BMW Case Study

Case study 1

iDrive™ 5.0 System

The upcom­ing iter­a­tion of BMW’s iDrive™ sys­tem, 5.0, is a 1440 × 540 LCD screen sized 10.5” × 3.94” for an effec­tive res­o­lu­tion of ~137 pix­els per inch (ppi). This is approx­i­mate­ly twice the res­o­lu­tion of a tra­di­tion­al PC or Mac LCD screen but low­er than cur­rent MacBooks with Retina screens (218−227 ppi), iPads (264−324 ppi), iPhones (326−401 ppi), and near­ly all cur­rent Android phones (most are over 300 ppi and some eclipse 500). This does not mean that BMW’s screen tech­nol­o­gy is insuf­fi­cient to dis­play love­ly type, nor does it mean that the cur­rent typog­ra­phy is illeg­i­ble, but the font should be suit­ed for its screen.

The Next Generation Of Idrive 8 1500x1000

image 1: iDrive 5.0

The cur­rent font used by BMW is BMW Global Pro, an inter­na­tion­al grotesque in the Helvetica mold, but with stur­dier forms, often set tight with reduced spac­ing. This is a strong iden­ti­ty that affirms BMW’s rep­u­ta­tion as a glob­al leader in vehi­cles that engage the driver’s spir­it while ensur­ing com­fort, reli­a­bil­i­ty, and safe­ty. The mes­sage con­tin­ues into the cab­in with the iDrive sys­tem typog­ra­phy. Using image 1, I was able to deduce that the main typog­ra­phy (“Media/Radio”, “Communication”, etc) is set at ~36 points, yield­ing cap­i­tals ~45 pix­els tall. This is like­ly more than enough for most appli­ca­tions, but I can see room for improve­ment. At this size, the main stems of the let­ters are about 4–6 pix­els thick. Improvements could be made in the ren­der­ing of the let­ters through a tech­nique called hint­ing which achieves crisper out­lines by instruct­ing the ren­der­ing engine what it can and can­not do.

Font Hinting Example

image 2: exam­ple of hinting

In image 2, the top row of text is unhint­ed while the bot­tom row is hint­ed. One can see that the upper line “spreads out” more into neigh­bor­ing pix­els while the bot­tom line has cripser, sharp­er out­lines. It is dif­fi­cult to tell from the image I have of the iDrive screen, but I sus­pect it would ben­e­fit from hinting.

One thing I can tell from the image is that the BMW Global Pro type­face is not the best choice for the screen. The coun­ters – the open spaces in a let­ter, such as in an e or a – start to close up, espe­cial­ly when the text is set light on a dark back­ground (light pix­els bleed like ink would on paper). The let­terspac­ing is also too tight. My rec­om­men­da­tion here would be to cre­ate a vari­ant of BMW Global Pro bet­ter suit­ed for screen dis­play. The coun­ters would be opened, the strokes made sim­pler, and the let­terspac­ing increased. Different forms of let­ters would increase leg­i­bil­i­ty, too, such as a sin­gle-sto­ry a or adding a serif to the i to help dis­tin­guish from the l.

Case study 2

Heads-up Display

BMW was a pio­neer in auto­mo­tive heads-up dis­plays when it added them to the 5‑Series in 2004. At first, the heads-up dis­play was con­sid­ered a lux­u­ry but the safe­ty impli­ca­tions of keep­ing the driver’s eyes on the road are obvi­ous. In design­ing a good heads-up dis­play, the infor­ma­tion must be clear, obvi­ous, and sim­ple. There is an old metaphor in typog­ra­phy known as the crys­tal gob­let: imag­ine two gob­lets of the same wine, one ornate, wrought of gold, and one of pure crys­tal, sim­ple and trans­par­ent. The crys­tal gob­let is designed in such a way so as to not impede one’s expe­ri­ence of the wine. Good typog­ra­phy aspires to this: to be in ser­vice of the mes­sage. When the text is to be viewed at a glance, con­tains impor­tant infor­ma­tion, and can affect a person’s well-being, the typog­ra­phy should be as unadorned and leg­i­ble as pos­si­ble while still being pleas­ing to look at. The heads-up dis­play is the text­book exam­ple of this.

Hud 1

image 3: heads-up display

The same issues I note for the iDrive 5.0 sys­tem are exac­er­bat­ed by the heads-up dis­play. Familiarity is one of the great­est aids to rec­og­niz­ing text. The eye does not read let­ter by let­ter but by rapid jumps called sac­cades that chunk let­ters into wordlets or full words. When the brain is famil­iar with the lan­guage and con­text, read­ing speed increas­es. In using a GPS sys­tem, though, it is safe to assume the dri­ver is not famil­iar with the area and so would not know street names. We can­not help the dri­ver famil­iar­ize her­self with the area in advance but we can make the let­ters and num­bers sim­pler and eas­i­er to read. In par­tic­u­lar, image 3 shows a BMW trav­el­ing at 96 km/h. At a glance, that could be 88 km/h. Or 66 km/h. The 6 and 9 in this font have very tight aper­tures at their tails.

image 4: heads-up display

image 4: heads-up display

With a heads-up dis­play, it’s like a game of tele­phone: the user is already one step removed from the dis­play, medi­at­ed by the screen. The reflec­tion is an imper­fect repli­ca­tion, so why make it hard­er by hav­ing dif­fi­cult typog­ra­phy? It is good that BMW has designed with high con­trast in mind, but the let­ter­forms are prob­lem­at­ic to my eyes.

Monotype, in col­lab­o­ra­tion with MIT’s Age Lab, has done stud­ies on leg­i­bil­i­ty and reac­tion times for dri­vers (and air­plane pilots). To my knowl­edge, nobody has ful­ly imple­ment­ed the rec­om­men­da­tions of these stud­ies yet. BMW could con­tin­ue to be a pio­neer in auto­mo­tive heads-up dis­plays in using these stud­ies with the aid of a typo­graph­ic engineer.