Can a font make driving safer?

Chris Dean's picture

Can a font make driving safer? — News release from http://www.fastcoexist.com/

Reimer, B., Mehler, B. Joseph F. & Coughlin, J. (2012). An evaluation of typeface design in a text-rich automotive user interface. Massachusetts Institute of Technology AgeLab & New England University Transportation Center.

Abstract
This paper reports on the results of a project examining the impact of typeface design on glance behavior away from the roadway when a driver interacts with a multi-line menu display designed to model a text-rich automotive human machine interface (HMI). Data from two studies are considered. Across the two studies, usable data was collected from 82 participants ranging from 36 to 75 years of age in a driving simulation experiment in which participants were asked to respond to a series of address, restaurant identification, and content search menus that were implemented using two different typeface designs. The second study served as a replication of the first with the sole exception that the brightness of the display screen was changed. Across the two studies, among men, a “humanist” typeface resulted in a 10.6% lower visual demand as measured by total glance time as compared to the “square grotesque” typeface. Total response time and number of glances required to complete a response showed similar patterns. Interestingly, the impact of different typeface style was either more modest or not apparent for women on these variables. Error rates for both males and females were 3.1% less for the humanist typeface. This research suggests that optimizing typeface characteristics may be viewed as a simple and effective method of providing a significant reduction in interface demand and associated distractions. Future work will need to assess if other typeface characteristics can be tuned to provide further reductions in demand.

Nick Shinn's picture

…optimizing typeface characteristics may be viewed as a simple and effective method of providing a significant reduction in interface demand and associated distractions.

i.e. Choosing an easy-to-read typeface will make text easier to read.
That much has been self-evident to graphic designers for over 100 years.

However, optimizing is never simple; it implies at least making some headway on the slope of diminishing returns. The choice between Frutiger and Eurostile may be simple, but I would be tempted to try Clearview and something with serifs, to see how they fare. But I wouldn’t go too far down that route without considering:

Future work will need to assess if other typeface characteristics can be tuned to provide further reductions in demand.

i.e. Choosing the right weight, grade, size, color, letterspacing, horizontal scaling and leading will also improve readability.
That much has been self-evident to graphic designers for over 100 years, in fact it forms the basis of the profession.
This is where taste and experience come into play, because it’s not possible to test every combination of every typographic variable, there are too many. Graphic designers can identify packages of values, settings that look right for page under consideration.

Ryan Maelhorn's picture

re: legibility of sans serif fonts -- I have been trying to get a decent test for most legible for long text sans for a while now, but it seems nobody really gave a shat..

http://typophile.com/node/95951

Chris Dean's picture

@Nick: I thought about Clearview as well, but then realized it was for highways, not dashboards. I wouldn’t consider it a contender, but am surprised it wasn’t included regardless. And especially surprised that there were no serifs. AND, that there was no conflict of interest clause in this paper, given it was funded in part by Monotype.

As far as “Choosing an easy-to-read typeface will make text easier to read. That much has been self-evident to graphic designers for over 100 years.” Agree. But the key word there is self. What we have is anecdotal evidence, convention, aesthetics, and intuition. The little scientific research we have in this field with objective measures of human performance and empirical data is still very much in the early stages of its development. Its quality reflects this.

@Ryan: “I have been trying to get a decent test for most legible for long text sans for a while now…” And unless you drastically clarify and operationalize what you mean by “most legible for long text” you never will. The only way this paper got results was because they had clearly defined measures such as time, accuracy, and eye movements.

You may find some articles of interest in the literature section of my site. It’s small, but I try add to it as I go.

http://readthetype.com/literature/

What you will most certainly find disappointing is that there is not a lot of research out there that looks at long passages of text. This is because, sadly, there are very few standardized reading comprehension tests with long passages. In fact, I can’t think of a single on off the top of my head. A very common complaint in the field. I have tried to make up my own comprehension questions for long passages I selected myself, but it is amazingly difficult. They just end up measuring recall or visual search depending on your methods. I had no idea that writing your own comprehension questions was such a highly specialized skill.

Still reading the paper, but it’s 5:00 on Friday, and somewhere there’s a pint with my name on it.

JamesM's picture

Interesting study, although I suspect that bigger factors regarding driver distraction are the point size, logic of the layout, and an interface that minimizes the number of clicks needed.

I remember reading that when the 1st iPod was under development, Steve Jobs was adamant about minimizing the number of clicks it took to initiate any common action (I think 3 clicks max was his goal). But my car's GPS sometimes requires 5 or 6 clicks to change destinations, which is a major distraction and seems like poor design.

dezcom's picture

Eurostile? Really?

A more usable result would be to compare Univers to Frutiger. There, at least, you could really compare the affect of open vs closed.

quadibloc's picture

For long text, people have assumed that serifs are better, but there is no such assumption for things like control panels.

Haven't NASA and the USAF done some research on this kind of thing?

Thomas Phinney's picture

Eurostile was chosen because it is the most common typeface currently used for car displays. The objective was to see if something chosen by savvy typographers would do better. To nobody's surprise in this audience of typographers, the answer was yes. :)

But yes, there was value in testing it and quantifying it, and having direct evidence to convince the people who make the cars.

Nick Shinn's picture


‘Sorry Officer, I had no idea how fast I was going.’

hrant's picture

Good one!

And when a cop tells me "you need to watch your speed" I'm tempted to reply "don't worry I can see it just fine on my dashboard".

hhp

timd's picture

“optimizing typeface characteristics may be viewed as a simple and effective method of providing a significant reduction in interface demand and associated distractions.”

No it isn’t, it avoids/compounds the problem, surely the answer is change the technology so that a driver is not required to look away from the road, studies of type styles are a red herring.

Tim

Nick Shinn's picture

Yes, heads-up displays.
Ultimately, retinal implants, as prefigured in The Diamond Age.

Chris Dean's picture

Studies of type styles are a red herring.”

Really? You do realize that these are scientists adding knowledge to the field with empirical data, supporting (or refuting) what you do through aesthetic, intuitive, conventional, and anecdotal “wisdom.”

Nick Shinn's picture

But Tim’s point is: It’s better to avoid risk, rather than reduce it.

riccard0's picture

The risk wouldn’t be avoided completely anyway, if not refraining from driving.
And be them heads-up displays or retinal implants, they will still use fonts.

By the way, Nick’s image is indeed a reminder that readable fonts are just one of the elements to take into account. That speedometer is a far superior design for judging speed at a glance (based on the angle of the red hand) than more recent ones which just show a changing number.

timd's picture

‘scientists adding knowledge to the field with empirical data, supporting (or refuting) what you do through aesthetic, intuitive, conventional, and anecdotal “wisdom.”’

Are you sure? If what they are studying is inherently flawed – in other applications the requirement (for fast word recognition) might not be the same and the effects might be different – then it is a red herring.

Type-wise a heads-up display has significantly different environments to cope with and retinal implants are, obviously another kettle of herring.

But, as Nick mentioned, my point was to avoid the problem altogether. Is an lcd screen really required to operate a car efficiently? Could the systems be, for example, voice operated and the responses aural? I am not proposing that as the only solution, just as a thought.

It is surely obvious that if any device (vehicle) requires concentration to operate, with life and death consequences for distraction, using another device that holds “crucial” information (out of the operator’s eyeline, or blocking it as in the image at the top of the article) is detrimental.

Whether that information is actually crucial is another matter, of course.

Tim

dberlow's picture

"...it seems nobody really gave a shat.."

That's a joke, right? With all due respect, i think you sketched a type popularity contest of almost no value.

Also, it's interesting about this study, as witlessed in this thread, the response is to misunderstand and connect the dashboards of vehicles, many of which used eurostyle, bank gothic and other squares for a specific and very good reason, with the navigation device in a study's simulator, which is used for a task totally different from that of a dashboard.

And if the glance quality of a nav screen font is a safety issue, isn't the best font to text with during driving an outright emergency?

hrant's picture

Good point. Maybe when a cellphone realizes it's in motion it should switch to NotCaslon, just to speed up natural selection.

hhp

russellm's picture

Three words:
Analog, Baby. Analog.

If we actually have to read anything on our dash boards while driving, we have bigger problems than fonts that are marginally more or less than optimally legible.

oldnick's picture

Franky, tunable fonts would be a boon for we older folks plagued by presbyopia. One size does NOT fit all…

dberlow's picture

But Franky was a bitmap.

vinceconnare's picture

I upgraded from Italian to British because I could never read the numbers

hrant's picture

If you were Italian you wouldn't use the numbers.

hhp

vinceconnare's picture

Well I am British now so it's digital speedos all the way and not in that German way.

timd's picture

My Austrian digits were clearer than my Japanese analogues.

Tim

hrant's picture

My car disables immersive tasks (like using the keyboard) and non-critical functions (like checking theater showtimes or ski resort conditions) when the speed goes over 3 mph.

hhp

Nick Shinn's picture

All billboards should be set in Clearview.
Or, from Tim’s POV, banned.

oldnick's picture

Vince—

Do you have the bod for digital Speedos? Sometimes, friends are reluctant to point out bad fashion decisions…

dezcom's picture

The last time I looked good in a Speedo was when I was in my 40s. That ship has sailed 28 years ago :-)

dumpling's picture

Does "analog" have to mean "pointer"?
Why not use changes of color to indicate different speed ranges?

Another design I would like to see would be a speedometer using "rolling" numerals to indicate speed, much the way that a traditional odometer indicates distance. This would make it easier to see acceleration vs. deceleration.

dumpling's picture

My car disables immersive tasks (like using the keyboard) and non-critical functions (like checking theater showtimes or ski resort conditions) when the speed goes over 3 mph.

This is lame, because if you have (or are) a passenger, still, the passenger cannot access these functions.
The functions should be enabled regardless of speed if a passenger is present.

hrant's picture

What's a "passenger"? Seriously: I almost always have one myself (in fact I only bought the thing because I have too many passengers these days...) but look at the proportion of people in carpool lanes versus regular lanes (which BTW makes you start thinking they invented carpool lanes to make things worse).

In the end: better safe than sorry. Or at least: you don't want to kill the person who paid for your brand of car, and you certainly don't want your brand of car on the news for the wrong reason...

Plus people would put a blow-up-doll in the passenger seat. :-)

hhp

oldnick's picture

The functions should be enabled regardless of speed if a passenger is present.

The 5,000-plus people per year in the US who die because of distracted driving and the half a million or so injured be damned, right?

timd's picture

Actually I have less problem with billboards (although cluttered street signs are a different matter). Any reasonably competent driver knows when to look at signs selling things and when not to, it is the presentation of crucial (or not) information to the driver that deserves to be improved and an understanding of what actually is important and what is not.

If you need to know what time something happens look it up before you set off, if you need to know what the weather is like look out of the windows.

Tim

Nick Shinn's picture

But surely, if a billboard catches your eye when driving, and demands to be read, the less time your eyes are off the road, the better.

hrant's picture

Tim, please come see LA aysap.

hhp

Chris Dean's picture

You don’t actually need to make eye movements to attend to a location and have it influence reaction time (Posner & Cohen, 1984).

timd's picture

Nick, you are right, but does a billboard actually demand to be read?

There are a number of things you “should” be looking for and billboards are going to be in the line of vision behind buses and road signs – certainly they clutter the landscape. But are they as distracting as a screen, with a moving image, within the car which is offering changing “information”?

Thanks for the invitation Hrant, London is currently enjoying the “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”, which is lovely but not necessarily good riding weather.

Tim

dberlow's picture

Get a horse.

Anyone show a digital display with a square gothic?

Burn cash on dyslexics, not myopics.:0

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