Home » This Is The Worst Typeface That Was Used On Car Dashboards

This Is The Worst Typeface That Was Used On Car Dashboards

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Typefaces are a big deal, I think we’d all agree. If they weren’t why would everyone have made such a big deal about the use of Papyrus for the Avatar movies? If words carry meaning, then typeface/font carries a lot of the voice. When it comes to car dashboards and instrument clusters, the choice of typography is an important one, as you have to factor in some important legibility concerns, along with a lot of styling demands, because these are cars, not industrial mixers. The instrument cluster is also the place on a car where the engineers can very directly convey the technological development level of the car to the driver, and often the aesthetics and design of the instruments is very directly informed by the technology used. That’s the main culprit behind what I want to talk about today: a typeface choice that, I think, may be one of the stupidest ever chosen for use on car dashboard gauges – well, I guess that depends on the medium. It’s complicated, sort of, but I think worth looking at, because it’s also interesting. The typeface I’m talking about are fake seven-segment display-style typefaces.

Before we get into the specifics of this typeface, it’s worth noting that there has always been a huge variety of typography on car instruments. There are trends, of course – you see a lot of Art Deco-inspired typography in the 1930s and 1940s, a lot of jet-age design in the 1950s to 1960s, and a swing to clarity and simplicity in the 1970s and 1980s, though in America the 1970s was more about ornate classy-adjacent kind of typography as well.

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Instruments

But let’s get back to the reason I’m going on and on, the seven-segment typographic look.

For the most part, this was a trend associated with the 1980s and early 1990s, but it still shows up sometimes today, in interfaces on modern LCD screens. Now, the name I’m using for this – seven-segment displays – is pretty geeky, but this is a typeface that I guarantee everyone knows and has seen. It comes from a particular type of numerical display technology that goes all the way back to the 1960s, with an especially famous example of its use being in the Apollo Guidance Computer’s DSKY terminals that got us to the moon and back:

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Essentially, these displays are a set of seven segments that could be LED lights, tiny vacuum fluorescent tubes, liquid crystals, or whatever, arranged in the shape of a squared-off 8. From this shape, all ten digits can be formed:

7segThe numbers are quite legible, but definitely have a distinctive squared-off, segmented look. Because these displays were so common in tech in the 1970s to 1980s and on – they’re still common today – they became a sort of visual shorthand for high-tech or computers, even if almost no computer larger than a calculator used these as a main display.

But here’s the thing about these sorts of digits – they’re inherently a best-we-can-do compromise. If there was a way to make those digits look better while still meeting the cost/performance/whatever metrics, you can be damn sure they would have done it, but the truth is for the given restrictions, these blocky looking glyphs are the best that they could do.

The look of these glyphs are absolutely the result of the extremely specific limitations of the medium. There’s not really any other reason why letter/numberforms that look like that should exist. That’s the main reason why I find it so absurd and even a little maddening when I see the seven-segment look used in places where there is absolutely no need for it.

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My best-remembered example can be seen on a number of 1980s Chrysler K-Cars, like the LeBaron:

K Cardash

Now, Chrysler was using a lot of real seven-segment displays in their cars at the time, and when the numbers or letters show up on real displays, then of course that makes sense – they’re dynamic displays! But using the form of seven-segment displays on text that is printed on the instruments is, frankly, absurd.

Look at the FASTEN BELTS and the fuel gauge and that silly MESSAGE CENTER text – which did nothing; it was just a label, so why it would be rendered at all in an electronic display typeface is ridiculous. The whole idea of the MESSAGE CENTER is silly as it is, since it’s just referring to the diagram of the car above that shows if, say, a door or trunk is open. Those are the exciting messages you’re getting at that center. A message just came into the Message Center! Let’s see what it says! Oh, holy hell! A door! It’s ajar! Ajar I tell you!

Anyway, these aren’t displays. They don’t change. They’re just labels. And making them look like – actually, not even seven-segment displays, those would have to be 16-segment displays, because you needed the extra segments to make all those letters:

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16seg

But, yeah, why would you choose to make your labels with typography that is clunkier and less legible and was defined by physical constraints that you simply don’t have when printing!

I get that physical constraints and idiosyncrasies are responsible for the look of many typefaces, and that’s fine – hell, the serif itself likely comes from how a brush stroke gets a bit squished at the ends!

But that’s not really what’s going on here – the fake seven-segment look inherently has a bit of subterfuge to it, a bit of a lie, because if you’re using it, you want the people looking at it to think that hey, maybe this is a more advanced kind of thing, not just printed text, but a display that could, via electromagic, display any words it needs to! It’s a bit of fakery, making something look more advanced than it actually is.

Chrysler really went all out with the look, even using it as a display typeface in commercials:

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I mean, none of that really makes any sense. But they do it because it reminds you of advanced 1980s technology, which they’re hoping you’ll assume the K-Car is crammed full of! And that’s sort of true? A little?

It wasn’t just Chrysler doing this, of course. Look at this Volkswagen radio from the early 90s:

Vwradio

The more you think about this, the sillier it is. Sure, some radios had a digital tuning display, but this one had the old-school needle-and-dial look. Except VW decided to make the little printed numbers on the dial look like seven-segment digits, I guess in hope that maybe you’ll think, perhaps even subconsciously, oh, maybe this is a digital stereo? Wow!

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It’s silly, just silly. Those are less legible numbers, and they’re masquerading as something they’re not. Come on!

I actually think Citroën maybe has the most disappointing example of this. This is from a second-gen Citroën CX, after Peugeot’s bean-counters got their hands on the car:

Citroencx New

Those numbers are definitely seven-segment derived, even if the segement gaps are hidden. The form and shape is definitely the same. And they’re printed on analog gauges, which, of course, makes zero sense. Like, if those were individual little 2- and 3-digit displays, arranged on the dial, what would they do? Change from mph to kph, maybe, okay, that I can see. Anything else? No. Change the numbers from even to odd?

This is also disappointing because look at the dash design of the CX before this one:

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Citroencx Old

It’s just one of the most amazing instrument clusters ever with those spinning drum gauges and the pods and, just everything!! It’s such a painful letdown into boring normalcy as it is, and to add the stupid seven-segment like type atop that, it just feels like getting kicked when you’re down.

That’s why I think seven-segment-derived typography on printed labels or on displays that are not constrained in the same way – like a modern LCD display or really any dot-matrix display – is so bad, and not just bad – deceptive. Well, if you’re deliberately doing a retro design, I think I’m okay with that. But, overall, I’m glad this trend is mostly gone, but it still shows up, commonly as a little time display in the corner of a full-color, high-resolution LCD screen, thinking I won’t notice.

But I do. Oh, I do.

 

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Jake Harsha
Jake Harsha
7 months ago

I didn’t see any mention of this in the article (and I’m not certain it’s true, but it makes a lot of sense), but the 7-segment display (PLUS the decimal point!) is the reason for the weird base-8 memory systems used in computers to this day. It took 8 bits to represent a digit (and decimal point, if necessary) which why there are 8 bits in a byte and why computer memory is measured in multiples of 8 (8/16/32/64/128/256/512/1024 etc.)

Defenestrator
Defenestrator
7 months ago
Reply to  Jake Harsha

I’d say there’s a little truth to it, but mostly not accurate. Really, computers are fundamentally binary (transistor on or off), so they tend to work most efficiently in powers of two, which happens to be a multiple of 8 except for 1/2/4. Some early hardware was actually 4-bit, but the need for 8 (well, 7 for ASCII really, but 8 for EBCDIC) bits for characters probably did mean a quick push from 4 to 8.

For the display specifically though, I suspect it’s more the other way around: “How can we lay this out to represent all the numbers with the lowest power of 2? 4’s not enough, but 8 is”

Jake Harsha
Jake Harsha
7 months ago
Reply to  Defenestrator

Sure, but 10 would’ve made SO much more sense to us 10-fingered humans…

Derek van Veen
Derek van Veen
6 months ago
Reply to  Jake Harsha

As Tom Lehrer said, “Don’t panic – base 8 is just like base 10 really…if you’re missing two fingers.”

Jakob K's Garage
Jakob K's Garage
7 months ago

I think the digits in Citroën CX series 2 looked cool and 80ies modern, I liked them very much in my GTi. Got it to 200 once 🙂

In the series 1 it looks more like the 60ies, especially the clock, but it’s a bit of a mess really.

The old VWs instruments are just so good and beautiful and clear, even in the 1970ies one you have up there with the other examples.

Robert Swartz
Robert Swartz
7 months ago

Oh man, that message center brought back memories of my Mom’s 87 LeBaron Town and Country.

And the second-gen dash on my ’74 DS23 Pallas was an equal letdown.

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
7 months ago

Gauge clusters are to me what tail lights are to you. Some make me indescribably happy, (88-96 GM trucks with the rotating circles!!!) some make me absolutely angry (the unreadable silver-on-seafoam green buick rendezvous) and some are just perfect paragons of form and function, with no wasted space, or unrealistic numbers (2012-2018 Jeep Wrangler) but man, I wish there were more articles to learn about the wierd and oddball clusters out there.

Who is the Leader
Who is the Leader
7 months ago
Reply to  H4llelujah

My Mercedes’s fuel gauge has full as 1/1 and that unreduced fraction annoys the crap out of me. It seems like almost every cluster has some idiosyncracy.

Andrew Bugenis
Andrew Bugenis
7 months ago
Reply to  H4llelujah

Please try to submit some in-depth cluster articles because I’d love to read them 😀

H4llelujah
H4llelujah
7 months ago
Reply to  Andrew Bugenis

I could write a BOOK on my opinions of them, but the technical/engineering aspect I wouldn’t be of much use.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
7 months ago
Reply to  H4llelujah

I really want to learn more about this stuff. I’m digging it. Time to go down a image search rabbit hole.

MikeInTheWoods
MikeInTheWoods
7 months ago
Reply to  H4llelujah

My 2002 Tacoma 2wd manual has the most simple cluster (the one with no tach). All it has is temp, speed and fuel. I wish it was the 97-2000 one with the graph pattern but alas, mine is even more plain. Driving a manual with no tach is fine, I’m used to it now and it’s never been an issue.

Opa Carriker
Opa Carriker
7 months ago

I owned a 1st gen CX2000 while stationed in Germany. It was one of the finest cars I have ever owned. Road manners were impecable. Performance was more than adequate to include daily autobahn runs of 140-150 kmph. Fuel economy was good but not record holding. Pax accomodations and luggage were fantastic. The trunk interior was one giant square sided box!

And it saved my life. On my daily commute I was on a secondary two lane road doing about 120 approaching an autobahn overpass with a cloverleaf. About 200 meters before the interchange a semi pulling an airdump trailer blew his stop sign and pulled directly in my path. Skid marks showed that I had braked completly before impact. The CX folded nearly in half with the entire front clip folding under the rest of the car as designed leaving me sitting atop the smoldering mess, seat belt still intact. The steering wheel had also formed a “u” shape where my arms had pushed it forward. My injuries included a blue welt across my chest and some scrapes on my forearms.

If I could buy a brand new one exactly the same, my money would be on the table as soon as I sold my Cadilllac C6.

PS Please no Monday morning quarterbacking about the accident!

Last edited 7 months ago by Opa Carriker
AC2DE
AC2DE
7 months ago
Reply to  Opa Carriker

There can be no more honorable end for a car than saving its occupants.

Ted Fort
Ted Fort
7 months ago

I find the 2nd-gen CX font rather attractive. It’s elegant and legible.

Trust Doesn't Rust
Trust Doesn't Rust
7 months ago

Somewhere, a product designer at Hyundai was drawing up a new vehicle interior with fake 7-segment displays, read this article, and ripped up their work.

AC2DE
AC2DE
7 months ago

We can only hope!

Suss6052
Suss6052
7 months ago

https://carbuzz.com/cars/kia/sportage-hybrid/photos-interior#2 too late, Kia Sportage Hybrid 2023+ already has the seven segment # for vehicle and engine speed with the base cluster if not on other models

Fuzzyweis
Fuzzyweis
7 months ago

Came in here all ready to get fired up about talking trash on the old digital gauges, but realized it was a whole other thing, a well pointed out thing.

Elhigh
Elhigh
7 months ago

That CX dash – the earlier one – is an absolute delight.

Mr. Canoehead
Mr. Canoehead
7 months ago
Reply to  Elhigh

It looks like a pretty girl wearing Coke bottle glasses.

Grey alien in a beige sedan
Grey alien in a beige sedan
7 months ago

The best use of seven segment was to have a flashing 12:00 on your VCR because you were too lazy to set the clock. The bonus here is that most of those were VFD’s and not LED’s. Who doesn’t love the warm eerie glow of a VFD?

Otter
Otter
7 months ago

Thank you so much for correctly using “typeface” instead of “font” in this article. As a devoted reader of U&lc magazine, the age of personal computer typography had been long and exhausting.

EricTheViking
EricTheViking
7 months ago
Reply to  Otter

Same here, too!

Boulevard_Yachtsman
Boulevard_Yachtsman
7 months ago

…but the truth is for the given restrictions, these blocky looking glyphs cars are the best that they could do.

Sums up the K-car line-up perfectly. Also, seeing “white walls” printed in that high-tech-text during the K-car commercial was just the chuckle I needed this morning.

Vetatur Fumare
Vetatur Fumare
7 months ago

That is a lovely juxtaposition; thanks for pointing it out to us.

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