Not Just Another Pretty Watch


-- Triax Running Watches

-- Designer: Astro Products Inc. & Nike Inc.

Astro Products Inc. is many miles and a big visual leap from Beaverton, Ore., and the gleaming, ultramodern temple of sports that is headquarters to $9.5 billion Nike Inc. Skateboard stickers are plastered all over the walls and the Army surplus-style desks inside the five-year-old company's storefront studio in Palo Alto, Calif. Toned athletic bodies may or may not live inside the designers' baggy clothes. Piercings outnumber employees by at least a factor of two.

Yet this Gen X studio has helped Nike create a category blaster: Nike's Triax line of sports watches. The Triax is made specifically for runners, but like all great designs, it's finding a bigger audience among consumers who respond to its tight, elegant, functional package. The watch's unique elements include a soft plastic curved band and case that hugs the wrist bone for ready viewing, an oversized display, and well-placed buttons for a light, a stopwatch, alarms, lap counters, and other features that are designed so you don't need a flowchart to use them.

The Triax watches, about $135, have sold 2 million units since their November, 1997, introduction. By blending the Astro team's fresh approach and relying on Nike's performance imprimatur, Nike has made a product that stands out in one of the most cluttered product categories of all.

Timepieces have always been a fertile field for good design. But most watch innovations tend to be trendy novelties. "Everybody can design a pretty watch," notes juror Aaron Betsky, curator of architecture, design, and digital projects for the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. But Betsky was most impressed with how the Triax watches mold to the body.

There were several innovations, starting with the curved form. "We had to work with Seiko to make a watch ergonomic, and they'd never done that before," says Ray Riley, director of research, design, and development for Nike's Equipment Div. The softer, molded feel results from the curved crystal--not plastic--dome on the watch. It further magnifies the already oversized numbers, which runners and bifocal-ready baby boomers alike love.

When Nike launched its vision and timing group in 1995, Riley, who was formerly at Apple Computer Inc., turned to Astro for help because he had used designers Rob Bruce and Brett Lovelady on Apple projects. Astro dipped into Nike's rich pool of on-staff runners and on-call athletes to explore the drawbacks of existing watches' design. They typically named small buttons, difficult-to-read displays, and overly complex functions, as well as wrist chafing. Astro designer Rob Bruce observed that the simple act of trying to read the small, dim displays while running created a tripping hazard.

The large display allows the Triax to be read from the hip area. And a "grip zone" approach to button design allows people to activate alarms almost by feel alone. Nike is now pushing new watch designs into other sports, such as surfing.

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