This Typeface Makes You a More Alert Driver By Distracting You Less

Illustration for article titled This Typeface Makes You a More Alert Driver By Distracting You Less

Despite the grim PSAs and massive fines, plenty of us still end up reading our in-dash displays on the road, whether to navigate or change the song. Today, the type design giant Monotype unveiled a typeface designed to help you read faster and more accurately while driving. How? With a few design tweaks.

The typeface is called Burlingame, and it's not just conjecture: It's actually based on a 2012 study run by Monotype in partnership with MIT's AgeLab (PDF). The research focused on the role that legibility plays in how drivers navigate, and whether fonts could actually make them safer while doing so.

To test the idea, MIT asked subjects to use a run-of-the-mill GPS system, mounted to the dashboard of a driving simulator, to drive to a specific location. The directions on the GPS screen were shown in two typefaces: one, a "square grotesque" that looks like this, and the other, a "humanist" typeface that looks more like this.

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Illustration for article titled This Typeface Makes You a More Alert Driver By Distracting You Less

Using an eye tracker, the researchers tested both how often the subjects looked at the screen, and how often they made errors while reading it. It turned out that the "humanist" option required more than ten percent less "glance time" than the grotesque. Oddly, that number only held true for male subjects—though both male and female drivers made three percent fewer errors with the humanist typeface. Overall, drivers had a 13 percent improvement in response time.

Though Burlingame was originally designed for use in video games, Monotype redesigned it for drivers based on the MIT findings. What makes it, and other "humanist" typefaces, so much less distracting? First of all, there's absolutely no ambiguity between letters and numbers: Thanks to clever spacing techniques, it's nearly impossible to confuse, say, the number 9 with the letter G, as you might with a square grotesque on the top, here:

Illustration for article titled This Typeface Makes You a More Alert Driver By Distracting You Less
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And see those odd oblique details on the "glyphs," or actual letters? They make it easier to make out each glyph, even at low screen resolutions. It's odd: You'd think the square-style, pixelated letters of the grotesque would make it better for digital interfaces. But no, the similarity of the letters and the tight spacing makes it way harder for our eyes to interpret quickly.

"The design's generous spacing and general openness are in response to providing high legibility in automotive displays, where legibility is especially critical," says Monotype designer Carl Crossgrove. "The shapes are solid, yet simple, and project strength."

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Illustration for article titled This Typeface Makes You a More Alert Driver By Distracting You Less

So while a typeface can't guarantee you'll be a better driver, we do know that type design makes a big difference in how quickly and accurately we read while driving.

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Safer, heads-up driving interfaces are still over the horizon for consumers, and reading from a GPS (or an in-dashboard screen) is still the reality for millions of drivers. But in the meantime, a simple design update could mean a 13 percent improvement in how quickly we respond while driving. Check out more on Burlingame here.

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DISCUSSION

It looks to me like MIT rediscovered what designers, especially those who dabble in typography have known for a long time. There are plenty of fonts out there that offer very distinct and clear letter forms.

Ironically, Burlingame isn't one of them. I find the font difficult to read, requiring more concentration to than is desirable. Aesthetically, I think it's pretty cool but there are much better fonts out there. In the early 2000s Clearview was designed under the supervision of the Federal Highway Administration, to improve legibility for highway signage. It addressed all the concerns indicated here and it shows. All it takes is a quick glance to read something set in Clearview.

Helvetica, particularly Apple's implementation, and Microsoft's Segoe are also far and away better typefaces. I do find it a bit disingenuous that the font is compared to Eurostile, because I'm sure the font would fall flat when compared to more readable and less stylized typefaces.