The Bento Box

I thought I’d introduce myself to the readers of Design Matters by discussing the original inspiration for the design of the ThinkPad -- the Bento-Bako (lunch box)

Bento Box from Wikipedia

In Japan we refer to any thin, square, and handy box as a Bento-Bako, and the color is nearly always black. If it is a "special" box, then it is referred to as a Makunouchi Bento which is a more suitable metaphor for the ThinkPad. Bento refers more specifically to the contents of the box. The WikiPedia defines Bento as:

"Bento(弁当 bentō) is a single-portion takeout meal common in Japanese cuisine. A traditional bento consists of rice, fish or meat, and one or more pickled or cookedvegetables as a side dish. Containers range from disposablemass produced to hand craftedlacquerware. While bento are readily available at convenience stores and bento shops (弁当屋 bentō-ya) throughout Japan, it is still considered an essential skill of a Japanese housewife to be able to prepare an appealing boxed lunch."

The ThinkPad concept was born out of a collaboration with Richard Sapper, and we believe a ‘black box’ is one of the most beautiful package concepts Richard has ever advanced from his studio. Richard "predicted" the design in 1969 with his famous television set -- the black ST201 manufactured by Brionvega.

Brionvega ST201

The concept of thin black box was, and continues to be perfect for a notebook PC and I am proud we've been able to keep the initial concept at the core of the ThinkPad's design from its introduction in the early '90s until today. Can you think of any product whose package concept hasn't changed in more than 20 years? While some very niche products may have remained constant; in our industry we change components and technologies almost twice a year, but the fundamental design concept at the heart of the ThinkPad has always remained the same.

When we started ThinkPad, IBM did not allow the use of black for its products' body color. Why? Because the DIN standard (DIN is the German Institute for Standardization) did not accept the color black for office products. We have to satisfy all the global requirements and we also had to adhere to a design guideline to keep consistency for all IBM products. The concept of global design standards such as DIN is great but for the designers in the Far East area, it was felt to be a strong limitation to archive new and innovative designs. The design guideline was supposed to dictate the design of "big" office equipment, not small portable devices. We designed several transportable products within IBM's design guidelines before the ThinkPad. They were okay, but not very attractive in my opinion, so for the products designed for personal use, we felt we needed a completely new concept. That concept became the ThinkPad.

The design essence of the ThinkPad was, and still is, a black box with a colorful logo plate, enough, in my opinion, for a distinctive exterior. If you open the screen you will always find the newest technology, the best usability, and even more rich design details in the box. We would like to keep this concept for a long time and haven't strayed from the concept in over twenty years.

I will finish with a piece of design trivia: you may think the red Trackpoint cap is one of the most recognizable design points for the ThinkPad but early ThinkPad’s offered black TrackCapsas an accessory. Maybe the Red TrackPoint was to flashy for us at that time. Today, we're all red.

Tomoyuki Takahashi