Designing a Notebook

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The penny dropped when my own Father announced that his company was ordering them for their employees; the heat was really on!

Rewind; the Vostro brand, specifically established to provide Small Business owners with IT solutions. Until this point, the products were good value and worthy, but the brand had a pretty low profile. We needed a hit.

The insight; a large segment of the small-business market are highly customer-facing, and they need products that shout ‘confidence’. We needed a thin, light, ‘cool’ notebook that could survive life on the road, had the power to punch through work, and that would make no excuses in the business-class lounge.

Process

Designing a notebook computer is about more than a nice sketch. The two most important things that the Dell design team needs to drive are the architecture, and the specification of the product. Drive poorly, and you end up with a product that is optimised for the factory instead of the user, and crammed full with every possible feature, port and widget. With notebooks especially, it’s what you choose to leave out that makes the product.

Working with layout teams at our key suppliers and employing new ‘Hyperbaric’ cooling technologies from Intel, we followed precedents set by the Dell Adamo notebook by kicking out the area behind the hinge; the reality is that business owners need traditional network and VGA cables. We also knew that if we could get all the ports away from the sides, we would be left with a blade-like profile, really allowing the thinning effort to shine. However, we also wanted an ‘honest’ front section, eschewing chamfering and other cheats to make things appear thinner than they really are; the ‘dipped’ front portion also houses the antennas and provides a degree of drop protection.

Breaking traditions of delivering ‘black boxes’ we wrapped the device in a jacket of anodised aluminium. The procurement team really delivered the bacon here; no one expected we could get a completely aluminium chassis in this price bracket.

Opening it up, we wanted a clean, uncluttered environment for getting work done. Getting brutally simple, we hid the hinges away from view; this took engagement with secondary and tertiary suppliers in the USA and China, shaving 0.05mm at time from the zinc alloy and designing one of the smallest hinge profiles ever seen in a notebook. This eventually became an iconic design feature of the product.

But it’s also about getting work done, right? Perceived quality of keyboards is closely related to the stiffness of the chassis. Magnesium is the hero here; it provides by far the best stiffness-to-weight ratio, and allowed us to go even further with the thinning. The aforementioned ‘hidden hinges’ help keep it sober and professional.

Camping out at the supplier in Taiwan, and with frequent trips to China to work with suppliers, we finally delivered a product that landed Vostro on the map, scooping multiple awards and praise from the press.

But nothing quite beats seeing my Dad using one.

Media

Awards

3 Comments

  1. Michael
    Posted 2011/03/27 at 15:57 | Permalink

    Not only notebooks benefit greatly from leaving out features, details, stuff. Would love to see you write and illustrate in more detail but I guess that would be difficult without crossing the line for Corp. Perhaps work out a case study and present at a conference (business focused)?

  2. Posted 2011/04/27 at 09:03 | Permalink

    Hi,
    I’ve just stumbled across your website from core77. I’ve been reading through your articles and they’re really quite informative especially “Things I learned after graduating design school”. It’s really given me some perspective of what to expect after university. Thank you for posting it up.
    I’m currently studying in the 3rd year of my Industrial Design degree. I’ll be venturing into my final project next year, yikes. Haha. I’ve already started brainstorming possible areas I could into.
    I’m thinking on going into consumer products specifically electronics. I’m curious to know, what it takes to enter into that sector, what should I do and what is to be expected? Do you have any advice?

    Thanks again!!

    • Posted 2011/04/27 at 15:18 | Permalink

      It’s not the easiest industry to get into, but I would recommend first cultivate your interest in the technology, the industry, and most importantly the users and the problems. Then, get started looking for internships, work on your own folio pieces, write a blog about it … basically, the most important thing is to show your interest. But don’t focus only on electronics; you need to remember electronics are there only to solve peoples’ problems.

      Good luck!

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