Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150's Instrument Panel

Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky/Ford

I fully realize that what’s likely an embarrassingly-sized portion of what I do here is to complain about things in the auto industry, like some cranky old bastard with hemorrhoids and a lifetime of regret. But I’m pretty sure my hemorrhoids have cleared up, and I also give credit where it’s due, which is what I intend to do right now. Specifically, I want to give Ford credit for its instrument cluster design for the new F-150, which is boldly non-skeuomorphic.

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On the off-chance you’re not a pedantic little numbnuts like myself, you may want a quick definition of skeuomorphic. Usually, this word just refers to digital interfaces that look like real-world things, often needlessly.

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Now, some skeuomorphism really isn’t bad, as it helps us understand how to use things via analogies we understand in the real world, but it can also become a crutch that actually restricts the potential of what new technologies can offer.

Some car instrument panels are excellent examples of this. Screen-based displays instead of conventional mechanical instruments could have meant that entirely new and better methods for displaying information could have been developed, yet nearly every carmaker has so far insisted on just re-creating the look and behavior of physical gauges:

Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Illustration: Jason Torchinsky

There was a lot of wasted potential there, and while there have been some examples of carmakers experimenting with designs that didn’t seek to just ape analog gauges, they were pretty few and far between.

Interestingly, a lot of the examples that sought to really re-think instrument clusters came from the 1980s, when the digital display tech was simply unable to re-create realistic-looking physical gauges, so carmakers were forced to try new things

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Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Graphic: Jason Torchinsky

It was a dramatic improvement in display technology with color LCDs that made the retrograde step of mimicking analog gauges even possible at all, oddly.

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Anyway, Ford has finally decided to abandon the round-gauge mimicry instrument panel (IP) design concept and has jumped quite fully into really re-thinking what a dash can be like.

Here, check it out:

There’s still a hint to the old style of physical gauges with the round shapes, but, really, that’s about it. There’s no fake needles or simulated chrome trim or any bullshit like that. Just some good, clean information design.

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Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Screenshot: Ford

The typography is stylish but clean and highly legible; essential information is clear and readily apparent, and while that CG F-150 isn’t really necessary, Ford’s gonna Ford so why the hell not.

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Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Screenshot: Ford

There’s a consistent design vocabulary happening here, and when the interface changes, as you can see above when it’s in “slippery” mode, the amount of information is greatly reduced, but the key elements that are retained crucially stay in the same place, so your eye doesn’t have to re-learn where to go with every variation. That’s good thinking.

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Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Screenshot: Ford
Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Screenshot: Ford
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All of the special condition driving modes appear to waste a lot of real estate with the big CG truck animations, but, if the goal is to reduce the amount of information clutter when driving in more demanding circumstances, then this makes sense.

Illustration for article titled Ford Did Something Very Good With The 2021 F-150s Instrument Panel
Screenshot: Ford
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Situations that demand more information for the driver—like the towing configuration shown here—do resize key elements of the display, but, again, keep their positions consistent.

I think Ford’s designers did an excellent job with the IP design. I don’t think they’re the first to completely reject skeuomorphic gauge cluster design (the Tesla Model 3, for example, takes a clean-sheet approach as well), but I believe they’ll be the biggest manufacturer to do so, and the F-150 will likely be the largest-selling platform to feature such a design, and will likely give more people a taste of this new way of thinking about dashboards than any has before.

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So, good job, Ford. Now make a nice, small reborn Ford Courier with this kind of dash and I’ll really be excited.

Senior Editor, Jalopnik • Running: 1973 VW Beetle, 2006 Scion xB, 1990 Nissan Pao, 1991 Yugo GV Plus, 2020 Changli EV • Not-so-running: 1973 Reliant Scimitar, 1977 Dodge Tioga RV (also, buy my book!)

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DISCUSSION

If you look at modern aircraft displays, many of them have gone back to skeuomorphic engine displays because they are easier for pilots to glance at and quickly interpret the necessary information.

Skeuomorphic isn’t necessarily bad and new isn’t necessarily better.