I don’t watch a lot of TV but back in January I sat down to indulge a guilty pleasure and turned on an episode of BBC’s Top Gear. For the uninitiated Top Gear is about as cliched and over-the-top as you could imagine a TV show dedicated to cliched and over-the-top automobiles might be.
This particular episode had the show’s three presenters hooning around Italy in a selection of supercars carrying out the usual assortment of challenges and infantile antics. The cars they chose were a Lamborghini Aventador, McLaren MP4-12C and a Noble M600.
At one point the action cut to a shot of the Lamborghini’s dashboard, immediately I recoiled and had to rewind, pause and take a second look. Now, I admit that I’m probably more sensitive than most when it comes to dashboard displays but as I stared into that Lambo’s dashboard all I could see was its flaws.
I could almost feel synapses in my brain frantically firing as I tried to make sense of what I was looking at but gradually the confusion subsided and I was able to deconstruct what was going on. I’ve since looked at several pictures of the Aventador’s dashboard and each time it’s the same - there’s unnecessary cognitive overhead involved in extracting useful data from that dash - not ideal for a dashboard of any kind let alone something with a top speed of over 200mph!
Take a look at this video of the dashboard in action - go ahead, try it in high resolution and imagine looking down at this while trying to keep the vehicle on the track at speed.
The dashboard is alive; a riotous festival of popup transition animations, colours coming in and out, fast moving numbers and a Lamborghini logo sitting in the bottom right lest you forget what brand of supercar you’re about to total!
So what’s happening here? What did this dashboard get so wrong?
Low resolution TFT display
This obviously allows for a degree of flexibility but it’s manifestly unhelpful especially considering the manufacturers seem to have gone all out to cram as many distracting elements and animations as the technology will allow. Dashboards are a pretty pure case of “less is more” yet the dashboard designers here have sacrificed that entirely at the altar of “flashy”.
Inconsistent and poor typeface choice
The main typeface used for the dial numbers, the time, and the date is overweight and oblique making it unnecessarily hard to read particularly at a glance.
The typeface choice for the dial descriptions and the external temperature is different to the main typeface. I doubt there’s a significance behind this except for the fact that if the main typeface was reduced in size any further it would be completely unreadable. I can’t think of a reason for one typeface being used for the date and time and another being used for the outside temperature.
Mixing typefaces in this way adds to the overall confusion and detracts from the primary function of the dashboard - displaying actionable data at-a-glance.
Inconsistent use of colour
The fuel gauge has an amber section that sits between a red section and a black section. If the needle dips into the amber area then action is needed to avoid it going into the red. Yet, even with the needle on red or amber, the fuel symbol is always displayed in green.
The fuel gauge and oil pressure symbols are positioned offset to the bottom of their respective meters yet the water temperature and oil temperature symbols are positioned offset in the middle of their meters. It’s not clear whether there’s any significance to this, it certainly doesn’t help with “glance-ability” and it drives a coach and horses through any attempts at consistency.
Pointless and distracting chrome
Look at the detailing around the outside of the speed gauge, the enclosing line with peaks and valleys. It’s intersected by major ticks on the peaks marking the labels in 30km/h increments (except for the first two which, although similarly spaced to my eye, show 20km/h increments). Minor ticks show 10km/h increments from there.
I don’t know what the peaks and troughs bring to the party but this unnecessary detail is at the expense of readability. Same goes for the gradient on the inner band of the dial.
If we compare it to the dashboard of a 2012 BMW M5 the glaring deficiencies become even more obvious.
Here you can see two main gauges and two smaller secondary gauges each clean and stripped back to essentials to communicate clearly. Beneath the gauges is a clear and unambiguous set of tertiary information in a readable typeface presented in one colour - the result is something useful and readable and, frankly, beautiful.
The right way to design a Dashboard
With dashboard design, it’s easy to get caught up with what you could show but to create something beautiful and usable you need to pay close attention to the constraints. At the risk of sounding too Zen, here are a couple of rules to keep in mind.
Every element must have a purpose and that purpose is to communicate something meaningful and with clarity. If it doesn’t do both it has no place and must be eliminated.
No element is an island. The design of individual components must show awareness and respect for the visual consistency of the whole board.
And just in case you thought the Aventador’s dashboard was a one-off lapse from Lamborghini, here’s my parting gift: a shot of the dashboard from a car Lamborghini debuted in 2007 called the Reventón.