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Thursday, September 11, 2014

Apple Watch Design Review: Elite Designers Aren't Impressed

Apple Watch: These Top Designers Aren't Impressed
Photograph by Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Photo

Apple (AAPL)
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 (GOOG)
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 NewsonSolaris Ikepod Watch, 2008While
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 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 payments 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 is
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—and least of all those looking
to make a fashion statement with their watch. “People in Silicon Valley
will feel very good about,” 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.”

Lanks is the design editor of
- Businessweek

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