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A Fresh Start

It’s telling that of all the watch faces Apple has shipped since, only the Explorer is anywhere near the same quality of that original batch. All the others are either derivatives of the originals (e.g. Toy Story, Minnie Mouse, Timelapse), obvious examples of engineering over design (Siri, Activity), or complete WTF? (Kaleidoscope).

(Me, back in April of this year.)

I’m happy to see renewed interest in Apple’s watch face design lately. Awesome as everything else in watchOS 5 is, this year’s face additions didn’t change my thoughts on the subject from back in April. Despite loving my new Series 4, I find myself falling back on good old Simple and Chronograph more often than not.

Maybe a little less pyrotechnics, and a little more horology would be a good start.

All kidding aside, I don’t mean to suggest this is an easy problem. And it is worth noting that compared to the competition, Apple is still way ahead.[1]

There seem to be two competing needs for a modern watch face. On one hand, you have people who want beautiful, elegant designs with excellent readability. They want their watch face to look good, in other words. On the other hand, you have people who want to pack as much information into their watch face as possible via more and more powerful complications.

You’re never going to please both groups with one face.

Heck, I even find myself sometimes wanting to get more complications onto a face, even at the cost of aesthetics. So maybe it’s more accurate to say there’s no one face that can please anyone, let alone everyone.

Good thing for Apple, there’s no reason one face needs to satisfy all our needs. Just as the lack of plastic keyboard freed up the iPhone to provide a blank canvas for each app, Apple Watch has a similar chameleon-like capability.

I change my watch face as often as I change my watch bands, which is just about every day. More often, even. The versatility of the bands and styles of faces is part of the appeal of the device. This is in stark contrast to the user interfaces of any other Apple device, which each have one distinct look and feel.[2]

In the morning, you can have an information-heavy face showing you all the data you need for your health. In the evening, you can have a stark face that shows nothing but the time.

There are faces I only use with certain bands, too. You probably don’t want to pair Mickey Mouse with a link bracelet, after all.

The original watch face designs reflect an understanding of this need for variety. Each face was crafted carefully, by designers who had spent a great deal of effort learning about the history of timepiece design. The variety reflected the varying needs of not only different people, but different moods and situations. And the designs were steeped in tradition.

Complications were first-party only, few, and rather simple. Which is why so many of those faces didn’t even include any complications or had only one complication slot.

Life was much simpler back in 2014.

The faces that have come since are, as I pointed out in April, derivative of one or two of the original designs. The same hands, with various different backgrounds. Or, in the case of the Siri watch face, great tech demos that nevertheless look less than desirable.

Even the latest Infographic faces on the Series 4 watches are just less-attractive variations of Modular and and Simple.

Meanwhile, in the intervening years since those original designs, as complications became the primary way people get information from their apps, the demand for more and more complications—and more capabilities for those complications—grew. So with some faces, Apple is trying to pack in more and more of this complexity. The result, as with the Siri face, is less than desirable. Overloaded with color and text running in various directions, these faces match almost no band, and they make reading anything an exercise in distraction. I’ve tried for several days now to make either Infographic face look good to my eyes, and I’ve given up. The garish colors are just too much to bear. Even if I leave half the slots empty, there’s just too much to look at in one glance.

At the other end of the spectrum, you have new watch faces that are simply animated backgrounds of different varieties. Most of these offer few, if any complications. Sometimes for no good reason. They end up being novelties you try out for a few hours at most. But they aren’t really useful, ultimately. Some, such as Fire and Water, or Vapor, actually make it difficult to tell the time.[3]

So what can Apple do here? It’s not as if people are going to start demanding less power in their watch face. But I think Apple can certainly rise to the challenge of making new faces that balance elegance with capability. They just need to invest time and effort on the endeavor. Leave the current faces as they are, and bring in some fresh ideas, so they can design new faces in the spirit of what Apple Watch has become, rather than continuing to staple new functionality onto older designs that represent the limitations of five years ago.

Find some of the best mechanical watch face designers in the industry, bring them in house, and lock them in a room until next summer with the rest of Apple’s interface design team. I really think a fresh start is all they need.

Apple Watch Series 4 is a huge step up, in terms of a device that looks and feels more like jewelry than a computer on your wrist. Now the face(s) just need to catch up.

  1. If other smartwatches are the competition, that is. I don’t think they are. ↩︎

  2. It only makes sense, then, that this is a greater challenge requiring a greater effort to get right. And it’s an even stronger argument for why Apple should never allow third parties into this arena. ↩︎

  3. And don’t get me started with Kaleidoscope. I’m still trying to forget that one exists. ↩︎