The changing fascia of in-car graphic design

Ben Whitesell explains how automobile instrument panels are going through a digital design-led revolution, and gives 5 distinctive examples of the art.

The car industry has always been a magnet for great designers, but it's not just the external look of a vehicle that demands the best in design. The interior is just as important to get right, and in the right hands, the instrument panel can be a thing of beauty. Here illustrator Ben Whitesell pays tribute to the instrument panel designs of the past, and reveals five of the most inspiring contemporary designs around...

Golden age

The '50s and '60s were the golden age of the instrument panel. Those years saw the car industry infused with an unprecedented sense of style and design, with the arrival of cars such the Lamborghini Miura, Jaguar E-Type, and the Chevy Corvette.

The instrument panel of a 1957 Corvette looks almost art deco with its simple design and use of chrome accents and glass

The following three decades saw the glass, chrome, and steel replaced with plastics and molded rubber. These changes were not just limited to the automobiles’ exteriors, but also the interior materials and design. The automobile instrument panel went from a stylish extension of the overall design to a typical black and grey affair with a few coloured LED lights to make it visible at night.

21st century approach

Fast forward to today, and with advances in car technology and the dominance of the smartphone in our daily lives, auto makers have started to realize that people want customization in a stylish package. This is especially apparent in the latest instrument panel designs, which have more in common with your iPhone than your grandfather’s old Ford.

Here we're going to look at some of the most cutting edge and design conscious automobile instrument panels available today. These new displays will make you actually want to check how fast you are going...

01. Ferrari 458 Italia

Ferrari takes design cues from F1 when building its instrument clusters and steering wheels, to make the driver feel like they are behind the wheel of a race car

Few can deny that Ferrari knows a thing or to about design. Its cars have a legacy of design dating back to the 1940s with the company's first race cars designed by founder Enzo Ferrari. It should be no surprise than that that tradition has continued to the present day, even evident in the 'baby' Ferrari, the 458 Italia.

The 458 features an instrument panel containing a central physical tachometer flanked by two digital displays that can be customized by the driver. These digital displays can show you almost anything about the car from your speedometer to your trip navigation, suspension read-out, song track, or even the car’s racing dynamics.

The particular cluster shown here uses the Ferrari yellow to highlight the tachometer and drives your eye where it needs to be, looking for your next gear shift on the way to a maximum speed of 202 mph.

02. 2014 Ford Mustang

Recent Mustang car designs have blended nostalgia with modern technologies. This is most apparent in the instrument panel's mix of retro design elements and modern digital displays

Let’s say that you want the instrument panel customization of the Ferrari 458, some of its speed, and a touch of retro-flare. Look no further than the 2014 Ford Mustang.

At about a fraction of the cost of the Ferrari, the Ford Mustang is available with many of the same bells and whistles in its instrument panel. Ford has integrated a digital display between a physical speedometer and tachometer gauge. The digital display has the ability to show customized information about the car as well as Ford Track Apps, which are available on select models. These Track Apps have everything you might need to keep track of your day on the raceway.

Beyond the high-tech touches, the Mustang’s instrument cluster is a clean design that maintains a few touches of the long history of the pony car. The numerical typography on the speedometer and tachometer gauges are taken right from the dash of the early Mustangs. The layout has the feeling of being both modern and retro.

03. 2014 Chevrolet Corvette Stingray

Chevy has made dramatically new design choices for the exterior and interior, which includes the use of cutting edge materials and the latest technology. This fact is made even more apparent when looking at the updated instrument panel

You saw the roots of the Corvette interior with the instrument panel from the 1957 version earlier in this post. Chevrolet recently launched its newest model Corvette for 2014 and it's dripping with new technology. The updated instrument panel features a large central digital display between two physical gauges that is similar to the set-up of the Mustang.

The big difference being the size of the display in the Corvette, which is believed to be 8in, and can show several different styles of RPM readouts. The display configuration that is shown in the above image features a black and red interface that is nearly identical to the physical gauges. The effect is an almost seamless integration of high-tech and traditional technology.

04. 2013 Jaguar XJ

The completely digital instrument gauges available on cars like the Jaguar XJ open the door to allow people to design custom car interfaces based on personal preferences

The previous instrument panels have been a mix of physical gauges and digital displays. So, how about taking the leap into a completely digital instrument cluster?

That is what you get with the 2013 Jaguar XJ which features a 'virtual' instrument panel that allows you to adjust accent colours as well as car data. The three gauges are created to look like actual three-dimensional chrome gauges and display your traditional speedometer, tachometer, and fuel levels. The design is straightforward and mimics a contemporary physical gauge cluster.

05. 2012 Lamborghini Aventador

The Lamborghini Aventador design is inspired by modern jet fighters. That inspiration is seen through the vehicle especially in its instrument panel

If the Jaguar XJ’s virtual instrument panel is meant to mimic a physical plastic and metal one, then the Lamborghini Aventador takes it to a new level.

The Aventador’s instrument cluster looks like something developed for Iron Man. All of the car’s information from the engine temperature to fuel level surrounds the central tachometer. The layout is meant to look high-tech and gives the driver the maximum amount of information at a single glance. Interesting touches include the display number font that is both stylish and tech looking. Modern fighter jets have heavily inspired the last few cars from Lamborghini and it is easy to see that influence in this instrument panel.

What does the future hold?

In an age where people are becoming more used to having a variety of apps at their fingertips as well as having the ability to adjust the interface of their digital devices to their preference, the automobile instrument panel is quickly catching up.

Soon you may be able to download different gauge designs based on you favorite sci-fi series or even the era of a particular automobile. This is made possible by the fact that car makers are retiring the physical gauges for completely digital displays. Custom automobile instrument clusters could be the next field of user-interface design.

Words: Ben Whitesell

Ben Whitesell is an illustrator who embodies the ever-growing fan art scene. Find out more about Ben in our interview with him.

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Seen a great example of car instrument panel design? Let us know about it in the comments box below!