When you think of masterful watch design, what springs to mind? Maybe it’s the meticulous and mysterious innerworkings hidden behind the case back. Or the distinctive styling of its silhouette, face, and strap. Or an exceptional standard of technical acumen and functionality. But for Brandon Little VP of Product Design and members of his team, it’s all those things—and so much more. Read on to learn what makes a Shinola timepiece, well, timeless.
The team’s makeup is just as intricately designed as its handiwork, bringing together a tightknit group of experts in their own fields—each with unique passions that led them here. Brandon hails from a background that melds graphic and decorative arts with industrial design. “When you put [those subjects] all together, you get watches that live somewhere in the middle of technical and artistic craft. You’ve got a heartbeat,” he says, adding, “That, to me, was the ‘unlock.’”
Senior Designer Molly Wang, who holds a BFA in Art and Craft and an MFA in Industrial Design, infuses a fine art sensibility into her work. For her, it’s “the combination of composition [and] colors” and bringing them into flawless balance.
Senior Designer and packaging design wizard Zach Fox taps his industrial design background to bring a watch’s presentation to life. “There’s so much story behind a watch. How can we use the packaging to convey it?” Although it may seem like an afterthought to some, good presentation enhances and completes the experience of “meeting” your watch for the first time. “Packaging is the transition of not holding the watch to holding the watch, it warms you up to it.”
Design Director Greg Verras also credits industrial design for his fascination with “complexities and movement, the history and the craft in it. I appreciate more design-led watches.” He was first drawn to Shinola by “the idea of something non-disposable, and I’m attracted to the U.S. flavor.”
Speaking of U.S. flavor, American style is a key ingredient in the Shinola recipe. Contrasting it with the cool, scientific perfection of European watch design, Greg says, “It’s more approachable. You can see the factory in the work.” Brandon agrees, “It’s more robust and industrial. We’re more warm [and] a little friendlier.”
When asked about what else inspires them, the team lights up. Brandon cites an obvious—and endless—source of inspiration, time and again: Detroit. Shinola designers take cues, not only from the city’s rich history of American industrialization, but its architectural gems. “There’s so much these buildings have in their lobbies and tilework.” Take the Book, for example, whose oval face echoes the iconic Book Tower’s magnificent skylight.
Molly gravitates toward shapes found in nature and notes that the team as a whole often references bygone American brands, designs, and fashion. She also loves a good vintage fair. “We go to the Vintage Electronics Expo. You see a lot of old phones and crazy things.” In fact, the colorful Detrola was named after an old portable radio discovered at the Expo. But it turns out the craziest inspo the team has conjured so far didn’t come from an object but an animal. “The tardigrade,” Molly laughs, referencing the tiny and adorable sea creature also known as a water bear.
But sometimes, the best inspiration arrives in human form. “We’re drawn to certain people,” Greg says, mentioning the Shinola Great American Series, which created a special edition Runwell in honor of Jim Thorpe with the next tribute rolling out soon. “We love an underdog story,” he says, speaking for Shinola and most Detroiters alike.
So what makes a truly outstanding watch design? For Greg, it’s proportion and “how everything relates to everything else. A great band has guitars and drums. But bad bands have those things as well. It’s about harmony. At a certain point it becomes alive and special.”
For Zach, it’s navigating that narrow line between excellence and overkill. “[Great design] is not trying to do 50 things, but the whole has detail to it and everything has been touched. It’s not staying safe and making it bland either.” Brandon concurs. “You can be so classic that it’s boring, but you can take it to an extreme and it’s obsolete in a few years.”
Molly adds, “When you look at it, it feels familiar but then when you examine the details you discover new ideas. It’s still exciting.”
Before dashing off to his next meeting, Brandon sums it up his answer in a final thought: “You’ve gotta be able to wear it. ‘Worn out, worn well’, we use that a lot. We want these things to be worn.”