Can typography save lives?

Chris Dean's picture

Degani, A. (1992). On the typography of flight deck documentation NASA contractor report #177605. San Jose State University Foundation. San Jose, California.
If you Google the title, a link that starts a PDF download should be second on the list.

It talks about the typographic design of airplane safety manuals &c. A great example of how our work as typographers can help save lives. Does anyone else have practical examples where the application of typographic principles can help save lives?

(I don't remember how to embed a PDF into a post. If anyone can provide me with instructions/directions as to how to do this, I would appreciate it.)

hrant's picture

The single best example I know of (quite a bit more significant, statistically if not sensationalistically, than airplane manuals) is the typography of medicine bottles/boxes, as practiced by Karel van der Waarde among others. Along with Karel one other person I remember chimed in at the second Thessaloniki conference claiming to save lives with typography: Richard Southall (and I have no reason to doubt him).


Chris Dean's picture

Can you cite specific studies by Southall?

hrant's picture

That was a momentary thing during a Q&A about 5 years ago...
Let me check his book though (which you might want to buy yourself).


hrant's picture

I didn't see anything relevant in the book.

Assuming the email I have for Southall still works, I can offer to point him to this thread and/or ask him to elaborate and then pass it along. He's as approachable as he is knowledgeable, so I would expect a useful reply.


Si_Daniels's picture

>Does anyone else have practical examples where the application of typographic principles can help save lives?

These could be examples of bad typographic design costing lives...

Election ballots – US Presidential elections 2000

Air Traffic Control – Some well publicized issues with the fonts used in the new British air traffic control system ten or so years ago

...or maybe not.

Chris Dean's picture

For reference: Karel van der Waarde. Sounds like an interesting fellow.

@ hrant: Yes, if you could pass on Southall's email (or give him mine = typographer gmail) that would be greatly appreciated. It is only recently that I came across his book. I will put it on my (ever growing) list.

And if I were to alphabetize Karel van der Waarde (by last name), what would be the proper syntax? I've often wondered how to deal with that naming convention.

Chris Dean's picture

Hailstone M., & Foster J.J. (1967). Studies of the efficiency of drug labeling. The Journal of Typographic Research, 1(3), 275–284.

@ sii: I can't seem to find mention of this British air traffic control font. Do you have a reference/specimen? Here is a picture of the "butterfly ballot" you refer to. What a gem.

Another interesting link: The Challenger: an information disaster. Tog (aka Bruce Tognazzini) works for the Nielsen Norman Group. A well respected firm that specializes in usability design.

Theunis de Jong's picture

[I]f I were to alphabetize Karel van der Waarde (by last name), what would be the proper syntax? I’ve often wondered how to deal with that naming convention.

It depends on whether you are creating an international name index or one targeted at a Dutch audience (it's a Dutch name).

Internationally, it would be the "v" of "Van der Waarde, Karel". I think it's safe to say that 'international' stands for 'not using the Dutch system'!

The Dutch system is to ignore lowercase prefixes: so, under "W" -- but still with the prefixes, so the full entry would be "van der Waarde, Karel". (Me, I'm listed under "J", and perfectly happy with that.)

Prefixes in Holland are sorted normally, so in a block of "[xx] Waarde"'s "aan de Waarde" comes first, then "de Waarde", then "van den Waarde" and finally "van der Waarde". Another convention is to put the prefixes after initials, and in that case sorting is either on initials themselves, or (rather arbitrary) by street name or something like that:

Waarde, A van
Waarde, B de
Waarde, C van der

As I'm writing this it sounds increasingly confusing; nevertheless, we usually can find the one we were looking for.

[Edit] I might as well add I am as confused about quadruple Spanish names and the eternal conundrum "Sung Song Blu Nigel" [*] -- Sung Song Blu, with the taken 'Western' name "Nigel", but with last name sorting, is it Sung Song Blu, Blue Sung Song, or Sung Blu Song?

[*] Somehow these guys/gals never call themselves "John" or "Jack", it's always something take right out of Jane Austen.

Si_Daniels's picture

Sorry, I can't find a link to the ATC issue, it was some time ago. As I recall Richard Southall was involved. If I remember rightly he referred them to us, and we gave them the Verdana bitmaps to replace the font that was causing the issues.

Thomas Phinney's picture

There was the case of the Turkish cell phone missing a dotless i character, leading to two deaths:



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