The Typography & Design of Vehicle Dashboards

Editor’s Note: This article on dashboard design and typography was originally published in the Fall 2016 Issue of Print Magazine. Check it out here, or subscribe.


dashboard-typography

Sometimes typography really is a matter of life and death. Are automakers keeping us safe—now and in the future—with dashboard design and typography?

The dashboard—basically, the first thing a driver looks at once he or she is settled in behind the wheel—is an evolutionary leftover from the carriage trade. For a passenger seated directly behind a horse’s hindquarters, the all-important dash was the only barrier between himself, mud and manure.

Ford’s Model T (in production from 1908–1927) didn’t exactly have what we’d recognize today as a dashboard, because everything was manual—the gas gauge was a wooden ruler. As automotive features became more advanced and drivers needed to keep an eye on speed, oil pressure, engine temperature and the like, readouts and gauges to transmit the information began to feature into the design of the dashboard, bringing along a need for typography that was clear enough to be read with a quick glance.

The 1927 Ford Model A’s state-of-the-art dashboard, while more advanced than the Model T’s, was still primitive by today’s standards. Not even a full dashboard, it’s a simple cluster of four readouts. Although there was an attempt to design it and give it some style, it can barely be called an instrument panel. The controls were attached with cables and wires to make them work; rather than running connections through an electrical junction, everything was hardwired directly into whatever it was measuring. On both of these Fords, the little bit of dashboard typography needed was not highly sophisticated—it was basic, plainspoken, instructive.

By comparison, just about 10 years later the dashboard on the 1936 Cord 810 had a completely integrated, futuristic look. An orderly array of dials, in simple black and white with accents of red, marches across the stainless steel dash. The symmetrical arrangement of the top row of speedometer, tachometer, oil pressure and a clock, grouped over levers for the choke and other mechanical functions, presents a clear hierarchy of well-spaced sans serif type presented in a logical, simple sequence. A driver could assimilate the location of information in seconds after settling down behind the wheel, and most critically, could read the gauges while the car was in motion without becoming too distracted.


Good typographic choices literally can be a matter of life and death.


By 1939, the American automobile reached mechanical maturity and the amount of information pretty much maxed out on the dash. All the available features representing the most cutting-edge technology of the day were in place at this point: hydraulic brakes, automatic transmission, air conditioning, a radio. A full dashboard was needed to keep track of everything, and from here on, to innovate the dash, the need (or imaginary need—more on that later) for the information drove the design additions.


Information Design & Safe Typography

From the outset, the automotive industry failed to prioritize dashboard design according to consumer safety needs. The best typography in the world can’t communicate information if a driver has to work at hunting out the particular gauge he or she needs at that minute. In the dashboard’s human factors nightmare zone, there are no consistent locations in the industry for the controls of the windshield wipers, the air conditioning, the hazard signal, and so on, because manufacturers keep moving this stuff around and trying to cram more into the same space. It’s an informational disaster illustrating how the industrial design and ergonomic planning of a car, and the typography upon its dashboard, are inseparably linked.

Let’s consider a basic feature: speedometers. They fall within the category of items you look at thousands of times during your life without ever really noticing them. You see the speed, not the meter. And if you do notice the meter, chances are you don’t think about the design of it, even though the auto manufacturer undoubtedly did some research beforehand regarding the legibility of typefaces, the right size of the numbers, and the spaces between them.

dashboard-design The design of the speedometer itself hasn’t changed much over the decades. In contemporary cars that continue to use analog dials, although the typography tends toward the utilitarian rather than artfully designed, the dashboards at least have a classic, standard look.

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Ford Model A (image courtesy of rudolphduran.com)

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Cord 810 Convertible Coup

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Mini Cooper

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Porsche Cayman GT4

Dashboards on recent models of the Mini Cooper, the Porsche Cayman and the Cadillac Escalade include instrument clusters that are well-organized and feature type that’s easy to read. These are far-better designed and thought out than the Ford Thunderbird reboot from 2002, which tried to take all its styling cues from a classic 1955 T-Bird. The new model’s speedometer was out of sync with the rest of the car’s design, featuring dramatically skewed right-leaning numbers perhaps meant to evoke futuristic levels of speed that end up looking merely distorted. In this case, less would have been more.

Historically, analog dials (particularly speedometers) vary in their treatment of how and where to place their numbers and how to style indicators for them. Does each number correspond to a round dot or a vertical line (1956 Chevy Bel Air vs. 1970 Monte Carlo)? For horizontal readouts, are the numbers evenly spaced or more dynamically arranged (1959 Chevy Apache truck vs. 1966 Nova)?

More contemporary auto models favor round dials over horizontal readouts, raising another set of questions: Do the numbers fall inside or outside the circular outline (2016 Porsche Cayman vs. 2003–2006 Cadillac Escalade)? And do they flip over or change their orientation in spots where they would otherwise fall upside-down on the arc? These are not merely aesthetic decisions; they affect how well the dashboard conveys information to the driver. In this case, good typographic choices literally can be a matter of life and death.


Struggling with Complexity

Modern automakers have styled the exteriors of cars as much as they can, and auto bodies all look more or less alike now, thanks to aerodynamics and the demand for maximum fuel efficiency. The coefficient of drag has been calculated so precisely that the entire range of imported sedans from manufacturers like Toyota, Nissan and Hyundai resemble one another—so much so that flaring body panels and the placement of LEDs around headlights seem to be the only avenues for brand identification.

The real design action and styling has moved to the automobile interior. But as readouts multiply and accumulate on the dash, jostling for space and attention in the same limited amount of real estate, we’ve gotten to the point where a driver is forced to gaze upon an unfocused mess. The dashboard has become a cluttered, unintuitive and distracting interface.

[Related: Design History in 150 Seconds: The History of Letterpress | The Best New Typefaces of 2016 (So Far, Anyway) | 11 Essential Tips for Choosing the Best Web Fonts]

How did all this complexity start, anyway? One clear influence was aviation: When airplanes entered mainstream design in the 1930s, much of the impact played out later in exterior styling (tail fi ns, in particular, which first made an appearance in 1946), but dashboard design was also affected. Airplane pilots sit within complex cockpits out of necessity, because they rely on multiple gauges and controls for navigation and safety.

The UI model is one of “direct control,” where the pilot has a dedicated gauge or button for each function. When Lockheed began working on the supersonic Century Series aircraft in 1954, the obsession with speed at any price led to a cockpit design that has been described as an “ergonomic slum,” filled with undifferentiated dials … in a plane that can go twice as fast as previous models. Where are the pilot’s eyes directed at in the most critical moments? In the hands of automotive designers, this kind of complexity soon came to define the look of luxury, and was a stylistic consideration rather than one that grew out of functionality.

A recent exception to this rule is the federal requirement that all new cars include a backup camera by May 2018, prompting many automakers to include elaborate dashboard screens that can support realistic, real-time navigation graphics and other animated features as well. But this functional adaptation is already proving to have style consequences: The future dash is becoming a showcase for cartoons and YouTube videos and advertising, reflecting our current expectation to be entertained
at every waking moment by our phones, our watches, our news broadcasts. We expect screens everywhere, and in fact they’ve become an environmental norm: at live events for close-ups of the performers, at the supermarket to tell us which line is moving fastest, in doctor’s waiting rooms so we can watch CNN instead of browsing back issues of People.

With current Bluetooth technology, the entire car becomes a phone. (“Look! I’m driving around in my phone!”) The value of this is debatable: Can’t that conversation wait until you aren’t piloting a three-ton motor vehicle down the interstate at 60 mph? This year, Google filed plans with the Securities and Exchange Commission stating that in a few years it “could be serving ads and other content onto refrigerators, car dashboards, thermostats, glasses and watches, to name just a few possibilities.” At first glance, while potentially annoying, this could be useful to the occupants of a car: Your dashboard might display an ad for a discount as you pull into a gas station, or show you where the nearest restaurants are if you’re on the road around meal times.

But think about it: Ads are designed, by definition, to demand and capture your attention. The typography for pop-up ads is likely to be loud, colorful, animated—in other words, extremely busy and distracting for the driver. Unless there is some regulation in place concerning the admissible look of these ads (which would be very difficult to quantify), this will be extremely dangerous—lack of concentration is a core cause of accidents.

[Have you contributed to innovative typographic design, created amazing hand-lettered work, or created your own font? Enter it into the Typography & Lettering Awards!]

Audi’s Virtual Cockpit, a multimedia interface first introduced in 2001 and available in production models starting in 2002, provides a good basis for discussion of state-of-the-art digital-based dashboards. Currently it’s a 12.3-inch customizable screen positioned right in front of the driver, displaying virtual gauges in high resolution. The manufacturer’s description starts out promisingly: “Everything in view, directly in front of the driver—the Audi Virtual Cockpit, a fully digital instrument cluster, is completely driver-focused.”

Soon, though, the text starts to casually wander into other territory: “In classic view mode the circular instrument dials, i.e., the speedometer and rev counter, are more dominant. … ‘Infotainment mode’ displays additional functions such as the navigation system, telephone, Audi connect and media more prominently. The displays for the outside temperature, time, mileage as well as warning and information symbols have a fixed position along the bottom edge of the cockpit in both modes.”

Wait, infotainment mode? There’s good stuff here like the fixed position for some critical functions, but read on, and the text completely hops the fence into the language of gaming and entertainment. We learn that the multimedia interface recognizes familiar multitouch gestures such as scrolling and zooming, the rotary controller functions like a joystick with context-sensitive options, and a search option allows users to find information quickly in the entertainment system. This requires a great deal of restraint (to not fiddle around too much while on the road) and common sense from the driver, to say nothing of the hand-eye coordination needed to work the controls effectively. Audi keeps emphasizing the ease of use, but much of it sounds like playing video games, providing tempting options that might keep the driver’s eyes off the road for too long.

Dashboard design has reached a point of absurdity in an age of persistent TMI. Though there are plenty of contemporary examples of notable restraint in dashboard design, the number of functions now controllable through the dash brings us back to the issue of overcomplexity: Does a driver really need to be able to adjust the car’s suspension? Is this a useful, fine-tuned feature for the Audi owner (someone with a high income, who wants a Driving Experience above and beyond basic transportation) or does it bear an unfortunate resemblance to that sophomoric riddle, Why do dogs lick their balls? Because they can.


Keeping Up with the Times

Digital technology’s lightning speed of advancement is causing designers some headaches, both functionally for the overall look of the car and with the typography of the control panel. Pretty much everyone knows the frustration of working with outdated software several versions behind the most current, or trying to produce something using an old computer that is literally not up to the speed of a newer one. The digital readout technology of most cars lags behind the times; a five-year delay between the design phase and the moment a car rolls off the assembly line means that the design and technology in dashboard displays can be generations behind the newest smartphone and tablet screens.

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The Audi Virtual Cockpit

Digital gauges were introduced to look fresh and new, positioned on the cutting edge of design—but due to the overuse of stopwatch-like typefaces such as 2001’s Quartz (keep in mind that seven-segment displays can be found in patents dating back to 1908, and the digital stopwatch was a 1971 innovation) they actually looked primitive and dated with a depressing uniformity of appearance. Designer Christian Annyas posted a visual comparison of Chevrolet speedometers from 1941–2011 on his blog, and a reader commented on the 2011 Chevrolet Sonic dashboard, the most current in the series, “Seven segment digital numerals? Hello, it’s the ’60s, they want their display technology back. Even the crappiest $10 cell phone can manage fonts. And not seven segment imitation fonts, but something readable and attractive. Why not a $70,000 car?”

Human factors specialists learn in their first year of school that the eye tracks a moving needle or dial that registers change better than a digital number that increases or decreases. Henry Dreyfuss wrote that analog clocks work better than digital ones because a viewer can remember the position of the hands, and by mentally comparing them with the previous hand position, can “see” time elapsing. Digital just doesn’t stick, visually. You can’t recall the information; it has a sameness to it. It’s much more intuitive for a driver to get used to a needle that rises and passes numbers located on fi xed positions; a quick glance is all it takes to see and understand the value it represents. It’s harder to see (and really absorb) the speed on a digital readout as the value of the ‘stopwatch’ constantly changes while driving.

Feedback also gets lost between the accelerator and the driver, as he or she mentally struggles (without necessarily being aware of it) to correlate moving numbers with the pressure needed on the gas pedal to speed up or slow down. Some characters also look very similar to others, for instance 0, 6 and 8, which makes it harder to decipher whether you’ll get a speeding ticket or not.

Additionally, low-fi screens in cars are visually disappointing to today’s viewers accustomed to retina displays. Typography especially suffers on low-resolution screens, the characters fuzzing around the edges in a sub-pixel haze and becoming hard to read, posing problems for the driver who needs to scan the information quickly. Either the typefaces have to be designed to work with the low-resolution technology (a backward solution), or improved screen quality has to become a priority in cars. Better yet, screen manufacturers could collaborate with type designers to perfect the design of the letterforms for use in their intended environment. According to a 1988 Canadian study on the impact of mobile information systems,

Alphanumeric displays are intended to be used to relay written messages. The effectiveness of these displays is based upon the user’s ability to interpret the written message. … The stroke width, font, width-to-height ratio and size of the letters must be carefully selected. A stroke width of 1:8, a MIL-M-18012B font or San Serif font, a minimum width to height ratio of 3:5, a character size of 0.2 inches (0.5 cm) to be read at 28 inches (71 cm), and the use of capital letters are suggested. … The brightness of electronic displays should be adjustable in a range of 500 to 60,000 lux, and the displays should have sufficient contrast to ensure easy readability.

Given that this very specific information was published nearly three decades ago, it’s puzzling why there is still so much difficulty with legibility in the typographic styles seen on dashboards.


Customization and Personalization

Upgradeability is also a huge issue when considering dashboard technology. Getting back to the Audi Virtual Cockpit, Olli Laiho, CEO of Finnish company Rightware, which developed the technology, says that, unfortunately, the car’s software cannot be updated. In a scenario that will give designers everywhere cold sweats, he adds, “The center screen and instrument cluster are completely different. Nothing is shared, and they were probably created by different teams in different countries.” (As PC Magazine detailed, the onboard computer could theoretically be updated … “by replacing the entire dashboard module or specific computing board.”) Without a scheme for an integrated overall design, the typography doesn’t stand a chance of working as well as it could.

The ability to program personal preferences on a tablet device that could be dropped into a slot in the dashboard connected to the car’s computer might solve many of the ergonomic safety-related issues, as well as the aesthetic ones associated with typeface choices. Future dashboards may include companion smartphone apps in which multiple users could be able to store and transfer all their in-car-preference settings from their phones. When in-car and app software are upgradable by car manufacturers, drivers will always be able to get the most up-to-date interfaces, which we can only hope will include increasingly sophisticated typography. We could start to tailor dashboards in much the same manner that manufacturer websites allow consumers to customize a pair of Levi’s jeans or Converse sneakers, choosing styles and colors and pretty much every detail of the product. For dashboards, those who care about it will have the ability to choose typefaces. And even those who don’t care (I’m thinking of my mom here) can select typefaces according to personal preferences: Larger type sizes will be a great help to older drivers who find themselves squinting at tiny readouts on their current dashboards, for example.

In these scenarios, whether you rent a vehicle, are driving your own car or borrowing a friend’s ride, the driving experience is consistent—and thus safer. You’ve got your own control kit and know exactly where to look for each gauge. The sweet spot for manufacturers will be to develop ways of thinking about dashboard typography for both digital and analog readouts that can maximize legibility and minimize driver distraction; much of this benefit will have to come about through innovative approaches to the ergonomic engineering and available technology. Good typography will continue to play a huge role in shaping the improvement of information delivered via the familiar old dash.


DASHBOARDS OF TOMORROW

Autonomous, self-driving cars are a reality waiting to happen on the mass market. When decision-making becomes the car’s responsibility, dashboard feedback and information will serve a merely FYI function for the driver, potentially freeing him or her up to do other things. Watch a movie, perhaps? Check the stock market in real time? Catch up on email replies?

Right now, the best place to see what automakers envision for the next iteration of the dash is in their concept cars. By the time features introduced in concept cars trickle into production models years later, the design tends to be greatly watered down. But it’s fun to take a look at these 2016 concepts, and hope that some of these ideas will make it into the showroom.

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• BMW Vision Car (autonomous): A dashboard feature called AirTouch enables intuitive control of entertainment, navigation and communication functions using simple gestures made with a flat hand, allowing the display in a vehicle to be operated like a touchscreen without making actual contact with the screen’s surface.

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• Acura Precision (user-driven): The car has a digital human-machine interface that scans each occupant and automatically selects personalized features and functions for them, including maps, audio and saved custom performance preferences. The dashboard features a single floating gauge on a thin, curved center display screen.

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• Buick Avista (user-driven): A widescreen instrument panel display with touchscreen controls projects navigation at the driver’s eye level (basically overlaying the information onto the road ahead), seamlessly merging directions with the environment and keeping the driver’s eyes where they should be, instead of on a GPS positioned elsewhere.


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