The ThinkPad at 25: Designing an icon

This year marks the 25th Anniversary of the ThinkPad, the easily-recognizable laptop from Lenovo that has been powering businesses for quarter of a century. There are very few devices in the laptop space that can truly be described as having an ‘iconic’ design, but with its black case, red trackpoint and robust design, the ThinkPad is one of them.

Since the launch of the ThinkPad 700C on October 5 1992, over 130 million ThinkPad devices have been sold worldwide, so it’s little surprise that Lenovo, which acquired the division and brand from IBM in 2005, is keen to mark this milestone.

As part of the 25th anniversary celebrations, we visited the birthplace of the ThinkPad, the Yamato Lab in Yokohama, Japan, and spoke to a number of people who have turned it into the institution it is today.

The origins of the ThinkPad

Back in 1992, the PC and laptop world was very different. PCs were big, bulky and beige monoliths that sat in offices, or in separate rooms of the home, while laptops weren’t much more portable. Sure, you could pick them up and take them with you, but hardware limitations such as poor battery life and the need to plug in various devices, such as printers, and have a wired connection to a network, meant the portability of these devices was limited.

Arimasa Naitoh, Vice President and CTO of Product Group, is widely considered the 'father of the ThinkPad', and headed up the creation of the first generation of the device at the Yamato lab. He spoke to us at an exclusive roundtable event about the genesis of the ThinkPad.

“My boss commuted by train, and was too busy to read emails,” Naitoh-san reminisced, noting that there were often not enough hours in the working day to get everything done. “Japanese people wanted to work longer and work more, but there was no way to work after he left the office.”

"ThinkPad is productivity. Productivity comes from mobility."

Arimasa Naitoh

So the germination of the ThinkPad, according to Naitoh-san, was in the frustration that many people had when trying to work away from the office. “What we are doing [with ThinkPad] is giving you the same productivity as if you were in the office, no matter where you are. ThinkPad is productivity. Productivity comes from mobility.” 

This goal, Naitoh-san said, has been the driving force behind ThinkPad. “Everything we do comes back to that purpose: great mobility, great productivity, and then the success of your business”.

David Hill, Arimasa Naitoh and Dilip Bhatia

David Hill, Arimasa Naitoh and Dilip Bhatia

Coming up with an iconic design

The simple ethos that Naitoh-san spoke of is a huge part of the ThinkPad’s success – but it isn’t the only part. The iconic design, which again combines simplicity with productivity, is also a huge factor.

As David Hill, the former Chief Design Officer who oversaw 22 years of ThinkPad design, told us, the original ThinkPad came out with “the one-two punch of engineering and great design”.

The original design, elements of which modern ThinkPads still include today, was conceived by German industrial designer Richard Sapper. Sapper, who died in 2015, was inspired to design the ThinkPad by traditional Japanese bento boxes. 

An example of a bento box at Lenovo's Yamato labs

An example of a bento box at Lenovo's Yamato labs

These compact boxes contain various foods in separate compartments, and when you opened up the body of the original ThinkPad, which had similar dimensions to a bento box, you would find the components arranged in a similar manner.

The inside of a ThinkPad, designed like a bento box

The inside of a ThinkPad, designed like a bento box

At the Yamato Lab we talked to David Hill, as well as Brian Leonard, who is vice president of design for Lenovo’s PCs and Smart Devices business group. We started by talking about designing a business laptop, and if creating a device for business users was constraining, compared to building a commercial device for mainstream users.

“I don’t view it as constraining. I view it as having focus,” Hill told us. “I don’t think that things that are utilitarian or tool-like are necessarily not attractive. I think a Jeep is a very cool looking vehicle! But it was a military vehicle originally, and not everyone wants to drive one to a grocery store.”

Leonard agreed: “I think it’s interesting, because you really know your customer. You really know with all the different business products we make, who they are targeting, and what they do. It kind of helps you develop a richness into the product and make sure it is focused on them. Versus the consumer side of things that’s kind of designing stuff for everybody.”

But what about designing a ThinkPad? After 25 years, it’s fair to say that the ThinkPad has developed an iconic and unmistakable look. There are certain expectations that people have about what a ThinkPad should look like. The black chassis, the red TrackPoint. Does this iconic design end up being restrictive?

“Sometimes I’ve had newer designers say ‘isn’t this constraining, that it has to look like a ThinkPad?’ Well, we actually make it up! We make up our own rules, it’s our rules. There’s no ThinkPad bible in the sky!” says Hill.

“As soon as we’d write a rule down, we’d go and break that rule!” adds Leonard. So, there’s actually no hard and fast rules about what a ThinkPad should look like. As David Hill put it, “There is no ThinkPad design codebook. It doesn’t exist.”

“There is no ThinkPad design codebook. It doesn’t exist.”

David Hill

However, there is a common design ethos visible in every ThinkPad product, with subtle nods to Richard Sapper’s design for the original ThinkPad. But nothing is sacred. As David Hill explained to us, that original iconic design “is on our minds and in our hearts. It’s not on a page in a book, or some poster on a wall. We’ve probably changed the colour of the black ten times!”

A day earlier, at the roundtable event, David Hill explained why he joined IBM to work on ThinkPad. “For me, one of the things that interested me in 1995 was the opportunity to work with a master such as Richard Sapper. His designs combined German sensibility with Italian flair.”

“As soon as we’d write a rule down, we’d go and break that rule!”

Brian Leonard

Although both Hill and Leonard did not feel that designing a laptop for business use was restrictive, there were challenges that Richard Sapper encountered when pitching the more unconventional design aspects of the ThinkPad to IBM.

One such hurdle was the red TrackPoint. Today that unique TrackPoint, which can be used to move the mouse cursor, is such an integral part of the ThinkPad design that it is hard to imagine it not appearing on a ThinkPad device.

The iconic red TrackPoint

The iconic red TrackPoint

However, as David Hill explained, that was almost the case: “when Richard wanted to make the TrackPoint red, IBM didn’t want that, as red was the color for the emergency power switch of mainframes.”

IBM didn’t want the TrackPoint on its new laptop having such negative connotations, but Sapper wasn’t discouraged. Determined to stay true to his vision for the ThinkPad, he came up with a creative solution to get his way. “He invented a way around it,” Hill explained, “he changed the name of the color from red to magenta, but it was the same color. The product safety people approved, as he called it IBM magenta.”

That ability to come up with a design, to stay true to it, and to find creative solutions to problems make designers and creators such as Richard Sapper and Arimasa Naitoh, along with David Hill and Brian Leonard, stand out.

Earlier in the week we visited the Cupnoodles Museum in Yokohama. This museum charts the trials and tribulations of Momofuku Ando, the creator of instant ramen noodles, in a wonderfully quirky way.

Instant noodles are so commonplace these days that it’s hard to imagine a time when they didn’t exist, and Momofuku Ando’s creative solutions to the problem of mass producing noodles that could be easily made with just hot water has some clear parallels with the work Richard Sapper did with the ThinkPad, and which the ThinkPad team continue to do. 

There’s a special way of looking at the world and finding inspiration to solve problems, where other people just see the problem. As David Hill told us, “That’s the ThinkPad way. We go try to figure out how to fix it.”

“That’s the ThinkPad way. We go try to figure out how to fix it.”

David Hill

Solving new problems

Of course, over the 25-year lifespan of the ThinkPad, what people want out of a laptop – and the problems they want solved – has changed considerably.

“When I first started working on ThinkPads, they were a device that was considered portable,” Hill told us. “What I mean by that is I could use it in one place, then move it and use it over to another place. When I get over there, the first thing I would do is look for a phone connection and somewhere to plug it in the wall. Because the battery life wasn’t very long. The only way I could connect it would be through a modem. It’s very different now.”

Nowadays, people almost take that sort of portability for granted. Dilip Bhatia, Vice President of Global Marketing, User and Customer Experience at Lenovo, explained to us what customers are now looking for. 

"In order to retain talent you need to provide tools for them to be productive."

Dilip Bhatia

“What really matters to our customers? There are three things they look for, including millennials. The first is time. We want our devices to be easily accessible. The second is comfort. We want to be able to use our devices anytime, anywhere. The third is that human connection. We want to connect with friends and family, and collaborate across continents”.

Chat rooms, message boards, VoIP services, social networks and online collaboration tools have all helped over the years to make connecting to people all over the world possible. Customers these days, especially young people, expect their device to be able to do this.

For businesses, it’s important to invest in devices that will meet those expectations. As Bhatia told us, “In order to retain talent you need to provide tools for them to be productive.”

The original ThinkPad

The original ThinkPad

Brian Leonard also agrees, highlighting the changing expectations of users when it comes to communication and collaboration. “We’ve always used [laptops] as a tool, but now they’ve become a real communication device. Whether we’re presenting to people all over the world, or we’re on conference calls… it’s become a very different device, so I think it’ll be interesting to see how we may need to change.”

The way we work has changed, so ThinkPad needs to change with it. “Nobody works in the same space, we don’t work the same way. People don’t have offices, a lot of people don’t have a dedicated desk. You get a desk when you come in, or you’re working at home.”

“The beauty of ThinkPad is in the harmony of the design and purpose.”

Brian Leonard

It’s not just at work where our computing habits and expectations have changed. As David Hill explains, “looking at the home, when the personal computer first came into the home, people didn’t know what to do with it. So you would go into someone’s house and they would have their PC in the dining room. Because, what do you do with the darn thing?

“Then an industry came up with weird crappy furniture where you could put a printer in it. A pull-out thing for the keyboard. Then people started building houses that had a computer room. Now, these computer rooms have cobwebs in them. Because you don’t go to a room to do computing any more. Where do you use your computer? Everywhere.”

By solving those problems, while producing an elegant and desirable device, ThinkPad has become one of the most popular laptop brands in the world. As Brian Leonard said at the roundtable discussion we were present at, “the beauty of ThinkPad is in the harmony of the design and purpose.”

David Hill also explained that the “design for ThinkPad fuses these ideas of form and function. It’s hard to talk about one without the other.” When we spoke to him later on, he elaborated on that theme.

"I think that’s one of the reasons you buy a ThinkPad. They work. There’s no bullshit."

David Hill

“Our goal is to blur the boundaries between the two ideas of form and function, hopefully finding a solution that’s both functional and beautiful looking.” But when creating a business laptop, shouldn’t function always take priority over form?

“We would never want to make a ThinkPad where something didn’t work right,” Hill explains. “That’s off brand. We wouldn’t want to compromise something like that. I think that’s one of the reasons you buy a ThinkPad. They work. There’s no bullshit. You know what I mean?”

Leonard agrees. “I love that I know every time I open it or close it, what’s going to happen. Every time. There’s a lot of things out there that you don’t know that. There’s no dependability about those devices. The ThinkPad is so repeatable in what it does.”

“I trust ThinkPad. If I were to take a laptop to outer space, I’d take a ThinkPad,” says Hill.

“Well, that’s actually what they do take!” adds Leonard.


ThinkPads go through a range of rigorous durability tests

ThinkPads go through a range of rigorous durability tests

Designing for durability

As we chatted to Brian Leonard and David Hill, it became clear that reliability and durability are major parts of the ThinkPad design, and during our time with Lenovo in its Yamato Lab, we saw just how seriously it tests every iteration of ThinkPad to ensure they are as durable as possible.

“Time is one of the few things that may ultimately establish the true quality of an object.”

Richard Sapper

As Luis Hernandez, leader of Lenovo’s Product Group PC Development Team, told us: “It is not a ThinkPad until it passes our tests.” The tests he is referring to are the range of automated durability tests that are mainly conducted in the Yamato Lab. “These are testing methods we have accumulated over 25 years,“ continues Hernandez. “Many of those tests are unique, because we’ve learned how our customers use our products, Then we create a test for it.”

Yamato Labs tour

Our time at the Yamato Laboratory really highlighted how much thought – and effort – goes into making the ThinkPad, and how much of a careful balance it strikes between form and function.

At the roundtable meeting, David Hill told us a quote by Richard Sapper: “Time is one of the few things that may ultimately establish the true quality of an object”. Now, 25 years on from the original ThinkPad, and witnessing how much thought and effort goes into the design, it’s safe to say that the ThinkPad has achieved that lofty aim.

Matt Hanson
Managing Editor, Core Tech

Matt is TechRadar's Managing Editor for Core Tech, looking after computing and mobile technology. Having written for a number of publications such as PC Plus, PC Format, T3 and Linux Format, there's no aspect of technology that Matt isn't passionate about, especially computing and PC gaming. Ever since he got an Amiga A500+ for Christmas in 1991, he's loved using (and playing on) computers, and will talk endlessly about how The Secret of Monkey Island is the best game ever made.