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Alumni Experience

Brian Leonard Believes in Design That Improves Lives

Brian Leonard

By Suzanne Wardle

Industrial designer Brian Leonard often finds himself in debates about form versus function. But rather than focusing on how something looks, he’s more concerned with how design can benefit people now and in the future.

“If we’re just talking about the way a product looks, we’re talking about the wrong thing,” says Leonard, the recipient of this year’s Distinguished Alumni Award and a member of the Leaders Council. “Design is connecting with customers and creating solutions to help improve their lives. The way it looks is just the cherry on top.”

Design is connecting with customers and creating solutions to help improve their lives. The way it looks is just the cherry on top.

This philosophy guides Leonard in his role as vice president of design for Lenovo’s PCs and smart devices. His career’s roots lie in the College of Design, where he first fell in love with industrial design. He earned his bachelor’s degree from the college in 1989 and his master’s in 1991.

An internship at IBM during grad school sparked a lifelong interest in computers and technology — and in building brands. Working as a consultant helped reinforce to him the value of a brand.

“One day I was working on a blender, the next day I was working on a dollhouse,” he says. “I was more interested in longevity — not just focusing on one object at a time but on families of products and how we use design to build a brand over time.”

Leonard has designed for household names such as Volvo, Rubbermaid, Electrolux, IBM and Dell. Currently he leads the global design team responsible for all Lenovo products, including ThinkPad and Yoga devices and Legion gaming computers and accessories. The most important thing for a designer to do, Leonard says, is to think from the point of view of the user, whoever that may be.

“Designing for a child at school is very different from designing for a professional who is traveling around in airplanes or for a gamer,” he says. “You have to walk in their shoes to understand their needs, wants, desires and pain points, so you can identify opportunities to improve their lives. That’s the joy of design.”

It’s this kind of wisdom that Leonard hopes to pass on to budding designers at his alma mater. He joined the Leaders Council to help prepare students for their own careers and journeys.

“Part of being an experienced designer is understanding that we have a responsibility to give back, teach skills, share experiences and inspire young designers to go out and create a better future.”