Richard Sapper & The Origins of The ThinkPad Keyboard

Birdseye view of the Bento box inspired design

Few people have ever seen the “vintage” design model created by Richard Sapper that served as the inspiration for what would become ThinkPad. The concept was imagined outside of the development community within IBM. It was born within the design group to invigorate IBM design. You should not be surprised to learn that it was a nearly perfect “box” shape with proportions and original measures very similar to a Japanese Bento box. Sapper himself has often drawn that comparison when he references ThinkPad’s origin, and the reference is well known within industry and design circles. I just read an article that once again made that connection. You can read it here.

The design is still as striking today as it was in the early 1990s

The intentionally “boxy” all-black concept amazingly pre-dates the invention of the TrackPoint and the introduction of color displays. For me, it’s hard to even remember a time before these two innovations occurred. Included in the design is an innovative hinge geometry, which at the time was code named the “half moon.” One look at it and you know why. It still looks cool today. All of this is of interest, but there was more to the design than just a simple black box with a unique hinge.

The half moon hinge telegraphs how it opens.

Remember blue eject buttons?

What I would like to call attention to in this blog is something embodied in Sapper’s work that never quite made it to market on the original ThinkPad 700c. Richard imagined a new key shape that would have a unique contour and profile. He described it as a “D” shape. The intent was to cradle the finger and create a human-oriented soft form that would contrast the strict rectilinear geometry of ThinkPad. Design which is overly predictable is never as interesting as design with an element of surprise. Sapper is a master of this approach and he showed it here.

The “D” shaped keys, imagined by Sapper, invite you to type

The latest ThinkPad keyboard we introduced on products such as the X1 Carbon actually has a key shape reminiscent of this 20+-year-old concept. I made a push to simplify and purify the visual expression of ThinkPad, and I thought the time was right to finally dust off the "D"-shaped key. It took months of hard work, experimentation and analysis to develop and tune the final key shape and relevant force curves. I feel confident that we finally harnessed Sapper's original intent for our latest ThinkPad designs. The impact to the overall visual impression of ThinkPad is significant and the typing experience only benefits from this. I know many of you have your own clear opinions on the latest ThinkPad keyboard--I've certainly read the comments, both good and bad. By writing this post, I wanted to let you all know where the idea came from and what I think about the change. As always, we will continue to evolve and seek feedback to improve ThinkPad and we appreciate the part you play in the process.

David Hill