Fitbit Counts on Design to Set It Apart From Other Trackers
Gadi Amit, the designer responsible for the look of Fitbit’s fitness trackers, will be moving on.
Last April, Fitbit hired a new vice president of industrial design, Jonah Becker, to build an internal design team that would oversee its ever-growing number of products. Since then, Becker and Amit have been quietly working together to formalize a design language that will set Fitbit apart from its competitors.
Amit and his San Francisco–based New Deal Design team have been crafting the look of Fitbits since the company was founded in 2007. A lot has changed in the past nine years: Fitbit is now in a crowded field of wearables that includes the likes of Apple, Garmin, Jawbone, and Misfit. Following its $358 million initial public offering in June 2015, Fitbit now produces eight models and plans to release many more.
“The volume of activity—I can tell you from my vantage point—has grown an order of magnitude over the last three years,” said Amit. That level of production is more than an already-busy design consultancy can handle. (The designer’s other credits include Google’s modular phone, Project Ara; Lytro light-field cameras; and Sproutling, a sleep-monitoring anklet for babies.) But there’s another advantage to having an in-house team, Amit said: “You can guide it long term, and you own all the intellectual property.”
Amit and Becker aren’t strangers. They met in 1997 while working at Frog, a global design and strategy agency with an office in San Francisco, and they share a history of consulting in Silicon Valley: Becker spent 15 years as president of the San Francisco agency One & Co., whose client list included Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Dell. “If a project came to me that I couldn’t do because of a conflict, I was always happy to pass along Gadi’s name, and vice versa,” Becker said. In 2008, One & Co. was acquired by HTC, one of its clients, and Becker later spent a year as HTC’s associate vice president of industrial design until he left for Fitbit.
Now Becker and Amit meet weekly to bat around ideas for new products that will build off the angular forms Amit developed for Fitbit’s recent releases, the $130 Alta wristband and the $200 Blaze fitness watch. (Both trackers have performed well for Fitbit, which reports shipping more than 1 million of each in March, their first month of availability.) Here, they take us through the major design moves that show up in those gadgets and that foreshadow Fitbit’s future rollouts.
Erase the logos on the most popular mobile phones, and they’re hard to tell apart. They’re all rectangles with rounded corners. It’s a form factor that now pervades personal consumer electronics. So for Blaze, Fitbit’s answer to the Apple Watch, Amit arrived at a different shape: the octagon. Not only is it unique among fitness trackers; it’s also a visual sleight of hand. The diagonal lines at the corners of the screen minimize the gadget’s bulk in comparison to its relatively thinner strap.
Amit took a similar approach with the Alta, creating a faceted side that, again, makes the electronic part appear thinner. Both Alta and Blaze were designed about two years ago, but Becker is committed to Amit’s gem-like geometry that creates the feel of jewelry—at least for the short term. “I wouldn’t want to say that three to five years from now the products we’re doing are going to look exactly the way they do now,” Becker said. Still, one can surmise that existing devices without the geometric look—such as the globby, smooth-cornered Zip clip—will likely be redesigned or discontinued in the interest of creating “one family of products.”
All Fitbits will henceforth be modular. What that means: As with Alta and Blaze, every screen will be removable for pairing with bracelets in different colors, textures, and materials. The ability to mix and match speaks to Fitbit’s goal of appealing to a wide swath of users—“grandma at age 70 and granddaughter at 17,” Amit said. Women and men will choose from wristband styles ranging from understated and sporty to upscale and blingy—in theory, swapping from one style to another depending on their setting. “We expect the users to switch the appearance of the design very quickly to support this 24/7 usage of Fitbit, even while the social context changes,” Amit says.
As with the very first Fitbit, the gadgets won’t broadcast personal statistics. “When we designed the Clip, it was designed so some people could hide it,” Amit said. “It was completely contrarian to the world of pedometers that people—usually middle-aged men—would put on that were built with a big a screen screaming out how many steps they’ve done.”
The aversion to flaunting one’s athletic prowess stems from Fitbit’s laid-back Bay Area sensibility. “James is not the only CEO in this area to wear hoodies to work on a regular basis,” Becker said of Fitbit's chief executive officer and co-founder, James Park. “As someone who migrated here in the early ’90s,” says Israeli-born Amit, “it took me a couple of months to figure out that the guy with the most torn jeans is the guy with power in the room.” He likens Fitbit to the perfect pair of jeans—worn with flip-flops on the weekend or dressed up with a blazer or pair of heels.
There’s no firm timeline for when Amit will entirely step away. He and Becker describe their collaboration as seamless. “There’s definitely a handoff,” Amit said. “At the same time, there’s definitely a continuation—the continuation is about the design language that we established two years ago.” But in outlining its design language, won’t Fitbit invite imitators and diminish its competitive edge? Amit is unconcerned: “When you’re doing something that is distinctive in design from the outset, it’s very clear who was the original and who is the copycat.”