100 Million ThinkPads Later

When I took over the design responsibility for ThinkPad, nearly 20 years ago, I was both honored and intimidated. Honored because it was likely the most successful design in the history of IBM, and intimidated for the same reason. My first impression of ThinkPad and its Richard Sapper design was one of total respect. It’s difficult to not respect any of the objects Richard has created over the last 60 years. Finally IBM had created a computer design that was more than a corporate formula for homogeneous similarity. Historically IBM had created some watershed designs, but during the late 80’s they seemed to be more about aesthetic neutrality to achieve a family relationship than great design. Much of their design reminded me of non-offensive beige carpet selected by a realtor to help sell a house quickly. I was personally more interested in designing to achieve a dramatic and modernist impression of timeless quality. On the day of its announcement, ThinkPad had what I aspired to create. Sapper's bento box inspired design was brilliant. Now I needed to develop a creative plan to ensure that nobody ruined it.

The bento design connection is still there 100 million ThinkPads later

I quickly determined that IBM didn’t need to constantly be reinventing the design of ThinkPad. Change for the sake of change seemed so superficial to me. On the contrary, Sapper and I had the idea to continuously refine it. Perhaps a radical hypothesis if you’re a marketing manager always trying to sell something new, but to us it made sense. After all, it’s the same thing Porsche had been doing with the iconic 911 for decades. This approach created enormous brand equity for the 911 and a huge cult following for the car. I wanted to do the same thing for ThinkPad. Adopting a philosophy of evolutionary refinement in an environment of rapidly changing high technology was to some preposterous, but we’ve proved over and over again that it works. 

I’ll take a nice all black one with a bright red shifter knob

100 million ThinkPad’s later, it has become an icon of the computing industry. It’s the gold standard of quality and purposeful design by which all others are measured. Maybe I should start referring to it as the “black standard”? No other computer company has adopted such a radical evolution philosophy or tried to copy its unique design essence. ThinkPad is an authentic original that has become far more than a brand name. The design of ThinkPad and the brand are synonymous. Does anyone remember what our competitor’s laptops looked like 20 years ago, and do they even care? I don’t think so.

“Eve”, the nick name given the official 100 millionth ThinkPad, is the current epitome of what it means to be a ThinkPad. It pays homage to the pedigree and points to the future. The X1 carbon, and all ThinkPad’s, continue to stand out in a market saturated with an unimaginative sameness.  The simple black box, with the red TrackPoint cap, conceived so long ago by Sapper, is clearly a survivor. Here’s to another 100 million ThinkPads!

David Hill