Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Part 6 of Who are you designing for? Or, thoughts on the Lenovo Thinkpad X1 Carbon. Or, trying to buy some more happiness.

Here is what each elevator lobby looks like in the new San Francisco Federal Building:

Pretty awesome, right?  However, it turns out that there's a reason most elevator lobbies are not five elevators wide.  That's because when the elevator comes at the far side of the lobby, the doors will be closing by the time you walk over to it.  You can try to figure out where to stand based on which elevator may come next, but only the ground floor has indicators.  And those are illegible because of the fancy lighting:

Thanks, award-winning architect Thom Mayne.  Like most fancy architects, he seems to most concerned with how things look.  And to be fair, I do feel a nice boost walking around in such a pretty building.

Of course, not all parts of the building are pretty.  The measure of an architect, I think, is how they do with the less glamorous parts of a building.  Like bathrooms and staircases.  I'll spare you the bathrooms and just show you the stairs:

What does that have to do with the X1 Carbon laptop?  My thesis is that designers of luxury consumer electronics tend to fail in the same way that architects do, in the actual human usability of their designs as compared to their visual impact.
... some say that "it's not a copy of the MacBook Air at all". However, you mentioned that "you cannot say that the design wasn't influenced by the MacBook Air". Could you elaborate on this?
Hirano: Our CEO's request was to "beat the MacBook Air". For this reason, I did a lot of research on the MacBook Air.
To be honest, I have a high regard for the current 2nd generation MacBook Air. It's a great product. ... What I learned from looking at the MacBook Air was not little. ... However, after more designing and internal reviewing was held, I received a request for it be "more like a ThinkPad and have a design geared towards businesses". In the back of my mind, I was happy because I didn't want to just make copy of the MacBook Air.
So then, the final design was born with my idea of "what a ThinkPad should be like".
What a ThinkPad should be like is, in my opinion, it should be like something that works well for its purpose, which is computing.  Function over form.  And form is not nothing, so it should also follow ThinkPad form, which is black and square.

Not to Hiroki Hirano, lead designer of the X1 Carbon.
What exactly was the design concept of the X1 Carbon?
Hirano: It's hard to put in a nutshell. I'm not confident I can put it in words because a lot of my designs are created naturally based on the feature/functions and those kinds of things aren't put in words usually.
I guess if I had to say, the concept would be something like a "well-tailored, slim-cut, airy and sexy business suit". ...
The basic concept of the ThinkPad has not changed for 20 years. A lot of people call it the "Black Bento Box". Among designers, we like to think more out of the box and look at it with its "ThinkPad DNA". With such, it doesn't have to be black, have sharp edges or have a rock-solid like body.
If ThinkPad DNA doesn't have to include black, square, solid, or usable, then what exactly is left?
The concept of the X300 was as its code "Kodachi" implies, "a sharp cutting sleek sword". The X1 Carbon does not have a single concept but the major idea behind it is to be a "well-cut pair of chopsticks".
A "well-cut pair of chopsticks" is easy to hold and made to not slip with a polygonal shape.

Steve Jobs' design DNA seems to be "consumer electronics as mass market luxury art object."  The front edge of the keyboard perfectly symbolizes the difference between Apple DNA and IBM ThinkPad DNA. When I put my hands on a MacBook, I was instantly uncomfortable because the edge is actually sharp and dug into the palms of my hands:


Steve Jobs seemed to have a recurring contempt for the flesh, his own and everyone else's.

In very stark contrast, this is the front edge of a typical ThinkPad keyboard; here, an X200s.  Not nearly as shiny or pretty.  But very usable.

At least, it was, until Hirano decided that chopsticks and knives were good models for ThinkPad designs, and then literally (look at the chopsticks picture above.  Literally) forgot which end of the chopstick or knife one is supposed to hold.  Here's the edge of the ThinkPad X1 Carbon:

Thanks, Steve.  Lenovo stole the most user-hostile parts of your design.  You must be very happy.  The hole at the edge of the older ThinkPad keyboard, by the way, is a drain, because the whole keyboard tray is designed to contain spills, keep them out of the electronics, and direct them out the drains.  In Steve-world, only fallible humans would ever spill liquid on their keyboards.

So.  In summary, I love the X1C3.  In many ways it's the best laptop I've ever had.  Once Linux support catches up to the boneheaded fixes to the boneheaded design errors, it will be even better.  But to get there, we had a nice long detour through the hubris of a few industrial designers, or their bosses, or both.

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