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The Design of Pictorial Instructions
by Carla Galvão Spinillo y Juan C. Dürsteler [message nº 60]

Visual instructions can be visually organised and emphasised in many ways. We take a look at some of the most interesting ones. 

Like the information content, the ways pictorial sequences are visually organised may also vary. 

  • When texts are used to represent a procedure, they can be either integrated (e.g. as captions, labels) or separated from the pictorial sequence.

  • Visual cues, such as space and lines, may be used to separate the pictures, which can be arranged in a variety of ways (e.g. vertical, horizontal, circular).

  • Emphatic devices, such as colour and figure-ground contrast, may be employed to attract the readers’ attention and/or to emphasize something in the sequence.

  • Symbolic devices are generally used to convey actions (e.g. arrows) or negation (e.g. X crossing a picture). 

  • To depict the participants of the procedure different picture styles (e.g. photographic, drawing styles) as well as partial and/or whole pictures may also be employed (One person or just his/her hands).

The attached figures show different PPSs describing the procedure ‘Opening a milk carton’. 

The first PPS shows ellipsis of the doer participant, it employs arrows (symbolic device) to convey action and colour (red) for emphasis.

In the second procedural pictorial sequence, there are no emphatic devices, or symbolic devices representing action. Moreover the doer participant is represented by means of the hands.


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The doer participant is omitted. Symbols (red arrows) convey action. Color (red) attracts the attention and emphasizes.  The doer is represented by means of the hands, there are no symbolic or emphatic devices. 
Different pictorial sequences representing the same procedure of opening a milk carton. 

From Mijksenaar, P. and Westendorp, P. © 1999. Open here: the art of instructional design. Thames and Hudson, London

Until now we have seen some of the main features of PPSs. But what can be the guidelines in order to properly design them?.

From the article "A framework for designing procedural pictorial sequences: contributions to the development of visual instructions in manuals" by Carla Spinillo and Mary Dyson, we can extract some useful guidelines for the design of such PPSs:

  • Represent the procedural contents concisely

  • Provide non-procedural content (e.g. warnings) that is relevant and informative to readers.

  • Arrange pictures to be as similar as possible to the way words are aligned in the reader’s writing system to avoid confusion.

  • When possible use reading guides to explain the orientation of the pictorial sequence to readers

  • Employ visual cues (lines, etc.) to separate the pictures in unambiguous ways.

  • Use symbolic devices familiar to the users.

  • Use devices that can attract reader’s attention to promote their interest.
  • Use pictures that resemble the real situation as far as possible (photographs…)

  • If you need to use partial pictures, use them with care, especially if readers are not familiar with pictorial communication

Consistency in the way graphic features are used and presented is an important aspect to be considered, whether in the analysis or design of procedural pictorial sequences, since certain variations may indicate problems or weaknesses in the sequence design. For instance, inconsistency in the arrangement of pictures (horizontal and vertical) may confuse readers.

Finally, to design PPSs one should take into account not only the aspects presented above, but also constraints posed by readers and document, such as readers’ information needs and the circumstances of use of the document.

As we said at the beginning of the previous article, the use of pictorial instructions has a widespread use in many fields, from airline security instructions to technical manuals. The techniques for designing them have hardly been studied up until now. But this appears to be changing slowly.

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