HP designer on your next laptop: greater personalization, mobility, efficiency

The director of notebook design for HP's Personal Systems Group says his designers follow trends in furniture and fashion, planning colors one to two years out. Plus: a laptop skin made like an airplane wing.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

They go to the Milan furniture show, follow fashion trends and hire color consultants to learn what shades you’ll be coveting two years from now. They’re the designers in HP’s Personal Systems Group, and once they lock into a design, it’s only about 30 to 36 weeks until production.

I recently talked to Stacy Wolff, the group’s director of notebook design, about materials, form versus function and the design process for HP’s Envy series.

When you’re designing a laptop, you have to factor in things like durability, thinness, materials and packaging. What’s your formula for balancing form and function?

I would say we have a very organic process. A lot of companies have a pre-described minimalism; I’d say HP is a bit more fluid. We have so many brands and tiers. Looking at form versus function, we have a very strong form DNA--which we’ve heard from a lot of folks who review our products.

Our design philosophy and approach is MUSE: Materials, Usability, Sensory and Experience. The “M” is all about balance between form and function.

Does the formula change as you move into higher-end products?

As you go high end, you have a little more latitude to drive the more pristine, precise form. The function within is more hidden and allows you to reach your design goals more.

To some degree you have to look at it like [what happened] at the turn of the century: They built buildings with reinforced concrete, and then new steels came into place, and then the architects became very form-driven. If you look at some of the theaters out there—Disney theaters--it’s really about form. Function is a component.


HP Pavilion dv5 (Sonoma Red)

What kind of new materials are you using?

We’ve stayed more plastic in our mass area. We use bonding between aluminum and magnesium in our Envy Consumer and Elite Book for Business Notebooks, where we want to achieve low chassis weight with outstanding structure and durability.

It’s a two-level benefit. The dual metal, constructed like an airplane wing, gives you a great structure. But it’s also better from an energy consumption standpoint. To make it, we mold magnesium and then wrap it with a thin skin of aluminum. It’s done within minutes, which is more efficient in overall energy used to make a part.

What frustrates you about laptops and the limitations of materials?

It’s always a balance. I don’t think there’s a true frustration. For any designer, the technology that’s within always has its limitations. As a user you want to buy a product with the highest-end processor and want it to be thin and light, but the higher the processor the greater the thermal and the Z-height. The pain point of users is always that balance between greatest technology, best performance and having the thinnest, lightest product out there.

What things do consumers say they want, versus what they’re willing to spend money on?

HP looks at different segments, from brand techies to everyday consumers to soccer moms. Each demographic has a certain thing that appeals to them.

What we’ve found in certain segments, for the thing people really like or had strong feelings about, they had no issue spending money. The Vivienne Tam exercises we went through—it was a product that sold at a premium, and we sold out of it. The end user’s perception about that offering was so strong that price became a lesser factor in buying that product. HP’s approach is about a portfolio offering, so we have many products at an entry price point, but at the same time, we’re bringing in new approaches, new technologies.


HP Pavilion dm4

How do you pick colors and patterns, and does it follow other color trends?

We have a design center here in Houston, folks in Cupertino [Calif.] and in Taipei. Each of the designers do trend and product research. We will hit shows—Milan furniture show, Dwell convention in L.A. We look at the influences on the public and outer factors that influence what people buy and what they look for. In 2006 we introduced IMD [In Mold Decoration, a process that transfers ink from a carrier sheet to the plastic, “tattooing” the plastic]. That came after a designer went to Milan and was inspired to look at the product in a different way. The Vivienne Tam and Tord Boontje special editions--that’s from looking at artists and trends. The key thing here is HP was the first computer company to completely shift to this new process and popularized it for the industry.

Color: We have independent consultants here and in Europe who give us a trend forecasts. We put our pallets together on an annual basis. We tend to go one to two years out. Technology-wise, things happen fairly quickly when you’re talking about what’s in the PC.

What are some of the next trends?

Greater degrees of personalization--not what you might see from some of our competitors, but being a participant with HP in really crafting the right product for them, in technology as well as the skin.

We see the great permeation of mobility: form factors that are thinner , lighter, more mobile and less traditional.

We also continue to look at how we design future pieces that make things more efficient, both in terms of production and materials/chemicals used and the amount of energy needed to use the product.



Let’s take the Envy series. Tell me about the process you went through, from sketches to prototypes to manufacturing.

We have a team of boy-girl. We have both sexes on the team and folks from around the world, so it’s multi-cultural. When we start a program we start it as a group sit-down effort. Before that, we allow the designers to go off on excursions; we’re going to non-traditional areas to determine what is the next thing—it’s research we find or get from the outside consultant.

We go fairly quickly from sketch to something dimensional. With mobile products, we look at them from a 360-degree approach. It’s so important to hold it in your hand to understand how your body reacts to what you’ve created.

From there, we go to an outward validation mode. It’s a very cross-disciplinary team, and we look at: Did we make some right decisions? Wrong decisions? Then we go to various sites around the world to share designs and vet out—were our assumptions correct? We don’t want it to be a beauty contest, but if we're chasing something that’s a thin and light product, I might give people in a session different shapes to see what they perceive as thinner and lighter.

It’s maybe three to four months of design and research. Once we have locked into a design, it’s a bullet train. It’s around 30 to 36 weeks to production. The fresher, the newer the technology, it’s amazing the appetite of consumers. The technology is a driving factor.

For all the products?

The netbook space doesn't generate Moores’s Law. What you see there is the fusion of fashion and design.

The Mini space, or netbook space, it’s become more about ergonomic, and really compelling design. When we did IMD—using technology and fashion together--with Vivienne Tam, Sex and the City--it’s more about lifestyle, more about providing good functionality. In our research, we saw a number of these netbooks in the market, borrowing from the Asian mindset: super small screen and keyboard. So we put a bigger keyboard in with a smaller display. From that, users and reviewers said that HP is a more comfortable, better solution than anything out there. So function drove form. We knew this would be a great mobile communication device

HP Mini 210

HP Mini 210 (Preppy Pink)

What laptops do you use at work and home?

I am an avid user of our Envy line--Envy 13. It’s an ideal product for me. Its screen is twice as bright as anything out there, it has a comfortable keyboard and a slice battery, which doubles your run time. But at the same time, I might pair that up with a tablet PC, so I can notate on drawings and sketch out something; I tend to have a couple PCs with me at all times.

At home, I tend to go a little larger--our 17-inch product. It has a beautiful aluminum case and a full-size keyboard. It becomes a center point for my home.

I went on vacation recently and brought a pink plaid Mini [210] for myself and my daughter and wife. It was a great product and quite fashionable for a pre-teen girl.

And for you?

I have no problem wearing a pink shirt or carrying a pink plaid Mini.

Images: HP

Editorial standards