Designing instruction manuals?

Has anyone here been commissioned to design instruction or repair manuals? What are your thoughts or experiences with them? I’ve been doing some research into them, as it seems like it’s popular for clients to ask for them to look like Ikea’s instructions. I can see why that’s en vogue, as Ikea’s instruction manuals are wordless, and therefore, universal. Ideal in a global marketplace.

Personally, while I definitely appreciate the minimalist and universal nature of Ikea’s instruction manuals, at times I also find that that style can be a little frustrating. I think sometimes over simplification and removing nuance can lead to creating more problems than than solutions. The cutesy character and pictograms make instruction manuals feel far less intimidating. However, there’s times when I fully grasp what they’re saying, but I’ve come across a bump in the road that needs more instruction beyond wordless speech balloons. It gets to the point that I want to yell at the fold out, “IS IT SO HARD TO ADD SOME WORDS!?!?” Soulless, text instructions can be frustrating at times, but even the bashful smile älmhult Gubbe can quickly become a mocking grin, a representation of the absolute refusal to elaborate, to give further clarification.

That said, as a designer, it’s a nice challenge to communicate more by using less.

I spent two years as a designer and illustrator putting together and drawing the technical illustrations for mainframe LANs and some of the first MS-DOS PC clones way back when. I doubt anything that long ago counts for much, though. Even so, I can’t help but chime in.

Sometimes clients ask for things without sufficient knowledge to understand that what they want might not be optimal or even doable. Ikea’s instruction sheets are fantastic, but Ikea also designs their products to be assembled as easily as possible.

In other words, instructions for something less intuitive need to say and show what’s necessary to assemble or operate a more complex product. End users could be understandably frustrated by incomplete and oversimplified instructions.

In addition, Ikea is an international company with stores in dozens of countries with different languages. They don’t want to write separate instructions for each language, so they design both their products and their instruction sheets with that necessity in mind. For companies selling products in countries where only one or two languages matter, a few well-chosen words can help clarify those things that can’t easily be communicated through drawings alone.

Instruction manuals should be as simple as possible, and a good deal of effort should go into making those instructions as concise and clear as possible. However, that needs to occur without oversimplifying in ways that lessen clarity and frustrate end users.



Treat them like any other design project in that there is a communication problem to solve.

The manuals I’ve worked on have been more involved than your typical Ikea manual. Honestly, I’m not too fond of Ikea manuals. I get why they are the way they are, but there are times when a sentence or two would serve to communicate much more quickly than a drawing.


I won’t have time to reply comprehensively until maybe sometime Monday or Tuesday, but consumer-facing technical content has essentially been the mainstay of my career. I can offer my thoughts on approach, including the “popularity” of Ikea-style wordlessness.

I don’t know what kind of materials you may have been asked to produce, but I’ve done many product instruction documents over my career, and it is indeed a specialty of sorts.

The basis of my core philosophy is the user is king. You absolutely must know who the user of the content is, what they know, what they may think they know, and their stake in carrying out the procedure(s) you communicate correctly.

For example, under one of my current contracts, I author installation guides for motorized window treatments. These range from hard-wired commercial roller shades and draperies you’d find in hotels, hospitals, schools, etc., batch-installed during construction, to battery-powered consumer-custom blinds and shades you can order at Lowes or Home Depot and install yourself. So naturally, the content I formulate for commercial dealer/installer use is quite different than that aimed at the DIY homeowner. Commercial installers have tools, experience, and a job to complete, whereas the homeowner may only handle tools occasionally, if at all, and will be much more likely to follow instructions to the letter. Give the commercial installer too much information and it will all be discarded in favor of experience, peer advice, and expedience. Give the commercial installer too little information, and you may find yourself to blame for a botched installation that will cost big money to correct. It can be a delicate balance. For consumer-install products, either too much or too little detail may cause confusion, but more importantly, if you fail to anticipate all the ways it can go wrong, it’s not hard to design instructions that will lead to a damaged product, or worse, an injured person. Product instructions are rarely taken as seriously as they are when they’re to blame for a mishap. It goes from “nobody reads these” to “these could have gotten me killed” with miraculous speed.

All that drains into what I’ll say about Ikea-style instructions. As you’ve experienced, people who need instructions for their products seem to have Ikea in their mind as an example of their vision. I’ve had to tell many such people over my career the truth is Ikea’s customers hate those instructions. They tell horror stories of assembling bookshelves, chairs, and whole kitchens backwards. They curse the failure of the shitty flakeboard to hold up under the stress of the disassembly and reassembly involved in error correction. They laugh at their own pain when comedians do entire bits based on tales of Ikea woe. Sure, there’s a certain cleverness in the faceless, genderless figures who say nothing, and it’s an inspiration to see what seems like so much accomplished with utterly unblemished simplicity. Conceptually, the style gets really attractive when purveyors of product find out that international trade rules require instructions in every destination country’s official language. No words; no problem. While I’d admit there are some—read: few—products and distribution scenarios in which the style may be appropriate and effective, I’d say in every other case, including Ikea itself, such instructions are lazy, irresponsible, and potentially dangerous. The word “cheap” also comes to mind, which brings me to the next thing I’d want to include in a cursory discussion on this topic. That’s perception.

Even though you’ll hear a thousand times how nobody reads the instructions, inextricably, the materials that are taken out of the box by the customer’s hands when that package is first opened, are an integral part of the product. When people really like a product, they’ll be heard saying “it just works.” Well potentially, the instructions are the very first “moving part” of that product that will be pressed into service, and if that part fails, “it just works” may never be uttered, even if there’s nothing else wrong with the item. Lazy, poorly written instructions, and those that are included solely for the sake of meeting requirements, are a massive strategic error on the part of the maker. The design of the instructions and the fulfillment of their prescribed function are as important as those factors in relation to any other part of the product in the aggregate that forms customer experience. A bad experience with a product document cheapens the product and often becomes the most memorable part of one’s experience with the product. Conversely and unfortunately, like most things left to humans, a good experience is often the first thing forgotten. That often leaves the job of designing instruction documents rather thankless, and for most designer types, ultimately unfulfilling.


^^ Fantastic insight and advice from HotButton!

Thanks for taking the time to write such a thorough response for the poster.

Thanks everyone for the replies and advice.

I’m going to ask to if it’s possible to access and assemble the product in-person in order to get a greater understanding of it. I want to see any potential problems that may arise from assembly.

So if the client is asking specifically for Ikea instructions, and I feel that going in emulating that exact style would lead to potential problems, should I politely voice that concern? Or would that sour the client on my attitude and/or ability?

Conceptually, the style gets really attractive when purveyors of product find out that international trade rules require instructions in every destination country’s official language. No words; no problem

So it might just be a way to avoid having to pay more money for multiple translators and copy editors, and not necessarily some brilliant approach to being “all-inclusive” and intuitive? Giving people less and while claiming it’s “better.”

IMO, yeah. It can get you fired, but I think part of the job is to give advice and tell the brutal truth, and let the chips fall where they may.

In this case I would explain to the client that if they really want the manual to be useful they should consider offering multiple modes of instruction. Some people learn best through visual presentations, some though audio, some are textual learners. One strategy may not serve every one of their clients. Maybe the text-less version is the default, but those instructions include a link to a downloadable PDF with step by step text instructions, or a QR to a video with audio commentary.

And then of course, they should field test for usability.

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Your job is to be a [visual] communicator. You are the professional. You know more (or, should) about this than your client. That is, of course, tempered by the fact that they know their product and their market better (or, they should) than you do.

When I started out and these sorts of things came up, I had the same dilemmas you appear to be having. Now, with a couple of decades (and some) of experience behind me, I am happy to tell the blunt truth (without being too blunt or hurtful). To not do so does you both a disservice. Of course, you always risk offence (read the room and you’l see how to approach it), but as long as you don’t back yourself into a corner with your advice and give both you and them a way out, it is usually for the best. They may not like it, but they should respect it and at least if they choose to go against your advice, they can’t blame you for it not being as effective as it could have been further down the line.

I have a client who I knew had drawn their original logo herself, but it really is inappropriate for their target market. I knew I would be tough for her to hear, but I had to tell her – in the kindest possible way. She didn’t love what I had to say, but after being a little piqued initially, understood and respected why I had said so. Now the seed has been planted. Eventually, it will germinate. It’s all about building relationships and trust. In drilling down a bit, she said she knows it needs to evolve, but she is just not ready to give it up, emotionally, just yet. So be it. We’ll get there. Just becomes part of the brief you have to work within.

I’d say, be diplomatic, but tell the truth. I think you are going the right way about it, by building one yourself to find the pitfalls. That way, when you tell them why pictorial only instructions, won’t work (you may find in building it, that in fact, it can be done), then your words will have more weight. Take photos of the various stages to explain your points.

Good luck and lets us know how it pans out.


As has already been mentioned, yes, of course, you should give clients good advice if you’re confident your advice is better than what they asked you to do.

I agree with what’s already been written, so I won’t repeat it. In addition, though, it helps when you can demonstrate that you care about the clients’ businesses, products, and objectives. If you can do that, there’s less of a chance that clients will take your advice as personal criticism. Do it right, and you’ll come across as a partner with invaluable expertise.

Sometimes, it helps if you can ease into suggestions by posing questions that lead clients down the path of questioning their own initial assumptions. Do this the right way, and they will sometimes arrive at the correct conclusions on their own or be more receptive to your suggestions when they feel they have played a role in helping you solve the problem. Yes, this is a bit manipulative, but I think it’s OK when it’s done with client interests in mind.

Besides, as @sprout already mentioned, clients understand their products and target audiences better than you, so a mutually arrived at solution is often the best solution. It’s not at all uncommon for clients to respond to my questions and suggestions with insight that leads me to a better understanding of the problem and a better solution.

Of course, some clients will simply want you to do what they tell you to do. They think of themselves as the idea people and you as the hired helper to execute their ideas. They’re not the clients or employers I want to work with anyway, so if they end up rejecting my input, fine — I either walk away from the projects or hurry and do what they ask. Their payment looks just as good in my bank account as any other clients’, even though they received less value from the money they paid me than they might have if they had set their stubbornness or arrogance aside and listened.


I’ve built my fair share of Ikea stuff here at work for use as show props. The instructions almost always work up to the point they change the orientation of the drawing, ie rotate the object 90° or 180° from all of the previous pictures. That is where all of the take-apart-and-redo happens.


That’s exactly what you must do; take up a personal stake in the success of the product and make no secret of it. This gets easier to do once you’ve figured out how to “read the room” as it were.

The client I mentioned puts the responsibility for product manuals on Engineering, while some other firms give it to their Marketing Communications teams. In my experience, a better result is had when it’s an Engineering function, but that doesn’t mean it’s easier on the designer. My work for that client undergoes exhaustive reviews that spawn many more iterations than anything I’ve ever experienced when working under the auspices of “Marketing”. That said, my expertise gets a lot more respect from engineers than it ever does from marketers, and working with/for engineers has taught me how bring that expertise to the table with greater confidence and effectiveness, learning from their examples. Likewise there’s a considerable difference in the sensitivity scale, with marketer types practicing a more emotion-flavored defensiveness than people whose orientations are of a more technical nature.

That makes sense about the clients. Yes, they’re the boss, but I should realize that that doesn’t necessarily mean that what they want is the right approach.

I had to do an advertisement for a business, and they wanted the ad to look like this “cute” illustration from maybe the 1960s-1970s that was pretty much an ethnic caricature. It wasn’t even that bad by the standards of the time, but today, it would look offensive, not to mention very crude and dated. I had to insist that this was the wrong approach, and the client even brought in his wife, and an employee to say how much they liked the illustration. I politely insisted, but I had to offer better, modern alternatives AND practically do a power point presentation on offensive racial caricatures.

For design projects that are tied to things that are not my particular forte, I’m inclined to defer authority to the client’s knowledge on the subject, despite reservations I might have.

“…concise and as clear as possible. However, that needs to occur without oversimplifying in ways that lessen clarity and frustrate…”

I need to keep this in mind, thanks. There can be a tendency to over simply for the sake of pleasing aesthetics.

Thanks for the example. Yes, keeping a client or employer from making bone-headed mistakes is a great example of the kind of thing a good designer can do.

Let me give you another example in an opposite direction.

Not long ago, I was hired to design all the promotional materials for a big high school theater department that had won lots of awards for its productions. One of the promotions was a freeway billboard. I looked at what designers had done in previous years and thought I could do better. I designed a nice-looking billboard that clearly communicated the production, the dates, and good graphics to match.

He rejected the design, so I needed to find out why. In the conversation, I explained that my design would attract public attention, get people into the theater, and sell tickets. He then explained to me that their productions always sold out and the purpose of the billboard wasn’t only to promote the show but more importantly was to highlight the students who were involved. He said this wasn’t a commercial production, and he was far less concerned about selling tickets than he was in helping the students get the credit they deserved for their hard work. In other words, the whole point of their theater department was to educate students and build their self-esteem and confidence.

He was right. I had failed to pick up on the purpose of the play and had erroneously assumed it was the same as if I were designing promotional materials for a commercial business. After the conversation and his explanation, I redesigned the billboard to put the students front and center. The redone billboard turned well and it furthered the objectives of the client better than the one I originally designed.

Clients are rarely stupid. Some are naive. Some don’t know how to work with designers. Others are arrogant jerks. The arrogant jerks should be avoided, but working with the others is a lot easier if you come across as an interested partner who’s there to help and combine your expertise with theirs. It’s often important to dig beneath the surface of what a client asks for to find what their underlying objectives are. They rarely tell you up front, and it’s easy to make stupid mistakes out of a sense of unwarranted self-confidence.

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Again, thank you all for the personal examples, responses, and advice. I have a more well-rounded general understanding of the entire thing, to the point of being more comfortable with this type of design work.

Apparently they liked what I produced. I explained each design decision, which I thought would be intuitive for the user as they initially wanted. When working on a project where I’m trying to adhere to someone else’s vision or ideas, I tend to be self-conscious about the result, especially considering instruction manual design was new for me.

That said, I liked the idea of trying to figure out the best way to portray assembly through illustration. It’s a challenge because there’s no “perfect” way, but knowing my own frustrations dealing with instruction manuals, it gives me a chance as a designer to portray something in a way that I would appreciate as a consumer.

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