Legibility of Text and Pictograms in Variable Message Signs: Can Single-Word Messages Outperform Pictograms?

Hum Factors. 2018 May;60(3):384-396. doi: 10.1177/0018720817751623. Epub 2018 Jan 10.


Objective: The current research shows the advantage of single-word messages in the particular case of variable message signs (VMSs) with a high aspect ratio.

Background: Early studies on traffic sign design proposed that pictorial information would advantage equivalent text messages in static signs.

Method: We used a driving simulator to present individually 36 VMSs, showing six words (e.g., "congestion") and six danger signs (e.g., congestion traffic sign). In Experiment 1, 18 drivers read aloud the text or orally identified the pictograms as soon as they could correctly do it. In Experiment 2, a different sample of 18 drivers gave a motor response, according to the meaning of the message. We analyzed the legibility distance and accuracy, driving performance (speed variability), and glance behavior.

Results: Our results show that single-word messages were associated with better performance (farther reading distances) and required less visual demands (fewer glances and less glancing times) than pictograms.

Conclusion: As typical configurations of VMSs usually have a high aspect ratio, and thus allow large character heights, single-word messages can outperform the legibility of pictograms. However, the final advantage of text or pictorial messages would depend on several factors, such as the driver's knowledge of the language and the pictogram set, the use of single or multiple words, the particular design and size of critical details in letters and pictograms, environmental factors, and driver age.

Application: Potential applications include the design of VMSs and other devices aimed at displaying text and/or pictograms with a high aspect ratio.

Keywords: high aspect ratio; legibility distance; pictogram; text message; traffic signs; variable message signs.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Automobile Driving*
  • Humans
  • Pattern Recognition, Visual / physiology*
  • Psychomotor Performance / physiology*
  • Reading*
  • Space Perception / physiology*