The Future of Laptops: HP, Lenovo, Samsung, and Toshiba Sound Off

What will tomorrow's laptops be like? How will they look and feel? What will they borrow from tablets? There’s no better people to answer these questions than the ones who are creating the designs themselves. From HP and Lenovo to Samsung and Toshiba, we tapped some of the brightest minds in the business to find out what inspires them—and what's on the horizon.


The Designer
Stacy Wolff, director of notebook design

Wolff joined HP in 1995 as the director of design for Compaq’s consumer products group. As director of notebook design for HP, he’s responsible for industrial design, packaging, human factors, and end-user documentation.

Where do you draw your inspiration?

Well it’s not just me, it’s the larger team. We have our offices here in Houston, which is headquarters for notebooks, but we also have Taipei and Shanghai, which is allowing us to have both a global reach as well as technically being much more advanced than we’ve ever been in the past.

The HP Imprint design came from seeing different things that were happening in the arts and crafts movement at the Milan furniture fair. We saw all these interlay materials on patterns and said maybe we could do that on the notebook.

What was the thinking behind the Pavilion dm1?

One trend that we’ve seen in the last year, looking at different boards and consultancies, is the mixture of materials, and seeking a balance between the extremes. Where you see all these metal surfaces, you also see people seek a surface that is non-metal. What you’ll see in the new Pavilion dm1 is the mixture of materials, the desire for both physical and visual texture. We’re printing rubber. We’re able to do a printed, soft skin which is unique to the industry—a satin-looking product with a pattern on it. It’s grippable, and I can sink my fingers into it.

How are tablets influencing HP’s notebook design?

The mini made us realize “I can free myself of my home and take it to the café.” The tablet, which is a bit lighter and a bit easier to take with you, has gone further. I think you’re going to see that play into the notebook space.

We’re starting to see gesture-based controls, as on the touchpads. If you look at our new business line, EliteBooks, you saw a huge change in how we interact with that product. You’re seeing large touch surfaces and glass. Why? People are starting to use the Internet in a more gestural way than a more methodical mouse-point-click way.

What makes an HP notebook an HP notebook?

We don’t have a bunch of Ferraris in the garage. We have a few Toyotas and a few Lexuses, so there’s a pragmatic approach to our segments. From a design standpoint, it’s quite challenging. How do I get my products to behave, act, interact in a similar fashion but still address their unique audiences?

Materials are very important as you talk about premium products. If you got into a Bentley and it didn’t have some wood trim, some nice metalwork, and the smell of leather, you’d say, “Why did I pay a quarter of a million dollars for a vehicle like this?” On the opposite side, if you have those materials in a Taurus, you’d say “Who’s fooling me?” We had to give ourselves a spectrum of how we approached it, then apply it appropriately.

How does your design approach change from one model line to the next?

If you look at the keyboards or the touchpad, we wanted to have consistency of that feel. If you type on any dm keyboard, you get the same exact key shape. What you’ll find in the Envy might be backlit or in the dm it might not be, but what you get is the same quality of the feature set.

We have an Envy language and a mini language, but the cohesive lines or threads—when you look at the portfolio, from $300 to $1,300, you see the broader spectrum of design. Volkswagen, Audi, and Porsche don’t look alike, but there’s a DNA and a feel that you expect because you’re buying from that auto manufacturer.


The Designer
David Hill, vice president, Lenovo corporate identity and design

Hill spent more than 20 years at IBM, helping to create the company’s overall design identity. He joined Lenovo in 2005, overseeing the design of everything from servers to the ThinkPad line of notebooks. He has received 12 IDEA awards for his work, and the Design of the Decade honor for ThinkPad.

How do you balance aesthetics with functionality?

We were developing a new touchpad for the ThinkPad T400s that needed to be flush with the palm rest. And we couldn’t afford to recess it because we were looking for every fraction of a millimeter to make the product thinner. It just so happened that I was in Japan at the time. While walking to the subway, I looked down, and here are these Tenji blocks. They’re blocks embedded in the street to help people with sight issues navigate the streets of Tokyo. When you come to an intersection, you know to stop. And I look down and here are these blocks, little yellow dots, and I thought, well, there’s a solution right there.

This texture was created so you could sense a boundary without looking at it, and they also give you a little traction and a sense that you’re doing something. Who would have thought that this texture was inspired by Tenji blocks?

Why are keyboards so important to Lenovo?

With this race to be thinner, I think there also comes a challenge to preserve the superior user experience. I believe a lot of people will take the easy way and they’ll make the keypad like the one on your microwave oven. That’s not what we’re about. It’s as important as the design of the steering wheel of your car.

With the X1, we went to an island-style keyboard, which had only been on Edge and IdeaPads, but we felt there was a good rationale to move in that direction, to move to a modernized impression. But we also had user design expertise to ensure that the typing experience felt the same. How can we modernize the impression of the keyboard, simplify it, use backlighting, and do all those kinds of things but also maintain the classic ThinkPad typing experience?

What other design features make a Lenovo a Lenovo?

One tenet is simplicity. I think that’s true of a lot of the design work we’re doing in the laptop space now: trying to move the design needle to a simpler impression. I think it’s more appropriate, more modern—actually the roots of where ThinkPad came from—and I think people have a strong desire for it. I don’t think consumers want complex-looking things. People are looking for simplification. If our design can suggest that or reinforce that, I think that’s good.

Sometimes, we can go too far. As a design team, we were trying to figure out ways to further simplify the impression of the ThinkPad design. The stripes on the [trackpoint] buttons were originally designed to create connectivity between those buttons and the trackpoint. Over time we thought, well, maybe it’s worn out the utility. So, on the T61, we took off the stripes. We got a very negative reaction and we put them back. I think there’s a great lesson for designers—that we listened to this feedback.

How does durability play into your design philosophy?

When you buy a Lenovo product, you’re buying something that’s been torture tested. People carry these things with them all over the place, and we don’t know what environment they’re going to be in, what bag they’re going to be accidentally dropped out of. When you buy a Lenovo product, we want you to know that no matter what you’ve done to it—within reason—it still works when you get there.


The Designer
Byungyoung Song, principal designer 

After majoring in industrial design at the Hongik University, Mr. Song joined Samsung Electronics in 1995. Currently overlooking the design group within the IT solutions business as the principal designer for computers and printers, Mr. Song created the basis of next generation designs for IT products within Samsung (IT products such as monitors, desktop PCs, printers, notebook PCs and others).

What makes a Samsung notebook unique?

Samsung’s PC design lives up to a single company standard, the acronym S.T.A.R.: Simple, Thoughtful, Authentic and Remarkable. Samsung’s mobile PC identity is established and reinforced as we express these core values in the products we create for consumers and the enterprise.

What are the biggest trends in design heading into 2012?

It’s about how we deliver an experience a user values most by leveraging colors and materials. As an example, our Series 9 (pictured below) is made with duralumin, which has a complex manufacturing process. We used rigid and strong material to build a product that is reliable, trustworthy, ultra-slim, and light to benefit our customers.

In terms of colors, we’ve seen a trend toward white and natural tones. Color incorporates the personality and preference of the user, so at Samsung we vary the options based on the product and the customer.

How are other types of mobile devices changing the way you think about design?

The growth of the tablet market inspires PCs to be even more mobile, have longer battery life, and have in-use applications and interfaces that seamlessly integrate with our consumers’ lifestyles. In turn, these advances in mobile PC design further inspire the development of new tablet devices . . . We watch the introduction of new mobile products very carefully as their continued innovation consistently makes us rethink what we once thought to be a “PC product.”

The proliferation of the tablet market doesn’t stop inspiring PCs by simply making lighter, smaller and slimmer devices, but rather inspires us to expand to new applications and unseen PC formats, like the Series 5 Chromebook. From a designer’s point of view, this evolutionary period is a very exciting time.


The Designer
Duc Dang, senior manager, marketing, product development

For the past 11 years, Duc Dang has been responsible for product development and marketing for consumer and business laptop, desktop, and tablet hardware as well as the development of value-added software solutions for products sold in the U.S., Mexico, and Latin, Central, and South America.

How is design like fashion?

We have a group of designers within Toshiba Corporation who follow the trends, whether it be colors or new materials or anything that’s out there. We want to make sure that we bring in some of that influence from the outside—the clothes that you wear, the car that you drive, the watch that you wear.

If you really look at it, the patterns we put in there were inspired by dresses, the patterns on dresses, or lampshades. When you look at these things, these little patterns that really pop out, it has more of a three-dimensional flair than [just] a flat two-dimensional surface. So again it goes back to our design philosophy, we want to make sure it pops a little bit and it’s not your boring no-texture laptop.

What colors are going to be hot?

We’re looking at colors, which really bring out emotions to drive the purchase or drive decision-making. Colors such as orange and red, whether they’re the laptop itself or some accent, they bring out this feeling of excitement, feeling of more energy. Orange being vibrant like the sun, red being fiery, you get people’s emotions up. We understand that from sort of a philosophical standpoint, a lot more than designing a computer, we’re designing an experience for someone.

How does Toshiba’s design language change as it moves from line to line?

The Portégé lineup is more of a thinner, light line integrating leading-edge technology to make the world’s thinnest, lightest PC form factor. For example, in our latest 800 series, we use magnesium to get the form factor as thin and light as possible and with the best ability to disperse the heat throughout the laptop.

With the Satellite (pictured right), we’ve used things like IMR technology [a technique in which Toshiba puts a coated film on the plastic] which enables you to get somewhat thinner and lighter and at the same time not compromise the overall aesthetics. It also gives us the ability to apply different colors and textures, providing a lot more choice.

Do your tablets take any design cues from your notebooks?

Being able to understand what customers are doing at a consumption level allowed us to kind of take some of our philosophies and craftsmanship from laptops and put it into our tablet. Still, we realized that this is not just a new product category but rather a new challenge to design something thinner and lighter and much more portable.

If you’re carrying the Thrive around, you want to have people look at it, so we made it more of a personal device with a multicolored back. At the same time, we understand that this product is a lot more mobile than a laptop. This thing’s going to be carried around, so let’s make it non-slippery. We put a back cover on the tablet that allows you to grip it better and put some patterns on it, so that it’s not like everything else out there.

LAPTOP Reviews Editor