Last years a lot of people are complaining about the lack of new watch designs. Brands are having a hard time and seem to ‘grab’ from old designs or release upgraded reissues. I’ve spend some time thinking about this. How hard is it for brands? Aren’t we over complaining? What holds the future? Below I will share my opinion and thinking about the follow ‘hot’ question: Why are there so little new designs anno 2017? 

When you look at some big brand releases these days you would almost think they use a machine like this:

Watch Design anno 2017

The machine illustrates the modern design workflow for a lot of brands. Let me explain the steps. The base is always an ‘old’ model. Then the following steps to create a ‘new’ model (also see the illustration):

  1. Change colors in some way or add accent(s)
  2. Stretch and change proportions to modern sizes (e.g. enlarge a case from 36 to 41mm)
  3. Mix and blend some other elements or models with it
  4. Boost the specifications (e.g.  in-house movement, ceramics etc.)

Ok, back to reality. Besides the fact that brands could use ancestors for easy cashing I would like to expose some other possible causes of watch design repetitions and the lack of freshly designed watches.

1. Shape Possibilities Aren’t Endless

Imagine you make a round and a square cased watch. What shape are you going to create next? Right. Besides a few exotic other shapes, it becomes really different to create a true unique silhouette. Actually, I do think that watches are quite similar to evolution of music and fashion. At some point almost everything was done and so we’re starting to repeat/use things from the past. Whether it’s a high-rise jeans or a re-use of a Beatles sample. Sure, not all ground is covered yet. But it is becoming increasingly difficult (and expensive) and not everyone is waiting for more bizarre shaped watches. A discrepancy: most of us want significant different watches, but the majority want to stick to the shapes/designs of their ancestors.

Only a few ‘masters’ like Gerald Genta succeed in finding true unique shapes and design elements.

2. Don’t Loose The Practical Purpose

The purpose of a watch is to display time and time related matters. As a human we need to be able to determine this. As a designer you can’t neglect things like contrast and legibility. Although you could theoretically use all the colors of the rainbow, the fact is that more people love black than turquoise. White on black is a better contrast compared to white on turquoise and it probably will sell better. Not unimportant anno 2017, where a lot of watch brands are having a hard time to keep themselves financially healthy. I do think a lot of brands are opting for ‘safe’ these days.

3. Critical Shrinking Market

In 1960 almost everyone was wearing a watch. You simply had no other compact ‘instruments’ to display this. Fast forward to 2017: everyone has a (smart)phone with accurate time. Besides this smart watches are gaining followers and the next generation grows up with digitalisation instead of the romance of winding rotors and oils. Ergo, at some point the market will mainly exist of critical connoisseurs. Watch design will become harder than ever.

4. Bound to Identity

Imagine you design a very distinctive element on a watch. It becomes your trademark for decades (and it sells good). When you give up to this you need to start from scratch and initiate a new branch. While it is good for variation in the world of watches, I do think it’s a strong element when you can discover a clear relation / watch family. The bottleneck is to find a good balance between shared and unique parameters.

Minimalistic watches are more bound to keeping certain elements intact. Imagine that Panerai would drastically change the typeface for the numbers ’12’,’3′, ‘6’ and ‘9’

How Can We Support New Designs?

Ok, now that I’ve highlighted some possible causes let’s look at how we can support / stimulate new concepts and watch design. Pro-active and even without spending money.

Share Your Opinion

We love showing each other watches on social media. But there is more. Big and small watch brands are out there and they are desperate for your opinion. Every now and then I try to comment on posts what I (dis)like. Even with a negative comment with the argument I support the brand. They want to hear what we think. Of course, clicking a thumps-up is good, but a comment with argument adds true value. Even bigger brands are increasingly acknowledging the power of social media and we often forget that our voice/impact wasn’t as big in the past as it is today. I do think the future and existence of watches lies in social media. Maybe in some cases, combined with landing pages or an app.

Heuer The Autavia Cup website

Although it was not based on new design, Heuer definitely tried another approach. The interaction with the passionated crowd was unlike previous campaigns. A nice example of a modern setup.

Dare to be Different and Break with the Past

It’s good to see that brands move from classic media channels to channels that are more dynamic. Omega and Armin Strom are good examples of brands who are pioneers in terms of this direction. But often, the campaigns and posts are still a bit too conventional. But also this will solve itself. As digitalisation increases and more brands are active on social media another challenge rises. This development will force brands to be different and start new experiments…

Overall I’m confident that new designs will come. Maybe not as big as in the past, but as we discovered, this is quite logical. Focus on small details, support online and enjoy the digital show yet to come.

I would love to hear your opinion about watch design. Please leave comments below.

  • DanW94

    Regarding Number 4: Bound to Identity. I think that’s why you’re seeing somewhat of a renaissance in watch making with the micro-brands and smaller independents.They’re not bound by tradition, a specific brand DNA. They’re free to start from scratch, create their own identity and forge something different. Of course not all kickstarter and micro-brands have such vision.That’s why we end up so many homages and derivative designs amongst the truly imaginative ones. It’s our job as watch enthusiasts to separate the wheat from the chaff.

    • Thank you for your wise words. And indeed. We have an important job as enthusiasts 🙂

  • Thank you for the insightful and well written article. I’m going to answer your question with a question. What about customization? If the established players were to offer customers the ability to customize their watches (dials, colors, fonts, functions, etc.) they might see a boost in creativity. Nike allows one to customize individual pairs of sneakers. Bamford makes a small fortune customizing several models of Rolex. The new “Universal Chronographs,” with their extensive customization, have been well received. So why not the established players? If I could chose modern superluninova instead of the (imho) awful vintage lume offered, exclusively, on the Omega reissues introduced in Basel, I might have sprung for one or more. And if Rolex were to offer the OP39 with a black dial and white indices, I would have bought one last month instead of a new Tudor. I realize the industrial behemoths focus on scale. But their margins are ludicrous and they could find a way to make a profit while offering customization.

  • Mickele

    Innovation and design are still part of the industry.
    In fact you have to look at micro-brands or independent watch makers.
    True that traditional watch makers cannot easily reinvent themselves for the reasons you have stated above, but micro-brand or independent watch maker are less affected but these reasons and still can be inventive.
    Examples: Louis Moinet, Speake-Marin, De Bethune, Vianney Halter, Andreas Strehler, Bovet, Droz, Akrivia, MB&F…Just to name few.
    As a personal taste, I would any time choose a Louis Moinet over a Rolex for instance.

  • Mickele