Apple Watch: These Top Designers Aren't Impressed

Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Apple has, at long last, revealed its smartwatch. It’s a fitness tracker, payment system, and technological novelty wrapped in a sleek case with an amazingly inventive user-interface: a conventional-looking knob (or crown, in timepiece parlance) a user can turn to zoom the watch face in and out without obstructing the screen.

The device might have set the hearts of gadget geeks aflutter. But was it enough to retain the company’s reputation as a leader in design? Interviews with top designers following Apple Watch’s splashy debut underscored the exquisiteness of the hardware—and the overall absence, from a design perspective, of much dazzle or surprise.

“Apple has been a tremendous beacon of progress,” says Gadi Amit of San Francisco’s NewDealDesign, a company responsible for the Fitbit and Google’s modular Ara phone. Amit, who identifies himself as an avid user of Apple products, sees the new watch form as “plain vanilla.” ”I can pretty much say this is the day Apple lost its distinct edge in design,” he says.

Put John Edson of the design firm Lunar in the disappointment camp as well. The Apple Watch, he says, looks like a “shrunken-down smartphone.”

Mark Rolston, founder of the design consultancy Argodesign, says the watch is “pure techno porn,” which sounds like praise. Still, he says Apple should have taken more risks with the shape, perhaps opting for a “skyscraper” form in which the screen wraps around the wrist.

Rolston and Amit both find the circular face of the Moto 360 to be more intriguing. “Round captures the imagination,” Rolston says, “because it doesn’t seem like what a computer usually is. Here they just went: ‘Computers are rectangles, and here’s another one.’”

Echoes of Marc Newson’s sensibility were also detectable in the Apple watch. Jony Ive recently hired the Australian-born designer, whose 2008 Solaris watch for Ikepod was also a rounded rectangle. Apple has not confirmed Newson’s involvement with its watch.

Solaris Ikepod Watch, 2008
Courtesy Marc Newson

While many designers cast the familiar form as a negative, Fuseproject’s Yves Béhar sees it as reinforcing Apple’s design language—a branding strategy that traditional luxury watchmakers have employed for decades. “In typical Apple fashion, they’re coming out with something that’s desirable and has style,” says Béhar, whose design credits include the Jawbone Up fitness tracker.

The real promise, most designers agree, lies not in the hardware but in the user interface, which provides a warm, intimate way of communicating through a user’s heartbeat, haptic wrist taps, and a messaging function that allows her to send a finger-written doodle, which struck Edson as “endearing in an old Apple kind of way.” Rolston was similarly impressed with the payment system Apple is creating, much as it did with music ecosystem through its iPods and iTunes. He imagines the yet-unrealized potential of a wristwatch subsuming the smartphone as one’s primary smart gadget, with the added mobility and functions of being able to unlock doors and pay bills with a swipe of a hand.

But Rolston believes the technology has to mature before that can happen. Right now, he sees the Apple Watch as still in the toddler phase: “Unable to live on his own, but everyone hopes he will be president one day.”

Even though the body of the watch is thick and slightly clunky, Béhar points out that Apple has a legacy of iterating its products into more refined models. Just compare the relatively bulky first-generation iPhone with later, cleaner designs. “Everything Apple has done in the last six years has been an evolution of their design language,” he says. “If you look at watch companies, they do exactly the same thing: They own a visual style, and they stay with it for a hundred years.”

Béhar also gives credit to Apple for baking fashion into the product from the get-go, rather than treating it as an afterthought à la Google Glass. Apple addressed the notion of personal style by introducing three different collections and a range of watchbands made from elastomer, leather, and metal, with a starting price of $395. (Apple didn’t disclose what the 18-karat premium watch would cost.) Still, Béhar says, “It doesn’t mean I find the watch exciting—I find it right.”

But in trying to satisfy everyone, Amit says, Apple may have pleased no one—least of all those looking to make a fashion statement with their watch. “People in Silicon Valley will feel very good about it,” he says. “But honestly, they’re not fashion-forward guys.”

What can watch aficionados do if they want to leverage the functionality of Apple’s fitness tracker and still keep their vintage timepiece? “I think it’s a good thing we have two wrists,” says Reginald Brack, the head of retail at Christie’s, because someone might wear their real watch on one wrist and for fun sometimes wear the smartwatch on the other.”

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