A Look at Lenovo Y Series Gaming Design with Johnson Li

Get an inside look at the thinking and the making of Lenovo's Y Series gaming PCs from Johnson Li, Executive Director, PC Design & User Experience PC Group, Lenovo.  

Q: Tell us about yourself, Johnson.
A: I'm the head designer of Lenovo’s Consumer PCs. I've worked as part of the design team for 15 years and lead an international team of industrial designers. I also teach Industrial Design at the Harbin University of Science and Technology, where I studied. One of my goals is to help influence global design from a Chinese perspective. In fact, I was honored to share my design philosophy when I led the design team for the 2008 Beijing Olympic torch. I used the skills garnered everyday at Lenovo to weave elements of culture and technology into the torch's design.
Q: How long have you worked at Lenovo and in what capacities?
A: 16 years. I started as designer and became lead designer 14 years ago.
Q: What has been your proudest career moment at Lenovo so far?
A: Our team has earned over 100 prestigious domestic and international design awards, including the IDEA in the U.S., Red Dot in Germany, Good Design Award in Japan, and the Red Star Design Award in China.
But certainly, creating the industry’s first 2-in-1 convertible PC, the YOGA, from concept to production is a particular highlight, as it fundamentally changed the face of the PC and the way people interact with devices today.
Q: How did you come to work on the Y Series? Or what inspired you to create a new gaming computer?
A: Market forces helped drive the business decision as we recognized a growing population of PC gamers while the meteoric rise of the e-sports scene and free-to-play games have certainly increased the popularity of gaming. We've spent time observing and learning from this segment before diving in with a solution. Our research team studied gamers in their environments to really understand the way enthusiast and mainstream gamers think and what they value. We learned how strongly many prioritize style and showing off their systems to their friends without compromising performance. Much like an owner of a new sports car, gamers we spoke to liked to open up the hood and show the engine inside. I tasked my team to blend both form and function while keeping the look and feel of the new products consistent.
My team created multiple mood boards drawing inspiration from inside and outside the gaming arena from Sci-fi and PC game characters, like Robocop and Darth Vader all the way to racecars and motorcycles. These machines never failed to fascinate me with their air vent and engine designs.

My team created multiple mood boards drawing inspiration from inside and outside the gaming arena from Sci-fi and PC game characters, like Robocop and Darth Vader all the way to racecars and motorcycles. These machines never failed to fascinate me with their air vent and engine designs.
Q: Can you speak to the business drivers that drove the creation of the Y Series?
A: There has been a resurgence of interest in PC gaming, but not all enthusiastic gamers self identify as being only a gamer. We felt there was an untapped gap in the current design and performance options - a need for a beautiful and powerful machine that would take a person from day to play. Think of it like an urban SUV; people want a “best of both worlds” option that can seamlessly transition between productivity and gaming, while looking good in either environment.
We also understood that the gaming experience extends beyond a best-in-class PC. We invested in extending the look and feel beyond the stack and delivering a rich portfolio of gaming accessories that compliment the systems.
Q: What about the personal inspiration? Were there brands, products or design elements that you drew inspiration from?
A: For the overall look and feel of the series I embraced the dark side, literally. Specifically Star Wars’ ultimate villain, Darth Vader, and the blending of man and machine. We drilled down into specific postures and features of the ‘dark side,’ like red LED lights that you see integrated in our own unique fashion into the Y series desktops. When it came to reflecting the same aesthetic into the Y series laptops, we pulled a little more from roadster and sports car designs, which you see incorporated in the raised lines on the Y series laptop and the use of the red mesh on the speakers.
Q: Were there any failures in the process that led you to push the boundaries on the design?
A:  As a designer, our language is not pass or fail. It’s about continuing to push to make sure the look and the user experience fulfill their potential. This means elements get tweaked, iterated, and sometimes completely redesigned. For example, we redesigned the PSU system filters on the ideacentre Y900 a few times as we incorporated an additional metal plate underneath the chassis, which most DIY designs don’t have. Also, blending state of the art performance and design can raise challenges; an example that comes to mind is when we decided to add in a new technology after the system was already designed. When we started the product design that tech did not exist, so the physicality of adding a new element is not an easy job. To accommodate the new 3D camera, which is bigger than the original 2D camera, we had to re-imagine and re-design the entire A cover and add a curve. Design challenges are worth it when the ultimate reward is that they improve the overall experience for the gamer.
Q: When designing the Y Series, what were some of the pillars you looked at to guide your decisions?
A: Without doubt, they are freedom and flexibility with a little bit of muscle thrown in for good measure. I use the analogy of an urban SUV; it is a high performance vehicle with a roar and an edge. It offers the freedom to go anywhere, but it has a distinctive kinetic design that is celebrated around the world. I wanted the Y Series to do the same. It should not solely be about performance, but also about being part of a club with an appreciation for design with real muscle. Every decision we made was gamer-centric, providing best-in-class performance, quality and ergonomics to tie the Y series design language together.
Q: How many prototypes did you mock up before making a final decision? Are any images available of those prototypes?
A: We went through a number of rough and detailed mockups, as well as the functional and nonfunctional prototypes in each design and pre-production phase for the new Y series PCs. Interestingly, the accessories were more challenging. As ergonomics is such a key focus area across the product line, we had to do numerous rounds of mock-up reviews and actively engage with our user experience experts to ensure that we had the perfect form factor required for a best-in-class gaming experience. In fact, the initial designs have evolved dramatically compared to the final product.
Q: What is the most interesting or weird design you chose not to use? Why didn’t you use it?
A:  I wouldn’t say weird, but user driven, always. Take the ideacentre Y900. It is mainly focused on seamless and easy upgrades and modifications, which demanded a clean design without aggressive or obtrusive shapes, common to other machines out there. In the case of the ideapad Y700, we originally wanted to introduce another color for the laptop, but after speaking with customers and gamers, they steered us to red and black. Where we started and ended on some of the accessories was very different. For example, the initial design for the Y Gaming Precision Mouse was extremely aggressive and futuristic, in fact too much so, and there were user experience concerns, so we had to dial it back.  But elements of the initial design philosophy are carried into the final design, especially being able to accommodate gamers who use a ‘full palm grip.’
Q: What do you feel are the key benefits and differentiators of this design? 
A: We spent months thoughtfully designing the new Y Series to match the needs of two very distinct users with similar aspirations but unique needs; the enthusiastic gamer who leads a busy life and is open to versatility, and the hardcore player who has very specific needs. When considering the aesthetics of the machine, we felt black fit well for night time gaming and the Y symbol on the case captured a futuristic vision, partially inspired by the science fiction and fantasy genres where video games are often set.

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