The Designs of Tractor Trek

My ride, a Super W4.

Last weekend I participated in the annual Tractor Trek, driving my grandpa’s 1954 Super W4 tractor across the countryside for a day in what has become a family tradition. Together with my grandpa, uncles, and brother-in-law, we joined a group of 46 vintage tractor enthusiasts in driving over 50km, hearing the stories that these tractors represent for farming families, and discovering a lot of beautiful scenery that’s just off the beaten path in our region.

Perched atop an old tractor, covering ground at a break-neck speed of 10mph and lulled by the hum of 46 engines, I did exactly what you would do as well: reflected on life, love, thick lines and UIs.

Thick Lines

The “thick-lined” logo design style was prevalent in the pre-digital industrial era and has re-surfaced of late, thanks in part to designer Aaron Draplin, who has been the recent torch-bearer for the style.

Tractors rival sports teams for brand loyalty, creating tribal followings that transcend rationality. Throughout the trek there were plenty of playful jabs about “red” or “green” tractors. My grandpa made sure to teach us the motto, “If it isn’t red, leave it in the shed”. These logo marks and tractor colours hold special significance to the people who drive them.

The logos on each of these tractors from the 40s and 50s were a thing of beauty:

One of the marks of a good icon is it's versatility in different mediums. This International Harvester logo stands up in one-color metal.

One of the marks of a good icon is it’s versatility in different mediums. This International Harvester logo stands up in one-color metal.

Beautiful chunky MM marking the Minneapolis-Moline tractor brand.

Beautiful chunky MM marking the Minneapolis-Moline tractor brand.

The John Deere logo has been consistent for many years, with only slight updates and modifications. (I took note of the direction of the deer's jump,  which changed in 2000).

The John Deere logo has been consistent for many years, with only slight updates and modifications. (Notice that the deer’s jump direction changed a few years ago).

This Massey Ferguson logo has some intricacies. Currently the brand uses a simplified version of this thre-triangle mark.

This Massey Ferguson logo isn’t particularly compelling, but it influenced the brand’s current simplified version of this thre-triangle mark.

Simple User Interfaces

During the trek I was also on the look-out for simple user interfaces. Compared to today’s farming technology which incorporates satellite tracking and real-time data, these old tractors are very basic machines (though I’d still be lost if you asked me to fix one of them), and their user interfaces were designed to match. No frills, just the basic information and buttons you need. These interfaces were designed with the user’s rough, gloved, farmer’s hands in mind.

Simple interfaces like these continue to influence today’s technology. Though the technology in your computer or your phone have become more complex, user interface designers continue to work to make interfaces intuitive and simple for humans to use.

When you drive a W4, this is the only interface that greets you in the traditional "dashboard" spot in front of the steering wheel. This controls the basic electrical functions, including lights and the ON/OFF toggle switch.

When you drive a W4, this electrical dashboard is the only interface that greets you in the traditional “dashboard” spot in front of the steering wheel. Just the basics, including lights and the ON/OFF toggle switch.

The original "heads-up display", various engine levels are located above the engine, far in front of the driver but in clear view.

The original “heads-up display”, various engine levels are located above the engine, far in front of the driver but in clear view.

The McCormick 300's genius little RPM/speedometer, all indicated with one needle!

The McCormick 300’s genius little RPM/speedometer, all indicated with one needle. We wondered whether it was accurate, it seems almost too simple!

The next time you see a vintage tractor driving by, take a closer look at the design elements and see what you can learn from them!