Apple makes the ugliest watch faces on the planet

I’m late to the Apple Watch Series 5 game and I only bought mine last night. I’ve been putting off the purchase primarily because I’ve seen the 44mm on multiple wrists and the most common face, called Infograph, looked so odd. What was this abomination? Why were people using it? Why were there so many little circles?

I finally bit the bullet and ordered one and now I can unequivocally say that Apple’s watch face designs are awful.

I honestly thought I could get away with not caring. After all, the best watch face on the device, the so-called Modular, is so useful and elegant. It tells you exactly what you need to know, offers a few simple complications, and stays out of your way. With Infograph, however, you realize that Apple misunderstands both horology and design and feels that some weird skeuomorphic fever dream can pass for a real watch face.

A little TV or a watch?

The first question we need to ask ourselves is whether the Apple Watch is a screen on your wrist or a watch.

A watch, be it a Seiko, a Timex, or a Rolex, is a specific type of device that does a few things well. In real watchmaking, so-called complications are added features that make the watch better. The complications work in concert with the face, hands, and movement to offer a bit more information about the world.

Most watches have one or two complications. In fact, a date window and a seconds hand are, in some situations, considered complications. Anything that adds to the basic process of telling time is an important departure for the watchmaker to make.

Complications are just that: complicated. The most complicated watch made has 57 complications including an astronomical calendar, lunar calendar, chimes, and stop watches. This massive watch is as thick as a hockey puck and costs millions of dollars. Why? Because each and every part is handmade and mechanical. And, I’d add, very elegant.

Another watch, the Marie Antoinette, featured a few dozen complications when the Parisian watchmaker Abraham Breguet’s son finished it in the early 1800s.

Each one of these is a work of art. They tell the time and various other things in ways at once limited and unleashed by the ability of master watchmakers. These complications are tours de force, the best efforts of watchmakers bent on expressing time as art.

Making a watch takes years of toil and training. Making a watch is to capture time behind glass and mete it out to the wearer one beat at a time. Watches are important and their faces are doubly-so. The faces of the best watches are never an afterthought.

That’s why Apple’s faces are such garbage.

Apple thinks the Apple Watch is a watch. It isn’t. It’s a clever little screen that sits where a watch should sit. It has the ability to do everything these complicated watches can do and more and, thanks to its connection to the iPhone, it can connect to the world in ways that Breguet could only dream.

That said, to call a mish-mash of ugly fonts, bright colors, and silly subdials a set of “complications” is like calling McDonald’s a fine meal. In one meaning of the word – fine – we are correct. McDonald’s makes an acceptable product that will assuage hunger. It is fine. It is the epitome of gastro-engineering. You won’t die from it but you won’t be brought to new heights of pleasure or appreciation. But in another sense, calling it a fine meal – a meal made with care and precision, passion and love – is patently false.

Apple’s watch faces are the same way. They are fine but they’re not fine.

They can’t all be bad?

Don’t get me started. The California face first appeared in watches shipped by Rolex in 1934, and they patented it in 1942. The half-numerical/half-geometric design was designed for maximum readability underwater. Apple took the design and turned it into something monstrous by bolting in complications.

The California face was made for a specific purpose and for a specific time. Undone makes a clone of the original and if you want the California face that’s what you should get. If you want to read the time, get your heart rate, and see the latest CNN headlines, Apple already has a perfect face for that and it ain’t California. Further, the California dial is supposed to sit on a round face because divers, by dint of having to go underwater, are usually round. Apple sticking it onto a square is silly.

Patent 221643, claiming the dial that came to be known as California

Don’t get me started on whatever the rest of the faces mean. The most clever faces are basically the cartoon models featuring Woody and Mickey Mouse. Those are fine if you’re into that stuff. The rest, excluding Modular, are garbage. They insult watches, Apple, and the memory of watchmakers around the world.

The Apple Watch is best when it is simplest. It is a very powerful tool in a very small package and I wear it regularly. It “Just Works,” as they say, and with the right watch face it is nearly perfect. So why does Apple keep screwing it up so much?

I think the “freedom” afforded by the Apple Watch and the desire to be seen as a fashion product clouds Apple’s judgement. They know nothing about watchmaking and they think that doing the same things that watchmakers do – namely sticking a lot of information onto an object the size of a postage stamp – is easy. It isn’t.

The original iPod had a single interface. The iOS is remarkably rigid. Mac OS only just got a dark mode. Apple knows how to be careful. Apparently, then, the company let its worst designers go nuts with the Apple Watch. After all, it doesn’t want them touching the products that are well-designed and attractive.

They’re given free reign to insult our intelligence and the best they can do is offer us whatever this goofy crap is in the name of fashion.

John Biggs

John Biggs is an entrepreneur, consultant, writer, and maker. He spent fifteen years as an editor for Gizmodo, CrunchGear, and TechCrunch and has a deep background in hardware startups, 3D printing, and blockchain. His work has appeared in Men’s Health, Wired, and the New York Times.

View all posts by John Biggs →

9 thoughts on “Apple makes the ugliest watch faces on the planet

  1. That’s one of the reasons I sold my Apple Watch after eight months or so. Every watch face looked like it was designed for a third grader. I see they haven’t gotten better.

      1. Apple offers no complication options with a few of their faces. Doesn’t want? Or doesn’t encourage. You have the option.

        Are some of the faces redic? Sure, but this article paints the picture of just about everything being a whiney waste of time. Go full screen or round with no complications. Whether apple “wants you to” or not, you certainly can.

  2. Everyone?s entitled to their opinion but I have to say I love the Infograph Apple Watch face. It all depends on what you use the device for. Just want to see what time it is? Use a simple face. I like to have quick access to workouts, the temperature outside, the ECG, my rings and the time. I get all that in one. I think it?s gorgeous. To each their own.

      1. I had stopped wearing a watch for years – I am a geologist and field work would destroy my watches. But starting with Series 1 (before it was called that), I became hooked on the Apple Watch, mainly for fitness and health, now I feel naked if I forget to put it on. 🙂

  3. Sorry, but with this comment: “With Infograph, however, you realize that Apple misunderstands both horology and design and feels that some weird skeuomorphic fever dream can pass for a real watch face.” I have to conclude the point here is that “it doesn’t look sophisticated” outweighs “it works for me.” Apple misunderstands design?

    I’m not talking “design woo hoo!” kind of design. As Steve Jobs famously put it, design is not about how something looks, it’s about how it works. I use Infograph for one basic reason. It’s the only face I can use that lets me put what I need on the watch face for all the things I do (as a heart patient and more).

    My own experience with wathces is not from decades of knowledge, but I did help put together a book on watches for the jewelry industry. And maybe I was enamored by names such as Audemars Piguet, Vacheron Constantin, and Patek Phillipe. But once I got over the fact that a $12 Timex beats a $12,000 Rolex for accuracy after watching a Rolex technician calibrate some watches at a trunk show, I still never spent money on a watch I really lusted after until the Apple Watch.

    As for Apple watch being a “fashion statement,” I’d have to think the author wasn’t around when it was introduced because he certainly didn’t catch the point that many people have been yammering about how ugly the Apple Watch is because it’s square and not round like horo-orthodoxy demands of watches. (Clearly from people who have no clue.)

    The Apple watch may lack the coolness of Chopard, or the precise engineering of a IWC Schaffhausen, or the outrageously Elton John-esque over the top design like a Panerai. But it’s a watch, and it does what we need. And that is good design. If it’s not horological debauchery, meh, I’m good.

    Edit: (Look up the word skeumorphic.)

  4. Whether the faces are ugly is a secondary consideration — an important one, yes, but secondary. What matters most is whether they work: do they quickly and clearly communicate the information I need when I need it. As an owner of a Series 4, I have to admit that there are significant issues with most of the faces, and severe issues with some of the faces when used with more than one or two complications.

    The best analogue-style face is Utility because it presents the time and date clearly: instantly readable, low clutter (if you choose the right settings for it). It may not be beautiful but it works very well. Add a couple of plain (not multicoloured) complications around the edge, and they present additional information without unduly distracting from the main face. But many complications that will fit this face are still too distracting, and many people would like more complication slots than this face allows.

    By contrast, the analogue-style Infograph face isn’t sufficiently customisable to make its main dial clear, even if you don’t add any complications. Add more than one or two complications (the face will take eight or so) and the result is so colourful and vivid that you really have to squint just to tell the time. If Apple had chosen to differentiate the “layer” of complications, e.g. by making their colours less saturated or bright, then the result might be more usable.

    In short, it is very hard to set up a watch face which presents more information (to fulfil the potential of a device with access to so much live data) while also presenting it clearly (to make it worthwhile to put such data on your wrist).

    We can only hope that in a future version of watchOS Apple will allow us proper flexibility and control over the layout and composition of the faces. Currently, of the fixed selection of layouts and choices, only two or three really do a good job — the others are either bad or just fun/silly. Which is a pity, because in many or even most other aspects the Apple Watch is a superb device.

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