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.
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.