When the Helvetica font was developed in 1957, it was with the goal of providing a neutral font that provided outstanding legibility on a range of different signage. What nobody anticipated, or could test for, was the legibility when glancing at a message while driving a car at 65 miles per hour. Now, MIT and a company called Monotype from Woburn, Massachusetts, have developed a method of testing which fonts are most legible — at a glance — without the need of expensive driving simulators.
The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) AgeLab and Monotype — a global provider of typefaces and technology — announced this morning that it has developed a new methodology for testing the legibility of typefaces on screens under glance-like conditions, such as looking at a radio readout, or a message displayed on the dashboard while the car is moving at highway speed.
When the MIT AgeLab and Monotype released an initial study in 2012, the study required extensive work in a driving simulator (seen above.)
This new methodology can be performed with nothing much more than a standard desktop computer and monitor, allowing auto manufacturers, aerospace companies and any industry with operators that have to do multiple tasks at once to test which typefaces will take the least amount of time to read.
The test has a native speaker of the language being tested watch the screen. In a “Fixation Rectangle,” the test flashes a word or a “psuedo word” in the rectangle. The subject is then asked “Was that a word?” The test runs through a number of different fonts.The results of the new tests found that on average, a humanist (Frutiger®) typeface could be read accurately in shorter (8.8 percent) exposure times than a square grotesque (Eurostile®) typeface – which was broadly consistent with the legibility benefit for Frutiger as seen in the previous study.
The study also tested to find out whether white text on a black background or black text on a white background was easier to read under conditions like those of operating an automobile. The study noted that black text on a white background can be read 38.6 percent more accurately than white on black. It can mean the difference between understanding a message and plowing into the car stopped in front of you.
“The new study highlights that basic psychophysics research tools can be practically utilized to help designers and engineers balance the subtle tradeoffs between typography and interface characteristics, while seeking to optimize the demands placed on the driver,” said Bryan Reimer, research scientist at MIT AgeLab and one of the principle researchers of the project. “With the advancing use of digital displays in vehicles, efforts to objectively evaluate the exchange of legibility and different interface characteristics may help automakers better meet governmental distraction guidelines, while providing the driver with an enjoyable experience from the showroom to the road.”
In addition, the research team applied the same methodology in a subsequent study to test the legibility of Simplified Chinese typefaces in glance-like conditions. Like the Latin typeface study, the most legible typeface could be read accurately in 33.1 percent less time, demonstrating that the methodology may work across multiple languages, a critical component to automotive interface designers.
“While more work needs to be done, we believe [this] approach could be further adapted to investigate a wide range of questions relevant to typographic and graphic design in automotive HMI designs. This research can be easily expanded to other languages and scripts as we did in the Chinese study,” said Monotype’s Dr. Nadine Chahine, a legibility specialist and an award-winning typeface designer and one of the report’s co-authors and principle researchers of the project. “Our findings also suggest that the methodology could be suitable for various glance-based reading environments, not only for automotive displays but also for medical apparatus, smartphones and other devices.”
According to Drs. Reimer and Chahine, a simple typeface change may help reduce the demand on drivers when glancing at interfaces, making it easier for automotive manufacturers and suppliers to meet new governmental guidelines. BoldRide.com asked Reimer and Chahine whether the literacy of the subject taking the test made a difference. According to Dr. Chahine, because the test runs through exactly the same tasks on a number of subjects, the results are normalized over a large sample.
Full results of the latest legibility studies are available as MIT AgeLab white papers for both the English and Chinese studies.