

But you know costs in the personal computer business is always going to be there. I can’t begin to tell you that I don’t sit in meetings where spreadsheets go up and everybody stares at pennies and nickels and dimes. But I think we’re smart enough to make the right decisions and the right trade-offs.

Gerry:

The ThinkPad’s been around for an amazingly long time. I think it’s well over 15 years at this stage. I’m personally on my fourth ThinkPad, I’m a convert.

But I was in a meeting the other day, David, and somebody had a nice little Lenovo X-whatever-it-was but he had an Apple sticker on the back of it. What do you think of that?

David:

Well I think that’s unfortunate. [Laughter.] I occasionally see things that people stick on their computers and as a designer it sort of makes my skin crawl a little bit…

Gerry:

You want to go over and rip it off, do you?

David:

Yeah. [Laughter.] We work so hard to design these things, and every meeting I’m in I see somebody who has the Microsoft or the Intel sticker on the palm rest. I’m compelled to reach over and peel them off for them. Because it’s not that Microsoft and Intel aren’t our partners, and we certainly enjoy that partnership, but as a designer it kind of hurts me to see those kind of stickers on products.

I’m sure people who design cars cringe when they see a car driving down the street that they’ve worked on the design of, and it has that dealership plate on the back, or a bumper sticker from someplace they’ve visited. I’m sure it drives them crazy.

Gerry:

I must admit I’ve got an Intel and a Microsoft sticker. I’m glad you’re not here David. The thing that worries me is that if I peel them off it leaves a sticky residue.

I believe that one of the goals that you guys had was to get rid of all stickers off the Lenovos at one point – is that true?

David:

Well certainly from a design perspective we’d love not to have stickers but unfortunately it’s a necessity of the business. There’s just too much at stake.

Gerry:

You’ve been an advocate of – I think you’ve called it an “evolution design strategy”. Can you tell me what you mean by that and whether it’s at odds with the current trend towards sticking the word “innovation” on everything?

David:

… For many years we have been practicing what I call an evolution design strategy, which is specifically linked to ThinkPad. When I first took over the management responsibilities of the design of ThinkPad a lot of people asked me “So what are we going to do with the next generation design?” And my theory was if it wasn’t broken, I don’t really think we should fix it. I don’t think we need a new design. This was way back in 1995, when the design of ThinkPad was only three years old. And I didn’t think that we needed a new design, I just felt that we needed to continue to make it better and better.

This is very similar to the way many European car manufacturers have treated the design of their products. One that I use often is the Porsche 911. Every year somebody at Porsche is not trying to figure out what’s this year’s 911 going to look like. What they try to do is improve, enhance it and make the breed better and better and better. And I have always been a very strong advocate of that. And I think it’s connected to the ThinkPad brand. The word “think” obviously suggests thought and thoughtfulness and I think that means that the design had to have thought and thinking behind it. We shouldn’t do things arbitrarily, we should do them if we believe that the solution is truly better.

Gerry:

Tell us about your first tablet.

David:

Well, I was not involved with the design of the first ThinkPad tablet, but I certainly know the designers who worked on it…

Gerry:

I was actually thinking, David, about your recent blog about your Big Chief.

David:

Oh, my Big Chief tablet! [Laughs.] Well that probably was really truly my first tablet. And as I pointed out it was pen-based and it was cordless. It had no wires. Wasn’t the greatest quality paper, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me. In terms of what you could do with it, it was good for making little drawings and sketches out of crayons and things of that nature.

Wasn’t the greatest to write on with a pencil, because it had a tendency to tear due to the low quality paper. But I think, tongue-in-cheek, it is an iconic product I believe that has lived on for a very, very long time.

Gerry:

Do you still sketch by hand or have you more or less abandoned that?

David:

I draw all the time. I draw very simple drawings, some of them I have posted on my blog, Design Matters. They’re what I call design working drawings. I don’t make elaborate renderings where things are delineated to a degree of illustration quality. These are very simple rudimentary drawings where I’m trying to figure out how something might work or what a high level proportion of something might be. These are really simple, pencil on a white sheet of paper.

I don’t like to draw on paper with lines. I find that the lines constrain you and you have a tendency to follow the lines… I also think the lines on the paper distract you when you’re actually trying to look at the drawing you’ve made. You don’t know if you’re looking at drawing or you’re looking at the lines.

Drawing I think is an important tool for a designer to figure out a problem or to diagram a problem or to resolve some small detail or feature.

Gerry:

Speaking of details and features, you’ve made some interesting observations about the Shaker heritage and its influence, direct or indirect, on the design of the ThinkPad. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

David:

I’ve always been a fan of what I call minimalist utilitarian design. This is design that solves problems, connects form and function very strongly. And I think many of the objects that Shakers design exhibit that kind of quality.

For instance in my house I have a row of Shaker pegs that we hang our coats on every day. I’ve had these things for 20 years, probably. Are they antique design or are they brand new? I really can’t answer that question. They’re just good design. And it’s good design I think because the form has purpose and meaning and a beauty in its simplicity and how it’s rendered. It’s not just design for the sake of design, it’s not over-designed, it’s not embellished in some way. It’s just very straightforward.

Gerry:

And do you think that the ThinkPad series maintains or contains that tradition?

David:

I think the ThinkPad classic line clearly has that kind of DNA to it, or that idea. It’s a very simple and straightforward design idea. I think it communicates a lot of what we want to represent with ThinkPad, the idea of it being rock solid, a square form clearly looks more rock solid than a form which is more articulated. Why do Jeeps have a very square form to them? Why does most military hardware have a squarish form? It is very solid and it aesthetically communicates solidity.

So I think it’s a very simple idea, it’s kind of a timeless idea. We’ve certainly evolved it over the years. The first ones were even more square. We introduced the chamfer on the front edge back on the ThinkPad 600, mainly because there wasn’t anything in that area and we felt that there was a great opportunity to try to make it look a little bit thinner and also help you pick it up. And the idea of chamfering the front edge of a notebook computer has been picked up by just about every manufacturer on the planet. I think it’s an idea that works.

Gerry:

And of course a lot of the design elements are hidden. I only realized when I read Hamm’s book, or one of your blog entries, I can’t quite recall, that my habit of picking up my Lenovo while still open by the near left hand corner was a major structural problem for you guys, and you ended up I think building some of the strength of the case or the chassis into that part of the box. Is that right?

David:

Yes. We really pride ourselves on structural rigidity. This isn’t necessarily a design element per se from my perspective. But when you talk about ThinkPad it’s very difficult to separate the pure aesthetic aspect from the technical or engineering aspect and the brand, these things are so intertwined it’s really remarkable.

But yeah, you can pick up a ThinkPad just about from anywhere and the thing feels solid as a rock. I see people everyday grabbing them by the screens and pulling them up in the air, or holding them by the extreme corner by the nameplate, and they don’t bend or wobble or feel like they’re going to creak and break in half at all. They feel very, very strong which is again I think a testament to the quality of engineering and the use of material science that goes into a ThinkPad.

Gerry:

David, can you tell us about the influence of the Bento box on the ThinkPad?

David:

Sure. Richard Sapper, the German industrial designer who originally created the first concept for ThinkPad, really what he wanted to achieve, and I’ve talked to him about this many times, is that he wanted to have the machine exhibit the simplest design quality possible when it was closed. And then have a much more articulated feeling to it when it was open, so that it has these two totally different states.

And the way he has often described this is that it’s a little bit like a Japanese bento box, where it’s a very simple black lacquered form on the outside, and then you open it and on the inside it’s often red or articulated into little compartments and there’s beautifully prepared food on the inside. So there’s a contrast between using it and not using it. And this is very frequently occurring in Richard Sapper’s work, and I think it was a very strong idea for ThinkPad.

Gerry:

I know you’ve got an interest in keyboards, and of course many people would argue that the ThinkPad is unparalleled in keyboard quality, particularly I guess in a machine of this size.

But the keyboard is such a limiting factor, given that it’s constrained by the size of our hands. Do you think the day is coming when we can abandon the keyboard and, if so, how are we going to replace it?

David:

People have been talking about that for a really long time, but I haven’t seen it yet. I’ve seen articulated keyboards, keyboards that are kind of humped up in the middle, keyboards that have been made out of rolled-up rubber that look sort of like a shower mat. I’ve seen concepts for projecting keyboards on surfaces. We’ve seen more and more touch interfaces on things like smart phones and things of that nature.

I have personally note seen anything yet that would allow me to do a very significant amount of data entry over a long period of time with anything other than the rather traditional keyboard.

Could this change over time with other sorts of input? People have been talking about voice for a long time. Is somebody going to invent something with touch that somehow would make it so you could touch-type on a piece of glass? I don’t know. I think it’s a very difficult problem to crack.

Gerry:

It’s almost shocking to see ThinkPads in colours other than black. Is it just a nod to fashion or are there other reasons?

David:

You know for years people have asked me “Why don’t we make a ThinkPad in a different colour?” To be honest, we have, from a design perspective, never suggested that we thought it was a bad idea. The only think I have ever suggested is if we do want to make a ThinkPad in a different colour, we should never retire black.

Because black is, I think, a core element of the brand. Just because you can buy a black BMW doesn’t mean you can’t buy a red one too.

I think having ThinkPads available with other colours is a reasonable idea and we have actually done it now on the ThinkPad X100E, it’s available in black, and in red, and in white. But we made very certain the way we implemented it was still strongly connected with the ThinkPad idea of a singular box. So if you buy the red one, the whole thing on the outside is red. It’s not just a red top on a black box. The whole thing is bathed in red. When I open it, the inside is black, so it has this kind of, again, interesting contrast between the outside and inside.

So we tried to do it in a ThinkPad-like way, and then like I said, not abandoning black, because black is core to the brand essence.

Gerry:

One of the things I really like about my little Lenovo is the light. If I’m in a dark area on a bus or plane or something and I need to see the keypad for some reason I can just hit the bottom left and top right buttons.

I think there’s a story about how the light came to be included in the Lenovo, is that right?

David:

A few different people have told stories and some of them are not exactly accurate, but the reality is it came out of a brainstorming session that we had when we were first working on a ThinkPad which was more focused to an end user. It originally came out under the moniker of the ThinkPad i series, and it was intended to be marketed towards individuals.

So we were trying to come up with features we thought individuals would find appealing, which are a little bit different from maybe what large enterprise IT buyers were looking for.

And one of the frustrations that I had dealt with with a computer is you’re flying on an airplane late at night and you’re trying to type something. It’s very difficult to see the keyboard unless you turn the overhead light on, and the guy next to you sleeping is bothered by it. And I was kind of inspired by these small book lights that were available. I thought “Gee, wouldn’t it be great if there was something like that?” And we fooled around with this and we made a prototype of it using a very small LED. And, you know, it worked.

And I had a lot of sceptics. In fact the gentleman who was running the ThinkPad business at the time called me up and said “Listen, I’m not buying this unless I see it.” And so I convinced him to come down to the design studio space, and myself and him locked ourselves in a small photography room we had which was really not much bigger than a closet, and turned off all the lights. And I turned the thing on and he looked at me and said “OK, it works.” [Laughter.]

It didn’t take but five seconds and the ThinkLight was born.

Gerry:

What you’re just commenting on there makes me think about one of the questions that’s in my mind, and that’s how you get feedback from users at prototype, throughout the development process and I guess after release as well. How do you gauge whether you’re improving the user experience of the Lenovo as you develop it?

David:

We try to get as much user feedback as possible, and we have many different ways we can gather that. For instance we have advisory councils, we have analysts and things of that nature comment on future plans.

We meet with large customers and disclose to them future plans and get their feedback on our products.

I use my blog, very effectively I believe, by occasionally posing questions, doing polls or even much more detailed web surveys.

So really there’s not one answer to how you get feedback from customers. But my belief is that there’s no such thing as too much information.

I love to meet with a customer, or observe people at an airport or in an airplane or in a classroom. You’d just be amazed what you can learn from field research or in a conversation with a guy next to you on an airplane. It’s just remarkable.

Sources really are so varied that it’s difficult to put your fingers on [and say] this is the process we used to gather feedback.

Gerry:

I was interested to see what you do on the blog. For example there was some discussion about, I think, swapping the Function and Control keys or something of that nature, and you actually posed a question on the blog to get comment and feedback from people.

Do you find you get sufficient numbers to give you a good idea of what direction to go in with those sorts of questions?

David:

You would be amazed at some of the numbers that we have got on some of these questions. In some cases it’s in the thousands. In the thousands it’s really statistically significant in terms of the ability to gather data from users.

We do have to consider who these specific people are. Generally speaking people who hit my blog are what I would call ThinkPad enthusiasts. But I’m very interested in those people! You know, it’s great, I believe we have a loyalist following. I believe that’s unique in the industry. I think there are many of our competitors – I won’t name them – but I’m sure most people have no idea what the sub-brand is, or what the design looks like that’s associated with it.

We have a unique luxury, I believe, in that people are familiar with the ThinkPad brand, and the brand has meaning. It means something about the product, it means something about the design, people know what it looks like and what it does. It’s a great place to be.

Gerry:

Another luxury that you have, David, I think it’s fair to say, is that you seem to be in a position where it’s possible for you to take a long term view of what’s happening. In the IT industry it seems to be unusual to get people who are willing or able to take a long term view. Do you think that’s something that organisations and designers need to focus on more?

David:

Well, clearly the evolution strategy that we’ve been following now for, it’s been going on 18 years, which is I think remarkable, gives us an advantage in that it’s a little bit like we’re not starting with a clean sheet of paper every time.

So we have a very large accumulated amount of information and data about everything we’ve ever done, and this can be extraordinarily useful to determine where you want to go. I once had a design professor who said you have no idea where you want to go unless you know where you’ve been first. I think that’s tremendous advice, and we have that kind of knowledge.

I’ve described this previously to other people as: Imagine that you and I are going to build a new house each year. And you chose to build a completely new house every year, and I just built the same one every year, and I made subtle improvements to it. I believe after about five years my house will be a whole lot better than yours.

And the reason I say that is because I’d fix the kitchen. You know, I’d have the kitchen being another foot wider, or I’d move the refrigerator over a little bit more to the left. Or I’d make the hallway another three inches wider so you can carry comfortably the groceries in.

It’s these kinds of things that we do when we’re designing ThinkPad. And this long term body of knowledge is fuel for what we do in the future.

Gerry:

David, you’ve worked with some very influential designers. You already mentioned Richard Sapper, and Bill Moggridge comes to mind as well. Are there any contemporary designers out there whose work inspires you?

David:

There are several. I’m very much still intrigued by Dieter Rams and his work, by Jasper Morrison, I think he’s a really interesting designer. There are others. I have been influenced greatly by the work of Richard Sapper, who I’ve known for over 20 years. Paul Rand who was a graphic designer and who I had the luxury of working with when I was at IBM. These are some really giants of the field, who I have learned tremendous amounts from and I feel very fortunate to have done that.

Gerry:

David Hill, I know I’d like to talk to you for a lot longer but I know our time is limited. Thank you very much for joining me today on the User Experience podcast.

David:

You’re more than welcome. Enjoyed talking to you.

Published: March 2010

A note on the transcripts

We make verbatim transcripts of the User Experience podcast. We then edit the transcripts to remove speech-specific elements that interfere with meaning in print (primarily space-fillers such as “you know…”, “um…”).