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Surface Book: Designed from the inside out

Written By published March 24, 2016

Try to recall one of those first magical moments when you made something work: you built a baking soda volcano for the science fair, you rode your two-wheel bike down the driveway, you tinkered with the guts of a clock. Now imagine that the world was watching, waiting with bated breath for the result. Imagine you were backed by an incredible, diversified team. Imagine that your achievement – the solution you found – was a eureka moment born of true tenacity and toil.

Designing the Surface Book.

This is how the Surface team felt every day for two years, as they embarked on the challenges of creating the Surface Book. Particularly, the unique folio hinge and detach mechanism required relentless brainstorming, doodling, building, testing, scrapping, head scratching, high-fiving, prototyping, and more prototyping. So much prototyping, in fact, that Industrial Designer Kait Schoeck laughs at the absurd amount of material the Surface team managed to create.

“We always joke that we could fill this whole building with prototypes,” said Schoeck. “It is for real. We made more models on this project than I’d personally ever seen before.”

Let’s talk about this team for just a minute. Industrial Designers are but a small faction within the multi-disciplined, dedicated Surface Book crew. And although Schoeck and the other ID’s have earned bragging rights for their intelligence and creativity, they’re crazy humble. They’re first to tell you that the fulcrum you see on the Surface Book was a complex equation solved by many, many bright minds.

Surface design team members.

The reason that prototypes could be stacked floor to ceiling is due in part to the nature of the project. The team was asked, essentially, to build something that would lead the future of laptop hardware. Everyone was driven and eager to not just make the first Microsoft laptop, but to make it perfect. They forged ahead, wholly invested in every functional and beautiful detail of the final product.

Have you seen it? Have you held it? Have you opened and shut it in slow motion to see how the folio hinge works its magic? Have you stared dumbfounded as some fantastical mechanism releases the top, leaving you with a satisfyingly powerful clipboard in your hands? Am I gushing?

At least the feeling is mutual. The Surface team is psyched about their work, as well they should be. They walk through the story with lively hand-talking. Hua Wang, for one, creates spontaneous white board illustrations as he describes the challenge of moving away from a standard barrel-roll hinge.

“It’s quite incredible what we did here, because you can detach it, but when it’s attached, it looks like one piece,” said Wang, scribbling out the evolution of standard laptop hinge to the Surface Book’s dynamic fulcrum.

“It’s to create a drama moment, something that no one expects. If you design in a traditional way with a barrel, or even a two-in-one, it has some kind of backing. It’s a funky interface.”

Wang worked on keyboard and mice at Microsoft for two years before being the first Industrial Designer invited to this Surface project by Ralf Groene, GM of Surface Design. It’s clear from Wang’s passion and expertise why Groene reached out to him. And, it’s lucky he did. Turns out, Wang stumbled upon the integral form that inspired the winning hinge design as the team progressed.

On his honeymoon, Wang found himself in a Parisian bookstore. He came across a sophisticated folio, something that mirrored exactly what the team wanted to accomplish on the Surface Book.

“It was super high-end, like from Sweden,” explained Wang. “A folder style, so that when you open it, it’s in one piece, right?” To the Industrial Designers on the Surface team, who’d been sitting down to 8:00 a.m. problem-solving meetings day in and day out for months, this would become the defining solution.

Surface Book prototyping

Wang, Schoeck, and Dan O’Neil, an Industrial Designer on the team who relocated from Xbox, all spoke at length about the same thing: the icon. It had to be simple, it had to be intuitive, it had to carry through from prototype to prototype, iteration to iteration. And that icon was a book.

“You want to keep it as an object and not a gadget,” said Schoeck. “You want it to really distill down into what it should be.”

“The design team I think fell in love with the book metaphor,” said O’Neil. “So this idea of this object that folds in half…the icon was a lot of the early work, of what we wanted this product to feel like. And then the detachable part made it a super challenging product, to maintain that essence.”

The team had already developed hundreds of ideas for a great laptop – that wasn’t necessarily the challenging part. But when Panos Panay (Corporate VP, Devices Management) and Groene one day mused what if we take the top off?, the resulting challenges flooded the team’s morning sessions.

Suddenly, most of their concepts were nullified due to simple physics. You can’t have a powerful clipboard sitting on top of the usual barrel hinge. It’s a failed balancing act. The laptop will tip over, unless you add more weight to the bottom than what’s on top. But remember that these are Industrial Designers on the Microsoft Surface team. They are not interested in problem solving in a way that creates more problems – in this case, a terribly heavy product. Wang’s return from Paris was a crucial aha moment.

Surface Book prototyping

“In the early work, the folio was just a beautiful object, it didn’t have a purpose,” said O’Neil. “But then all of these little dots started to connect. When we realized the legitimate challenge of detaching, then we could add value from a pure functional standpoint.”

The most common comparison for the Surface Book’s hinge is a carpet rolling out. The footprint extends just enough and the center of gravity is redistributed, allowing the clipboard to sit comfortably atop the works without risk of toppling. Plus, this negates the need for superfluous weight elsewhere.

Fantastic, right? And the solution worked in tandem with the other important Surface Book innovation: muscle wire in the detach mechanism.

Designing the Surface Book.

So while the Surface team had found their form study, they needed to move onto the engineering challenges of docking and locking that clipboard into place. When you’re splitting the brain of a machine into two places (the full might of the GPU is in the base of the Surface Book, while the CPU sits in the clipboard), you want to be sure that the electrical connections are flawless, functional, and not clunky.

Muscle wire was the elegant hero for the Surface team’s particular problem. And Schoeck, though she would never assign the final success to herself, played an interesting role in realizing the usage of muscle wire. She had, in a class at RISD, used it to make robotic astronaut gloves.

Now, these were not completed, NASA-approved products. But they did function in a way that utilized all the best attributes of the material. Muscle wire (other names include nitinol wire and SMA, or shape-memory alloy) is a smart material that changes shape in response to external stimuli. For surface book, an electric current is applied, and it changes shape (or shrinks) to release the mechanical lever. The gloves that Schoeck created in that class were made to help prevent muscle fatigue and injury. Because of their thick, pressurized space suits, astronauts find it very difficult to maneuver and grip things in space. Schoeck’s design included a sensor that caused the muscle wire along the length of the glove to gently bend, assisting the astronauts in gripping things rather than them forcibly fighting the gloves.

When muscle wire was raised as a potential solution, Groene came to Schoeck for the rundown. Once this piece of the equation fell into place, it was an unstoppable push to the finish line that employed the full range of the Surface team’s expertise.

Engineering the Surface Book.

“I’ve been in this industry for some time, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen this much specialization on a project,” said O’Neil.

He’s not wrong. For a touch of context, think about the electrical engineers who had to ensure the super high-speed connections between the top and bottom of the machine. Think about the mechanical engineers who made every gram count, who built a lever-and-release so strong that you’d lose a tug-of-war with it. About the manufacturers who got every tolerance exactly right, and the machinist who wanted to make the hinge lines so precisely shiny and straight that he traveled the world in search of just the right CNC machine and cutters. About the model makers who churned out prototypes like mad. About the industrial designers who insisted that the guts of the computer be completely black, and the thermal engineers who said “totally,” and sought out a black coating for the heat pipe. About how this actually appears in the final product because designing from the inside out was something that everybody, not just the visual artists, believed in so fully.

Surface Book

“It’s emotional,” said Schoeck. “In the design field, you tend to feel one way on some days and another way other days. But you create a wide set of models through those feelings, and you come back and it all ends up feeling right, because products are a reflection of all of the people that make it.”

“It’s kind of like how diamonds are made,” said O’Neil. “They start out as carbon, but with the right combination of pressure and time and friction, they become these beautiful things.”

In the end, the Surface team created more than just an ultimate solution. They embraced a process that trusted in the intelligence of the team, across fortes. Everyone’s skills were paramount, and rarely was an idea left untested. It’s in an incubator like that where the best designs often come to fruition.

Technology is only as good as the guts and heart behind it, and the Surface Book is a fully realized culmination of great engineering married to great design.

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Photo credit: Nitish Kumar Meena, UX Designer at Microsoft