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
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.
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.
|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
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
|Studio Andrew Howard