Tech companies still don’t understand watch design

Here’s a non-news flash: A watch — any watch — has to be designed and styled in an attractive, comfortable way for me to want to wear it. If it either looks like it was penned by a 5-year-old or has the same level of comfort as wrapping barbed wire around my wrist, no amount of functionality will convince me to put it on.

It seems so bizarre to still be saying this, yet we’re more than eight years into the “modern” smartwatch revolution, and still there are only a handful of models I want to wear on a regular basis. Why is it taking so long for tech companies to understand how to consistently make a desirable smartwatch?

Where did it all go wrong?

If smartwatch design wasn’t so tragic most of the time, it would be highly amusing. In our 2014 review of the LG G Watch — a foul pustule of a wearable — our Mobile editor at the time wrote:

“The vast majority of smartwatches are horribly ugly, boxy contraptions with boring, rubbery straps. It may sound shallow, but when it comes to wearables, looks do matter. They matter a lot.”

LG G Watch Black Side
LG G Watch

With only a few slight modifications, these sentences could still ring true today, and that’s simply not good enough. LG wasn’t the only one causing eyes to bleed either. The original Pebble was toylike and an embarrassment to wear, Samsung’s Galaxy Gear and Gear 2 watches lacked style, and the Sony Smartwatch 2 had more angles than a con man.

Amazingly, seven years after the LG G Watch turned stomachs, companies like Mobvoi, Fitbit, and dozens of cheap no-name brands on Amazon still churn out boxy, ugly, boring contraptions and expect us to strap them onto our bodies, no questions asked. Smartwatch design has become lazy when it should be flourishing.

All the same

The design meetings for many smartwatches today must all go something like this:

  • Step 1: Choose round or square case.
  • Step 2: Choose leather strap for “classy” or silicone strap for “sporty.”
  • Step 3: Add titanium/sapphire crystal/other material for “luxury” version.
  • Step 4: Job done — early lunch!

What happens once the design team takes the afternoon off is we end up with smartwatches that all look very similar. Meet the OnePlus Watch, Amazfit GTR 2, Samsung Galaxy Watch Active 2, Huawei Watch GT2 Pro, Honor MagicWatch 2, Garmin VivoActive 4S, and Polar Ignite in a dark alley, and it’ll be a struggle to tell them apart. It’s even worse if you’re a woman or someone with small wrists. The “choice” is practically nonexistent, and if you don’t want something sparkly or pink, it’s eroded even further.

Amazfit GTR 2 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

Most of the models mentioned above are good, perhaps even great, smartwatches, but if almost no thought has been put into the design of a watch, where is my motivation to wear it every day? Watches can be seen, and like it or not, they say something about you and your taste. In the same way I don’t want to wear exactly the same clothes as everyone else or drive exactly the same car, I don’t want to wear exactly the same watch either.

What’s annoying is none of this is new information, and the smartwatch world no longer has the excuses of just starting out or being shackled by technological restrictions. What it’s doing is going through the motions and hoping no one notices.

Without emotion, it won’t work

Watches that all look the same are boring. There are more than enough tech companies and watch brands making smartwatches today that there should be more variation, imagination, and love put into design. It’s not so much about the shape of the case but about the intricacies that make the watch visually attractive or eye-catching.

It could be button design or placement. It could be how the strap attaches to the lugs or how the lugs blend into the case. It could even be the look of the strap or its clasp, the watch faces available, the type of chamfer or polish used on the case, and so much more. There is an entire industry that makes watches that aren’t “smart,” and there’s no shortage of incredible design there.

Simply put, a watch needs an identity and character to appeal and captivate. Those who design it need to put careful thought, and preferably some kind of emotion, into making it. This way, there’s a good chance you’ll feel something about the watch too. Just because it’s a piece of technology and it has a screen instead of a dial doesn’t mean it should be treated like a cheap refrigerator.

Do any get it right?

There are smartwatches out there that prove it can be done. The most recent, and perhaps best, example is the Casio G-Shock GSW-H1000. It’s a Wear OS smartwatch with a touchscreen, but it looks, feels, and wears almost exactly like any other G-Shock watch. It’s a smartwatch made by a company that, for fans of the brand, perfectly understands watchmaking. No corners have been cut, and no concessions made to appeal to a wider audience. Crucially, it’s a G-Shock watch before it’s a smartwatch.

G-Shock GSW-H1000 Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

TAG Heuer, Hublot, Montblanc, and Movado all make smartwatches that draw on the brand’s watchmaking heritage — anything from the screws used in the case to the shape and design of the crown — so the resulting product feels like it’s a cohesive part of the range. Alpina and Frederique Constant don’t use touchscreens but incorporate connected technology into watches that don’t differ hugely from any of their traditional, and highly recognizable, models. Fossil’s many designer brands also get it right, with Skagen and Diesel in particular consistently releasing uniquely designed watches.

Alpina AlpinerX Andy Boxall/Digital Trends

It’s not just experienced watch brands either. The Withings ScanWatch is a beautifully designed watch with masses of high-tech functionality. Garmin’s varied Marq models are a similarity effective blend of established watch design and tech along with sensible use of luxury materials. Finally, there’s the Apple Watch, which wears better than almost any other smartwatch you can buy today, and the look can be instantly altered by fitting one of the hundreds of straps available for it and applying one of the tasteful watch faces installed as standard.

Not an easy task, but worth doing

Not every smartwatch has to be unique, not every design has to be a work of art, and not everyone will care whether they emotionally connect to the thing on their wrist. Technology should be at the forefront in a smartwatch, and of course there is a need for the device to reach a wide audience. Getting the mix right is a difficult task. Just ask Citizen, which couldn’t quite make its otherwise decent CZ Smart smartwatch “Citizen-like” enough.

However, the challenge shouldn’t mean abandoning effort and settling for a boring, established design. A smartwatch should catch the eye with its attractiveness, always feel comfortable, and be influenced by what works on traditional watches. It shouldn’t be so faceless that it’s impossible to pick out in a lineup.

As we close in on a decade since the Pebble Smartwatch first arrived, smartwatch makers need to think more about the design and less about fitting yet another health tracking sensor and calling it a reason to buy. There’s an interesting new software platform for wearables on the horizon, so let’s not waste it by putting it on another dreary, faceless piece of hardware.

In the not too distant future, I’d love to be in the position to settle on, and recommend, at least one new smartwatch to wear each day because it satisfies my desire for both good design and serious tech — one that I want to look at, not just glance at because a notification has arrived. Is that too much to ask?

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