Strategies to Create Legible Watch Dials

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This won’t come as a surprise to you: a watch must be legible in order to fulfill its primary function of telling the time. However, not all watches were designed with superlative legibility in mind. Those with additional complications were designed as complex multi-purpose tools rather than ultra-legible watches. Think of pilot chronographs and perpetual calendars. In general, purpose-driven tool watches and military watches are the most legible: their sole purpose was to allow the wearer to read precise time at a glance. Nothing could get in the way of this function. As we will see below, there are certain design elements that make a dial legible, and the most legible dials are those that combine all of these elements. 

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First Strategy: Wide Dial Openings 

It makes sense, right? Make the dial opening as wide as possible so that it’s easier to read the information indicated on it. By “dial opening” I mean the entire surface of the dial contained within the rehaut, not to be confused with the diameter of a watch. German World War II fliegers constitute the best examples of purpose-driven watches with wide dial openings. These watches were made to be worn outside flight jackets, meaning they were very large: generally around 55mm in diameter. Proportionally, the dial opening was large, making it possible for the hour indices, minute markers, and hands to be large as well. This oversized design allowed for quick time telling while flying. Pilots needed these precise timekeeping devices to calculate distance from a target, fuel consumption, and time precise military strikes. The more legible these watches were, the better. 

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Second Strategy: Simple Hour Markers 

It seems that watch enthusiasts are split on Arabic numeral hour indices (the opposite being geometrical hour markers which are generally rectangular or triangular). As we discussed here, most watches that use Arabic numerals are military and tool watches because of their ultra-legible functionality. The same is true today, although I would love to see elegant everyday timepieces with a full stack of Arabic numerals (perhaps a debate for another time?). To guarantee superlative legibility on any dial, it's best for the hour markers to be Arabic numerals or baton-style markers which are the easiest to distinguish from the hour and minute hands. (More on that below.)  Everest Journal Strategies to Create Legible Watch DialsSource:

Third Strategy: Contrasting Handsets 

A watch achieves ultimate legibility when the hour markers are paired with the right shape of hour and minute hands. Generally speaking, I find hands that have a triangular shape to be the easiest to read—their shape is the opposite of the hour markers—and arrow or sword-shaped hands are equally legible. I find the combination of triangular hands and triangular hour markers to be hard to read because of their similarity in shape. Another winning combo, which can be found on many military watches, going all the way back to 1940s field watches, is that of Arabic numerals paired with syringe or sword-shaped numerals. This type of design makes it possible to read the time in an instant from any distance or angle. 

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Fourth Strategy: Monochromatic Color Schemes 

Last but not least, we need to discuss colors, in particular monochromatic color schemes. There is a reason why tool watches typically have monochromatic dials: they are the most legible. The hands and hour markers contrast in color with that of the dial. Whether it be black against white, white against black, or some darker shade of gray, there aren’t many options for creating monochromatic dials. All Dirty Dozen watches had cream-colored hands and hour markers set against rich black dials. And the first pilot watches like the IWC Mark XI had a similar layout. Furthermore, a watch that has a brightly colored dial—the Doxa SUB300T for example—is very legible with large black-surrounded hands.

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Final Thoughts  

When I think of the most legible dials I’ve ever come across, I can’t think of a better example than World War II inspired field watches. Faithful recreations showcase full stacks of Arabic numerals, syringe or sword hands, and monochromatic color schemes that guarantee superlative legibility. I can read the time from afar and at any angle, as long as I can see the watch head. Looking at modern creations, there are ways to create legible dials by adapting the aforementioned strategies. This is what has made the IWC pilot watches and Rolex Submariner such classic models that have inspired many others. 

Looking at the independent watch market, MONTA created an elegant and effective iteration of the field watch with the Triumph, utilizing the strategies mentioned in this article. What other ways do you know of to make dials legible? Please leave your comments below. 

Featured image: Redditor NAbsentia

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