I see design problems.

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Ok, the title of this post a lame play on the famous line from “The Sixth Sense,” but it’s a good description of my inability to ignore bad design when I see it. And I see it everywhere: diner menus, building signage, websites, corporate logos, direct-mail flyers. And when I spot bad design I can’t help but think about how it could be improved. 

A few months ago I rented a Zipcar and, while driving down the highway, I found myself staring at the dashboard thinking, “who designed this?” I pulled out my phone to snap a picture and was fortunate I didn’t wreck the car (I see dumb people, and it’s me). I’m not an expert on automotive design but, as a long-time driver, I have a pretty good idea of what works and what doesn’t. 

At a glance

The first thing to know about a dashboard is that, most of the time, it’s being referenced when the car is in motion which means the average time you’re interacting with the dashboard is 0.5 - 1.0 seconds. How much data can you process in that amount of time? And what are the most important pieces of data? In my opinion the speed of the vehicle and the fuel level are the top two (excluding any warning lights). 

Below is a screenshot of my Zipcar dashboard with a 1 second viewing window. What do you see first? 

Hopefully you see that I was traveling at 60 MPH. But maybe you saw the tachometer first. Or maybe you didn’t know that the dial encircling the center of the dash was a tachometer; because why would a mid-size SUV with an automatic transmission need a tachometer? If I were staring at the dash of 6-speed manual transmission muscle car it would be important to know where the red-line is so I don’t blow the engine on my brand-new $90,000 Dodge Viper. But I doubt most people are in danger of hitting the red-line on a $24,000 Honda CR-V. 

The other reason the tachometer stands out is it’s analog, as opposed to the digital readout of the speedometer. I’m not sure why the designer thought mixing these would be helpful to the driver but most people would be drawn to the analog readout because it’s not abstract data that needs to be interpreted in your head. You can tell instantly how far the tachometer needle is from the red-line (danger zone) without having to know the relevance of the numbers. Removing the tachometer from the dash would not likely affect how the driver would operate this particular car and it would free up considerable room for other, more important information.

There are several problems with this dashboard design: unnecessary mixing of analog and digital displays, lack of proper spacing between different data, placing unrelated data next to each other, decorative elements adding visual noise, just to name a few.

There are several problems with this dashboard design: unnecessary mixing of analog and digital displays, lack of proper spacing between different data, placing unrelated data next to each other, decorative elements adding visual noise, just to name a few.

Location, location, location

Another issue I have with the dashboard data is unrelated things that are in proximity to each other. For example, there’s a readout for the outside temperature placed directly next to the readout for fuel efficiency. It’s hard to tell where one piece of data begins and the other ends. And what do these two pieces of data have to do with each other? 

Is knowing the outside temperature a critical piece of information? “Don’t get out of the car yet, kids, let’s wait until it’s 63 degrees!” It would make more sense to have it appear somewhere near the internal climate controls and clearly label it “outside temperature.” Also, the fuel efficiency may be important data but it could easily be placed near the fuel gauge as a single number, where it would make more sense.

Miscellaneous issues

It is useful to know the current mode of the transmission (drive, neutral, reverse, etc.) but the lone “D” above the speedometer might be easier to decipher if it were in the context of the other modes (I admit this is an arguable point). 

The leading zeros in the odometer reading make it difficult to determine the true mileage at a glance. 

The decorations to the outside edge of the radiator temperature (left) and the fuel gauge (right) just add noise to the dashboard and distract from the data. And I’m not sure what purpose the green stripes at the top of the dash serve. If something is lit on the dashboard it should be providing me information about the status of the vehicle.

However, it’s easy to criticize the design of something so I spent 30 minutes cutting and pasting the dashboard into two different solutions that reduce the visual noise and make it easier to distinguish one piece of data from another.

Solution 1

My first solution was to replace the tachometer with the speedometer (the top speed is probably more than 80 MPH but I wanted to keep my Photoshop work to a minimum). Moving the outside temperature data to the left and the fuel economy data to the right makes the center of the dash less cluttered and the remaining data (transmission mode and odometer) more important.

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I also removed the decorations around the radiator temperature and fuel gauge which allows easier reading of that data. 

I left the green LED stripes at the top of the dash but, now that I’ve made the transmission mode and fuel economy data the same color, those three items look as if they might somehow relate to one another, which is not what I intended.

Solution 2

I removed the analog tachometer altogether which allowed me to increase the size of the center console as well as the size of the data, making for easier reading. A slightly larger main odometer readout helps distinguish it from the trip odometer. I brought the outside temperature reading back into the center if only to help balance the layout. 

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I removed the dash stripes from this version and made the fuel economy data white, leaving just the transmission mode in green.

What do you think?

While my cut & paste redesigns may be less stylish than the original dashboard, I would argue that they are more useful because both solutions reduce the amount of noise and allow the driver to more easily see critical data. There are plenty of places in the car where styling wouldn’t have an impact on the operation of the car but the dashboard is not the place for expressing yourself as a designer. 

What do you think of my solutions? Would you have done something differently? Let me know in the comments section below; I welcome all feedback. And if you'd like to talk to me about your design project, let's connect.