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Lenovo’s VP of Design on how the retro ThinkPad lured in millennials

Brian Leonard, vice president of the Lenovo Experience Design Group
Lenovo has recently updated some of its PC lines, particularly with its latest refresh, which includes the Yoga 720 and brand-new Yoga 920. Look closely, and you’ll see some consistent design choices, such as a revamped keyboard that offers up a better layout, and some aesthetic cues that point to a simpler and more user-friendly design philosophy.

These design elements are no accident. They’re part of a continued and concerted effort to produce products that are simpler, more useful, and more refined. We spoke with Brian Leonard, Vice President of the Lenovo Experience Design Group, to delve into the ideas that are driving his team.

How did you get started in computer design and what’s been your history ending up at Lenovo doing what you’re doing?

I grew up in an IBM family, mom and dad. When I was in college I took an internship at IBM and everything around me was about white boxes and beige, and that was the time when we started the first conceptual work on what was a ThinkPad. I fell in love with ThinkPad at that moment, and a couple of years later I ended up at IBM. I worked on servers, and desktops, and peripherals, and was around ThinkPad a lot, and I spent 10 years at IBM. And then I left and went to a competitor for 10 years, did a lot of things there.

brian leonard interview lenovo thinkpad getty
What Laptop Magazine/Getty Images
What Laptop Magazine/Getty Images

I recently came back, about 2 years ago, and rejoined Lenovo, because I saw a lot of change inside Lenovo after the acquisition and was really interested in this customer perspective and being focused on who the customers are and their needs, pain points, and desires. I assumed leadership working with David Hill, and then he retired back in the summer. We’ve been prepping for this kind of transition over the last couple of years.

What are some of your favorite designs over the year, either things that you’ve contributed to you, or anything in the industry that’s particularly impressed you?

One of the primary drivers I came back for was that I wanted to work on ThinkPad. We just went through the 25th anniversary of ThinkPad. People talk about what’s next, why do they always look the same? Well, that history of design is really a one-two punch between design and engineering. Good design is so much part of a brand that they’re hard to separate. We can’t just take a left turn and start making something very, very different, but I think it lets us focus on what the purpose of those devices are and how we make improvements versus saying “Hey, what’s the next new design fad or the next design trend.” [ThinkPads] are the perfect purpose-built machines, the best notebooks in the world. I really enjoyed that.

ThinkPads are the perfect purpose-built machines, […] the best notebooks in the world.

The team that I cover now [handles] all of the commercial design, all of the consumer design, and we have some great brands. My team did the Yoga 920, as well as other products. That was really about making a much simpler statement and design, and really cleaning up and focusing on the quality, and elevating that product to be what we knew it could be. That’s a lot of fun too.

The Yoga 920 is a very understated design compared to some of your competitors, but it’s a machine that you can take into a boardroom and set down on a table and work without drawing undue attention to yourself. Is that kind of what you guys were going for with that machine?

To me, what’s going on in the world is things are getting much simpler. It used to be that we wanted to design notebooks that screamed, “Hey look at me, I’m special.” But I think the understated design really lets you, when you get into that two-three foot zone next to the notebook, it lets you focus and see the quality of the finishes and how everything is assembled (with) all of the Think products. Now that we start to look at consumer (products) we ask, “How do we bring more purpose and more value and really elevate the brand with those types of things?” versus “This year it looks like this, next year it looks like something completely different.” I think it is part of our strategy, and I think that understated design is really part of getting back to the moment of simplicity. It’s something that you’ll see if you look at the Yoga 720s and on down the line, and even inside the IdeaPad, that’s a big focus for us.

You spoke earlier about the 25th anniversary ThinkPad, and just how iconic the ThinkPad design really is. What Lenovo has managed with ThinkPad is to keep it current and modern, and yet you know what a ThinkPad is when you see it. That seems like a fine balance to walk in terms of design.

It is, and some people think, “Is it limiting?” To me, it’s not, because it puts us in a frame of mind, and that’s what ThinkPad design is all about. It’s a frame of mind, and it’s about simplicity and focusing on the things that really matter. It lets us explore how we evolve this and make this more special, make it a better device, focus on weight, and thinness, and spend our time in those areas and work on being concerned about what’s really going to resonate with the customer, versus just simply aesthetics. To me, the aesthetics of these things should be a natural part of the product experience, not the focal part of the product experience.

How has that 25th anniversary ThinkPad been received in the market so far?

Really, really well. A couple of things that we did… One, we wanted to be focused on delivering something that would be in reach of a wide audience, and we tried to keep the price point under control. We could have easily done something that was so unique that nobody could afford it, and that was one thing that we did not want to do. We brought back the seven-row keyboard, dedicated volume/mute controls, some of the design details like the blue enter key and the wave detail underneath the cursor controls. It really resonates well with our superfans, and as we are focusing more on our customers and delivering customer relevant differentiation, it’s really (intended) for those superfans.

lenovo thinkpad retro logo

It’s interesting because with that seven-row keyboard — and it kind of goes back a couple of years in notebook design with the key design where it’s not what we would call and island-style key — it’s more of a traditional keyboard, and yet it still looks really modern. We just haven’t looked at one in a while. I’ve been carrying one for a couple of weeks and it’s fantastic. I really enjoy taking a step back, it’s quite fun.

Has it given you any ideas about returning to the truly iconic ThinkPad keyboard? Things have changed a bit, things have gotten thinner, the shallower travel, things like that. Are you thinking now we’ll go ahead and stick the ThinkPad keyboard back in the machines?

You know, that’s a little tough to answer. But it does make me realize that over the years, we’ve moved away from or lost (some things) that we brought back in that. I’m like, “How did we get there,” and it makes you head-scratch and start doing some conceptual work, and change the conversation with what you’re doing today. Which I think is always interesting.

What do you think of Windows on ARM processors (such as those from Qualcomm), and what that’s going to allow you to do?

You know, I think that we’ve seen a really big change in commercial products over the past 5-6 years. It used to be that a commercial product had everything including the kitchen sink, because people were buying one system for everybody. And then we’ve seen those definitions get challenged, and commercial devices get thinner and thinner and thinner, and are now at the same level as consumer. And consumer has been throwing everything off-board to make the thinnest device they possibly could. And now they’re kind of at par.

And so, now, what’s the difference between those two devices? And when do we stop?  When is enough? And we’re starting to figure out that, okay, now we really have to pump the breaks and make sure that we do have good battery life, we do have the full connectivity, we still have to have the best keyboard in the world, and people still need connectors. So, it’s going to be interesting how we get to the next level and Windows on ARM could help us get some smaller engines inside that kind of power the experience.

For myself, I’m really more focused on what I call the “dashboard,” which is the things that I see, meaning the display, which is the center of the experience, and then how do I control it with the keyboard and the trackpoint and the touchpad. That’s really where we want to spend our time, because that’s kind of what’s most important for the user.

I’ve seen a few manufacturers talk about how Millennials are growing up, and they’re going into the business world, and they’re dragging along an aesthetic preference. Nobody used to care what the work PC looked like, but it appears to be now that people are, in the business world, more concerned about what the machine looks like. I wondered if you were seeing any impact from that demographic change.

You know, we talk about it a lot, and we’ve got a lot of Millennials designing our machines and working on the teams. It’s interesting, the perspective they bring, and I think a lot of times we think about Millennials as, “Hey, it’s gotta be a silver thing,” and that’s not really what we see from our research and when we talk to users.

We thought about how were we going to reach Millennials and […] ThinkPad is a great tool to reach them.

They have a high focus on what the device can do for them, the quality of it. They never want to skip a beat or have to worry about the thing breaking down. They want to know exactly how it’s going to behave when they open it and close it, that it fits seamlessy into their lives.

One of the things that was interesting is that when we were working on the retro ThinkPad, and we were doing all of our surveys trying to figure out what were the right features for that anniversary product, the average age for the respondent on that wasn’t an older crowd, it was actually an age group that was smack in the Millennial crowd. And I thought, wow, that’s really interesting. We thought about how were we going to reach the Millennials, and, you know, ThinkPad is a great tool to reach them.

Speaking of customer feedback, there are obvious examples of where you’ve responded to the customer. I’m sure, for example, when you moved the webcam above the display on the Yoga 920, that was probably based on some customer feedback you received about the webcam being on the bottom of the display. What other kinds of examples of where customers have driven changes can you think of?

Well, I think that if you look at the Yoga 920, and you look at the keyboard, it looks as you would expect. If you look at the Yoga 910, the right shift key was small. Somewhere along the line, we made a mistake and when we redid the consumer products for the “20” series, and the Yoga 920 is in that timeframe, we demanded that we go back and fix that keyboard. And we did.

brian leonard interview lenovo yoga 920
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

Another thing in the 20 series that I was not happy with was the touchpad buttons, and the experience of that. So, I made it a big deal that we need to make these fundamentals of computing at every price point as flawless as possible. And that was coming from the design team and the user experience team in response to customers. So, every day we’re trying to be focused on making great things and making them better.

To wrap up, what do you see as some of the more important design trends going forward? What do you see as important in the next couple of years?

The human interaction element is interesting to me. I think we’re getting to a point where we’ve given up on — our competitors have, everybody has — quality of space, and keyboard thickness, and things like that. I think those elements, and especially in ThinkPad, are part of the experience, and so we see people not just using them for work, they’re using them for entertainment. And so I think voice, sight, pens, displays are the most important parts of the notebook. As is your content, whether you’re creating or consuming or whatever you’re doing, that’s important. Sound, I think is important, as well as pen — we’re all trying to figure out how to get these analog things that we do every day with sight, sound, touch, and interactions, into a digital world much easier.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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