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