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Digit interviews David Hill, the man behind Lenovo's Laptop Design Mantra
Exceptional design strikes a chord among all of us, just like great music. When you see, touch and feel a well-designed product, be it a laptop or anything for that matter, you can’t help but admire it, cherishing the experience. It is with this notion we decided to sit down with David Hill, Head of Product Design at Lenovo -- the company behind the iconic ThinkPad brand of laptops -- to better understand the design philosophy behind modern laptops, in general, and ThinkPads, in particular. Here’s excerpts from a memorable interview.
Q) Why is the existing laptop design the way that it is? Why haven’t we seen overhauls for the classic clamshell design since the mid-80s?
Often mature product categories achieve a certain level of configuration stability. For instance, in the early development days of bicycles, designers explored many ideas, even including concepts using radically different sized wheels. Eventually the product stabilized around two wheels of similar size. Even though the clamshell has become the stable laptop design, we are still innovating and trying new ideas. Our recently introduced IdeaPad Yoga is a great example of bending the rules – it’s a great laptop and tablet.
Q) When it comes to laptop design, what are the key norms that ThinkPads follow and always conform to?
We always strive to deliver a superior ownership experience, and that’s why we spend so much time on the design of our keyboard: We will never compromise the typing experience. To do so would be like using a poorly designed steering wheel for a car. We consider, model and test every touch point on the keyboard to ensure superiority for the user.
Q) Give us a brief account of a ThinkPad’s journey from the drawing board to the finished product? Are there any key steps in the process?
The most interesting step is the one I call brainstorming. In this step my team works with our marketing team and customer feedback to develop actions for improving the design. It’s about looking for ways to improve the design from the previous generation. Appearance, overall quality, ease-of-use and inventive features all come into play.
Q) The physical design of a computer has come a long way and is constantly evolving, aspiring to be stylish and sexy. How does ThinkPad fit into this design landscape?
The ThinkPad laptop brand/design has lead in design for a long time. For example, the Museum of Modern Art includes the ThinkPad 701c in its permanent design collection. I love seeing a Picasso and a ThinkPad laptop together in the same museum. Today we continue to evolve the design and invent new experiences that I hope will inspire new generations of ThinkPad users. A simple black box never goes out of style.
Q) One thing about the ThinkPad that will never ever change?
I can’t imagine offering a ThinkPad laptop that is not available in black. We sell red ones, as well as other colors, but we will always sell a black ThinkPad. Black is as synonymous with ThinkPad as red is with Ferrari.
Q) Will we see a special, limited edition ThinkPad launched later this year to celebrate the legendary laptop brand’s 20th anniversary?
Over the years we have introduced several anniversary edition ThinkPad laptops. I recently wrote a blog on this topic soliciting our fans input for possible ideas. The 20th anniversary is so significant to Lenovo that I can’t imagine we would let this milestone pass without considerable celebration.
Q) What do you think of ultrabooks? Are laptops destined to become smaller, lighter, but at the same time offer better performance?
Ultrabooks are a great way to achieve thinner and more portable computing power. I’ve never been asked by a customer to make a ThinkPad thicker. Thin is in.
Q) Microsoft claims Windows 8’s Metro UI is best experienced on a tablet. Do you think this will inspire innovations in the age-old clamshell laptop design?
Touch is a very natural way of interacting with information. There are lots of ways we plan to exploit this capability for not tablets, phones and laptops.
Q) Is a product designer an artist at heart or a smart technician?
A product design is an amalgamation of many disciplines. A designer is an artist, anthropologist, inventor, investigator, teacher, engineer, marketing specialist and the list goes on and on. What is unique about a designer, however, is the ability to transform technologies and ideas into objects that drive human desire.
Q) What are the obvious challenges faced while coming up with innovative designs for any product not just laptops?
One of the biggest design challenges is to develop an idea that has form, meaning and solves a problem. This is true whether you are designing a super computer or a toothbrush. If a design is nothing more than an arbitrary shape disconnected from what function it must perform, or is functional but ugly or uncomfortable to use, the designer has failed. A truly innovative design must respect both form and function in an equal or synergistic manner.
Q) Where does your inspiration for innovative product design come from?
Design inspiration can come from anywhere: customer feedback, market research or a trip to the local flea market or an art museum are all equally inspiring. The shape of a golf tee inspired the design of one of our TrackPoint caps. I’m not much of a golfer, but I am always studying how things are designed and why.
All answers attributed to Mr. David Hill.
David leads an international team of strategists, human factors engineers, graphic, and industrial designers shaping the brand impressions of Lenovo.
David has often been recognized for design excellence by the German Industrie Forum Design Hanover, including their coveted Top 10 and Best of Category awards. His work has received ten IDEA awards from the Industrial Designers Society of America, as well as their Design of the Decade honor for ThinkPad.
Additionally, products designed by David have received the Design Zentrum Nordrhein Westfalen Best of the Best Award for Highest Design Quality, the Chicago Anthenaeum Good Design Award, and the Japanese G-Mark for Design Excellence. David's work is also included in the permanent design collections of museums in both Europe and the United States. David currently has more than 50 issued patents focused on design innovation.
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