I am less than 24 hours into owning the Apple Watch. During my anticipation of finally getting my hands on it I, like you, have read a ton of reviews about it. Most audits cover its utility, the high price tag, predictions on its success, implications on Switzerland and so on, but I haven’t read much about its industrial design.
In this post I won’t dig too deep into the user interface; I haven’t lived with it long enough to talk knowledgeably about its utility. And I definitely won’t talk about cost. Its value all depends on what the buyer is expecting to get out of it and how comfortable one feels about ponying up this kind of money. Clearly it is not for everyone, especially people who don’t care for watches or early adoption in the first place.
I tried to review the Apple Watch as a watch collector, but I really couldn’t help myself from looking at it through the lens of a professional product designer. I’ve been designing for 12 years. I know how difficult it can be to carry a vision through from idea to sketch, sketch to embodiment, and embodiment to final product. There are endless opportunities for that vision to fall short when key features get cost cut, materials get compromised, or companies let focus groups decide what’s right for the market. The Watch proves once again that Apple takes no shortcuts on the care, quality, detail and execution of its hardware.
Why not round?
The shape seems to be a little controversial for watch traditionalists. Some people think it looks like a small iPhone or that round dials look better on watches. First, opinions on the aesthetics of anything (people included) are incredibly subjective. While nearly all of the watches in my collection happen to be round because I also think it looks good, I would have been really disappointed if Apple made it just another circle. Round is such an expected shape for a watch. One of the goals of this watch is to transform the category of wearable products. From a hardware perspective, you don’t stand out if you look like everyone else. The soft-shaped square is a visual language that currently personifies Apple. It just make sense to own it, run with it, redefine it and tell people that this is what a watch should be.
It's not that big.
I was surprised that the watch isn’t as big as it looks online. Last September, my design studio gathered around a projector broadcasting the Apple announcement onto a large wall. The general sentiment was that the close up, larger-than-life images made it look really thick. In real life its proportions are no different than what you would come to expect from other timepieces. It is comfortable to wear, sits on the wrist no higher than standard watches, and the screen of the 42mm version is just the right size to do the type of quick navigation that you are expected to do with this piece of hardware. Even if a user is second-guessing the utility of its function, they cannot deny its craftsmanship. Not too many companies in the world can pull off this level of quality at this scale. Of the small handful of watches in my personal collection that match this level of true craftsmanship, material, and build quality, there are less than 10,000 units of each of those particular models that exist in the world. It can be done in small production runs, but it is very hard to do in the scale of millions.
Luxury Packaging 2.0
There were several reviews about how the packaging fell short of luxury expectations. It’s tempting to compare the box to other luxury watch packages but it’s a flawed comparison because it is fundamentally in a different category despite sharing the description of a “watch”. The Apple Watch comes in a subtly branded, thick, glossy white plastic box with a soft fabric interior lining. It is nice enough to keep, repurpose, store the watch in, or even grow a small plant in it. Conversely, it is not so needlessly precious that someone would feel wasteful or bad about throwing it away. Just because a watch costs $1000 doesn’t give it permission to be gratuitous for luxury’s sake. Other lux watch brands do it because it is the way it has always been done and I’m sure it makes some customers feel special about themselves. But Apple’s packaging is well-staged, smart, simple, and is giving “luxury” a paradigm shift that is long overdue. So I wonder what the big deal is. In 2015, is the definition of luxury packaging really still stuck in the old world mentality? Polished wooden boxes, velvet-lined interiors, antiquated clamshells, or watches wrapped around miniature silk pillows? Some of the higher end timepieces that I bought were presented like this…yawn. I thought people knew that when they are buying an Apple product they are buying into the notion that they are getting something that will help guide them into the future. That means that what they get will be inherently different. Innovative design is not supposed to be the same as it has always been. Different can be a little uncomfortable, somewhat unrecognizable, and can take people time to get used to. Different warrants people questioning a new product’s function, its presentation, its value, and it should prompt questions because new and different sometimes just doesn’t work. In this case the Apple Watch, and wearables as a whole, will eventually become mainstream as technology improves. When it finally does, people will question and criticize the utility and form factor of whatever comes next because it won’t be like the smartwatch that they have been wearing for the last ten years.
Ultimately, the Apple Watch is a small computer that takes the form of a watch. The design of the hardware happens to be very well done.