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ThinkPad: out of the (bento) box

/ 01:52 AM October 15, 2012

ARIMASA Naitoh, Father of the ThinkPad

YOKOHAMA, Japan—The ThinkPad design started out with the idea of a bento box, according to Tomoyuki Takahashi, design and user experience director under the development notebook business unit of Lenovo Japan. He was one of the original team members who worked on the design essence of the groundbreaking ThinkPad when the iconic computer was created under IBM.

The first ThinkPad was like a traditional lacquered bento box: a simple but elegant “black box” with many good things inside. Back then, it was all “cool logic and ergonomic comfort,” Takahashi said at a global briefing at Yamato Labs in Yokohama, Japan.

Twenty years hence, the ThinkPad team, which has transferred from IBM to Lenovo, has reconsidered some of the ThinkPad’s features in response to market trends without losing track of the core design identity.


It’s all about “protect and attack,” said Arimasa Naitoh, the widely acknowledged Father of the ThinkPad.

The brand has very loyal customer base that loves the boxy black design, which is all about business productivity.

Yet the ThinkPad team also refreshes the design now and then. These days, the boxy, black exterior is still the main design, but the creators emphasized the wedge shape to make the computer look thinner. There are also more curved surfaces, and designers have recently come up with smiley shaped keys as opposed to square keys to enlarge the “forgiveness zone” during typing without enlarging the keyboards.

Design evolution of ThinkPad from a presentation of Tomoyuki Takahashi

Even the central track point—the cat paw-inspired cursor controller that gives users quick cursor movements without lifting hands from the keyboard—has gone through changes. “Some clients love the ThinkPad because it is not designed as a consumer item but something to help them achieve success. So we keep a balance in mind,” he said.

For the fifth and latest generation of ThinkPads, the X1 Carbon demonstrates the latest “refresh” with a little nod to consumer tastes, said Naitoh. It is thin and ultra-lightweight with a strong carbon-fiber casing, but with slightly rounded edges and soft-touch coating that makes it a joy to hold and use.

“Our approach is to always do something new while keeping the core design identity intact,” Naitoh said. With more than 2,000 design awards under their belt, the ThinkPad team has indeed helped transform the way people use their PCs.

Lenovo, which bought the ThinkPad brand along with IBM’s PC business in 2005, is also thinking “out of the box,” so to speak, with the company’s so-called PC+ mantra. Tablets and smartphones based on the ThinkPad are being launched in strategic markets, said Keith Liu, business development director for mobile internet digital home of Lenovo APLA.

TAKAHASHI with fellow designers

In the Philippines, Lenovo Mobile also released Android phones to get a slice of the booming smartphone market. Despite the association of Lenovo with the ThinkPad and therefore the PC, Liu said, this can be viewed as an advantage because the ThinkPad is seen as a reliable brand.


Customers can look forward to more “game-changing” offerings from the ThinkPad side to the PC+ side, said Lenovo vice president for marketing (emerging markets) Howie Lau, as the company continues to study consumer behavior and market trends.

According to Sino Market Research Ltd., Lenovo’s integrated phone and smartphone approach has enabled it to claim a major share in China’s competitive mobile phone market.

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