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I work at an airline as a pilot and I am involved in the "paperless" project which aims to have no more paper in the cockpit - all the data should be accessible from tablet devices.

We have a lot to read during flights (checklists, rules and regulations, maps and so on). We will have special screens (size of about an iPad) but with a higher resolution (1280x1024).

What's the best color combination considering night/day conditions? And what's the best font to read on screen?

  • Please also include sources to your answers (studies or similar)

EDIT:

Factors

  • Legibility * in various conditions from bright sunlight to complete darkness
  • Retention * as there will be no more books, pilots are forced to learn at their home computers (ev. bad lighting, bad monitors)
  • Aesthetics * is not really a factor, but in my opinion needed to meet the users expectations

Personal

My personal history shows that I work mostly with classic black on white contrasts (as a developer and as a consumer). We already have a software product which allows the pilots to switch to "night-mode" which inverts the most colors, however almost nobody uses the feature. The reason why I don't switch to the "night" mode is mainly because we can dim our device perfectly so there is almost no glow which distracts us during flight and we have the cockpit lights on during cruise.

Airline Industry

Airbus Industries started to ship their electronic software with the default setting set to white on black (with the option to switch). I ask myself if they did it only to be conform with the cockpit displays (CRT/LCD mixed, only white on black)?

Lufthansa Systems has a complete system which is by default black on white. I am not aware of an option to switch it into night mode in general, except the navigation maps.

Web Industry

Personally I think it's important to have an eye on the web industry, as by today almost everyone is involved. We read, write and learn in the web - and it's mostly black on white. This could be the reason why most people think white on black is odd and won't use it if made availbe as an option, because it's not a common standard. So why should we force the user to white on black?

Current Choice

The current choice would be Tahoma 12pt, #222 on #fff with the option for #fff on #000 according to Michael Zuschlag's answer and references.

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Very interesting question. Especially considering the different lighting conditions. –  Marjan Venema Feb 1 '11 at 7:54

4 Answers 4

up vote 23 down vote accepted

Legibility depends on high contrast between foreground and background, so black-and-white is the safest bet. See for example:

Hall RH & Hanna H 2003. The Impact of Web Page Text-Background Color Combinations on Readability, Retention, Aesthetics, and Behavioral Intention, Laboratory for Information Technology Evaluation, Technical Report LITE-2003-04.

For indoor web use you might get away with any reasonably dark-and-light color combination. However, considering the possibly harsh and highly variable viewing environment of the cockpit, (e.g., totally dark night to low sun shining directly on the display), you probably want go with black and white.

I believe whether black-on-white or white-on-black is better depends on the font design. Most fonts for personal computers are designed for dark-on-light presentation. If you’re using “regular” computer fonts, you probably should go with black-on-white. However, depending on the performance of your device when dimmed, you might want to consider white-on-black for night mode to maximize visibility of everything else the pilot needs to see. See answers for White font on black background.

The relation between font and readability is complicated, but you’re probably safe going with a “normal” font like Tahoma or Times New Roman. See:

Bernard M, Mills M, Peterson M, & Storrer K 2001. A Comparison of Popular Online Fonts: Which is Best and When? SURL Usability News 3(2).

Bernard M, Lida B, Riley S, Hackler T, & Janzen K 2002. A Comparison of Popular Online Fonts: Which Size and Type is Best? SURL Usability News 4(1).

For answering all kinds of usability/human factors questions regarding the sort of device you’re developing, I recommend my colleagues’:

Chandra D & Yeh M 2006. A Tool Kit for Evaluating Electronic Flight Bags. US DOT Volpe Center Report DOT-VNTSC-FAA-06-21

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If you decide to only have black and white, consider having a true black and white screen rather than a color screen. You will get better resolution and contrast. –  Mart Feb 1 '11 at 8:43
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Top answer. As you are already suggesting - black on white seems the best solution, whereas we will give the users the solution to switch to white on black (also for night mode). What about the new pattern to use #222 instead of #000? What do you think about this? It's a detail, but still it seems to get more and more popular. Stackexchange for example uses #444 and according to Hall RH & Hanna H 2004 this should be no problem as readability will not be reduced until you reach a certain threshold. On the other side: what's the benefit? –  Wolkenjaeger Feb 1 '11 at 10:05
    
Adding to this: A legibility equation for determining ideal viewing in lecture halls claims to be the only architecture/lighting-design paper to deal with multiple media and viewing angles. The ideas in it may be relevant to the variable cockpit environment. –  isomorphismes Sep 11 '13 at 14:11

Black text on a white background yields the best legibility, since the bright glow from the background causes your pupils to contract. It's easier to focus your eye with a smaller pupil (much like the depth of field is increased with a smaller camera lens), and it reduces the effect of refractive errors in the eye.

For situations where you don't want to destroy your night vision, a dark background and red or amber text is most comfortable.

Personally I dislike high contrasts with light text on a dark background, so I use colors like 'wheat' on 'dark slate gray'. For dark text on a light background, I find a warmer color is more relaxing. Many e-book readers and text editors use an off-white yellowish tint to good effect.

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note that one study found that green was better than red for reading in with dark adapted or night vision as it needs less photons for green light than red for the eye to register i.e. a green on black would work great but for day light black on white with a bright and sharp screen works better even –  Dan D. Feb 11 '11 at 20:27
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Would be great to have a source of the study. Sounds interesting. –  Wolkenjaeger Feb 12 '13 at 9:01

I've been working in a project called eAdept (www.eadept.se) with an application for screens on mobile phones for users that are visually impaired. We've been trying different combination, both indoors and outdoors to find find out what's best for these persons. We've also been talking to, for example specialists and supervisors to visually imapired to get a good explanation of the interaction between differens colors. The result of all these test and information is a combination of yellow and black. We've been using #F8EF20 for the yellow one and also some darker and lighter versions. Maybe a combination like that can work in a cookpit.

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We can not use any yellowish colors in the cockpit due to a definition collision with color coded warnings/informations. –  Wolkenjaeger Feb 12 '13 at 9:03
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@Wolkenjaeger: Maybe you could add this restriction to your question? –  unor Apr 11 at 15:43

Colors aside, you might also be interested in the typeface test report conducted by the International Institute of Information Design regarding the evaluation of the new ‘Tern’ typeface: www.iiid.net/SOMS/InSafety_IVT_Report_Final.pdf (The requirements for road traffic signs should be nearly identical to those for your context of use.)

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