A writer, a designer and a music lover walk into a bar and look at the concert poster on the wall.
The designer says:
Hey, they’ve used the wrong shade of green, and that line’s a pixel off, and what a terrible choice of font! I shall mock them mercilessly on Twitter.
The writer says:
There’s a typo in the first sentence, and look at that wrongly used apostrophe!
The music lover says:
Hey, cool band! Where can I get tickets?
Which just goes to show that we’re all different.
As a writer I’m a words person. I’m the one who spots typos (in the work of others) at a glance, but I’m largely oblivious to shades of colour, fonts and positioning.
And, the point of this post, I struggle with icons and symbols. Every time I use an element on our stove, for example, I have to painstakingly, mentally, match up the icon by the switch with the element it controls.
More than once I’ve wondered why the pot was being so slow to heat, only to find I’d turned on the wrong element.
Perhaps these things come easily to you, but they don’t to me. I’d like words: left rear, right front, then I’d know exactly what was what.
In lifts, I struggle to determine which button with arrows will open the doors and which will close them. My brain goes through another matching process: triangles … large end, small end, pointing in (or out) so that means close (or open) the doors.
It’s frustratingly time consuming. The words
Open doors and
Close doors would work much better for me.
I feel I must say I’m not complaining, or suggesting that words should be used — there is complexity in being a multicultural, multilingual society and there would be plenty of practical and pragmatic issues around text based buttons. I’m simply saying these icons and images don’t work well for me.
But I’m sure I’m not the only one who would prefer text, along with images, especially in instructions.
Last week I assembled a kitset rabbit hutch with runs. It will house the half dozen quail arriving this coming Monday. The sketches were poorly drawn and there were no written instructions at all.
It was an arduous process to determine which pieces were which and how to put them together. At one point I retreated inside, found the web page I’d bought the thing from, and studied the good quality colour photos which showed it from all angles to help me figure out what to do.
I laid the thing out flat on the grass, then as carefully as I could, put the bits together. There were a few mistakes along the way and it didn’t go together terribly well, but I got there in the end.
I strongly suspect that even if the diagrams had been better and the overall quality of the instructions had been better, the greatest lack was explanatory text.
A picture may be
worth 1,000 words but in instructions it can seldom replace the words. It can, however, be a really useful adjunct.
Which is why I take issue with one of the Lynda.com training videos presented by a designer. In the course called Before & After: Graphic Design Best Practices there’s a video, How to design visual instructions, in which the presenter John McWade says:
Have you ever bogged down reading a how-to manual? Maybe for that baby crib or a new stereo? They’re so verbal. And, I like to read, but for instructions, there’s a better way. That’s to describe things in pictures. IKEA is great at this. They use no words in their manuals, just images. And I’d say they pretty much reached the holy grail when it comes to printed instructions. You know, if you can say it clearly without words, you’re there.
My issue is with that phrase:
for instructions, there’s a better way.
Designers, as my little ‘joke’ at the start of this post was intended to illustrate, tend to be very sensitive to the visual, pictorial, aspects of the world. Others, like me, may be in some sense ‘blind’ to things that are incredibly obvious to designers. I’m sure I’m not the only person in the world who has trouble figuring out which button opens the lift doors, which knob on the stove turns on the left front element.
Words have their obvious problems, such as creating barriers for people who speak that particular language poorly or not at all, people who have reading difficulties, or just taking up too much space. But images have their problems too, including requiring a certain amount of cultural knowledge and convention.
Both together though: there’s a powerful pairing.