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Sketchbook: Manual work

It's not easy to describe visually how something works. But to understand some instruction manuals you've got to be a genius.
Take the first right, go straight at the roundabout, and turn left at the second street after you cross the railway line. You can't miss it." You can't? The man who just gave you directions obviously doesn't realise how many ways there are to go wrong. In fact you can miss it in an incredible number of ways. If you didn't, it was probably sheer luck. The same is true for hi-tech equipment. It's simply impossible for a product that offers more than 100 features to be completely self-explanatory without an instruction manual. And once you have to follow instructions, you can go wrong.

Products never speak for themselves. Someone had to teach us that a chair is meant for sitting on, that a spoon is for putting food into the mouth. How to use these things seems intuitive because we learnt about them at an early age. But imagine seeing a flat piece of curved wood with rounded corners for the first time. Would you guess what a boomerang is for? And how to use it? Would somebody who had never seen a fork before understand that it is meant for use in eating?

How about playing the same little game with a mobile phone-fax-e-mail unit, or an electronic organiser? Could you guess what it was? Only with the aid of a manual - 180 pages of technical gobbledygook, exploded-view illustrations with gymnastic arrows and childish cartoons to warn you about the most incredible situations. You're on your own now.

The latest development is to make hi-tech products look simple. The newest remote controls, cameras and photocopiers have very few buttons. But the problems are not solved, just hidden. Look at the back or move a lid to discover that the product is loaded with buttons. Even worse are the machines with screens. All the features are hidden in menus, commands, soft keys, screen buttons and icons. It looks easier, but it's far more complicated. Now we need wizards, guides and on-line help systems to find our virtual way in feature-land.

`Open Here' by Paul Mijksenaar and Piet Westendorp is published by Thames & Hudson, pounds 17.95

Captions: Zip fastener

This picture shows L Judson's patent application for the zip fastener, in 1893. Products are often advertised as being self-explanatory when they're not. That's why we need extra instructions. Of course there are examples of things made in such a way that their design informs you how to use them. A century ago, light switches had buttons that indicated whether the current could go through or not. If it could, the switch was in line with the electricity cable. If the current was blocked, the switch looked like a cross-bar.

Manual typewriter

With the arrival of the Industrial Revolution and its mass-produced sewing machines, typewriters, telephones, radios and cars, people suddenly had machines they could only operate by consulting instructions. These were the first products with manuals as we know them. And of course they were small compared to the magnum-size books we have now.

Stanley knife

In the order in which visual instructions should be set out, warnings come first - usually because the lawyers say so. We have to identify the pieces (and figure out what was left out of the box). We might need to know measurements. Next, we have to look at the composition - to see what each piece is for and where it should go. We need to know the exact location and orientation of the parts to be assembled or connected. If we're lucky the illustrator used arrows, hands, dotted lines and other tricks to help this process. Then, at last, it's time for action.

Disposable camera

Slowly, we'll get used to a Standardised Generalised Symbol Language (SGSL). Out of the thousands of icons and symbols we are confronted with, we only recognise 300 or so. The meaning of some icons may be easy to guess, most are not. Designers struggle between iconomatism and "ideogrammaticality". Should an icon look like the object, or should it be a more symbolic representation?

Toilet seat cover

A US diplomat at a party in Japan excused himself to go to the bathroom. After doing his business, he realised he didn't know how to flush the toilet, baffled by the array of buttons on a complicated keypad. So he just started pushing. He hit the button that makes a flushing noise to mask any noise you might be making. Then he hit the bidet button which shot a stream of water. (From The Washington Post, May 1997.)

The Whirligig

Where and when did the arrow get its universal symbolic significance as a pointer or vector? Its first use appears in the compass rose, introduced by the ancient Greeks circa 150BC. In the 18th century we see the first arrows used on maps, to indicate, for instance, the direction a river flows in. By the 20th century arrows were being used in traffic signs. The more realistic hand with a pointing finger, used since the 17th century to indicate direction, lost out.

Cartoon cat Artist Boudewjn Bjelke pokes fun at visual instructions in this drawing: "The problem. You need. The result." Visual communication in general has triumphed over text. Many of the techniques applied in visual instructions have been adapted from cartoons: anthropomorphic drawings (such as sweating televisions and coughing printers), lines that indicate movement, depictions of sounds ("Click!"), balloons and inserts containing text.

Typewriter features

A major advance in visual instruction occurred during the Second World War, when the military used pictorial language to train soldiers. But it was not until the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies that "featurism" began invading our products, and visual information began invading our lives in manuals and on packaging and products, through pre-set buttons, tone settings and safety lids.

A close shave

Visual instructions are a kind of cartoon strip for adults. A language that's too childish for children. Kids don't need it: they've grown up knowing how to work the VCR and the computer. They read cartoons that are genuinely funny. Children enjoy Disney cartoons; we struggle through our Roy Lichtenstein instructions.

Anchovy can

Modern life is a continuous intelligence test: from the moment we wake up and switch off the clock radio till the moment we set it again for the next morning. Which button for snooze? Time to brush our teeth (" ... horizontal, vertical and turning movements"). Insert a tampon ("See picture") or shave ("To clean the hairs from the blade, push the tabs ... "). To open the milk carton, press the two sides back and pull ... we even need help opening a can of fish.

Swiss Army knife

In 1886 the Swiss Army decided to equip every soldier with a regulation, single-blade folding knife. In 1889 a new rifle was introduced. To disassemble this rifle a screwdriver was needed, so a multipurpose tool incorporating a knife, screwdriver, reamer and can opener was created: the Swiss Army knife. It wasn't until after the Second World War - when American GIs discovered this tool - that the Swiss Army knife entered into worldwide distribution. As with electronic products, the number of features has grown rapidly. This illustration is taken from a recent manual for the "Wenger" knife.

The perfect bow tie

Visual instructions must be universally comprehensible and inoffensive. So you find a lot of cultural differences in instructions for use, right? Wrong. Even instructions for the use of condoms are the same for Hindus, Muslims, Christians and heathens. If the instructions are universally identical for such a delicate matter as condoms, why would they be different for more ordinary products?

Step-by-step sari

Sequences are often shown movie-style, in a series of pictures, as in this demonstration of putting on a sari ... But let's hope the designer isn't too creative about this.1. Hold the end ... 2. Move the slider ... 3. Secure the end ... 4. Move the slider back ... 5. Pull the strap ... The ordinals and cardinals. First do this, then do that, next ... until step 17c. It seems easy to indicate the order of working: 1,2,3 or A,B,C or maybe I, II, III for the Latinists among us. From the top down or left to right? In columns or per page?

Shoe laces

Since the Second World War, visual instructions have been developed for almost every type of product, from toys to computers, traffic signs to chopsticks. Such instructions have evolved from mainly text to mainly pictures, and these images have gone from being just pleasing or informative to functional. They have also progressed from general overview pictures to detailed instructional series.