Worth a thousand words?

Greg Bear’s hyper-imaginative Sci Fi novel “Eon” brings its protagonists to a parallel reality whose highly advanced post-humans use Picting to communicate; that is, they project in mid-air sequences of holographic icons to convey their thoughts.

This may work for post-humans… but can become a problem when mere mortals try it with excessive zeal. I refer to the increasingly common practice of using pictures and icons in signage and instruction manuals, even when written text would be far better. The notion that pictures are easier to grasp works fine for signs like “left turn” on a road, or “Danger – High Voltage” on a transformer, which are reasonably self-explanatory. And they are invaluable in instruction manuals when they illustrate some technical complexity explained in the text. The problem begins when those manuals start conveying complex concepts like “Don’t drop this camera on a hard floor”, which they might do by showing a person weeping as the camera smashes to pieces… Konica manual extract

Take this picture, from a Konica camera manual. Can you decipher its meaning? Fortunately the text on the same page explains: it means “The battery should be replaced when the flash takes more than eight seconds to charge”. That’s 15 words, and they are far better than the picture. And from the same manual (this time without a Rosetta stone in the text), the “Don’ts” in this mosaic:

Konica manual extract

The Thermometer I can get, and maybe the “Don’t take a screwdriver to this camera” (or is it, “Don’t stick a screwdriver in the lens?)… but the one in the center eludes me (“Don’t take photos on windy days”??) and the one to its right is a total mystery (“Beware radiation emanating from TV sets and refrigerators”? Or is that a Microwave oven? And since when do fridges emit anything?)

But no manual beats the one we have for our Electrolux dishwasher, which has a pull-out card that starts with exhorting its own virtues (top row, which merely illustrates one word, “RTFM”); then goes on to totally confuse us (is this filter cleanup due daily? Weekly? Daily, but only during the first week of each month?)

Electrolux dishwasher instructions

And then it shows this masterly rendition of “Help the environment by only using as much detergent as needed”:

Electrolux dishwasher instructions

Sometimes, I guess, a word (wisely selected) is worth a thousand pictures!

4 Responses to “Worth a thousand words?”


  1. 1 Donna Ryder

    It was embarrassing to have my son tell me how to load the dishwasher, so went to this site to verify…way too many small pictures, so gave him the benefit of the doubt. Should be a YouTube site to tell little old ladies how to load the dishwasher after 83 years of doing it wrong, but hey I survived. Who could ask for anything more. (smiling)

  1. 1 How to complicate instructions at Commonsense Design
  2. 2 An alien twist on the On/Off Switch symbol at Commonsense Design
  3. 3 Your mother should know! at Commonsense Design

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