10/09/2014

Two design observations on the Apple Watch

So the 'big reveal' is done. The speculation can die down for a few months and the crowds of early adopters have at least 5 months to whip themselves in to a rabid frenzy, before they can get their hands on Apple's Watch.

The event itself was a fairly standard Apple affair (excluding some chronic streaming glitches). On reviewing the new product alongside Apple's product line up I was left with two design questions buzzing around my head.

1. Will Apple ever regain a distinct or consistent UI design?

When Apple launched the original iMac, iBook, G3 and OSX they achieved something special. Their hardware and UI design was unlike anything else and consistent. The shiny, bubbly curves backed with a subtle pinstripe was everywhere. Over time their design was copied to hell. It also aged pretty badly. The hardware design went off in a new, cleaner direction. The UI design was draped in skeuomorphism.

With the recent unveiling of iOS8 and Yosemite OS it looked like Apple was making a move to bring things closer together. However the Watch showed another new branch of design thinking and the iPhone 6 has moved against the UI design. On a desktop you've got mixtures of flat UI and 3D elements. On a handheld device we've got squarcle app icons. On the Watch you've got circles and bouncy animations.

The hardware is equally disparate. The MacPro is dark, glassy and curvaceous. The iPad is slim, sleek with sharp edges. The new iPhone curved, matt and available in gold. Throughout the range there are drops of high colour, but in each instance it's a different colour range.

Whilst the new product launch was certainly exciting I felt Apple are still lacking a design language that you could say is "very Apple".

2. Do Apple have the design chops to take on watch designers?

Questioning Apple's hardware design capability seems foolish, but in previous products they've taken on categories known for poor design. Mobile phones, Computers and portable music players were all pretty ugly sights before Apple gave us their view. But watch designers have been making beautiful timepieces for many, many decades. The likes of Omega, Rolex TagHeuer, Cartier and Breitling have been refining their trade for a very long time. Is Apple's Watch good enough to displace a family heirloom? Can it hold its own against fashion brands like Armani or Gucci?

I have no doubt that initially there will be a huge rush for the Watch. For a period it will be seen in all the right places. Perhaps with the likes of Marc Newson and Paul Deneve onboard they can steadily build a presence in the fashion world. But the real test is going to play out over a much longer period.