Developers on the X1 Carbon - Industrial Design

ThinkPad X1 Carbon

As many of you know already, our new flagship machine, the ThinkPad X1 Carbon was announced. This product was developed under the guidance of our devoted staff at the Yamato office. Starting today, we will share to you the thoughts of the developers who were behind the creation of the X1 Carbon.

Today, the lead designer of the X1 Carbon, Hiroki Hirano will talk about the industrial design of the product. In his previous workplace, Hirano worked at a major freelance design office and also had the unique experience of designing a water vehicles. He was deeply touched by the design of the ThinkPad 600 to the point where he "wanted to design a ThinkPad" and that explains why he joined.


- I heard that you made a comment on the X1 Carbon on facebook soon after it was announced.

Hirano: Yes, I made a remark about how I felt being the lead designer. I tried to be as candid as possible.

The ThinkPad X1 Carbon was announced and my dream of achieving a "superior design beyond Kodachi (X300)" was achieved. I can't say that the design wasn't influenced by the MacBook Air but I'm in love with the design. I am completely biased because I was the lead designer but really, I like the design of the X1 Carbon so much that I want to hold on to it and sleep with it (LOL).

It's always the same thing but I treat all products that I designed as if they were my own babies. I think other developers feel the same way. At the Yamato office, a lot of people use products that they designed with pride.


- The X300 that Steve Jobs was said to have respected was also a mobile machine designed to compete against the MacBook Air. By saying a "superior design beyond Kodachi (X300)", are you implying that the X1 Carbon is better than the X300 and also the MacBook Air?

Hirano: The market will decide if it's better than the MacBook Air. Being the lead designer of the X300 and X1 Carbon, I believe the X1 Carbon is better than the X300.

In addition to the "design", the "value of the product" is exceptional. The design is simple and easy to use. The product packs a 14 inch screen on a body that is normally for 13 inch laptops. It is also extremely lightweight. It is smaller, lighter and thinner than the original X1 which had a 13 inch screen. The perfectly designed body has no dead space and I think it is one of the most beautiful ThinkPads ever.

I also think the overall user experience that the X1 Carbon provides is outstanding. I want to switch to it as my main machine as soon as possible. The only thing is, I do like my current main machine, the X301, and parting with it will feel a little sad.


- After it was announced, the design seems to be getting favorable reviews. For example, some say that "it's not a copy of the MacBook Air at all". However, you mentioned that "you cannot say that the design wasn't influenced by the MacBook Air". Could you elaborate on this?

Hirano: Our CEO's request was to "beat the MacBook Air". For this reason, I did a lot of research on the MacBook Air.

To be honest, I have a high regard for the current 2nd generation MacBook Air. It's a great product. It has a great design and the user experience, quality, cost are excellent and integrate well with the technology that it was based on. One thing though, for professional designers, it is not that difficult to come up with an industrial design like of the MacBook Air. What was surprising was how closely and carefully the design was realized in the actual product development.

What I learned from looking at the MacBook Air was not little. I believe I was able to organize and understand everything in order to design a product that can be better.

As an internal request, the original design of the X1 Carbon was more geared towards consumers. It resembled more of the MacBook Air. However, after more designing and internal reviewing was held, I received a request for it be "more like a ThinkPad and have a design geared towards businesses". In the back of my mind, I was happy because I didn't want to just make copy of the MacBook Air.

So then, the final design was born with my idea of "what a ThinkPad should be like".

Even so, I was concerned. I asked for opinions on the design from other teams not related to the product and they all told me that the design is "is no doubt, a ThinkPad design". This gave me confidence and I also accepted how the design was influenced by the MacBook Air.


- So you admit that it was influenced by the design of the MacBook Air but that is because you were confident with the final design. Being asked to create a design for consumers, did you have any problems or were you confused at all?

Hirano: Not at all.

In the designing world, the boundary between commercial products and consumer products is getting blur. The same can be said for the IT industry. It's "IT consumerization". People that say that design is a secondary importance are becoming less and less. This applies to enterprise laptops as well.

In my previous job, I had the opportunity to design a lot of things. To take the words of the famous Raymond Loewy who was able to reshape everything "from lipsticks to locomotives", I designed everything "from cord fasteners to crane machines". I also worked with a lot of consumer products which made me accustomed to that audience. I believe fulfilling expectations is what professionals are supposed to do and real professionals are those that exceed expectations.

I also believed that a day would come where I could propose "that a ThinkPad would be like this".


- So everything went as planned. What exactly was the design concept of the X1 Carbon?

Hirano: It's hard to put in a nutshell. I'm not confident I can put it in words because a lot of my designs are created naturally based on the feature/functions and those kinds of things aren't put in words usually.

I guess if I had to say, the concept would be something like a "well-tailored, slim-cut, airy and sexy business suit".

When explaining the design of the ThinkPad, I often compare it to a business suit. Suits are universal in the business world and are always in style. Recent trends are in slim-cuts, different fabrics and little accents. Suits that were trendy 5 years are now out of style.

The basic concept of the ThinkPad has not changed for 20 years. A lot of people call it the "Black Bento Box". Among designers, we like to think more out of the box and look at it with its "ThinkPad DNA". With such, it doesn't have to be black, have sharp edges or have a rock-solid like body.

Just like how business suits are, ThinkPads can be universal but open to changes.


- I see. So there are things to keep and others to change concerning the design. What are the characteristics and new features of the X1 Carbon?

Hirano: For the X1 Carbon, I made a conscious effort to combine the ThinkPad DNA with a sexy design.

Recently, in English-speaking countries, products which have great designs are described as being "sexy". In Japanese, I guess an appropriate translation would be "very attractive". Certain media outlets described the X300 and original X1 as having a "very traditional ThinkPad design but not having a 'sexy' appeal". I'll be happy if the X1 Carbon is described as having "the ThinkPad design but also 'sexy' at the same time".

The concept of the X300 was as its code "Kodachi" implies, "a sharp cutting sleek sword". The X1 Carbon does not have a single concept but the major idea behind it is to be a "well-cut pair of chopsticks".

A "well-cut pair of chopsticks" is easy to hold and made to not slip with a polygonal shape. The front part is circular and able to grab delicate objects with ease, and the connecting section is seamless. The back side of the X1 Carbon has a fairly vertical design to accommodate ports and connectors. In contrast, the front side has a minimalistic design where the surface is trimmed as much as possible since there are no connectors and the body is connected seamlessly. The side profile of the LCD screen has a similar design that achieves a seamless look when the LCD is closed.

With this design, I combined "practicality and beauty" to express "intelligence and sexy-ness".


X1 Carbon and X300 Design Motif


- I see, so the design of the X1 Carbon is clearly different from previous ThinkPads. In closing, do you have anything to share regarding the future of the X1 Carbon or its design?

Hirano: I think the X1 Carbon has the excellent design with what technology is available at the moment. But it doesn't mean it is a finished product.

The next 3rd generation X1 is already being designed with the aim to be smaller, lighter, thinner and should have an outstanding design. Personally, I want to suggest "how the new ThinkPads" of the new generation should be.

There were actually a few design ideas which I proposed which weren't adopted, such as a new gorgeous ThinkPad logo plate, an innovative way to have LED features light up, etc. They were "sexy" ideas and it was a shame they couldn't be incorporated into the final design...

The price of computers and the differences in performance will get even smaller and smaller in the future. As such, I think the importance of the design and user experience will become larger. A lot of people are already emphasizing things like that when looking to purchase a new computer. With smartphones and tablets becoming more mainstream, people are saying "laptops will become obsolete" but I think there's still room for laptops to grow.


Rocky Hirano holding the ThinkPad X1 Carbon