By on September 26, 2012


Researchers at MIT’s AgeLab finally have proven what designers have long suspected: Some typefaces are easier to read than others. Because this would be a boring message,  and because the New England University Transportation Center and typeface vendor Monotype were also involved in the study, the researchers put it in context with in-dash menus.  And came to the conclusion that the choice of typeface is a matter of life and death.

Bad: Eurostyle

A white paper released recently reports about two studies which found  that the Eurostyle typeface commonly used in many vehicle device displays takes more time to read than the more elegant “humanist” style typeface.  The blockier Eurostyle was traditionally preferred in electronic display because it did not break up as easily at lower resolutions.

Good: Humanist

Among men, a “humanist” typeface resulted in a 10.6% lower visual demand. To make it, um, more eye-catching, researchers said this “difference in glance time represents approximately 50 feet in distance when traveling at U.S. highway speed.” Which, says IT World could be the difference between a close call and an injury — or worse.

Oddly enough, the “impact of different typeface style was either more modest or not apparent for women,” says the study.

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39 Comments on “The Wrong Typeface Can Kill You. Unless You Are A Woman...”

  • avatar
    Freddy M

    Very interesting study. I suppose.

    On a personal note, when switching between friends cars, I find that for me it’s less a matter of what type-face is being presented on the dash gauges, but becoming familiar with the calibration and spacing of the numbers itself. My car has blocky Eurostyle fonts while my friend’s has the “humanist” style but I still find myself staring at his speedo for a second or so before I register what number the needle is pointing at.

    I actually like the blocky and techie look of Eurostyle fonts.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree. Though I’ve long proposed that speedometers should be standardized like airplane gauges. Think of it as a clock face: “0mph” is straight down (6″ o’clock), 50mph is straight up (12noon), 75mph is right at 3 o’clock, etc. That way if you’re running over 100 the needle has made a full revolution and more… (you wouldn’t even need a smaller needle to indicate how many hundred mphs you’re travelling – it should be abundantly clear if you’re doing 120mph vs 20mph vs 220mph.)

      Just like clocks, the faces then wouldn’t even really need numbers, much less fight about type faces. And they would be much easier to read at a glance, again just like clocks. And automakers wouldn’t have to out-do each other with ridiculous “top speeds” on the speedo, which only serve to make meaningful distinction between slower speeds increasingly difficult.

  • avatar

    When reading an analog speedo, you don’t need to read the numbers all the time. You simply glance at the angle of the indicator (stylus?, needle?). On a well laid out panel, this will be straight up at normal cruising speed (120 km/hr on my Saab and Saturn). You can also see this in your peripheral vision without taking your eyes off the road. This is much easier than any digital display to process. So while typeface is important, the layout, size, and location of the gauges is also important.

    • 0 avatar

      The issue they studied is with multi-line menu displays, not gauges. It’s the font on LCD infotainment screen that presents the risk.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree analog is better. You care more about what speed you are NOT going than what exact speed you are going. You don’t want to go much under the limit or too much over it.
      An analog watch is better for the same reason. You don’t care what exact time it is, but how long until that meeting starts.
      Both speed and time can be visually determined better with an analog instrument.

  • avatar

    Good Humanist… don’t they make ice cream?

    That must be what they use on Android 4.0 devices…

  • avatar

    Ray Wert is going to get on you about your tracking and kerning again.

  • avatar

    Related note…the typeface on roadsigns in PA has been “updated”…more importantly the letters are often put on the signs in a sloppy manner. Font too small relative to the sign, letters bunched together. Most new signs and definitely harder to read than the signs they replaced. Would like to see a study on how many people that’ll kill over time.

  • avatar

    My wife finds the speedo on her Mazda CX-7 to be almost illegible, and a real PitA. She asked me to apply a tape marker to it, at 45 mph.

    • 0 avatar

      On my Canadian Civic, the km/h markings are large and easy to read, but the mph markings are barely visible, and the numbers are tiny. It’s a bit of a problem when I’m south of the border.

      • 0 avatar
        Freddy M

        Agreed about the inner MPH ring. Wouldn’t it be neat to press a button, then the gauge is re-calibrated to MPH using the same numbers as km/h.

        On another note, I LOVED the Eurostyle font used on the 4-6 generation Civics.

      • 0 avatar

        My car’s speedo reads only km/h. Yet I’m still able to drive in the US (like Americans are able to drive in Canada). High school math is plenty for those simple calculations.

      • 0 avatar

        Gee The Impala I had, will from english to metric with the push of a button. My Camaro will also switch over,but its not as user friendly.

      • 0 avatar

        ….Wouldn’t it be neat to press a button, then the gauge is re-calibrated to MPH using the same numbers as km/h…..

        My father’s 90’s era Buick Park Ave Ultra did just that…BTW, the “bad” Euro type is far more pleasing to the eye…

      • 0 avatar

        “My father’s 90′s era Buick Park Ave Ultra did just that…”

        My ’08 CTS does this as well. Must be a GM thing?

        Also, the CTS offers the ability to display the speed in HUGE numbers in the dash display right under the speedometer, ala old-school digital-only GM gauges. I admit I look at the digital display only and never look at the speedo dial. I feel like this makes me a bad car enthusiast somehow.

    • 0 avatar

      My biggest issue with the printed numbers on speedometers is not the typeface of the numbers present, but the rather the lack of printed numbers. Many only mark speeds that are multiples of 20, making it necessary to count the number of tiny tic marks between the needle and the nearest printed speed to interpolate the vehicle’s speed, which is time consuming and frustrating. This is partly because automakers want to squeeze speeds up to 140mph on the dash of everything they sell to make them look fast and sporty, even for models that would have trouble exceeding 100mph going downhill. It may also be due to a desire to have an artsy minimalist speedo.

  • avatar

    Remember the old GM flat speedo’s where you could floor the gas and wait a while then annouce,”it’s it the dash!” as the needle dropped out of sight.

  • avatar

    Do car companies even have graphic designers as part of their creative staff? They do a lot more than people think, and this seems like the sort of situation that would require some one with a good understanding/background in graphic design (particularly typography.)

  • avatar
    DC Bruce

    Being a luddite, I would submit that expecting a driver to “read” anything while operating a moving vehicle is pretty dumb. That’s why digital speed displays, regardless of font, are so useless. People figured that out more than 30 years ago after digital watches with only numerical readouts were first introduced. The “analog” watch with “hands” was much quicker to read; and the precision delivered by digital (i.e. to the exact minute) was rarely necessary. I think that’s true today, although a car with a “glass cockpit” could replicate any analog display, using various colors, fonts and varying the spacing to maximize readability (in other words, with a car sold in the U.S., there is little point in striving for high readout precision speeds over, say 90 mph. If you’re going that fast, you’re very deep into speeding ticket territory; +/- 5 mph isn’t that important. On the other hand, if you’re going 60 +/- 5 mph could be the difference between getting a citation (or photo-radared) and not.

    • 0 avatar

      Different things work for different people. I’m surrounded by analog clocks almost everywhere I go, yet I still wear a digital watch for faster, easier reading. It’s not that I can’t tell time from a clock face; it just takes longer. Similarly, I like digital speedometers as supplemental to round gauges. In the current Audi A3, for example, you can set the information display between the tach and speedo to display your speed, in big, crisp numerals. In that car, I seldom look at the analog speedometer.

      • 0 avatar

        Analog sucks for precision, but it’s much better and faster for approximation.

        Most people don’t drive by shifting at exactly 3000 rpm and cruising at 70 moh. They drive by shifting when that needle is approximately 45 degrees above horizontal and cruising when that other one is approximately vertical.

        Of course, digital speedos work, but it’s highly dependent on the refresh rate. Too fast and it’s dizzying, too slow and it’s inaccurate.

    • 0 avatar


      Analog timepieces were faster to read than their digital equivalents at the advent of digital timepieces because analog was what everyone was accustomed to and how everyone internally conceptualized the measurement of time. 12 hours and 12 five-minute units.

      • 0 avatar

        Humans are not digital. We naturally think analog.

        That is to say, we think fuzzy. We think in approximations, we do rough estimates. We intuitively grasp analog readouts quite easily. This is why important secondary gauges are always in the form of dials or bar graphs. Because we can take a quick glance at them and assess the condition of whatever parameter they’re recording, without having to stop to interpret, process and extrapolate from a number given on the screen, then to compare that to a set optimum number (say, 98 degrees, 60 mph or 3000 rpm.)

        Giving information as a visual analog instead of a hrad number allows us to glance at the display and make a quick judgment as to whether there’s an important deviance from the norm without actually having to think about it.

        Basic ergonomics.

    • 0 avatar
      Japanese Buick

      The difference IMO is what kind of value you’re indicating. I prefer digital clocks and thermometers but the value of time and temp is relatively stable. Digital speedos, OTOH, flicker too much and put too much emphasis on insignificant changes in the value being indicated.

  • avatar
    Dr. Kenneth Noisewater

    Me, I like Helvetica/Helvetica Neue or the classic VDO standby Futura Modern (such as was used in my old Benz). Clear, easy to read, and pleasant to look at.

    Incidentally, the Volt’s fonts are pretty good, IIRC the speedo uses some opensource clean sans-serif like Deja Vu Sans or Bitstream Vera Sans..

  • avatar

    I’d like some more info about this study. For example how many Phd’s did it involve? Does a Phd with a European accent get extra credit? Couldn’t we get the same results, way cheaper by flashing some text on a screen and letting the subject press a button when the message was understood? Faster is better.

    I agree with Budda-Boom but re. Ohio. It’s like they have a set of standard sign sizes and come hell or high water, they’re going to jam all the stuff they want to say on that space. No way in hell some of those signs can be read by everyone who can pass a driver’s test, and that should be a minimum requirement for every sign.

    • 0 avatar

      You might consider clicking on the link to, y’know, the study. All your questions, answered!

      To summarize, they had a simulated menu system mounted in a driving simulator and asked people to make menu selections.

  • avatar

    Car companies should just go for it and use dingbat.

  • avatar

    Numbers really suffer when a poor choice of font is used, as the driver cannot compensate for a hard-to-read character by looking at its context. I’m amazed how some automakers use fonts on high-resolution LCD panels in which the “3, “6” and “8” are nearly identical — essentially the “3” and “6” are equivalent to the “8” with one or two small gaps added.

  • avatar

    I haven’t paid attention to the “font” in any of my vehicles ever.
    I prefer white face “gages” and know that in my current ride that 3000 rpm steady on flat Illinois Highways in 5th is 70 mph (yes, I’m courteous enough to hang out in the right lane).

  • avatar

    Does a typeface annoy and distract me? Sometimes, but I generally adapt to anything pretty quick – the key to survival and a low-stress life.

    The movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” prominently highlighted the Eurostyle font, also called “Microgramma”. I liked it and thought it was very technical and modern. I really like Helvetica, too, as JCPenney loves to use.

    Arial? Yes, I default to it on all my e-mail settings because it is so easy to read.

    One of my graphic arts teachers taught us: “When in doubt, use Caslon”! Sometimes that works, too.

    The only thing that irks me, no matter what typestyle, is when auto name and alpha-numeric emblems are affixed crooked. I’m looking with aching eyes at you, last-gen Camry! Glad Toyota fixed that.

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