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How do you design a coordinated, focused design strategy for a sprawling, $97 billion behemoth comprised of scores of business units that are used to operating independently? If you're Sam Lucente, who leads Hewlett-Packard's design practice, you leverage some of what you learned at your previous two gigs, even as you ignore the conventional wisdom on "managing design."

Lucente, who co-designed the ThinkPad 560 and 710 during a 14-year career at IBM and then led the user-interface design team at Netscape during its heyday, became HP's first-ever design VP in January 2003. His charge: bring a unified theory of design to HP's vast portfolio of products, and thereby strip out millions of dollars in development costs and help put the company on a new growth curve. In an interview, Lucente spotlighted some of the genetic code from IBM and Netscape that found its way into HP's design DNA.

FC: IBM basically defined the pinnacle of corporate design—what was it like when you were there during the 1980s and early '90s?

Lucente: IBM had a very regimented, Bauhaus approach to design. There were strict rules about the color of the boxes, the way you ventilated a product, the actual design of the louver. Just massive levels of detail, which came out of a book of standards that everyone had to adhere to. It made sense, because there were so many different products coming out of IBM; we needed a uniform look-and-feel. Besides, a design team could bring down an entire development effort if, say, it went off on its own and crafted a delicate hinge that's beautiful but not reliable. Imagine the warranty costs that the company would incur. So I really saw the power of a unified group of design standards. But I also saw how limiting they could be, from a creative point of view.

FC: So how did you manage to innovate, given those strict standards?

Lucente: It was a struggle. In the early '80s, I was assigned to lead the design effort of IBM's CAD/CAM [computer-aided design/computer-aided manufacturing] mechanical systems, basically because no one else was interested. It was like working in a startup. We were all very passionate; we wanted to throw that book out the window. I was constantly balancing—just as I do now—the reality of the standards versus how much I could innovate. How far can you push the envelope? It's a balance that only a designer can strike. And it often starts with deeply understanding the customer.

I went out to General Motors to study the ergonomics of how the engineers were using IBM's massive, table-size CAD/CAMs. The systems were incredibly unwieldy, and I came back convinced that we had to make smaller models. In a sense, we rewrote the book. We went to market with the world's first modular, component-based CAD/CAMs. Almost overnight, IBM took the lead in that market.

FC: So what gets stressed at HP, the standards or the freedom to innovate?

Lucente: Both. You take the power of those standards, which we're doing at HP, yet at the same time, you don't make it so regimented. So for example, we've developed a common icon for the "power-on" switch for HP's hardware. It's got a specific set of colors, materials, and finishes. But the designers aren't required to use them. They've got the option to opt in.

I took that idea from Eliot Noyes. His design of the Selectric typewriter really broke away from IBM's standards—he basically said, "screw the standards"—and yet he beautifully interpreted IBM's design attitude. So at HP, we have design centers working on their own in creating beautiful, consumer-based objects that relate to their target market in a way that I could never understand, because I'm not living it day to day. And yet, when you put an HP laptop next to an HP printer, there's this ethos and attitude that still comes through. It's because we spent so much time figuring out what that ethos is.

It's all about how you lead design in the 21st century. You can't do it with guidelines alone—they'd have to change every minute. Instead, you craft a set of principles and give designers the room to work off of them.

FC: You left IBM to join Netscape in 1996. That must have been quite a culture shock.

Lucente: On my first day at Netscape I got assigned to a cubicle, just like everyone else, whereas at IBM I had an office with a window over-looking Isamu Noguchi's sculpture garden. Then this kid comes up to me and says, "I know you're this big-shot from IBM, but now you're starting over. Everyone here is on equal footing." This guy was giving me a talk on equality, which was actually kind of cool. But it was 180 degrees from IBM, which was so hierarchical.

FC: You guys were inventing the browser's look-and-feel. What was Netscape's approach to design?

Lucente: Very iterative. It was basically, "Make it good enough, get it out there, we'll evolve it in real time." What I've learned since Netscape, through trial and tribulation, is that you don't do that haphazardly. You iterate in a very systematic, repeatable way.

FC: What did you bring with you from Netscape to HP?

Lucente: The iterative part of Netscape made it to HP. Netscape was really user-centric in its approach. You build something, you test it, you put it in beta, you refine it—Google adopted that whole model. That software-design process requires you to test a lot and iterate, and build really detailed specs for what you want to create. Then you hand it all off to the coders. And once you hand off those design specs, they're gone. There's no going back.

Another thing that made it from Netscape to HP—or more likely, it was already here—is the collaborative approach to design. HP just excels at that. Everyone at Netscape was on a mission, sometimes to a fault. HP is big, but we still very much feel like we're the challenger brand. In no way do we think we're there yet. [Dell] went down pretty quickly, and now it's working its way back up. In this industry, you don't take anything for granted.