Please Stop Making Illegible Watches

A watch you can actually read means a more fulfilling longterm user experience.


Welcome to Counterpoint, a series in which we challenge commonly held ideas about well-known products. This time: illegible watches.

“People don’t buy a watch to read the time.” Jean-Claude Biver, head of LVMH’s watchmaking division, claims to have pioneered the now popular concept of a totally blacked-out watch: “When I told my head watchmaker at Hublot that I wanted a black watch that won’t let you read the time, the 70-year-old watchmaker almost fainted.”

Is Mr. Biver an innovative industry disruptor or a force that serves only to make watches irrelevant?

A watch as an ephemeral, non-functional fashion accessory is fine for some people. (To be fair, we sometimes cover them here on Gear Patrol.) However, for those who invest in a watch for years of use and enjoyment, legibility will significantly affect your experience — and it should be at the top of your list of criteria for evaluating a good watch.

Why is legibility important?

Brands might consider a striking design that sells watches to be “successful.” More than something that catches your eye in a retail environment, however, a watch is something you live with, that accompanies you through the day like few other items do. A watch is different from other jewelry partly because it’s interactive. Mr. Biver is right that no one needs a watch in order to tell the time — but a watch can, in fact, be handy, as well as fulfilling to own and use.

You can probably manage to read even the most illegible and poorly designed timepieces if you squint and move a them around in the light. When using a watch over the longterm, however, seconds or even fractions of seconds spent struggling to read the time can add up. They amount to a sense of frustration, and to watches that spend less time on wrists. Immediate, smooth legibility, on the other hand, affords an experience of comfort and satisfaction.

Photo: Zen Love

What makes a watch legible?

Contrasting colors and textures do the trick. That’s fairly self-evident, but even this basic design tenet is too often sacrificed for ostensibly aesthetic considerations. Black hands, filled with black luminescent paint (which, in reality, barely glows) against a black dial might have an edgy and artistic look, but its allure is sure to be fleeting. (Black-cased and black-dialed watches with contrasting hands, however, can be perfectly legible when well-designed.)

There are more factors that can affect the ease of time-telling. Watch out for shiny hands on dark dials as they can seem to disappear in certain lights — a good watch will be as legible as possible in all situations. Skeletonized watches can be cool, but it’s notoriously difficult to find the hands against an exposed mechanical movement. A watch’s hour and minute hands should be also immediately distinguishable from one another.

Ultimately, simple dials with matte textures and bold elements will be the most legible — it’s no coincidence that dive watches and pilot’s watches are defined by those characteristics and continue to be among the most popular watch categories.

Legible watches are beautiful watches

Designing watches with usability in mind doesn’t mean that they can’t also be attractive. On the contrary: the most iconic and timeless watch designs of all time share at least one common trait, and that’s — you guessed it — strong legibility.

Brands do a disservice to consumers by producing watches that place dazzle and quick turnover above functionality and user experience. Many watch buyers don’t know how to judge legibility nor fully appreciate its importance, and they can’t be blamed — but watch companies themselves should know better. Unfortunately, it’s up to watch buyers to arm themselves with knowledge and perspective before making hasty investments.

Mr. Biver’s emphasis on why people make a purchasing decision, rather than why they will enjoy or even use a product, seems cynical. The poor septuagenarian Hublot watchmaker who had the unreasonable task of creating a useless watch thrust upon him protested that he had been “fighting all his life for accuracy and legibility.” That’s a noble fight. As a watch buyer, you can honor him by simply asking yourself: is the watch in question easy to read?

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