All those movies and TV shows whose signage and user interfaces are displayed in the latest it-looked-super-futuristic-at-the-time fonts (I’m looking at you, Babylon 5)? Yeah, full of crap. NASA’s actually done research in this area. Because if you’re in a life-or-death situation, say, similar to Apollo 13 (or worse), the last thing you need is to figure out if that’s a 6 or a G. [LINK]
NASA cares very much about the lives of pilots and astronauts. NASA also doesn’t like to screw around. You don’t get to put one-ton nuclear cars on another planet by screwing around. So, NASA doesn’t screw around with type design.
In 1992, NASA researcher Asaf Degani released a report outlining, in detail, all the ways typography can go wrong, and the very best ways to get it right. Degani didn’t care so much about whether this or that font would capture the identity of a hip business—he cared about near-perfect legibility, under a range of strange conditions.
Degani summed up his recommendations, and while some of them are a little technical, the best ones—”avoid using long strings of text set in italics” or “avoid using black over dark red, green, and blue”—are solid advice that local leaflet-makers would do well adhere to.
The list is actually some really basic Best Typography Practices stuff, but going through it just makes one chuckle ruefully at the number of “futuristic” sci-fi entities that have violated, oh, nearly every one of those rules. Even the Star Trek “LCARS” display scheme, beloved throughout TNG, DS9 and Voyager, doesn’t pass the smell test of these rules.