David Hill – Chief Lenovo Designer, a Man Who has Created Much, and Touched Millions
Many years ago, I brought John Dvorak back to the ThinkPad design center for an interview with David. This is a room with more creative designs than most museums. Many items never make it out of this lab, yet they would make a lesser designer famous.
I never sensed that David yearned for fame, but it follows him nevertheless because of his work. If you’ve ever touched a Lenovo or IBM Personal Computer or Server product, David has touched your life, I’m guessing many hundreds of millions here. As you’ll read below, his design reaches out to you rather than you looking at it.
I always try to bloggerview interesting people, and this is as interesting as any I’ve done. While being quiet spoken, his thoughts and creativeness speak loudly. Go to David’s Blog to be informed. That was what I did and why I asked him to be a guest here.
I was speaking with Bill Howard at PC Magazine during his laptop roundup one year. He mentioned to me that while you see Dell’s or HP’s or whatever laptop in advertisements, if you go to the businesspersons working area or any airport’s premium flyers lounge, regardless of the airline, it is a ThinkPad convention. He said they were the best designed, most rugged and the most trusted laptop, enough said.
Briefly explain what you do for Lenovo, and is it the same thing that you did for IBM?
What I do for Lenovo is lead all of the design activity for the commercial products, ThinkPad, ThinkCenter, Lenovo 3000 and ease of use. I also am in charge of the corporate identity element for the company including building design, signage, storefront, business cards and the overall identity of the company beyond the products.
The job is similar to IBM except for the corporate element which has been exciting for me. We are designing a new Lenovo building in Perimeter Park near RTP. It is a new facility and I’m leading the architectural style and appearance. I’ve been working with an external architectural firm on the interior design, landscaping and courtyard.
What is your background and qualifications?
Early in my university education I was fortunate to meet a working industrial designer who brought in portfolio of products and talked about design of everything from household products to cars.
So I studied Industrial Design at the University of Kansas.
I worked for several years at a design consulting firm in Wichita, designing everything from underground trenching equipment to wristwatches. I worked with talented and interesting people there, but I always had desire to work in an environment where I had control. At a consulting firm, you might do a sketch (for example I designed a hand held spotlight) and then never see it again until it was a product. They changed the spotlight and it negated the design concept which compromised the product. I found that to be frustrating and realized that this wouldn’t work for me.
I looked for a company with strong internal design organization and a sense of history, and found IBM in Rochester MN, Interestingly, I took the job of a classmate from college who went back to school to get a PhD. I worked there on the systems product division, then known as the System 38 and 36. I led design for the AS/400 Advanced Series, which we changed from being beige, innocuous and drab products into powerful, black, purposefully designed servers. This design became pervasive throughout the entire server series from the initial 1994 product. The beige products were too “quiet”, we made design into bigger statement for the company.
What inspires you for your designs?
Design inspiration comes from many things, It comes from your own personal experience of using products, observing someone else using a product, market research, seeing interesting products at a store, a garage sale or a museum. It is difficult to pin down. I’m always looking at design and architecture, art and products to see what is interesting and why is it interesting.
The thinklight which I blogged about recently for example. It was an invention in my head which came out of necessity (link to Friday blog). My son had book light made from a small led and batter and I saw the “light”. It came from necessity and constraint which were the inspiration. When sitting on a plane, you had to disturb the passenger next to you with the overhead light, or open and shut the monitor part of the ThinkPad to see. Ultimately, I couldn’t see the keyboard in the dark.
If someone said design a computer with no restraint for example, I would be at a loss. Constraint would be logical, a cost, a reason or a solution to a problem.
It is more challenging to design something that has to be better or fit into a smaller box.
What makes a design work or be successful?
I think that it is difficult to pin down, It can come in many ways, There are examples of great design which solves a problem, but are not a financial success. The ThinkPad 701C butterfly was such a product. It had tremendous brand building success which people talk about today. It had an element of creativeness and innovation that lives on in the ThinkPad design today.
What designs have surprised you as being more successful than you expected?
I never anticipated that the original work on the AS/400 Advanced Series would be so significant in changing the landscape to the entire line of servers, It later extended to NetFinity now System X for example. At first they weren’t rack mounted and had the same design problem as AS/400, they were uninspiring. It did work and was functional, but they were not exciting. We worked on extending the AS/400 to Netfinity in terms of design…then everything followed suit and finally the entire server line had a similar look. I never expected it to go that far. We changed the Rack mounts as the beginnings of what they are today.
It was a big battle internally to get IBM to make the servers black…in fact it was a major controversy. Very early on in his tenure as chairman, Lou Gerstner came to visit the Rochester site, only his second visit, We had a room set up with the Advanced Series on one side and Beige Racks on the other. The plan was to bring him in and give him a history of the product, Then we were going to turn his attention to the advanced black model. The server folks thought it would be way to kill it and to “get David Hill out of the way”. Well, the entourage came in and the first thing Lou said was ” wow those are the coolest computers I’ve ever seen, you must have an industrial designer”. I stepped forward and said I’m in charge of industrial design and we had a nice talk about the product, then he left. Needless to say, that was the end of the beige/black issue.
Conversely, what designs didn’t work/sell as well as you thought?
The Butterfly. I thought it was the most amazing thing I’d seen, but it was too good to be true, It combined everything about great design, utility and value with a compelling aesthetic attribute, but when larger flat-panel displays dropped in price, the volumes didn’t take off and the design was never extended.
If someone were looking to be in the design field, what advice would you give them?
Be prepared for tremendous amount of hard work which on surface may not get any attribution. Art schools are filled with emotionally charged people. There were only 8 people in my graduating class, and thousands in business school. You would find that the lights were on 24/7 in the design school. They are emotionally connected to what they are doing. You can’t cram for final on design of building. I once designed the interior of a tractor cab in college. You couldn’t cram for that. I would say that this amount of time follows you wherever you go. It’s hard to turn design off and on. Once, I bought a TV and painted the knobs because i didn’t like them.
Why did you become a blogger?
Design is a core element of Lenovo’s strategy. It spans behavior, aesthetics, emotional, ease of use and human factor. As people believe products become commoditized, design changes its value. For example, if you go to an electronics store, there are rows of toasters. Some are long, some black, some lay down, some stand up, some mount under a cabinet and many other designs. A corkscrew is another product with design differentiators. There are whole museums on this subject. Design is a way we differentiate.
It’s also about solving problems. A blog gives us chance of making people aware of design and features and solicit feedback on what they have, what they like and what they don’t like. What may be the next inspiration of new ThinkPad. Dialogue on the subject of design and the human factor to a company. Lenovo should be easy to approach and work with and a blog that supports this will help. Many blogs are corporate communications inspired and are sanitized, and not written by a designer….my blog will help bring us closer to user.
I’m also going to post about the design of motorcycles. I’ve been associated with them since I was 13…would Dell do that? It’s about me talking about design. The television show “American Chopper” is fun to watch because of the interaction between father and son. The design of choppers is mysterious.
I hope to put a human face to Lenovo, and make people think design matters.
I look at modern architecture in friends house, some homes are designed some are cookie cutter houses. It’s the same way in our industry. Some computers are designed well and some are not…read between the lines on generic computers and generic companies here.
What are you looking at (other that what is on your blog) for future Lenovo design?
We are in brand building mode. While we are strong in china, outside of china we are still growing. I want to make it iconic. We have several ideas that will do this. Perhaps at some point i may blog about it.