The Creative Mind Behind the Machines

As vice president of the Lenovo™ Experience Design Group, Brian Leonard leads design for all Lenovo PCs and Smart Devices. With more than 20 years of experience in technology design, Brian has been witness to the dramatic evolution in consumer design. We sat down with Brian to pick his brain on the design behind the latest IdeaPad™ series.

Brian Leonard, vice president of the Lenovo Experience Design Group, pictured here with the latest IdeaPad laptop family

Can you share a bit about your background in design and how you arrived at this particular station in your professional career.

Brian:  I grew up in an IBM family, so technology has always had an impact on my life. This coupled with my love of design and creating things, I was drawn to personal technology and the many ways it was incorporating itself into our lives. It’s a happy coincidence that my career paralleled the rapid changes in workplace and personal computing, not to mention the explosive growth in other digital devices like 2-in-1s and smart devices.  There’s never a dull moment in my profession.

Speaking of career, can you give us a snapshot into how you ended up at Lenovo heading up consumer design?

Brian:  I spent nearly a decade working in design with IBM’s personal computer business and it was during the latter stage of that period that Lenovo purchased the business. In between then and now, I spent some time working with another PC company, but ultimately felt compelled to return to Lenovo because of Lenovo’s breadth of products and focus on understanding the customer and developing solutions to address their needs, desires and pain points.

Has there been a particular highlight of your career – a time where you were especially proud of your work?

Brian:  Everyday is a new highlight in my career and I am proud to lead a fantastic group of designers into creating the future experiences for our customers. My real pleasure comes as much from the design journey as the final result. The journey is about exploration, innovation and creation and we never know where it may lead. Often times we end up with very different solutions than we anticipate. There’s something super satisfying about building our knowledge of the customer, usage behaviors and global happenings to fuel our design thinking along this journey. It’s about getting to know what your customer wants, or didn’t even know they needed, and successfully synthesizing the solution to be a genuinely rewarding one for the end user.

During the journey, we craft the design story about our learnings, insights, developments and influences on the final experience. Our goal is to tell a story so compelling it sells the product itself.

What do you mean by design story?

Brian:  Every design has a story behind it and part of the designer’s job is to balance all of the information, requirements and ingredients to meet, exceed and predict customer desires. So the story is equal parts of what we learn from our customers, what we observe in consumer trends, what we know about future innovations, and how we combined all of those elements into the product you see before you. 

The Lenovo design team brainstorming new IdeaPad designs

Domestication of Technology

With that in mind, can you tell us more about the latest IdeaPad design story?

Brian:  We had many goals when we started the design journey but we were highly influenced by changes in technology that are making solutions more humanized. Technology has become such part of our lives and is all around us, in our pocket, bags, cars, homes and walls. We call this the “domestication of technology” and it’s about creating experiences that integrate into our lives seamlessly.

For the latest IdeaPad series we saw this as an opportunity to create simpler more modern designs, thinner display optimized form factors and enhance appeal through beautiful colors, materials and finishes.

Now we’re deeper into the “design domestication” of the PC?

Brian:  Exactly. Today’s consumers want personal computing devices that seamlessly fit into their lives –at home, at work, on the road, in the coffee shop, wherever. They want all the benefits of a personalized computing– performance, mobility, audio, visual, and so on – but the design must meld perfectly with all the other design considerations of their lives.

So today’s consumers no longer care if people notice their PCs?

Brian:  Many do initially, but the bragging rights of today’s PC owner, if you will, come from the sophisticated subtleties in the PC’s design: the cleaner lines, the warmer materials, the way these devices can blend so effortlessly with their lifestyle. 

Trio of 15-inch IdeaPad 520 in premium metallic Gold, Iron Grey and Bronze color options1

Evolution of the IdeaPad Design

Can you take us through the design process of the latest IdeaPad laptops?

Brian:  As I mentioned before, Lenovo has a strong tradition of going out of its way to ask consumers what they want, what appeals to them – and not just when it comes to personal technology. Part of our job is getting a sense of what appeals functionally and aesthetically to people today and projecting what will be relevant in the future. So we’re in tune with the latest in the design world, but also get a real pulse of what users want and need.

We convened a workshop of our global design team with marketing, sales, product, user and customer experience experts. This global approach is extremely important because technology is continually shrinking our world. This means consumers in Europe are influencing tastes in Asia, Asian consumers are adding their unique flair to products, which in turn influences tastes in the Americas, and so on. Today we are designing for a global consumer – part of that evolutionary path.

Lenovo’s global teams put their heads together to come up with the latest IdeaPad designs

At the same time, it’s important that we recognize truisms that are consistent across cultures, genders, and ages. For example, whether you’re in St. Petersburg, Russia, or St. Petersburg, Florida, we’ve found that users tend to want thinner and lighter devices. The key, for us, was to respect these global differences and similarities and incorporate them into our designs.

Can you provide some examples of these design changes?

Brian:  The first thing customers will notice even before they touch or hold any of the IdeaPads, is a thinner profile – especially in the S or “slim” series. We pursued a clean, minimalist approach, which is why you’ll also see clean lines that remove the visual complexities that too often accompany computer designs.

We also included a lot of subtle but significant updates, including an angled front edge to make it easier for users to open the lid, and a rounded back end for easier lifting and carrying. The bezels have been narrowed to optimize form factor around the display, creating a great visual experience. 

I’m especially happy with the more sophisticated color palette, which give our customers a lot more choice. Some will prefer warm, organic hues like Mineral Grey, Platinum Silver, Copper or Bronze; while others will want something a bit more vibrant, like Plum Purple, Denim Blue or Coral Red. What’s important here is our customers told us they wanted machines that would fit comfortably in their lifestyle – and that’s exactly what we delivered.

The aesthetics also carry over into the materials and finishes; precise aluminum bodies and soft, yet durable finishes that give the machines a great touch and feel matched with durability and toughness. And when you open the lids, you’ll find an ample-sized Microsoft® Precision Touchpad™ and a great keyboard, developed with learnings from our ThinkPad products, with plenty of travel for a smooth typing experience. 

Early concept rendering of the IdeaPad laptop design and color palette

What other inspirations did you and your teams depend on for the IdeaPad redesign?

Brian:  We see consumers increasingly leaning toward real materials and simpler designs. But knowing something in the abstract is not the same as experiencing it. So we spent time studying things like popular automotive design, home furnishings and fashion trends.

What we found were consumers moving away from complexity, clutter, size. High performance is in, but without the traditional performance ques. So while the latest IdeaPad family has the power of up to the latest Intel® Core™ i processors, we didn’t overstate the performance with unnecessary design details. Consumers want modern, sleek and more refined profiles.

We also found that consumers wanted color options, but packaged in sophisticated hues, multiple tones and gradients, warmer and softer finishes.

So all of these helped to influence your IdeaPad design choices?

Brian:  Absolutely. What you’ll see across the entire IdeaPad series are subtle, sophisticated color palettes, often in unique, highly complementary tonal combinations. You’ll also notice cleaner, thinner lines contained within warmer materials and finishes (think bronze, copper, wood vs. plastic). Collectively, this approach communicates style, value, durability – and all in a product that will blend seamlessly into a home’s den, the office, or a local café.

In what ways, if any, did you set the more premium IdeaPads apart?

Brian:  One of Lenovo’s commitments has always been to create PCs that are dependable, with an outstanding value at any price point. So our challenge, as designers, was to ensure that every IdeaPad conveyed this commitment while still setting the more premium S series apart.

Aside from their significantly thinner profiles and, of course, the higher performance engines within, from a design perspective our goal was to further distinguish the premium machines through colors and material finishes.

In the IdeaPad 720S finish, for example, we moved from an engineered resin to an anodized aluminum body with precision manufacturing and detailing. And in the IdeaPad 320S, we developed a highly durable soft touch finish that feels great in the hand. 

IdeaPad 720S in Champagne Gold

Wrapping up, what are you most proud of with the latest IdeaPad lineup?

Brian:  I’m proud to be part of a truly global team who can effectively take consumer needs from around the world and incorporate them into six redesigned laptops. Each design is distinct in its own right yet offers consumers a variety of unique options.

We stayed true to Lenovo’s goal of building quality, valuable and beautiful laptops for anyone who wants one. Whether you’re opting for the top-of-the-line Ultra slim IdeaPad 720S or choosing the more traditional IdeaPad 320, you will feel real pride of ownership in your IdeaPad.

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