Category Archives: Guest Posts

Guest Post: The How-To of How-Tos

Beginning this year I will be featuring guest bloggers from time to time. I hope you will find their articles as interesting as I do.

Designing Operation or Assembly Instructions

You just bought that new toy for your kid, or maybe a new piece of furniture. Then you try to assemble it, and frustration takes on a new meaning. Or you purchase a new electronic device, read through the giant manual, and wonder if the people who created it ever actually used the device.

This is an example of poorly designed instructions.

Good instructions are more than an afterthought, they are an essential part of a good product or service, and as such, require the skills of an instructional designer. If you’re a designer who’s been hired to create operation or assembly instructions for a client, your approach is similar to any design project.

Learn from the client:
• What their objectives are
• What is the age group targeted?
• Is assembly required?

How about using the product:
• Will the instructions be used in the U.S. or internationally?
• Does the client prefer illustrations, words, or both?
• Black and white or color?
• Will the instructions be printed or used on a web site?

Understand the product
Obtain the product and familiarize yourself with it, though you may only receive a prototype, which rarely works or works as it should. Meet with its product designers, engineers and marketing representatives to learn exactly how the product works. Each party will have a different emphasis on what they think should be included, but their input is only a guideline—your job is to create the best approach for this particular product.

Write an outline of all steps
If possible, I like to get all copywriting and photography for the product, even if it was for another purpose, such as packaging. This enables me to learn more about what the company considers important.

Take photos of each step
These photos don’t need to be perfect, as you’ll be using the photos just for reference. You may need to “fake” some of the shots, do some minor retouching, or combine different photos to get the final necessary image.

Begin the drawing process
Based on your outline, draw each step, tracing the photos, creating simple illustrations. Use different stroke weights and/or gray areas for emphasis. Why draw illustrations rather than use photos? Clarity. Illustrations can omit or de-emphasized, (using a lighter stroke or color), parts that are not needed or add unnecessary complexity and confusion. Try to explain without words. What in each step can be shown rather than written? Some consumers prefer images rather than words, or the reverse, so at times it’s good to have both. If multiple languages are used, illustrations alone become more suitable. Clients, particularly engineers, may prefer words, but your job is to explain to the widest audience in the best possible way.

This is an example of well-designed instructions.

Additional considerations include showing all relevant parts (if the product needs assembly), including what tools may be needed (but not included), on a contents page. Try not to change perspective in each illustration unless identified, such as back view to show a new detail. Use arrows rather than words to show, say, direction of turning a screwdriver clockwise. Show anything that may be out of sight but necessary for operation or assembly. You may need to visualize what needs to be shown but can’t be photographed, then use your drawing skills to create that perspective. Consumers are not interested in reading a novel just to use a device so the instructions final length is a consideration. If these instructions are to be downloadable from the web, consider the download time for someone with a slow Internet connection.

Think through the process, as if you are the consumer, and, similar to that old adage for real estate, simplify, simplify, simplify.

Jan Rasmussen is a graphic and web designer in the Lakewood/Long Beach, CA, area. For over 11 years she worked for Mattel, Inc., creating instructions, both simple and complex, for a variety of products, including toys, electronic games, and dolls such as Barbie and Polly Pocket. Jan and her guy, Jim, like to camp in the middle of nowhere, usually in the desert, by picking a track on a map and driving to see where it goes. In addition to Jim, she lives with three of the best cats in the world. Jan’s website:

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Filed under Guest Posts

Guest Post: Architect to the Pharaoh

Beginning this year I will be featuring guest bloggers from time to time. I hope you will find their articles as interesting as I do.

Imhotep, Architect, Physician, High Priest, and Vizier to King Djoser

GROWING UP I REMEMBER my love of books; I was fascinated with history and the natural world. Like most boys my age, I loved dinosaurs. I must have positively worn out the pages of grandmother’s encyclopedia The Book of Knowledge on dinosaurs and deep-sea diving. When you’re ten-years-old, that sort of thing was über cool. That was until the day I discovered on a shelf in a library at Western University a book about ancient Egypt. It was a life-changing event. I spent hours pouring over the real-life exploits of Howard Carter and his discovery of the tomb of the boy king, Tutankhamen (c. 1922).

Carnarvon: “Can you see anything?”
Carter replied, “Yes, wonderful things.”

My love for all things Egyptian has not diminished. In 2010, I traveled to London to visit the British Museum and view the Rosetta Stone. Prior to its discovery in 1799 by Napoleon’s scientist, Egyptian hieroglyphs remained undecipherable. The Rosetta Stone, an unassuming plain black basalt rock was inscribed in three languages: Greek, Demotic and hieroglyphs. The Rosetta Stone held the key; for the first time, scholars could read the lost words of ancient Egypt.

Few Ideas in history leap from the brain fully formed. No invention, innovation or contrivance yet conceived by humankind ever occurred in a vacuum. All great ideas are evolution not revolution. A gradual progression of logical thought based on what came before. True innovation is putting the parts together. Consider, for example, our unknown primordial ancestor, that most clever fellow who first rubbed two sticks together to discover fire making. The bits and pieces were all there beforehand, sticks (fuel) and physics (friction), where the true innovation came was with the idea, utilizing the tools at hand in order to create something that is altogether different, greater than the sum of its parts.

Imhotep, (2667 BC – 2648 BC) was chief architect to the third dynasty Egyptian Pharaoh Djoser (2630 – 2611 BC). Imhotep designed the world’s first known monumental stone building, the step pyramid at Sakkara and he is the first architect we know by name. Imhotep, whose name means: “He who comes in peace,” remained largely a mythological figure in the minds of most scholars until the discovery of a broken stone pedestal which established him as a real-life historical person.

The step pyramid of Sakkara remains today one of the most brilliant architectural wonders of the ancient world. Imhotep didn’t invent working in stone; he was, however, the first architect who ever attempted to work stone on such a monumental scale. The pyramid itself began as a simple mastaba. The word mastaba comes from the Arabic word for bench, a low rectangular structure with sloping sides and a flat roof. Prior to Imhotep, all Egyptian pharaohs were buried in mud-brick mastabas. The genius of Imhotep, the great leap, was his use of stone. This process began gradually, as Imhotep experimented with building techniques. As his skill increased, he became more confident, and he continued to update his design by stacking one course of stone on top of another like a wedding cake.  The resulting structure topped out at 64m high and was nothing short of revolutionary!

Judged on its engineering merits, ultimately, the step pyramid as a burial chamber complete with its hidden maze of underground tunnels to discourage grave robbers, failed  in its primary design: to protect the king’s mummy. The tomb was plundered and all archeologists found of Djoser was his mummified left foot. Imhotep’s revolution, however, left a lasting legacy as the step pyramid sparked a 200 year frenzy of pyramid building culminating with the construction of the Great Pyramid at Giza (c. 2560 BC). As for Imhotep himself, his lost tomb remains one of Egypt’s last great undiscovered secrets.

© Steven Mc Allister 2012, all rights reserved.

Steven Mc Allister is a military historian, film critic and a sometime humorist. He enjoys cooking for friends, drinking beer and smoking a fine cigar. He resides in Michigan where he lives quietly with his three fat dogs. He is currently working on his third novel.

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