Academic journal article Visible Language

The Development of Automobile Speedometer Dials: A Balance of Ergonomics and Style, Regulation and Power

Academic journal article Visible Language

The Development of Automobile Speedometer Dials: A Balance of Ergonomics and Style, Regulation and Power

Article excerpt


This paper explains the historical development of analogue and digital speedometer dial designs using the linguistics theory base of pragmatics, which asks researchers to explain a visual design by describing its purpose as well as how its various visual features meet people's needs, how people read dials and how people use dials to coordinate with one another or machines. The paper is useful for researchers interested in methodologies for studying the development of language-like visual communication, and for those interested in the history of information graphics, machine interfaces or speedometer dials in particular. A range of dial designs from the early 1900s to the current day are described and analyzed. In this paper, results show that drivers read speedometers to avoid fines, keep safe, change gears, set cruise control or record high speeds. Designs also, however, serve marketing and aesthetic purposes. Features of analogue displays are described with the paper concluding with a taxonomy of dial features. The entire system of speed containment could be improved since even with easy-to-read dials, drivers continue to speed. Dials that work with satellite systems to continually display the current speed limit may be the way of the future.


This paper provides a case study of how the linguistics theory base of pragmatics can be used to explain the development of visual standards. In particular, the paper looks at the visual design of speedometer dials, which have developed in response to improved understanding of driver, safety and market needs, and changing visual styles, laws and technology. Linguistics provides a helpful theory base for understanding a design such as a speedometer dial since the design is closely attached to particular meanings and as such can be said to be language-like.

The linguist Harley (2001) said that "Pragmatics is concerned with how we get things done with language and how we work out what the purpose is behind the speaker's utterance" (337). He further explained that the field has two main branches, the first of which is how we extract meaning from language by drawing inferences, and the second is how we work together to maintain conversations. Another linguist, Clark (1996) said that the most useful way to study language use is from both social and individual perspectives.

These explanations from pragmatics are also obviously useful for the study of visual languages. A pragmatic approach to studying visuals is concerned with how we get things done with a particular design and how we read that design. In the particular case of speedometer dials, a pragmatic approach asks how individuals read and use the dials, and how the dials help people to coordinate with one another and with their vehicles.

A pragmatic approach is also helpful in understanding how a visual design develops over time. Such an approach looks at the initial need for the visual, how the visual meets the need and then how designers incrementally modify the visual over time as the design environment changes (e.g., technology changes) and designers come to better understand user needs.

Mitchell (2008) has provided a methodology for studying the development of designs from a pragmatic approach, which involves the following:

1. Selecting a category of visual communication and identifying the social situations in which it is used

2. Formulating open questions about the visual form...and the situations in which it is used

3. Collecting examples of the visual communication

4 Selecting research tools to study how the design is used

5. Writing descriptions of the visual communication and the situation in which it is used

6 Selecting methods for and conducting analyses

7. Discovering themes within the data and applying existing theories as appropriate (4).

This paper applies this methodology to explaining the development of speedometer dial designs. …

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