Can We Please Go Back to Car Dashboards That Are Simpler and Easier to Read?

Enough with the dash cluster clutter

A decade ago, most vehicles had a dash cluster that likely had a speedometer and RPM gauge. Maybe if you were a teeny bit fancy, the speed of the vehicle was displayed digitally. There was the gas gauge, the odometer, and that's about it. 

The dash cluster on the Mercedes-Benz GLC SUV.


Now, since the advent of the full-screen gauge cluster, analog gauges have given way to increasingly crowded slabs of information wrapped in overdesigned insanity. In a rush to brand themselves, some automakers have taken the one area in the car that should be reserved for only the most relevant information needed to pilot a vehicle safely and, in some cases, made it into a designer's playground. Not the clean minimalism we actually need, but something eye-straining. 

Do the right thing, resist. 

Defend Yourself Against the 90s

In the early- to mid-1990s, something happened in the world of graphic design. Computers got cheaper, and applications like Photoshop, Illustrator, and Quarkexpress became easier to use (and pirate). Suddenly everyone was a designer, and the result of this unchecked access to every font, piece of clip art, and photo, is that they were hamfisted into a design all at once. 

Why have a nice clean layout with three or four elements when the computer allowed you to put everything onto the screen to later get printed at Kinko's or, worse, in a magazine? 

Everything was possible, and people went nuts, including me. I was a graphic designer in the late 90s, and sometimes I look back on items I designed (some of which landed in a major magazine), and I cringe. We used all the fonts and all colors, readability be damned. 

In some cases, that thought process is seeping into the dash cluster. 

The dash cluster of a classic car.

Benjamin Child / Unsplash

How Fast Am I Going?

I drive a lot of cars, and if I'm on the road and it takes me a few seconds to determine how fast I'm going, someone has failed. If I can't quickly find the gas gauge or state of charge percentage, again, someone has failed. 

If I get into any vehicle with an analog set of gauges, I immediately know where to look for the information I need while driving. 

I don't have to "get used to it" or "learn" the system. A dash cluster needs to present important information in an easy-to-read format. It seems simple enough. And yet, I find myself searching more often than I'd care to admit. 

Display of Zen

Fortunately, most automakers have come to a compromise. For example, Ford and Mercedes have clean modes for the dash cluster that removes most of the clutter and presents only the speedometer and other bits of important information. It's simple and easy to read. That's what you need to be using. 

Sure it's awesome to know every piece of data about your vehicle while driving down the road, but actually, you don't need it. It's too much. Go with the zen display. 

... automakers really do listen to their customers. At least the ones that reach out to them.

It may not have the "wow" factor of the default cluster layout, but wows should be reserved for driving dynamics, not cool graphics that muddy the driver's ability to determine how fast they are traveling. 

Your Feedback Matters

You might not be aware of this, but automakers really do listen to their customers. At least the ones that reach out to them. I can't tell you how often I hear from a company about how they changed a feature based on customer feedback. 

Sure they might listen to automotive journalists, but who they really want to hear from and who can actually affect change is the owner of the latest vehicle. 

In some instances, it might be too late to do anything about the design part. Most vehicles have only recently embraced over-the-air updates. So what you drove home from the showroom is what you're stuck with until that vehicle leaves your possession. 

For the new generation of vehicles that can be tweaked by the manufacturer, your voice might result in change if your vehicle doesn't have an uncluttered option. The over-the-top layout probably won't go anywhere, but the automaker could include a new layout that's only the information you need. 

A man driving a car adjust the dashboard settings.

Manu Vega / Getty Images

It's highly unlikely we'll return to the days of analog clusters. Believe it or not, it's easier and cheaper to install a display and then just regionalize it for a market. The same display can be used in the United States, Europe, and Asia with only some software tweaks. If the glass slab was replaced by gauges, there would need to be versions for kilometers or miles, odometers would need to be tweaked (again for miles or kilometers), and that's not even taking into account hardware for different languages. 

So digital displays are actually a good thing. It's just how some automakers are using them as a billboard for how cutting edge their design department is at the moment that's the issue. But like the 90s, hopefully, they'll move on and realize that the information they're trying to convey is far easier to share in a clear, concise manner.

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