Half a decade ago, it would have been unimaginable to envision HP keeping pace with Apple in designing covetable PCs. Fast forward to today and it’s one of the few companies to beat in terms of design, features and value. And while the recent Spectre and Envy models match Apple’s build quality and unibody construction, HP takes bolder design gambles—like its decision to clad its flagship Spectre line with unique Ash Silver and Copper tones and its willingness to embrace new form factors. But, perhaps, none of this should come as a surprise for a company whose motto is to “keep reinventing.”
HP’s design successes aren’t just happy happenstances. Once known for playing into the lifestyle arena through its collaboration with Beats, today’s HP in contrast is more refined, infusing its products with aesthetics from fashion, furniture, jewelry and art, to name a few. The award-winning PC designs—spanning product lines like Omen, Pavilion, Envy and Spectre—are a result of five years of hard work, said HP Global Head of Design Stacy Wolff. This change began under the leadership of CEO Dion Weisler, an Australian businessman who helmed the PC-maker’s spinoff from parent company Hewlett Packard Enterprise.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.
Nowhere in the company’s history is design more important than in the HP of today. “What you see now with the executive team and the focus that’s going on is a huge emphasis on how design plays a strategic role not just in transforming the company, but in transforming our roadmap and our plans,” Wolff explained to me in a conference room adjacent to his design studio at the company’s historic Palo Alto, California headquarters. “[Design] is changing the trajectory, the profitability of HP as well as the share of the company as you look at the changes going on.”
Rather than operate in secretive silos that separate teams from one another, HP’s designers work alongside technical engineers to create new PCs from inception to market. The company’s 60 or so designers, spread across four design centers globally—Palo Alto, CA; Houston, TX; Taipei, Taiwan; London, UK—work hand-in-hand with engineers to make decisions on every PC design that HP creates.
For his part, Wolff calls Houston, a campus that HP inherited when it acquired rival PC-maker Compaq in 2001 for $25 billion, home. HP’s lead designer divides his time traveling between all major design centers to spend time with his team and meet with the ninety or so customers annually to get HP’s computing products onto store shelves. Having an international presence gives HP the opportunity to bring together global influences while also accommodating for local tastes.
In the past five years, HP has certainly matured as a design company. In April 2012, Wolff found himself defending the Spectre XT’s design at an event in Shanghai for being an Apple copycat just because the notebook shared a similar silver finish. “Silver is tried and true, and it’s iconic for another manufacturer, so typically if you do things in silver, they think, oh it’s that,” Wolff said. So three years ago, Copper and Ash Silver were born.
“At the time, we were working with Bang & Olufsen and we were developing a color scheme that aligns with their anniversary,” Wolff said of the color choice. “We made some mockups and models, and our customers loved them.” Bang & Olufsen was also working rose gold into its designs during this period, but Wolff said that HP’s insights and consumer research showed that customers were gravitating towards copper, and ultimately, HP settled on its color combination. Today, Copper and Ash Silver are iconically Spectre, and PCs in the new hue outsell similar silver models from HP.
“If we did not do the insights and confirmation that this is the right color scheme and color, we would have missed a huge opportunity,” Wolff boasted. “Now, when we meet with some retailers, they won’t believe any data until they see ours—it sounds kind of arrogance, but it’s the insights piece after 4 or 5 years of being spot on with how customers receive, the retailers now believe it.”
According to Wolff, these successes “propelled HP from industry laggards to industry leaders, and, to some degree, the decision point on how retailers buy.”
When HP hit the nail on the head with Ash Silver and Copper, it iterated and refined. Rather than reinvent the wheel, Wolff’s team honed their skills and brought the fresh colors to different form factors. Today, the color scheme unifies HP’s premium PC lineup, but can also be found on products such as the Spectre 13 Laptop, the Spectre x360 as well as the Spectre x2, spanning notebook, convertible and detachable form factors.
“One thing that I have to give credit to in my design history—in looking at companies that you admire, and they’ve fallen from years past—is Sony,” Wolff mused. “They have the fortitude in doing something and staying with it and continuing to refine and polish. We’ve stayed true to that. Sometimes, the first [version] isn’t perfect, but it gets us there and we learn more, and the second [iteration] is fabulous.”
Part of the irony with the design of the Spectre x360 was that HP had a patent on the 360-degree rotating hinge in the early 2000s, but the company never did anything with it. At the time, the technology wasn’t there, Wolff admitted, and without touch, there wasn’t a compelling reason to bring this feature to market. But as HP sat on its “golden” egg, Lenovo swooped in and introduced its Yoga PC with its articulating hinge.
Playing catchup, Wolff told his team that if you’re not going to be first, you have to better. “If you’re better, people will recognize it,” Wolff said. “So we invested in materials. We’ve invested in design. We’ve invested in detailing.”
The Spectre x360 was described as a moonshot product—there was already a dominant player on the market at the time. However, like Sony, HP iterated and reiterated through various prototypes. Designers spent weeks in China to ensure the tiniest of details were accurate—the screws had to be right, the finish had to be perfect.
“On the [Spectre] x360, we’ve done from 60 to 100 foam [models]” Wolff said. These range from low resolution models that were hand cut to CAD-based databases that we see out of renshape, a cast material that gives you a good finish. In fact, HP’s largest expenditure in research and development goes to prototyping. Even without finished working samples, these early prototypes help HP tell its story with retail partners, which include Best Buy and Costco in the United States, in the hopes of generating more orders and sales.
“We look at how it sits on a table, how thin it looks and the gap lines,” Wolff noted of the prototypes. “We’ve done cross-sections of a model to scrutinize the details, the curvatures of the transitions. It’s all about minutiae.” How good are these models? They’re pretty close to the finished product, and when they’re previewed, often times customers can’t tell the models apart from the final product.
Along the process, HP also developed a new anodization process and machining technique. “We’ve experimented a year before [the x360] with two-tone, but we never found the right opportunity,” Wolff confessed. “When this came up, we employed it.”
Several generations later, HP has kept the design roughly the same on the x360 but honing in on the design. This year, the x360 shed most of its bezels to give it an even more elegant aesthetics, while technology upgrades gave it a performance boost. “The one thing that we did over the years is that we’re consistent,” Wolff said. “Consistency build brand equity.”
As a technology company, HP says it doesn’t take influences from its competitors, and designers rarely attend technology shows like CES. The products shown at CES, Wolff noted in a telephone conversation ahead of our meeting, are old by the time we see them. PCs are often in development for a few years before they are shown to the public, showcased at trade shows or made available in retail, and Wolff wants to get fresh inspiration.
The job of HP’s designers is as much about collecting and curating as it is about designing. Wolff did not give specifics on how much out-of-office time designers spend researching trends—to collect specimens and find inspiration, whether it’s a lipstick case or a purse or wallet, but he says that designers spend a significant amount of time traveling. To an outsider, Wolff’s studio may look like chaotic clutter, but it’s the result of a lot of gathering. For example, to save money, HP buys large amounts of cosmetics because the metal caps on lipstick and mascara cases give designers an idea of what to look for in a tone of gold without having to spend too much money buying actual jewelry.
Wolff was never shy at naming sources for his inspiration, whether it comes from architecture, art or sculptures. The sculpted wire base of one of the company’s more entry level all-in-one PCs, for example, was inspired by a mid-century modern Eames chair. Another furniture inspiration is the piston hinge, taken from kitchen cabinets, that grace the impeccably thin Spectre 13 Laptop.
However, in pulling various influences into HP’s designs, Wolff is careful not to fetishize any single designer. While noting that he can appreciate anyone that “is doing something compelling in design,” Wolff said he looks less at the designer and their signature than the artifact that they’ve created. This helps HP creates fresh designs without obsessive idolization, preventing HP from being in the same situation as Apple, where the company’s designer Jony Ive was accused of aping legendary Braun designer Dieter Rams’s works.
HP Global Head of Design Stacy Wolff.
Wolff’s team uses an acronym—PHI—for guiding its design process, which stands for progressive, harmonious and iconic design. Although HP doesn’t try to be iconic or progressive, Wolff said that it’s a feeling that everybody has on design. Progressive means, just like the company’s motto, to keep reinventing. “It doesn’t mean you have to make radical changes,” Wolff commented. “It just means don’t stop.” It’s a philosophy that goes back to HP’s determination to keep reiterating.
“Harmonious is probably the toughest thing to do. If you have a very small portfolio, or a limited line, like BMW, then it’s easier. If you have to go up and down the price scale, then it comes very challenging—and they all refresh at a different rate. Now, add to that, you have consumer, commercial, workstation, medical, PoS, thin client… you have to add all those businesses. The toughest thing for us is that in your mind, you’re thinking consumer and what’s got to be hot for back to school, but at the same time, if you refresh it at this time, then how does it impact what’s in the commercial space and how it influences other sectors.”
Iconic measures if a product stands out and if it excites or inspires the user, but the overall goal of good design, according to Wolff, is if the product changes people’s lives for the better. To do this, HP’s team of global designers work with mechanical and electrical engineers to craft a product that balances aesthetics with performance. “What’s left out of a product is just as important as what we put in,” Wolff told me in a separate telephone conversation ahead of our meeting in Palo Alto. It’s for this reason that the company sacrificed the extra bit of thinness that could have been possible on the Spectre x360 in favor of a slightly thicker design that made room to accommodate a larger battery and support for legacy USB Type-A ports.
While HP’s motto is to keep reinventing to keep things fresh, a challenge is that users may hang on to the same notebooks for half a decade or longer. For designers, the tough question is when do you change a PC’s design.
“In the entry price points, we’re more express,” Wolf explained. “As we go up towards the $1,000 and above, we really try to distill it down to its absolute minimum. We don’t put a lot of extra in here that will show its age.”
While designers are given a lot of flexibility when working on the premium side, like with the Spectre x360, there are some unique challenges at this price point. Designers must show restraint in not over-decorating. “It’s about making a product that in three or five years feels as good as day one,” Wolff said.
“There’s no doubt you have to change, and keeping it longer than you think is probably the right thing, Wolff said. “A marketing person from years past taught me repetition never spoils. It’s tough as a designer because you’re always working in the future, and by nature, and also by training, you’re taught to abandon things and go on to new things. The balance is when do you change and when do you not change. Four or five years ago, we were on a cadence that was like digging for gold. You don’t know when you’re going to find it, and when you find it, you need to stay on that path. Design is a balance though.”
To gauge when it needs to change and how far to go, HP relies on its market studies and insights. The company gathers feedback from users and retail partners to make design and technology improvements that, hopefully, will be well-perceived in the market.
HP’s design team also champions the company’s motto of keep reinventing. “It gives us a huge opportunity to always to something new,” Wolff confesses. “Even our designers sometimes wonder if we’re going too far, but that reinvention process is part of the mindset of what we’ve been doing.”
To reinvent, HP relies on its insights, and the company is shifting its strategy from selling to storytelling. “A picture is worth a thousand words, but when you tell a story, it’s forever memorable,” noted Wolff. To achieve this, HP is bringing in customers in the creation of the design, of the concept and of the solution. The company shares its insights and research with retail partners, and even works with partners in staging products.
HP’s designers have an ever expanding role in the company’s success, going from crafting designs to creating opportunities to sell. In one example, HP works with its broadcast accounts—like QVC and the Home Shopping Network—to design the perfect environment to get its notebooks to sell.
“We have to know our audience,” Wolff said. “We appeal to emotions. We do different color shades. We stage the products.” But it doesn’t stop there. Designers work with HSN hosts on wardrobe, coordinating the perfect shade of blue in an outfit to match the aqua hue on the laptop being sold. Even the scripts are written by designers in some instances.
To achieve this coordinated storytelling in design, HP draws from its experience in working with fashion. A few years ago when HP debuted its products at fashion week, it learned how to place things in retail windows to set the tone.
Along with its TV partners, HP designers also work with retail partners in creating the perfect store displays. One HP employee informed me before my meeting with Wolff that HP has a studio with different types of light to perfectly match the lighting inside retail stores. There, the company calibrates laptop screens to look perfect in store displays under store lighting. And HP designer even work alongside retailers to create product displays that are inspired by high-end fashion boutiques.
“Back to the storytelling and the experience is that we are not single in our solution. We have many solutions, whether it’s a two-toned metal to heather cloth that’s on the new AIO. We use our colors, materials, finishes and designs to differentiate and to elevate.”
While HP has mastered its two-toned color along with the anodization and cutting process that gives the Spectre line its unique finish, Wolff’s team is also experimenting with new materials. Like the rest of the PC industry, HP wants to add a tactile feel to its visual designs.
Some recent examples of HP’s play on fabrics include the Saffiano-inspired polyurethane that graces the keyboard cover of the HP Spectre x2, the cloth-like fabric that gives the HP Envy Curve 34 AIO PC its entertainment center aesthetics with the speaker bar design and floating display, and textured plastics that give entry-price devices the feel of linen.
When introducing new changes, like the Saffiano-inspired faux leather material, designers are sometimes met with internal skepticism. After several different changes to the polyurethane material to get the right feel for its fake Saffiano leather—a leather imprinting tecnique that was created and popularized by luxury Milan-based fashion house Prada— Wolff’s designers showed how closely the finished product resembles the expensive real leather wallet, and HP’s executives greenlighted the project without hesitation.
“A lot of the materials that we’re showing we don’t know how to make, so we’ve invested a lot of resources—R&D dollars, CMF team, spending time at the supplier level,” Wolff said. “We get down to the smaller shops in Korea, China or elsewhere to find opportunities. It’s not always just going there—you need to have an influence. We’ll go to Milan or to different shows and see things. That could be in eyewear, clothing, furniture and apply that.”
As the PC market continues to evolve—we’re seeing “wearable PCs” coming out of HP that support virtual reality applications and gaming—Wolff promised that his team will continue to invest in different materials, colors and finishes that best suits the demands of consumers. The company recently hired a CMF designer—a person that works with colors, materials and finishes—whose resume includes being a costume designer for the Beijing Olympics.
“It’s hard to do new,” Wolff emphatically admitted, because people like the comfort of the familiar. But HP is working hard to continually reinvent based on new influences and inspirations. We’ve seen in recent years the switch from imprinted plastics to brush metals and now to fabrics and textiles. These, along with newer trends, will continue to shape the future of HP’s design.
For the immediate future, Wolff posits that we’re going to see designs change from ovals and ellipticals—like the curved edge on the rear of the display of this year’s Spectre x360 more angular shapes—a detail that’s more reminiscent of the hinge of the latest EliteBook x360. “Things are getting more and more condensed, so you have to build a new repertoire,” Wolff explained, and the angular design will give engineers more volume to cram in extra components and bigger batteries.
“Every year is a new year,” Wolff said in explaining how HP’s design team interprets the company’s motto of keep reinventing. “There are degrees of reinvention a few years ago where you’re trying to find out who you are—it’s like a teenager growing up. As you get more mature, you get a little more confident. What you’re seeing from HP from a design standpoint is that we’re becoming less radical in our changes, but we’re still feeling fresh and wanting to reinvent.”
By pushing boundaries through innovation, investing in technology and iterating to perfection, it’s easy to see how a young Steve Jobs was inspired by Hewlett Packard in the 1960s to seek an internship with co-founders William Hewlett and Dave Packard. By reinventing through continually iterating, Wolff’s team is not only creating coveted PCs for today, but they are also hoping to bring to life a piece of HP’s legacy to inspire the next great generation of thinkers, inventors and creatives.
Even internally at HP, Wolff told me, employee perception has changed over the past few years. “What people see is not just better products, but they have seen the face of the company that has transformed.”