Tapping into ThinkStation Design

Power personified

Designing a workstation can be a seemingly daunting task; it’s full of technical constraints and functional complexities that most designers find less than glamorous. Due to the tooling investment required, the design platform also has to be designed to last for as long as 5 years. It’s a far cry from designing the fall fashion collection for the next “runway” in Milan. It’s about expressing and enhancing functionality through inspired design for a very specific and demanding audience. To develop such a targeted design takes strong understanding of their wants and needs, a robust technical knowledge of how high performance computers work and a creative spirit that can turn requirements into meaningful design. The people who buy workstations are the same kind of people who appreciate the functional ethos and aesthetic of a full bore military issue Humvee! They are not fooled by the superficial.

I personally have always found this type of design not only very challenging, but also rewarding. I enjoy solving technical problems and have always liked to analyze and create the design of utilitarian objects. During my career I’ve designed underground trenching equipment, industrial lawn mowers, camping gear and computers that have all celebrated functionality. As with any design project, you have to start somewhere. Knowing the customer is certainly crucial, but you ultimately have to synthesize a lot of information into design specifics. What I’ve learned over the years is that distilling the design problem into areas of focus makes the job easier. Focus areas also serve as litmus tests for measuring success along the way.

Our preliminary design research included customer visits, in depth interviews, competitive analysis, and gathering relevant inspirational design imagery. Once we were armed with information, we brainstormed to develop primary focus areas within which to design. Each area was then rigorously studied, and iteratively developed in order to create the final design solution. Here are the three themes we concentrated on:

Drive a dramatic visual impression of power
Overtly reinforce durability and convenience
Create a best of breed “under the hood” serviceability experience

For each of these themes we selected a series of inspirational images to drive the ideas home with designers. Images of military vehicles, jet engine intakes, photography power packs, jerry cans, well organized engine compartments, and even a beer keg filled our heads. I’ll go into more detail about the beer later.

Drive a dramatic visual impression

Don’t get too close, you might get sucked in!

My goal was to have people immediately sense a feeling of power when in the presence of a ThinkStation. For a high performance computer, cooling the “beast” is of tremendous significance. The design had to maximize airflow to be technically successful. The inspirational image that kept popping into my head was that of a high performance automobile grill. My favorite grills are often those with deeply inset hole patterns upon which the brand logo appears to float. The depth of inset is important because it instantly suggests that a massive volume of air passes through the intake. We were able to create the same aesthetic impression with an expansive hexagonally perforated plate framed by a thin border. The floating logo adds visual interest and makes the brand even more significant.

This design concept also renounces the traditional bezel-box paradigm that I have “enjoyed” for decades. Bezels are a bit like designing a façade for a strip mall. The designer is engaged to try to give the shopper an impression of architectural significance, but iff you drive around to the back side of the building, the illusion is destroyed. Uniquely, the overall form of the ThinkStation appears as a continuous tube that draws air in from the front and exhausts it from the back. The ThinkStation logotype floats on the field of efficient hexagonal perforations along with the external drive bays, and control panel in a rectangular block. We aptly nicknamed this feature the “island”. It’s funny perhaps, but we almost always give certain designs or characteristics a nickname.

Overtly reinforce durability and convenience

The design connection couldn’t be more obvious

One of the things I like about utilitarian design is the opportunity it presents to be highly deliberate and broadcast durability. There is no need to be timid in this design domain. The grab handles to climb into the cab of an earthmoving machine are certainly not delicate or hidden, A military watch has a face with bold numerals and control stems that can be operated with gloves, if need be. The inspirational image that really resonated with me, during the design process, was a beer keg. Not for the reasons you might think; it wasn’t about the contents, it was about the container. Beer kegs are designed to be rolled, lifted and bashed about without damaging the precious contents. The kegs neck is cleverly protected from damage thanks to a tall surrounding wall with integrated grab handles. The party is over if the contents are lost. The parallel to a high performance computer is astonishing. Computers are often moved around, especially workstations, and the last thing you want to lose is your data.

Create a best of breed “under the hood” serviceability experience

What’s under the hood matters

The new ThinkStation design is a poster child for beauty that is more than skin deep. My design team rolled up their sleeves and worked in a highly collaborative manner with mechanical designers, manufacturing, marketing, and others to create a machine from the inside out. When I open the hood of an exotic car I can’t help but be mesmerized by the attention to detail. Design innovation doesn’t stop at the coach work. Nothing has been left to chance. Clarity of purpose, organization, drama, and power are themes that repeat themselves over and over again. Ferrari may actually own this idea in the world of motor cars with their glass engine cover first introduced on the 360 Modena. We went far deeper than the often used superficial approach of tacking on a decorative shield to hide the quagmire of electronics and cables. We designed everything.

Early foam core models were extremely valuable in solving 3D design problems

To develop the interior design we built a series of full size foam core models with working mechanical details. This allowed us to simulate the service experience directly. You can’t put your hand inside an on-screen 3D CAD model, at least not yet. The design was tweaked and tuned over and over again until we got things right.

You can leave the tool belt at home when you dive into the “engine compartment” of a ThinkStation. Red touch points act as visual cues leading you to a collection of levers and cams for removing core components. We even helped design the air plenum that proudly displays the ThinkStation logo. The end result is that the entire machine can be torn down in just a few minutes. I wish my car had component modularity and a tool less design this well thought through. Unfortunately, it stops short at a snap-off air cleaner cover and a red dipstick.

There’s nothing like a little animation to tell the story

I’m very proud of what Lenovo and my team have done with the new ThinkStation design. It breaks new ground in the world of computer design and should certainly shake things up in the high performance workstation market. Getting started is always a challenge for designers, but I think with the right goals in place, it makes hitting the target a lot easier. Cheers to all those involved!

David Hill