They exist to be read, usually as quickly as possible, and then discarded. We are not in the habit of attempting to contemplate their beauty, but as Piet Westendorp says, if we do stop and take time for a closer look, we may discover ingenuity, creativity and aesthetic values that we had not expected. All of these images and drawings have authors of course, but they remain anonymous. And yet their creation requires skill and study and belong to a largely hidden body of information designers, illustrators, and academic specialists like Piet Westendorp from the Delft University of Technology in Holland, who have devoted themselves to the study of how to communicate, in the simplest ways possible, essential information to help us in the navigation and utilisation of daily tasks and tools. This exhibition would not have been possible without Piet Westendorp’s expertise and collaboration, to whom I am immensely grateful. The majority of the examples used are drawn from an extensive archive that he has assembled at the University. I would also like to acknowledge and recommend the book Open Here, The art of Instructional Design (Joost Elffers Books, New York, 1999) by Piet Westendorp and designer Paul Mijksenaar, on which the narrative of this exhibition is based.
Andrew Howard, curator.
In less than one century the world has developed into a community, stuffed with high-tech products. We travel around the world in planes and trains, subways and busses, cars and bikes to end up in parking garages and shopping centres. We communicate over telephones and internet, using computers, movie-camera’s, cd-players and copying machines. In addition, we use complex machines for sewing, washing, cooking, and we have lots and lots of electronic toys, games and gadgets – all with many extra features.

Moreover, we construct furniture from models, use electronic toothbrushes, help our children with Lego and build model airplanes, learn to use tools, open packages and cans and bottles with a childsafe cap, insert batteries, and tie ropes for mountain climbing or sailing, We have to fill in tax forms and use medicines correctly.

So we need help. But we do not always have helpful neighbours and clever nephews around. We have to learn to unpack, build and operate all these fine products ourselves. So we get instructions. And because of global marketing, distant selling, and international travelling, many of these instructions have to address a global public. Therefore, many instructions are visual, supposed to be understandable for everybody around the world: a visual Esperanto.

Usually our technical toys and packagings do not speak for themselves. But occasionally the products’ shape expresses its function. The egg-timer that looks like an egg, the speech-recorder which has the shape of a comics balloon and the earphones in the shape of an ear. Better example: the HP inkjet-cartridge which has the shape of an arrow and has to be pressed down into its holder in the direction of that arrow. Some door-handles try to indicate that you have to push or pull. But that is usually not enough.

So we get visual instructions, on products, on displays, and on packagings. Pictograms, icons and symbols on camera’s, ‘pull-this’ instructions on lids, insert-arrows on telephone cards. Unpacking instructions on the package, turning-arrows on caps, and howlong- the-tea-bag-should-be-in-the-hot-water on its paper wrap, how to take pictures on the carton around the throw-away camera. Include all the traffic signs we see on roads, navigation instructions in airports, subways, train stations or shopping centres, icons on computer screens – and realize that modern hieroglyphics have invaded our daily lives. All these little drawings, pictograms, icons and symbols, made by unknown designers and artists, usually go unnoticed, we consider them to be just utilitarian, at best. But these micro pictures deserve more appreciation. They are often ingenious, creative, funny or hilarious. And if we take some time and a magnifying glass, we may discover their aesthetic values, which they certainly have, just like their cousins, the cartoons, their aunts, the posters, or their uncles, the scientific and technical illustrations. All members of the family of Art with an lowercase ‘a’.

Origin and development
Technology, over recent decades, has invaded our lives and our society and has become very complex. As a result, visual instructions have invaded our daily lives. But such instructions are as old as mankind. They may have started with our hands indicating direction, probably over 100.000 years ago. The cave paintings in Alta Mira in Spain and in Lascaux in France, up to 20.000 years old, may have had an instructional function. The oldest instruction that has been preserved of which we can be sure to be an instruction is the foot-print in the pavement next to the drawing of a woman’s face in Ephesus in present-day Turkey. It is a sign, indicating the way to a brothel. Technical drawings for professional use have been preserved from thousands of years ago; the oldest one is probably a floor-plan from 2130 BC for a fortress in Mesopotamia.

Strong developments in the variation and style of technical drawings date back to the early Renaissance period. The invention of perspective drawing, around 1400, for instance, had influence in technical and scientific illustrations simultaneously with its influence in artistic painting and drawing. Fine cutaway drawings and exploded view drawings are known from medical books from before 1500. Leonardo da Vinci is said to be the inventor of the exploded view drawing, but there are some older examples in medical books.

These developments in drawing techniques led to some outstanding early examples of instructional illustrations. The first to be mentioned may be Vitruvius’ De Architectura, a book on architecture, rediscovered in 1414 and first published around 25 AD. The Dominican friar Giocondo produced the first version illustrated with woodcut illustrations in Venice in 1511. Also famous are the illustrations in the Vesalius’ De humani corpori fabrica, a medical book about the human body, from 1543, with over 200 illustrations on folio pages and De re metallica by Agricola, from 1556, a book on mining tools and techniques with many hundreds of big and beautiful illustrations. The most famous technical illustrations are of course those by Leonardo da Vinci, from the 15th century. These books can be considered the milestones of technical instructive illustrations.

Foot-print in the pavement next to the drawing of a woman’s face in Ephesus in present-day Turkey.

Left A page from De re metallica by Agricola, 1556.

Modern instructional illustrations start with the Industrial Revolution and the mass-production of technical products for end-users. The earliest examples are sewing machines (around 1850) and typewriters (around 1870). These were the first products that were delivered with manuals. The beginning of the 20th century saw the introduction of the automobile, and later the radio, which were both quickly sold to a mass public, including manuals, often with visual support.

The second World War brought major developments in technical instructions. Young men had to learn to operate complex military machines, such as tanks, machine guns and fighter planes. For this, of course, they got a training, and for this training a lot of instructional material was developed. A major change was the introduction of instructional illustrations in cartoon style. This is not surprising if one realizes that the biggest producer of such training material was the Disney corporation. The cartoon style was not only to make simple explanation drawings, but also to make the instructions more attractive. Striking examples are the series are 16mm movies with Mickey Mouse and other Disney figures as guides explaining the use of all kinds of weapons, for instance a movie with Mickey Mouse explaining how to use a Browning P.50 machine gun.

The cartoon-industry introduced many other elements from cartoons into visual instructions such as Anthropomorphic illustrations: drawings of products that seem to have human characteristics, such as a sweating television, or a coughing copying machine; Balloons with short texts or magnified details; Dotted lines to indicate elements that do not exist in reality, movements or highlighting elements; Use of symbols, such as the skull for indicating danger or the magnifying glass; Various types of lines to indicate sounds; Variation in the design of arrows: curly, outline, partially dotted to indicate movement such as shaking; Examples and explanations of the ideas behind and techniques involved in cartoon design can be found in Scott McCloud’s intriguing book Understanding Comics: the visible art (1993).

Traffic signs were introduced in 1900, but it was only in the nineteenfifties that symbols are used generally for instructing the use of radio’s, tape recorders, wayfinding on train stations, subway stations and airports. The oldest symbol for instruction may be the pointing hand to indicate direction, but no date of origin is know. Second oldest will probably be the arrow (first preserved examples date from before 1750), first applied graphically to indicate the directions of the stream of rivers on maps. The symbolic arrow has developed as the most commonly used symbol of all, with a variation of meanings, such as indicating direction or movement. Symbols have been used for a long time in mathematics, chemistry, and later electronics. some of these symbols have found their ways into user instructions. Many instructive elements, such as reference lines and numbers or letters, find their origins in scientific illustrations: mathematics, medical books, starting at the end of the Middle Ages.

Just like all Art, visual instructions can please us because of their sheer beauty, or because they confuse us, frustrate us, thrill us, touch us, or perhaps even because they comfort us: we realize that others suffer as well. But this pleasure requires a magnifying glass and an attentive eye.

First of all it requires that we try to discover the communication problem: what exactly is the illustrator trying to instruct or inform us about?. This may be a great pleasure, for instance when sitting in an airplane studying the safety instruction card and in each of the pictures trying to really understand what is meant.

Second could be an analysis of the sorts of communication aspects the instruction contains, such as: Warnings; Identification (what should be in the package, what tools do I need?); Measurements (how long, what distance, how heavy); Composition (how to combine elements); Location (where are elements located); Sequences (in what order); Movements (how to turn, twist, roll); Connections (what to combine with what); Action & Effect what is the result of our action); The final result (what should it finally look like).

Of course, these communication elements are hardly ever all present in one visual instruction. Visual instructions often consist of just two or three elements from this list. But overall, a designer will consider these elements of communication in this order.

Once all content and order of the content is clear, the designer will think of an overall concept to present the information: a layout, a style and the overall idea of how to indicate all necessary elements. One can present with photo’s or drawings, full-colour or black & white. In visual instructions it is very common to use black & white plus one supporting colour, for instance red, to indicate the instructive elements, such as arrows, pointing hands, graphic representations of sounds, or dotted lines to indicate connections, and the relevant part at a certain step: watch here! Applying just one supporting colour is usually not in the first place applied for effective communication, but for economic reasons. It can be interesting to study how well the designer applied this colour use, this creativity on the square millimetre.

Then comes the detailing. How did the illustrator draw the brushing of the teeth, the movements of the hand with the screwdriver, the warning not to wash too hot, the indication of which button to press, the location of the carburettor, the sound that one should hear after connecting two elements, or the shaking up and down of a printer cartridge. What are the little stories that the pictures express?

Most pleasurable may be to look at the drawing style. Notice how abstract or detailed hands, product elements or people are pictured – abstraction is generally comparable to that in cartoons. What creative metaphors (such as the waste basket for deleting files) did the designer or illustrator come up with? How gymnastic are the arrows? What colour combinations are applied? And with what effect What point-of-view is taken? What kind of drawing technique is chosen: perspective drawings or isometric drawings (where there is no vanishing point), cutaways or exploded views. How are details indicated and how are they related to the whole, the overview: with a magnifying glass, in a call-out or balloon, with labels or with a reference systems such as letters or numbers? What style influences can we discern, such as the influence of computer illustration software (like Illustrator, Freehand and Photoshop). What influences from cartoons, video clips and computer games (Lara Croft for instance has had her influence on the designs of the airplane safety cards from Finnair and Alitalia).

It is interesting to see that the typical style which visual instructions and visual information have developed and which makes them so recognizable as a special category, has also had it’s influence on other media. It may have had it’s influence on comics, since some comics illustrators have occasionally also produced instructional illustrations. Other examples are commercials in a pictorial instruction style and video clips, such as the video clip that comes with the song Remind Me on the CD Melody A.M. from the Norwegian pop-group Röyksopp (2002), directed by Ludovic Houplan and Hervé de Crécy.

Computer and internet have had strong influences on the way instructions are presented. Many are not printed anymore and can be consulted on a website, or on the product’s display. This allows full colour, sound and moving pictures, sometimes augmented with possibilities to play faster or slower, to zoom in or out, to change the type font or size, etcetera. The user will get adaptable instructions.

A very joyful development is that we get more and more visual instructions, not just because of increasing technology and global selling, but also because producers seem to like having instructions on their products. A fine example is the big series of instructions on every single tea-bag-paper, informing us how long to hold the tea-bag in hot water. Not really necessary, but great as a collection. Neighbours and nephews may have become less helpful, but on every package that we preserve, we may expect to find some nice little drawings and intriguing symbols.
Piet Westendorp Delft University of Technology
Eindhoven University of Technology
Piet Westendorp, Delft University of Technology
Luís Tavares Pereira
Leite e Ferreira, Carpintaria
Regina Siza
Ruben Verdadeiro
Studio Andrew Howard