is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Principal Designer at Adobe, Design Chair at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. Refer to the advertising and sponsorship page for inquiries.+
I’d like to own an Apple Watch. Or rather, I really want to want an Apple Watch. On several occasions I’ve stopped in at my local Apple Store to look at the various models and try them on, but I can never muster up the will to actually make the purchase.
Part of the reason why is because I never fell out of the habit of wearing a traditional watch on a daily basis. I own a simple, inexpensive, military-style analog watch with a canvas strap that almost wholly satisfies my expectations for a device worn on the wrist. It tells the time and date and needs almost no maintenance.
By contrast, not long ago when I borrowed an Apple Watch from the office for an extended test run, I was immediately flummoxed by having yet another digital device to mind. On several occasions I was caught unawares when I forgot to charge the Apple Watch in a timely manner, or when I tried to use it and realized I was out of range of my phone, which I’d left on my desk on the other side of the office. Charging a watch and keeping it within range of my phone aren’t really outsize maintenance demands, it’s true. But they did stop me cold and rendered the Apple Watch useless in those moments, and they’re at least an order of magnitude more demanding than my analog watch—which, again, requires that I do nothing for it to work.
Of course, this kind of overhead is part and parcel of adopting new technology. I keep that in mind each time I look at an Apple Watch in the store, and also try to remember that wearables are the future and that, as a designer, it’s almost my duty to bear these mild burdens in the interest of furthering my own craft. Plus, I have to admit, Apple makes wonderful products, and I want to own them.
However, what really stops me from buying one, the hump that I just can’t get over, is that the Apple Watch is rectangular and not round. Without a question, that is the thing that I have the hardest time abiding.
It’s just my personal preference that a watch should be round. A rectangular watch implies a definitive top, bottom, left and right, and also that the wearer should obey that orientation when looking at it. But a circle is much more forgiving; it can be read clearly from nearly any angle and it looks “right” regardless of what position your wrist is in. There’s an unquantifiable, harmonious connection to the body in a circular watch face; it’s the shape that’s most complementary to being human.
To be clear, a circle is not nearly as utilitarian a shape when it comes to a digital display. This is Apple’s reasoning for why its smartwatch is rectangular, and it’s a plausible argument. Samsung’s recently announced Gear S2 (below) is a very convincing marriage of a traditional circular watch form and a smartwatch, but it remains to be seen whether it’s actually useful at all, much less whether it’s a better product than the Apple Watch.
This is the tension that vexes me about the Apple Watch, though—the trade-off between wearing something useful and wearing something that looks and feels good. Last year, before Apple announced its smartwatch, I wrote in this blog post about the challenges of creating an entirely different product that by definition would be more fashion accessory than gadget. I described how fashionable goods are designed from the outside in—first comes how they look, and then comes how they work—rather than the way tech products have always been designed: from the inside out.
When technology companies look at goods that are built from the outside in, they generally see irrationality and inefficiency, a broken market just waiting to be corrected and ‘disrupted.’ They believe that they can engineer so much value into these items that people will be swayed to buy goods built from the inside out, that the promise that drives hardware and software—‘adopt this and benefit from its utility’—will convince people to upend their sartorial habits.
Apple got a lot of this challenge right by putting far more care, craftsmanship and good aesthetic judgment into the Apple Watch than any other wearable before it and since. The fit and finish of the hardware is amazing, and the wide range of high quality bands and styles largely satisfies what I described as the problem of creating variablity at scale—giving consumers enough options so that they could feel that each watch was their own.
But for me the decision to make a rectangular watch was just the wrong one. Even though Apple did so many things right with its watch, it still falls into the same trap that so many tech companies have fallen into before: the Watch is concerned more with tech than fashion, even if, in balancing these two during the design process, the former only just barely edges out the latter. I’m not sure what the prospects are for modifying WatchOS to work within a circular face, but I suspect I still won’t be able to bring myself to buy an Apple Watch until that happens.+