Inside the Design Studio: ThinkPad Stack

We made quite the splash with the introduction of the ThinkPad Stack at CES back in January. It’s always rewarding to see such a positive reaction to the work we do. The ThinkPad Stack is a clever modular solution for organizing various mobile accessories for your ThinkPad. Using a system of interlocking connectors and magnets, the highly portable accessories pass power and data through the stack without clumsy cables. The last things we need are more computer cables in our lives.

Aside from the usual technical challenges that designers wrestle with, we also needed to create a compelling design solution that was attractive and easy to use. My team did an exhaustive study of alternative forms, interlocking concepts, form factors, connector locations, and magnetic forces required to lock modules together. If we specified too little force they could unexpectedly separate, but if we went too strong, it could be a real frustration trying to pry them apart. Much of design is about making the right tradeoffs.

Some of the sketches and study models we built to develop the final design

Architecturally, the concept of stacking modules reminded me of my home stereo components. Scale aside, the design problem is very similar. Discipline, order and vertical alignment between components are important themes to consider in such a system design. After the design was finished, I couldn’t help but notice the striking similarity of the ThinkPad Stack to the austere Braun Atelier stereo system. Designed by Dieter Rams in the early 1980’s, it is still one of my favorite stereo designs. I came very close to buying one when I lived in Kansas. It’s a true design classic.

G.I. John and “Dieter” strike an artsy pose beside the ThinkPad Stack

I couldn’t resist celebrating the comparison in an entertaining way. In my photo parody I added an original Braun Atelier brochure, a mocked up cylindrical stand, wooden bendy “Dieter Rams” mannequin, and a John Swansey “Action Figure”. Around the studio it’s usually referred to as G.I. John. I art directed the creation of the action figure to commemorate John’s 30th service anniversary with IBM/Lenovo. I’ve heard through reliable sources that John keeps it in a glass bell jar on his fireplace mantel. You can’t be too careful with such treasures.

The final ThinkPad Stack consists of 4 unique modules that can be mixed and matched according to people's needs. The current Stack modules are: Dual Port USB Power Bank, Bluetooth Speaker, WiFi Access Point, and a 1TB hard disk drive. I think the design turned out great and the product concept really makes sense for those who carry a ThinkPad. I would love to get feedback on any other modules we should consider developing. We might already be working on some :)

David Hill