Sapper And Skylight: Designing Lenovo's Smartbook

David Hill is the VP of Lenovo brand management and design and was also instrumental in the design of the original ThinkPad. Here, he shares the creative process in designing Lenovo's Skylight, a smartbook which wowed us at CES.

Back in November of 2008, I first learned of the Lenovo super secret project that would eventually become the Skylight smartbook . It sounded fascinating to me that we would attempt to create an entirely new offering category in the computer space. I could only imagine a device that would behave similar to a smartphone, but be of a size and scale that would make it more suitable for viewing or typing data. The design goal was also to create something that would turn heads. It could not look like just another miniature notebook computer.

I thought it would be a great project to get Richard Sapper, our long time design guru, involved with. After all, Richard has specialised in turning the ordinary into the extraordinary for decades. I've seen him do it over and over again with things as seemingly mundane as a desk lamp, cheese grater, tea kettle, kitchen timer, transistor radio, television set, and of course our own ThinkPad classic. When I first proposed the idea to the executive team I was asked by several if Sapper had ever designed a consumer product. Not such a surprising question if your view to Sapper and his work has been through the restricted lens of business computers, but I knew better. I quickly made a Powerpoint slide show of Sapper's work, to make it clear what he was capable of. It worked. Everyone was intrigued enough to brief him on the project immediately.

Sapper and team discussing design details

On November 12th of 2008, Sapper was in town for a design work session where we took the opportunity to brief him on the super secret project. Sorry I can't share the code name with you. He had many questions about user scenarios, screen sizes, technologies and other such design-related details. Sapper was clearly interested in breaking the mould with us. His enthusiasm dimmed, however, when he was informed of the deadline for completing the design concept. The design had to be locked before the Christmas holiday in order to maintain the very aggressive schedule. I think the words Sapper used were "you must be joking, I need time to design such a thing". The worst part was that it had not been formally decided if Sapper would be retained to create the design. That wouldn't happen for yet another two weeks at the next Lenovo senior leadership meeting. The timeline issue would only become worse if he had to wait two additional weeks before he had the approval to start working.

The meeting adjourned as promises were passed around the room to speed the process and get more technical details. Of course, Sapper was asked to hang in there with Lenovo and wait for the next decision point. It was later in the day that Sapper, with a gleam in his eye, proposed to me that he would begin designing it immediately, on speculation that he might be retained to do so. For Sapper, there was no time to waste for the final Lenovo decision. How could anyone argue with that? If Lenovo liked his idea, we would compensate him for the work. If they didn't like it, nothing was lost for Lenovo. The risk was all on Richard's back. He was confident that he could create something revolutionary, and was willing to bet his own time and expense on doing it. The Sapper plan was quickly agreed to by Lenovo. Now it was up to Richard to deliver his idea by December 18.

Richard flew to New York City late that evening. The following morning he would travel to Gloucester Massachusetts to visit with close friends. Immediately after the Gloucester visit, he was off to Los Angeles to be with his wife and son for Thanksgiving. How would he ever design anything if he was in hotel rooms, friend's houses, carving turkeys and riding aeroplanes? Designers need tools and time to create design. Sapper clearly understood the dilemma he was faced with. The next day he called me from New York City to describe the sleepless night he had endured as he imagined the design solution. His news was that he had been "kissed by Aphrodite" the night before. For Sapper, that means having the genesis of an idea. How poetic. He had spent the night drawing simple sketches in the hotel to refine his initial idea. He later described the concept verbally as a very thin and sculpted flowing form but not a "glob of pudding". It had direction and clarity. He also talked about an articulated "stick" that would swing into view for various functions such as storage or a possible telephone handset. For me, that was the icing on the cake. Now all Richard needed was a model to validate his idea in three dimensions. Tall order if you are not in your normal work environment.

The infamous "hotel sketch" that defined Skylight

Two days later, I received yet another call from Richard. Now he was in Los Angeles. There was very little chit chat, he went straight to work. "Do you know what I have in my hand?" he questioned. I really had no idea how to respond to that one. "A model!" he declared, instantly answering his own question. How could that be possible I thought? He must have just arrived in California. He told me of being at a cocktail party while in Gloucester, where he mentioned to a friend that he was working on a secret design project. He described how interesting the project was, but that he was frustrated by not being able to get a model built of the idea he had conceived the night before. He was in desperate need of a model. What followed is one of the most incredible strokes of luck ever. His friend suggested that he discuss his need with one of the guests at the party who amazingly enough makes violins and other such instruments. It was reported that he had an elaborate woodworking shop and the skills to match. Surely he could make such a model. After a brief introduction, Richard met him at his shop the next day where he masterfully directed the shaping of a raw block of olive wood into what would become the first model of Skylight.

Stradivarius would be envious

Using the kitchen table at his son's house and old-school drawing tools, Sapper then created a series of cross sections that were sent back to his studio assistant in Milan. His goal was to create computer generated 3D data and a highly accurate stereo lithography model for his immediate review when he returned to his studio. His plan worked. Once in Milan, he made several revisions to the form and interior leaving just enough time to create a more detailed model for the final review that was now scheduled for December 19. There was little margin for error.

Early interior study model showing placeholder keyboard and speaker location

On December 15th, Sapper again called to say that the model would be finished as promised but that he had no idea how to get it to Raleigh in time for the meeting. There was even some concern expressed about having adequate time for the paint to cure. More on that later. We immediately exercised all various options to get the model from Milan to the meeting but none were very promising. The final solution was to send Robert Enochs to Milan on the 18th to hand carry it back the following morning. Robert, who actually wrote the original marketing requirements document, eagerly agreed to the plan as though he had a choice. After landing in Malpensa, Robert took a taxi to his hotel in Milan, freshened up, and then headed to Sapper's studio a few blocks away. Richard met him on the street in front of his studio, where he suggested they head to La Torre di Pisa for a nice Risotto dinner before visiting the model maker's shop. It was nearly 9pm Milan time.

Once at the model shop Robert saw the models, yes there were two, one a beautiful shade of red and the other black. Black was eventually replaced by a nice rich blue. We had enough black computers. Enochs was immediately impressed by how unique the design appeared and equally by how sticky the paint was. It seems there was a paint compatibility issue that never allowed the paint to fully dry. Sapper's normal painter was already out on holiday. Richard had to scramble to find someone to paint the model. He ended up hiring a rather inexperienced painter that he had never used before. I seem to recall that Richard even had to buy him the paint gun at a local hardware store. I guess that should have been a warning sign. The models were placed into a clever box of Sapper's design and Robert headed back to the hotel for a few hours of sleep before catching the morning flight to the states. I called Robert when he returned to the hotel to get his impression of what he saw. He was at a loss for words but groggily described it as "well…VERY unique". It was well after midnight when Robert called it a day.

Sapper designed the box for the trip home

On Friday evening in Raleigh the executive team anxiously awaited the arrival of Robert Enochs and the model. His plane was about an hour late due to weather issues and people were getting rather anxious. Once Robert landed, he called us on his cell phone to give us a turn by turn status of his continued progress towards Lenovo headquarters. At about 7.30pm his car was spotted from the design centre windows pulling into the parking lot. We were more than ready to see it. Sapper was standing by on the phone to discuss any of the details concerning his work. It was well past midnight Milan time. The cleverly designed Baltic birch box was carefully opened and the models were revealed. Immediately, the reaction was extremely positive, people loved what they saw. Sapper had delivered on the challenge beyond any of our expectations. The most immediate issue was how we were going to remove the bubble wrap texture that had now become impregnated into the forever-sticky paint. The finish looked a lot like a well worn alligator. It was pretty clear that the only alternative was to photograph the models and remove the alligator pattern in Photoshop. Since this all had to take place before Monday we needed a photographer and Photoshop expert the next morning. Not easy to get that done unless your son is a photographer home for the weekend. Who else do you call at midnight to do a photo shoot the next morning? He was more than willing to help and did an expert job of saving the paint disaster. Thanks Eric.

Worn alligator texture or just bad paint?

Photo of the concept models after extensive retouching by my son Eric</em

Final design is extraordinarily close to the original vision

There was far more to do following this pivotal meeting, but the most important hurdle had been crossed. We had a really marvellous design concept. We still needed to design a keyboard, make everything fit in the envelope, move the speakers around, finalise the touchpad, meet all the schedule commitments, and of course, design a totally new user interface. It makes me dizzy just thinking about it. For me, it's incredible to see the real thing and compare it to the original Sapper concept model. I'm not sure anything we have ever made has ended up this true to the original idea. In the end, this was a great achievement for all of Lenovo. We had a fantastic team of people from Beijing, Raleigh, Yamato, and of course Milan. I think we truly delivered on the promise of our corporate tagline… New World. New Thinking.

- Originally appeared on Design Matters, at Lenovo Blogs

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