Benoît Mintiens on Design
Born in Belgium, Benoît Mintiens, founder and creative genius behind Ressence, dreamed as a child to be a naval engineer but decided on a career as an industrial designer. He graduated in Industrial Design in Antwerp in 1998 and took up the position of Senior Consultant at Antwerp design firm Enthoven & Associates. While he was working there, he also gained his MBA at Vlerick Business School in 2003. He had a portfolio of designs to his credit including high-speed trains, aircraft cabins, medical devices, leather goods and even hunting guns before he ever designed a watch. On the cusp of Ressence’s 10th birthday, we caught up with Benoît to talk about his design philosophy, ergonomics and the human condition.
How did Ressence come to be?
I was a product designer for an independent consultancy and mainly focused on transportation projects – trains, trams, buses. Things like that. But within the organization, I was more generalist. We covered a very wide spectrum of projects. Well, I have a friend who was in the diamond business and he asked me to design a watch for him because he had diamonds he couldn’t sell for jewellery. That’s how he presented it. It wasn’t my cup of tea to be honest. The intention was to make watches for men, but you’re entering a certain category at that point by using diamonds. But I said, okay, let’s do it.
I created a concept with glass fibre, where you could bring light into the diamonds. And so, you could shine the light up and with that represent the time. I worked on it for one to two years, as it was a side project for me at the time. During that period, I visited Baselworld a few times and was quite shocked and extremely disappointed by the ‘creativity’ of the watch industry. I thought, did they ever work with designers? And okay, today I know why – there are good reasons for how they operate. But at the time I was naïve and didn’t know anything about watchmaking, so I was a bit frustrated. And so, I thought I’m going to design a watch for myself. And that’s really how it started. I just designed a few concepts on a Sunday afternoon, one of them was the Ressence concept.
Could you elaborate on the ideation process at Ressence?
What I believe is that the big difference between Ressence and many other brands – traditional brands, even some independent brands – is the fact that I’m not a watchmaker, I’m the designer. And that itself is not a big difference. But the point of view is very different. Generally, I don’t want to put everyone in the same basket, but when you approach the design process of a product – let’s say a watch in this case – the designer/creator will start with his core trait. For a watchmaker that’s the movement. This is often the priority or main focus. So, then you have a movement, you need a case, a sapphire crystal etc. And so, you build the product around the movement. As a consequence, for example, you end up with a crown. Well, that’s an inherently bad concept from a design standpoint as it’s large (can be knocked), it can dig into your wrist, or it may be too small or too complicated to use intuitively. This is a typical example of how a designer can see things differently, from the perspective of the user experience.
I have customers who are 35 (not 85) who have an interest in mechanical watchmaking but want something from the 21st century. So, at Ressence we start with that person and say what can we do? What is relevant? What are the ingredients that we have to invent or inject to make this project relevant to the 21st century?
We approach this from a perspective of ergonomics. We initially had to think about what we are trying to improve and to ask ourselves what would make a difference. By chasing precision, we thought well then why don’t you just buy a Quartz watch. And then in terms of finishing – well beyond a point it becomes a jewel and isn’t functional. At Ressence we have defined several fields we can improve on, such as wearability, intuitiveness and the general relationship between the user and the watch. With the Type 2, we created a product you can trust. By having trust, you establish a better relationship with the product. It creates a positive loop.
Most people think our products are organic-shaped because it’s more comfortable. And it’s true, it’s more comfortable to have an organic shape on your wrist. But that’s only part of it. It’s only part of it because unconsciously as a human being you feel more connected to organic shapes than geometric ones. And the reason for that is that in nature, flatness does not appear often. Nature does not create flat because it is a very inefficient surface. There’s a lot of surface for not a lot of content, right. Structurally speaking, it’s a very bad surface. So unconsciously, we feel closer to an organic shape. Take the example of glasses. It’s also an accessory you have on your body. You will have noticed very few glasses have a geometrical shape. It does exist tough, just look at Elton John. But even when he wears it, it looks eccentric. And that’s because people aren’t geometrically shaped. If you try and mix design languages, organic and geometrical for example, you end up with something that is not very fitting.
It’s like out of place architecture – there’s a disconnect between the language of the building and its surrounding environment.
Yes, that’s a good example. And so really, it’s this relationship that we try to improve. We do that by thinking about the relationship as an experience. But physically, you need to make that concrete. And we do that by thinking about all these different dimensions that I said. Just to make sure that interaction with the user is good, which is something that not a lot of watchmakers do.
Did that kind of focus on usability come from your earlier design work on transportation? Because that’s inherently all about both the user and the journey.
Yeah sure. And that’s why I think that our approach is very different to what other watchmakers are doing. It’s because we look at the product from a very different perspective. And the result is, is of course, very different. It was always a conscious decision because as a young brand you need to establish some recognizability. Let’s say that’s the business side of the decision. But of course, the reason why we have a dial like the one we have is there’s a good reason for it.
There’s a professor of neuroscience at Harvard who contacted us a few years ago. He was conducting a study about how the brain interprets what we see, specifically about the display of time and what happens in the brain when displayed information is processed by the brain and is decoded as a conception of time. It’s very complicated. Anyway, he contacted us as he was intrigued by our watches and thought it was potentially a more efficient way to display the time.
Respondents were shown the time on a normal watch for a fraction of a second and had to type in what time he saw – a correct answer was considered the true time plus or minus 3 minutes. So they did that for a normal watch and the result was 62%. After an explanation of the Ressence dial and after several practice tests, the respondents did the same with our dial and the result was 53%. The professor said that it was a very good score as for the other watch, the respondents had known since childhood. Anyway, I was a bit disappointed and thought I would make it better; we can improve on this. I got a crash course on how the brain works from the professor and then redesigned the watch.
We did the tests again and ended up with 92%. So, it was a lot better. In a few years from now, we’ll introduce that watch as a new way to display the time. Because it’s such a logical step for us as a brand. Many people will say, oh, it’s experimental or something like that. But in the end, no, it’s just a better watch.
Nobody’s this ambitious in terms of ergonomics, usability and legibility.
I believe it’s fundamentally important. And that’s what makes us a bit different from the rest. We have to be. It all goes back to the low levels of creativity in the industry I observed years back. But let’s be very clear, I’m 100% supportive of what the big brands do. Because if brands didn’t invest in trying to sell their brand, there wouldn’t be a trigger to draw people to watches. Because, again, you have a phone, you have a car, you have the time everywhere. So basically, you don’t need a watch. These guys are keeping the momentum by investing a lot of money.
I give the example of animals in the jungle. The big brands are the lions. They catch the prey. I am maybe a little ant that comes after. So, we are in an ecosystem where we are just a small little niche player. But we have our speciality. That’s the logic, and everybody’s happy that way. And we are not competing. I cannot say we are competing, we’re completely different in a sense. So I’m very respectful to the bigger brands because let’s be honest, most people don’t care about the watch. They want the brand. They want status.
On a Ressence, there’s no name on the dial. Because I believe it doesn’t make much sense to have a brand there. It’s not like you forgot what brand the watch is. It mainly serves to show someone else.
Brands in a way are 21st century tribes.
Yes. We are social animals. And we try to be part of a group, this can manifest itself through branding. It’s the human condition. Let’s say you’re punk or an anarchist, well you’re still part of a group – you’re just finding your group of like-minded punks or anarchists [laughs]. So, it’s just another group. It’s the same for Ressence.
This Ressence ‘group’ I presume is made up of thinkers, architects and creatives?
Yes, we have. We have even famous ones that own Ressence watches. We always say the industry is paying ambassadors, but we have clients that indirectly act as ambassadors in a way. People often ask us what our type of client is? It’s not easy to say, but if we had to paint a picture we would say it is people who aren’t seeking status. They already have it. So, they don’t need to overcompensate with a watch. Very often they wear t-shirts. A common denominator though is that it includes people who have created their wealth with their creativity and their minds. Curious people that try to move forward to change things. It’s people that are in the action, not the old money. We don’t have that. So, it’s a combination of cerebral people that have created added value with their creativity.
Considering your client base, is it liberating not wrangling with a storied history? Trying to modernise the message for a new generation.
We always say that we focus on the present because we don’t have much of a past. Ressence is only 10 years old, so we look to the future. We aim to create products that are relevant to people of today. But I also like old cars. So, I’m also a person with many dimensions, like everybody is a person with many dimensions. Our clients don’t have only have a Ressence watch. They also have a Patek, a Rolex, a Panerai or whatever. One day they feel like wearing a Rolex and on another day they feel like wearing a Ressence.
You mentioned taking inspiration from the organic shapes found in nature Are you inspired by pop-culture, architecture or other disciplines?
I’m attracted to films like Star Wars. The first two were extremely modern, they were designed by guys in the 60s and 70s. Aesthetically, if the design that you have made in the 70s is still okay today, you’ve done a great an amazing job. There are so many films that you can’t look at anymore, they’ve aged poorly. It’s often because they hired bad designers. Look at the cities in Star Wars, it’s just crazy. Even today they’re still beautiful.
Many designers start by researching other products in that field, how they look and what they can do. I don’t work like that. I have a very different approach. My first question is always, what is the context? Try to imagine the context. You have to dig deeper and try to understand the layers behind the creation. What is the DNA that has created that that living creature? What’s behind it? Why is a tree like that? Why does it look like that? What does it grow that way? Well, you have to understand that reason, otherwise, you’re going to design another tree, or you’re going to design another car. And maybe that is something that I think applies to all jobs. You have to dig deeper, otherwise, you will do what has been done before.
Tony Fadell is someone more familiar with the tech scene. How has your conception of watchmaking changed since working with somebody more aligned to the that sector?
Well, I approached Tony, because first of all, he’s a big a Ressence collector. When he wanted his fifth or sixth Ressence watch, I told him I would like to ask him a few questions, because I was thinking of launching the Type 2. We got in contact, and we met and, he said that he was willing to support me in this adventure. The big added value of Tony was that helped me win up to two years of the project. Why? Because he started by saying, okay, these are the three things you have to make sure are covered before you start anything. I didn’t know anything about electronics, so I would just start. And then I would smash my face in the wall. Many issues come up such as what is the power consumption? What’s the protocol between all the electronic components? How do I read out the position of the mechanical hands without friction? And without wear? How do I make sure that the batteries have enough power, etc, etc. All these questions. Of course you figure it all out. But you don’t know how much they are impacting the rest of the watch at the beginning of the project.
F.P. Journe also had an issue with circuitry of the Elégante – it’s much more difficult than people think.
You can’t make a mistake. People that are not developing that cannot imagine how complicated it is, to make it work. We are pissed off when our computer freezes. Yeah, well there are many thousands of times it didn’t break due to buggy code or electronics.
The e-Crown is very interesting, can you tell us about the reasoning behind it?
The reason behind this is very logical, it’s based on improving the relationship between the user and the watch. We don’t touch the mechanical integrity of the watch. It’s a mechanical link between the barrel and the hands. There’s nothing in between; you can actually remove the e-Crown and the watch will still run perfectly. For me, that’s an important thing to have. You have to have integrity in a product.
If I would leave it for 12 hours on the table, it would consider that I’m not going to wear the watch anymore. And at that point, the e-Crown will stop the mechanical movement, so that the power reserve is kept in the barrel. And from the moment you put it back on the wrist, you double-tap it, it wakes up, runs checks and will release the barrel again. So you never have to wind the watch anymore. This is just one way we can improve the experience for the user. It’s the trust of electronics in combination with the empathy of mechanics.