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Page Layout for a Set of Instructions

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Instructions

Page from an illustrated instruction manual for a Hot Wheels toy product.

puuikibeach via Flickr; CC BY 2.0
Have you ever been frustrated by a set of instructions for assembling a new outdoor swing or BBQ grill or even something as seemingly simple as a kid's kite? Was it the incomplete written instructions, the inadequate illustrations, or was it merely the way the instructions were laid out in a rather haphazard arrangement, perhaps skipping around from one page to another? If you are doing desktop publishing for a client, you may or may not have control over the writing or the illustrations themselves but you can aid the reader trying to put together a product by the way you lay out those instructions on the page.

Illustrated instructions for products, services, or a variety of tasks can take many forms. Whether it is a poster showing how to perform CPR, a one-sided flier describing how to make a use a can opener, or a multi-page brochure detailing how to assemble a backyard playscape, there are best practices that apply to all these type of instructions.

If you are wearing the hat of technical writer and illustrator as well as doing page composition then you have the ultimate control of that instructional flier, brochure, or booklet. However, even if you are simply handed text and pictures there is a lot you can do to alleviate the frustrations of the consumer trying to assemble that new toy on Christmas Eve or create their own rain barrel collection system.

For the purposes of this list of suggestions I am assuming that you have been handed the material and have little or no input as to the written instructions or the style or number of illustrations. You've simply been told to create a layout for it, make it look good, and perhaps, get it printed.

Numbering

Two rules: Consistency and visibility.

Whatever style of numbering (1, 2, 3 or A, B, C, etc.) that you use, be consistent. If you have the luxury of color, choose the same color for all the numbering. Make all the step numbers the same size and place them consistently in the same position. At the beginning of the step is a logical place to start but it could be off to the side, centered across from the actual instructions and illustration in an adjacent column. Be consistent.

A contrasting color from the rest of the instructional text makes the numbers stand out but if that isn't an option, make the number obvious in other ways, such as size. Numbers (or letters) that are visibly larger and bolder than the instructional text make it easier to see where one step ends and another begins. The reader is less likely to skip over a step if the numbering is large and obvious.

Arrangement of Steps

Again, consistency and visibility.

Perhaps you've chosen a two column arrangement. You might have 6 steps on a page with steps 1, 2, 3 in column one and steps 4, 5, 6 in column two. Or, the steps might be arranged in rows 1-2, 3-4, 5-6. Whichever arrangement you choose, be consistent throughout a multi-page set of instructions and make it obvious which way the instructions flow. Of course good, prominent numbers on each step go a long way to making it obvious which way to read the instructions. If you must make a switch at some point (perhaps due to the size or orientation of some of the illustrations), use arrows or some other device to signal a change in direction.

While it would be nice if all steps had the same amount of text and same-size illustrations, that's not always possible. The size, shape, and orientation of the illustrations may require an irregular layout (such as is seen in the Hot Wheels instruction sheet shown above). Consistent and highly visible step numbers, perhaps combined with arrows directing the eye, obvious space between steps or framing of steps can help keep the reader from becoming confused.

Illustrations

When arranging instructions that include many illustrations, take care in placing those illustrations in close proximity to any written instructions that apply but include sufficient space between illustrations and the text in other steps so that the reader can clearly see which illustration goes with which set of instructions.

Captions or figure numbers may not be critical in all types of instructions but can be helpful when there are many illustrations, when a step in the instructions requires more than one illustration (especially if the text refers to a specific illustration), and when space is at a premium and you must place the illustrations more closely together.

These are not hard and fast rules but adhering to these suggestions can help make your instruction brochure or booklet easier to read. A good layout may not rescue particularly bad copywriting or poor illustrations but it can keep decent instructions from becoming hard to follow.

Typography

As with any text you are arranging, you can help the reader through the use of signposting. Make consistent and appropriate use of paragraph emphasis and organization (such as indentation, call-outs, rules) and character emphasis (such as bold and italics).

More on Instructions

Writing instructional text is a form of technical writing. Even if you aren't a technical writer, learning the basics of the craft could prove helpful when you are called upon to work with writers in creating instructional materials. Some of these articles are written for the technical writer but include tips that are applicable to the layout and typography.

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