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Instructions at the point of need

I'm looking for examples of information displays that convey instructions at the point of need/use.

I have examples of the Xerox 1090 which puts instructions right where somebody would need it—you don't have to find it in a manual and then look back and forth between the object and the book.

Recently I was told of a plumbing shop that was prefabricating plumbing trees for new home construction that put the information on the floor of the shop at full size to guide the fabrication—the blueprint was on the floor at full scale.

The reason I'm interested is that construction drawing often take a long time read and are frequently misread and if a mistake is made all the subsequent drawing that assume a correct installation are all wrong as well.

Examples? Comments?

-- Chuck (email)

Whites gloves = Don't touch

In my one-day course, I show 3 rare books: a 1570 Euclid, a 1613 Galileo, and a 1704 Newton. Then my assistant carries each book, open to the title page, around the room so people can get a close look. We had a problem with people wanting to touch the pages of the wonderful books; and a few people would sulk if told they could not touch the pages. So now my assistant pointedly wears white cloth gloves while showing the books to signal that they should not be touched.

That is, unobtrusive instructions at point of use.

-- Edward Tufte

Seatbelt/airbag warnings

These are excellent practical examples, which counter the unattractive seatbelt/airbag warnings on visor sunscreens in otherwise elegant car interiors, as noted last week when a friend let me test drive his Porsche Carrera 4. It must have been those distracting warning stickers that prevented me from reliably finding the gears (the little R-1-2-3-4-5-6 instructional arrangement on the shift knob didn't help that much, at least in my impatient search for greater G-forces). Oddly enough, the gear labels on my slow-motion pick-up truck are quite effective.

There are surely other point-of-need examples that Kindly Contributors can add to the good examples already reported in the fine contributions above.

-- Edward Tufte

Defribrillator button

Contributor Jeff asks why a human is required to press the button on the defribrillator if it's making all the decisions. The reason is that these units deliver a large amount of energy into the patient. You do not want to be touching them when it discharges and the machine can't determine if anyone is touching. According to the datasheet for this unit it delivers 150 Joules on each discharge, this is equivalent to a baseball travelling at 100mph.

-- Andrew Nicholls (email)

Drug labels

Here is an article about an interesting redesign of prescription bottles.

I don't have much comment on this one other than I think the design of the bottle could go even further. The excellent article is enough to explain the point of use considerations.

"The Perfect Prescription"

By the time an object, or an apartment, or a company hits the half-century mark, it's usually been through a redesign or two. Yet the standard-issue amber-cast pharmacy pill bottle has remained virtually unchanged since it was pressed into service after the second World War. (A child-safety cap was added in the seventies.) An overhaul is finally coming, courtesy of Deborah Adler, a 29-year-old graphic designer whose ClearRx prescription-packaging system debuts at Target pharmacies May 1.

Adler grew up in a family of doctors in Chappaqua, New York, but escaped medicine for an M.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts. She was inspired to return, at least tangentially, after her grandmother Helen accidentally swallowed pills meant for her husband, Herman. The drugstore prescription bottle, it occurred to Adler, is not just unattractive, it's actually dangerous. Statistics back her up: According to a recent poll conducted for Target, 60 percent of prescription-drug users have taken medication incorrectly.

For her SVA thesis project, called Safe Rx, Adler revamped the familiar canister, then approached the FDA—but one of Target's creative directors saw her work last summer, snapped up the patent, and rolled it out in record time. It's already approaching design-classic status: ClearRx will be included in a MoMA exhibit this October. Your medicine cabinet is next. Here's how Adler got from A to B.

-- Jeffrey Berg (email)

A most interesting link.

Many years ago I was asked to help out Eli Lilly with some
presentations of drug information. It was hard to make progress
because of the collision between regulators and business, as
the worst of both combined in putting together the warning
document about drugs, resulting in among other things the
microscopic type of those documents. But I did stay in a terrific
little hotel in Indianapolis.

I was also impressed with the spectacular resources of big
pharma compared to the FDA. I had written a report on the
statistical analysis of New Drug Applications at the FDA a few
years before—an example of a "statistical audit" for the
President's Commission on Federal Statistics—and so could
compare the slender resources of the FDA with Lilly and a few
other drug companies.

-- Edward Tufte

Instructions on rigging straps

Here's a label on a rigging strap that indicates the great variability
in load capacities depending on the rigging methods.

-- Edward Tufte

Bookmark shows detailed location in text

In this 11th century French biblical manuscript, a leather ribbon operates as a traditional bookmark to indicate the desired pages. But also a vellum tie slides up and down the ribbon; the tie holds a revolving bookmark. To provide instructional information at the point of need, the circle rotates in its tie to show either "Lege ad Dexteram" or "Deinde Lege ad Sinistram." These words presumably point the reader to the right or left page. That's pretty good depth of search: book, double-page spread, single page, line on that page. Readers probably did not dog-ear pages in biblical manuscripts all that much, at least in those that have survived for 1000 years.

Source: Sotheby's catalogue, Western Manuscripts and Miniatures, London, 5 July 2005, pp. 58-59.

-- Edward Tufte

Even better is this design (roman and arabic numerals both provided). Here is the Sotheby's catalog entry:

-- Edward Tufte

Egg cream glass, built-in instructions

-- Edward Tufte

Annotating sculptures

One-time instructions at a point of use, a design review and instructions for mobile-sculpture engineering of a new piece in the endless Bird series.

-- Edward Tufte

Address of car in parking garage

During a recent trip to Charles de Gaulle Airport I noticed that
every parking space is labelled with the floor, the row of the parking garage
and the space number.


The width of the information also defines the parking space.

What is also intriguing is that I saw several people using their
camera-phones taking pictures of the label. This begs the question
from a few months ago concerning the number of discreet items that
can be remembered in a list.

I was quite happy to have all this information compiled in a single
place for a mental snapshot.

Is technology making us lazy? There have always been those who think so:
Socrates on writing
Royal Economic Society on computers
Google on Google

-- Tchad (email)

Control panel for cherry-picker lift

I had been looking for the appropriate thread to post this picture, the design that has been occupying my mind lately. This is the control panel for a cherry picker/crane. (Given the diagram, I probably didn't have to spell that out).

crane control panel

I find it to be an effective (and subtle) use of color coding (and color choice) as well as directional arrows.

-- Christopher Petersen (email)

Numbered footprints in dance

What about those numbered-footprint dance instructions? Some searching on the web led me to this obituary of Arthur Murray, who I think is the inventor of the modern incarnation of that method. The footprints were reproduced in life size on the dance floor, numbered to indicate the sequence of the steps.

Murray dance instructions

-- Scott Zetlan (email)

Dance instructions are embedded in the sidewalk at various points along Broadway in Seattle.

dance instructions in Seattle sidewalk

-- Erik Schwab (email)

Relevant equation on instrument panel

A few months ago I found a nice example in an advertisement for an instrument called a PID controller which is used for feedback loops and control circuits. What I like is that the equation governing its operation is plainly written on the front panel. Symbols in the equation are used as labels for indicators. Inputs and outputs are clearly labeled. I don't own one since I don't really have a need, but I get the distinct feeling I could operate it successfully without the manual.

PID controller

-- David Shortt (email)

Sequence cues in paper wraps

Japanese Onigiri (nori wrapped rice balls) have a very smartly designed plasic package that keeps it fresh while keeping the nori sheet dry. The packaging has simple numbered tabs that you pull on to uncover the tasty treat.

After unwrapping, the nori nicely wraps around the rice and is ready to eat.

See this page for more pictures.

-- Adi Shavit (email)

Glow-in-the-dark trunk release with visual instructions

Here is one that I hope you will never need:

It's happened to all of us more times than we care to admit—getting locked in the trunk of a car. Sure it's embarrassing, but until now, there hasn't been an easy way to solve the problem, except by screaming and kicking the sides in the hope that someone will hear you and let you out before the air becomes poisonous.

In recent years car manufacturers have provided trunk release tabs so we can let ourselves out, but there were two problems with the early tabs. One, they used words to instruct those trapped inside on what to do, and two, the trunk of a car is pitch black when the door is closed. If you had a pair of night vision goggles on but happened to be illiterate, the tab would be of no help. If you could read, but weren't wearing night vision goggles, you were still out of luck. Only those who could both read and happened to be wearing a pair of night vision goggles at the time they fell into the trunk could be expected to free themselves.

The new Ford Focus has solved both of these problems with an ingenious pull tab that glows in the dark and has an easy-to-comprehend symbol. This is progress at its best.

Ford Focus trunk exit instructions

-- Mark Harrison (email)

Retractor for nose surgery

The metal retractor hook is the same as the one depicted in the sculpture

If you walked into the operating room of a plastic surgeon repairing the nose of, say, a trauma victim, you might see a Gruber retractor like this. The weight is sculpted in such a way that it explains its own function, but that is secondary to its real purpose: it is sculpted to proper proportions so the surgeon can grab the weight and hold it next to the patient's face to assess correctness of the repair, answering the important analytical question "Compared to what?" before putting the skin back over the cartilage. It might seem gory, but it is a superb example of information at the point of need.

-- Niels Olson (email)

Application to Packaging Graphics

I recently attended Dr. Tufte's class in Austin. After contemplating the class, I am intrigued by the idea of using the Grand Principles for Package Graphics design (in my case consumer packaged goods). As in a graphic, package graphics contain words (brand name, product descriptor, claims), images (picture of the product) and numbers (weight, price, etc).

There are at least 2 moments of truth for packaging—in the store in which a consumer is barraged with a multitude of choices and at the point of use at which they theoretically can review the packaging graphics at their leisure. At both moments, the purpose of the packaging is different. In the store, the purpose of the package graphics is to "sell" the product, at use, it can be to "re-sell" and/or to inform/educate.

How would the "grand principles" apply to packaging graphics? Would they change and if so, how?

-- Susan (email)

Bribing a Congressman

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that the "need" in question is to obtain a lucrative no-bid defense contract. Fortunately for his clients, er, constituents, er, unindicted co- conspirators, Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham provided a crude but helpful table explaining how to proceed.

Cunningham bribe instructions

Scan of a document submitted as evidence by the prosecution and included in their February 2006 sentencing memorandum against Cunningham, penned by his own hand on his own Congressional office stationery for the benefit of "co-conspirator#2" (defense contractor Mitchell Wade). The left column lists millions of dollars of government contracts; the right column lists the thousands of dollars in bribes required to secure them. The figures in the right column are increases; e.g. $50,000 in bribes would mean the difference between $18 million and $19 million of awarded contracts. "BT" is an abbreviation for "Buoy Toy" - a 42-foot Carver yacht that was financed by Wade in exchange for $16 million in contracts. Cunningham renamed it the "Duke-stir".

The table is reprinted in a Government Sentencing Memorandum. It is notable for combining features from two of my favorite data graphics featured Dr. Tufte's books. One of these is a chart used by John Gotti's defense team (a particularly colorful entry is "pistol whipping a priest"). A second is an old train schedule, bearing the names of those responsible (the present document is on Rep. Duke's letterhead).

Duke was sentenced to eight years and change today.

-- Alexey Merz (email)

The government's sentencing memorandum makes excellent use of visual evidence, including these images (all beautifully integrated into the text): the menu of bribes, copies of bribe checks, handwritten notes fabricating evidence, and color photographs of bribe payments (Persian rugs, real estate, a yacht, and 2 lead glass armoires).

Viewers should click through the pages to see the excellent presentation, which almost looks like a Sotheby's or Christie's auction catalog. I couldn't have done the sentencing memo any better.

This is a wonderful find [which eventually appeared in my Beautiful Evidence] by Kindly Contributor Alexey Merz.

-- Edward Tufte

Geoffrey K. Pullum on warning labels:

"Stupid self-defeating warning label nonsense"

I have been, for many years, a student of the language found in the stupid warning labels that grace increasing numbers of products in this increasingly litigious society. I have written before about the ultimate arch-warning that said "Do not misuse." But that one is rather like the sign Mark was once asked to make, saying that those who are not authorized are not authorized, or the "Do not use in the shower" label on Susanne Goldmann's hair dryer, or the warning that Peter-Arno Coppen saw quoted from a bike manual (in the excellent Dutch language magazine Onze Taal) to the effect that "Removing the wheel can influence the performance of the bicycle", or the astonishing sign that Barbara Phillips Long saw in an elementary school in Ithaca, N.Y., that said "Do not use elevator when no one is in building": cases like this may seem intuitively unnecessary, but ithey certainly imply directives that absolutely everyone is well advised, even obliged, to agree with and obey. However, I have recently been noticing warning labels that are impossible to obey without ruining the usefulness either of the label or of what it is attached to.

Just yesterday I received from some music club a sheet of stick-on security labels saying "This CD is the property of Geoffrey K. Pullum", and the sheet also carried a warning: "Do not affix directly to CD." Think about that. They have made me some free labels to mark my CDs as my personal property and warned me not to put them on them. (Yes, I know I could put them on the boxes. It would be great to be confident that those empty boxes would always be returned to me.)

And today, as I approached an automatic sliding door at an Office Max store that opened in response to a motion detector set to activate fairly close in, I noticed a bold sign on it saying, "Automatic door -- Keep clear." Are people actually thinking about the sentences they put on such things? Or do they just (unlike Mark) make whatever signs they are told to make, no matter how ridiculous the assignment?

Just two more things about warning labels and then I promise I'll shut up. I know you want me to, but just two things. They aren't anything to do with the theme of this post, about language that clearly and necessarily defeats its own purpose (like "I am not moving my lips"); I just want to say these things and then that'll be that, OK?

1. Just once, I would love to use a stepladder that did not bear a label warning me not to treat its top step as a step. Just make the thing robust and leave it to me how high I want to go.

2. I still think the all-time most insane warning message I ever saw on anything anywhere was the message on a windshield-size folding cardboard sunscreen that I bought. (Let me just explain to residents of the Falkland Islands that the idea is to block out the rays of the sun from the front of your car while it is parked, so you don't burn your fingers on the steering wheel when you come back after a few hours in the hot California sunshine and try to drive off. You must understand that -- while the weather is gorgeous in Santa Cruz -- earlier this week in the town of Bradley, an hour or two to the south of here, the temperature hit 120??F in the shade.) On the rear (inside) surface of the opaque cardboard it said: Do not drive with shield in place.

-- Edward Tufte

This Osaka railway car's reserved seating is identified the usual signage and by these icons woven into the fabric:

Reserved seat on Osaka railway car Reserved seat fabric

The pattern size is much too large to be mistaken for decoration and it is unsettling to actually sit on the icons, even when there are no priority occupants about.

-- Dave Nash (email)

Firefighter facial hair instructions at firehouse

One of my colleagues is also a fire-fighter and saw this at the station. Fire respirators need to have a good seal around the face, and facial hair may break the seal. So Steven Segal, Clint Eastwood, and Arsenio Hall (well one black firefighter is better than none) have acceptable facial hair. Willy Nelson, Abraham Lincoln, Vladimir Lenin, the mystery Scot(?), Billy Dee Williams, and Geraldo Rivera—names provided by my informants—do take to fire respirators poorly


-- Edward Tufte

Instructions at the point of bird need

Birds sometimes crash into big glass windows that reflect the sky behind the flying bird. We've put Post-Its on the windows, and then Post-Its with images instructing the birds to turn away from the windows.Then my little bird-deflecting drawings were memorialized by baking them into clay tiles:

-- Edward Tufte

I stumbled upon Five Silver Dollars. The page is about the currency modification attempts of 1896 and is an interesting read. One note caught my attention. The author mentions issues with this ten dollar note.

However popular the 1896 artwork may have been to the public, it proved to be unpopular with bankers. "All judges of good designs and workmanship have admitted the superiority of the new notes to anything ever before produced by the Government," the Times reported on August 15, 1897. However, it continues, "Bankers have generally denounced them as the most unsatisfactory notes ever issued... the denominations of the notes were not distinctly marked. Paying tellers depend upon the figure in the upper left-hand corner, to guide the eye in counting bills rapidly handled." (Certainly this was a legitimate complaint in the case of the $10 note, where the numerals are a considerable distance from the corners.) Also, because of the high amount of fine inkwork used in the backgrounds, "complaint was heard that the new notes became smudgy and suspicious-looking with a little use".

-- Gary Roberts (email)

Three measuring tapes

These three tapes are designed to reduce reference, mapping, and calculation. On top is a "code tape" that lists key dimensions from the Americans with Disabilities Act. The next tape has a standard sixteenth of an inch scale on the top edge and an unmarked bottom edge for penciling project dimensions, much like a carpenter's story pole. The two views of the last tape show a standard thirty-second of an inch scale on its front and a direct reading diameter scale its back, where each marked inch is pi inches long. The dowel's diameter is just over 61/64".

-- Dave Nash (email)

The Birch Aquarium at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in La Jolla, California provides elementary Exploratorium-style educational displays of fish and their habits. One particular aquarium exhibit reveals seahorse reproduction methodologies, sometimes with live action. A flap over the front of the aquarium, however, blocks any direct view. Written on the flap are instructions for viewing (lift the flap) and a warning that those offended by seahorse sex may wish to take skip on this aquarium peepshow. Like movie ratings, these instructions at point of need probably have unintended consequences (such as acting as a magnetic attractor to 11 year-olds).

I first saw this flapdoodle a couple of years ago but missed it on a recent visit--perhaps it did not survive ridicule or else I didn't happen to see it.

Can a Kindly Contributor provide a picture of the flap, closed and open?

-- Edward Tufte

Found today during company first aid training:

Below is a photocopy of a face shield used for CPR (Apologies, I didn't have a digital camera, only a scanner). It is printed on transparent plastic, and the outline is laid over the casualty's face to protect the first aider from infection. The faint circle visible over the mouth area is a permeable filter to allow air in and keep germs out. At the bottom the instructions on how to use are printed. Simple and effective.


-- Jakob Whitfield (email)

Point of Need: Questar

Questar makes lovely optical instruments and their famous compact telescopes feature an elegant star chart on their tubes.

star chart on telescope

-- Troy Torrison (email)

A few months ago in this thread ET showed some tiles made to warn the birds not to crash into windows. I was reminded of an incident when he was a youngster at our house in Phoenix. I have written about it in a memoir. At the time, I did what I could to make the window more visible.

Virginia James Tufte, from Pieces: Embroidered by Memory

The Drunken Robins

It was a beautiful clear afternoon in Phoenix—spring or fall, I don't remember which—and from a window I saw several dozen robins staggering around on the front lawn as if drunk. Others were flying jaggedly, just inches or a foot off the ground, then giving up and collapsing on the grass.

Actually they WERE drunk. A big pyracantha shrub across the front of our house, partly shading the west window of our son's bedroom, had been heavily loaded with red berries that had fermented and attracted the swarm of robins who had gorged on them and had quickly become intoxicated.

A funny sight but I soon became concerned. As I watched through a window in the family room, a few of the birds gradually sobered up and began awkward but determined efforts to fly. Three crashed their heads into the glass of the bedroom window and fell dead. I lowered the blind to make the window more visible. After a time, the rest of the birds, still groggy, fluttered uncertainly away from the house and gradually moved upward, some stopping to rest in a tree across the street before taking off again. I kept Edward's cat inside the house and phoned a couple of neighbors asking them to keep their cats in.

I have since read that there are several kinds of plants besides pyracantha—among them, holly and Brazilian peppers—whose berries under certain weather conditions will ferment and attract robins, waxwings, starlings and other birds, enticing them to over-indulge, become inebriated, and fly so dangerously that some perish. In New Zealand, a much larger bird, the beautiful native wood pigeon—the kereru—eats guava berries, and a large flock of kererus have been known to die by falling out of trees or slamming into buildings. In Sweden not long ago a big-horned elk became drunk on fermented apples that were lying on the ground, wildly headed after some children, and had to be killed.

Why did the birds and the elk eat the fermented fruit? Probably not because of any craving for alcohol but simply because they were hungry. The attractive fruits were there in plenty, just happened to be fermented and, once tasted, stimulated the appetite.

What at first seemed hilarious—those reeling robins—brought some somber reflection. "Drunkenness is temporary suicide," Bertrand Russell wrote. For some of those birds, it was permanent.

-- Virginia Tufte

From Joe Soroko, regarding the new IAEA radiation symbol:

new radiation symbol

On Feb. 15, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) unveiled its new design of the international symbol for radiation. Dozens of accidental exposures to radiation motivated this change. In 1987, for example, four people in Brazil died when they dismantled an abandoned cancer treatment machine, and in 2001, four men fell ill after they disassembled generators at a Russian nuclear-powered lighthouse.

"Too many people are injured each year by finding large sources of radiation and not understanding what the trefoil"—the international symbol for radiation—"means," says Carolyn Mac Kenzie, a radiation source specialist with IAEA. Many people are either injured or killed in these events.

Initiated in 2001, the project was intended to supplement the familiar radiation symbol, the yellow-on-black three-cornered trefoil, which was designed to be simple and conspicuous to prevent it from getting lost among the plethora of easily ignored warnings. But IAEA discovered that simplicity presented problems. Children all over the world consistently identified the radiation hazard symbol as a propeller.

The new triangular sign features the trefoil with radiating waves, a skull and crossbones, and a running man against a bright red background. Graphic designers and radiation experts spent five years refining the symbol to give a clear warning to anyone who might stumble across a radioactive device. The Gallup Institute tested the new design on 1,650 people in 11 countries to confirm that all population groups, regardless of age, sex or level of education, knew immediately that the symbol conveyed danger. The symbol is intended to be universal, and to especially protect individuals whose cultural backgrounds have not prepared them to fear the trefoil, or even radioactivity, Mac Kenzie says.

-- Edward Tufte

Kinder instructions

The range of chocolate eggs sold by Kinder have excellent text free instructions at the point of use (i.e. after you have eaten the chocolate egg and opened the plastic container the pieces of the toy fall out along with the instruction slip). The range is now quite collectable and although I like the ingenuity of the toys themselves I think the instructions are actually better.

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

Kinder surprise

-- Matt R (email)

I also think the IKEA instructions are pretty good. I have been building IKEA flat pack furniture for nearly 20 years and have marvelled at how the text free diagrams are consistently accurate. If you look closely at each step there are subtle deliberate hints that allow you to ensure that each physical piece goes the right way. In fact the best way to follow them is to place the physical objects in the same orientation and position as indicated in the diagram and then follow the instructions. I imagine there is a special IKEA department in Goteborg, Sweden [which no doubt has a Vice President of Diagraming] who design these sheets. It would be interesting to analyse the methods used in this type of instruction manual, all of which are designed to be used at the point of need.

IKEA Billy instructions

-- Matt R (email)

Talking of Push/Pull on doors, one of our offices has glass doors with "Push" on one side and "Pull" on the other, displaced so that the text does not clash.

They haven't reckoned with people like me who read mirror-reversed text easily and unconsciously enough that they approach the door and are confused by instructions that apparently say "Pull" and "Push".

-- Derek Cotter (email)

Certain perfectly ergonomic designs require no instructions at all. The Ipod is a simple example of that, with only a simple control pad with no moving parts. Another example is the old mac keyboards that had an extended dot on the D and K keys so your longest finger (the middle one) could rest on them. Now they have gone to the traditional method of having the dots on the F and J keys like traditional keyboards. I now have to struggle to find the keys if I am not looking.

There are many more examples of these ergonomic items such as airplane controls shaped like the objects they are controlling.

-- Bill Paton (email)

ET readers may be interested in a whole sub-culture that exists on the web dedicated to using Meccano model kits to make extremely elaborate mechanical models. The sub-culture is of interest because they require the model builders to describe in pictorial and text explanations how to build the models from the standardised set of metal strips, axles, gears etc. They even have a standard set of isometric views available. I am sure that ET or one of the Ask ET readers could take one of these sets of drawings and use them to illustrate a first rate design for "Instructions at point of Need". British readers older than 40 will remember having their own Meccano sets as children.



-- Matt R (email)

Drug warning labels

From today's New York Times:

"F.D.A. Calls for New Warnings on Diabetes Drugs"

As with most hearings involving the F.D.A., members of Congress today sometimes
seemed bewildered by some of the technical answers given by witnesses, and several
lawmakers stumbled badly over medical terms at the heart of the debate.

The F.D.A. officials themselves appeared confused when Representative Stephen Lynch,
Democrat of Massachusetts, asked the three F.D.A. witnesses to look at Avandia's drug
label and find its warning about heart attacks.

"Have you found it yet?" Mr. Lynch kept asking.

Dr. von Eschenbach deferred to Dr. John Jenkins, head of the F.D.A.'s office of new drugs. Dr. Jenkins eventually made reference to a small table in the labeling information.

"That's it?" Mr. Lynch asked. "You're not seriously telling me that that's it."

Dr. von Eschenbach said that the F.D.A. was in the process of improving the readability of all drug labels.

-- Edward Tufte

Alphabet crib sheet?

Here is an interesting little t-shirt for kids who do not know the alphabet:

Dinosaur alphabet shirt

-- Tchad (email)

Worth remembering:

-- j.d.mccubbin (email)

For rockclimbers the simple "Range-finder" system by Metolius has a simple GREEN (GOOD)- YELLOW-(CAUTION) and RED (STOP) system for placing their cam protection.

This is ideal because if the cam is placed too wide or too narrow it can be dangerous.

placing cam instructions

-- Bill Paton (email)

Climbing carabiners almost always have the rating (in kilo-newtons [kn] showing the strength rating:

<--> along the axis of the carabiner,

v along the width of the carabiner,

and strength with the gate open.

This is an essential reminder when you are using the carabiner for a specific purpose.

carabiner instructions

-- Bill Paton (email)

But how do I get to Carnegie Hall?

The NY Times is reporting that New York City is experimenting with sidewalk decals to orient people emerging from the subway. The compass rose decals name the street at the exit and point to the next street in each direction.

directions in NYC

-- Dave Nash (email)

I recently spent a few weeks in Ireland and noticed an interesting point-of-need instruction. In general I found the street and traffic signage to be between poor and nonexistant, but noticed that on virtually all of the streets in Dublin, painted on the street in the crosswalks is a reminder to "Look Right" with a directional arrow. For those of us visiting from right-hand-side driving countries, this reminder was very useful for the first few days while decades of left-looking pedestrian behavior slowly became unstuck.

Dublin street directions

-- Tom (email)

From the basement shop at the MIT Media Lab. Pretty clear visual instruction.

water jet warning

-- Art LaMan (email)

"Look Right" signs

I didn't see any "Look Right" signs in Australia, but along the Great Ocean Road these very helpful reminders are posted after each scenic turn-out:

-- Dave Nash (email)

I was also recently in Ireland, but a different kind of signage caught my eye. On some rural roads, there are signs that say "Traffic fatalities on this road last year: 42." In America, all we get is "left curve, 30MPH." While it's important to know the speed that the road was designed for, I am struck by the directness of indicating exactly how dangerous the road is. That's the information that I actually care about, even if I know the road and will go around the turn at 45.

-- Thomas Smith (email)

Different no-trespassing signs

Here's an interesting use of nearly indestructible old tires (which pose chronic disposal problems) for instructions at point of need.
I photographed these signs in early December near Madrid, New Mexico.

Here's the easel tire:

-- Edward Tufte

In the "PostED PRIVATE" photo on the top, on the right, beyond the barbed wire, directly behind the vertical connecting wire, there is a cactus or some other kind of plant that looks like a balloon-animal. Obviously, barbed wire is a great deterrent to balloon-animals escaping. I just never knew that people ranched them. Go figure.

-- rafe donahue (email)

Here's a highlighter, so complicated to use that the manufacturers have had to indicate where the lid is. An example of instruction at point of need, without thought given as to why the instruction should be necessary at all.

-- Deborah O??Kane (email)

Gratuitous instructions? Simple courtesy? A subtle parody?

Perhaps the arrow+open at the pen end should instead be regarded as
a simple courtesy, a helpful gesture that will assist some users of the pen.

Arrow+open doesn't replace something else more important,
so there's no particular need to economize on instructions.

The annotation of the pen is appropriate and even thoughtful—and it avoids
a busybody or legalistic tone. In short, some benefits and few costs.

Now suppose it was perfectly obvious which end of the pen was the working end.
Then the arrow+open would seem a bit stupid. Or, better, it would be a subtle
parody of busybody instructions that are trying too hard.

In this vein, our prankish note at the top of our complete list of topics, "*** = 3-star threads" is
a deliberate parody of insecure and over-explanatory interfaces, a prank that has for years induced
the overly earnest, the humor-impaired, and the malicious into denouncing the definition of 3 stars.

-- Edward Tufte

Instructions at the point of need in San Francisco

Neon signs escape their usual flatland with these neon pointer lines. These instructions
are exactly at the point of need, and point in the very direction needed, in contrast to
flatland arrows which often point up in the air and down on the ground if read literally.

Source: ET photographs at the Palace Parking Garage on Stevenson Street (near Yank
Sing deem sum) in San Francisco, January 2008:

Nearby, other neon instructions at perhaps a point of need, along with a reference to the
tire-signs in New Mexico we saw earlier:

-- Edward Tufte

A great example I found was a map of the grocery store attached to the handle of the shopping cart.

Bloom grocery map

-- Noah Iliinsky (email)

Dave Nash's link the NYT article about compass roses in New York is great. I always wondered why nobody did that.

But the design is awful. It should be a big arrow pointing north, visible even if the person next to you is walking over it, and recognisably a sign not an advert. You already know you got off the train at Nth street, the question is how badly you lost your sense of direction on the stairs. (The problem is much worse in London, with deep tubes, than with NYC's avenue-lines. But their logo would be more easy adapted for this!)

-- Michael (email)

In reply to the comments about rock climbing above: I'm not sure those are examples of good instructions.

The Metolius coloured cam indicators above are good in the showroom. In the wild they are seldom visible while you're placing the device, and besides, there's a lot more feeling involved in placing gear that works than simply measuring the crack. Natural cracks are lumpy three-dimensional things, and using these lumps is very important.

The labelling of carabiners with their strength is a good idea, as it lets you confirm that they aren't the kind meant only for holding water bottles. But all climbing carabiners have pretty much the same figures, there are no situations in which the choice of which carabiner to use is based on these. (Perhaps rescue people do, but that's a whole different story.)

I've been struggling to find some better examples in climbing gear. There are some cute engraved figures on these belay devices:

belay instructions

On the whole the emphasis is on avoiding mistakes that are easy to make when you're tired, rather than giving instructions from scratch. Perhaps that is as it should be, instructions on a photocopier will let you get further before you give up and have to ask for help, whereas climbing you really shouldn't be trying anything which (gear-wise) you're not 100% sure you already know how to do.

-- Michael (email)

Meaurement at the point of need

This is an elevator panel in a water treatment plant.

Instead of floor numbers, the numbers refer to elevation in feet above or below the main floor, at elevation 0.0 feet. Even business cards and addresses refer to floors by their elevation.

Measurement at the point of need.

elevator elevation instructions

-- Jon Gross (email)

Ice on the road?

New Scientist reports:

A new temperature-sensitive varnish developed by researchers at French company Eurovia can be applied to road surfaces to warn drivers about dangerous conditions. The technique—still at the testing stage—might help prevent ice-related traffic accidents in future, the researchers say.

The varnish is made of a polymer containing a thermochromic pigment. The same type of coating is already used to make bath thermometers and frozen food packaging that responds to temperature change. However, it is the first time such a coating has been used to monitor road temperatures.

road ice warning

-- Tchad (email)

Space shuttle rescue entry methods

I snapped this photo with my phone, so I apologize for the poor quality. This is the side of the space shuttle Enterprise, which is on display at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

Most important is the square delimited by corner markers, with the sign "CUT HERE FOR EMERGENCY RESCUE". Presumably, it indicates an area where it is possible to cut the hull without running into blockage or important stuff on the inside.

Apparently, this is to be used if the other (non-emergency?!) rescue option fails, which is indicated by the arrow labeled "RESCUE". This arrow points to a button with "PUSH" above and "HERE" below it. The sign below the arrow reads (in all-caps):

  1. Push button to open door
  2. Squeeze and pull "T" handle to jettison ejection panels

The sign to the right of the arrow reads:

Warning -- this aircraft contains a cartridge-actuated emergency escape system with explosive charges. See T.0.0-105E-9 or V000009 for complete instructions

I would guess that rescue workers either would already be familiar with T.0.0-105E-9 or V000009, or would simply resort to the "CUT HERE" option.

-- Janet Swisher (email)

Mac Funamizu has a very convincing idea of a gadget that enables you to get any information at the point of need. You just point at the object of your interest - may it be a street, a corridor, a flower or anything else - and you get the desired information. But read yourself: Example 1, Example 2 and Example 3.

Although it has the flaw of being a gadget you need to carry around, it has the great benefit of being able to communicate information about things that cannot communicate for themselves (like stars or a flower that may be poisonous) or that require different information depending on your point of view (e.g. a look at a building and your way towards it).

instructions gadget

instructions gadget

instructions gadget

instructions gadget

-- Robert Wunsch (email)

Better shot of Enterprise instructions

It turns out I got a shot of the instructions Janet Swisher references on Enterprise, so here it is (the full image is obtainable via the link):

Unfortunately, the "cut here for emergency rescue" legend is outside the frame, and I don't have any pictures with that included.

-- Brad Ackerman (email)

Good design can reduce confusion and eliminate the need for instructions.

It can even save lives.

From the BBC:

emergency cart design

Doctors and nurses work together under stressful and time critical conditions to resuscitate patients who have suffered a cardio-respiratory arrest.

But data suggests that poor design of crash trolleys may directly influence the risk of an adverse event for the patient, preventing a successful resuscitation attempt.

The design solutions are intuitive and simple so that any member of a team can use the trolley without instruction.

For example, the trolley has no drawers and all medical equipment is highly visible and easy to locate in an emergency.

-- Stephen Hampshire (email)

I recently saw this spatula in a cooking store. Did it make me hungry or want to go home and cook? No. The first thing that popped into my head was, "instructions at the point of need"!

-- Peter Newbury (email)

I'm surprised no one has mentioned the US military claymore, with the famous "FRONT TOWARD ENEMY" marking:

-- Jack (email)

Another example of instruction at the point of need. For those of you without small children I need to explain that baby "pre-shoes" have very little difference between the shape of the right and left shoes. This means that you can easily put them on the wrong feet or at least spend a minute or two figuring out which shoe belongs to each foot. These shoes have a cute diagram of the correct foot on the bottom, both decorative and functional.

-- Jane (email)

So the shoe on the left is actually for the left foot?

-- John (email)

Indeed, the left shoe is on the left in the picture, bottom up. The right shoe has a picture of the sole of a right foot on it. I photographed it the correct way up to show that the overall shape of the shoe doesn't particularly look like a right shoe and hence the need for instructions!

-- Jane (email)

Meaning of odd label inside wading boot? Cleaning instructions?

-- Edward Tufte

Instructions inside wading boot - meaning?

Your boot has a man-made (the diamond) upper, a fabric (the weave) lining, and a man-made (another diamond) outer sole. Leather materials are a cow hide shaped symbol, and coated leather uses the diamond on top of the cowhide.

-- Dave Nash (email)

Here is a warning sign on a bottle of stain remover, which starts a chemical reaction once you mix the white and pink parts.

-- Tatiana Pechenik (email)

Elevator panel at Texas Stadium:

elevator panel instructions

-- Matt B (email)

"Do not prop open this door for security reasons"

Do not prop open this door for security reasons, says a sign on the inside of the side door to a garage full of delivery trucks on Haste Street in Berkeley. (Interestingly, this morning I noticed that the door was propped open with a traffic cone.) And then it goes on:

Failure to do so will result in disciplinary actions.

But... failure to do what? What has gone wrong here? (continue)

-- Edward Tufte

"Keep the door closed" works for me, but "Keep the door closed except when entering or leaving" is more specific and essentially means the door is there for a reason.

-- Bill Sharpe (email)

How (not) to tie a square knot

At Camp Barnhardt, NC, boy scout summer camp, the Nighthawks program for new scouts shows how to tie knots.

square knot instructions

-- Craig Pickering (email)

Hawk-watching platform, Braddock Bay, NY (west of Rochester)

-- R.C. JONES (email)

I am just in the process of preparing my book for Print on Demand (POD) production in India after quite some years of it being produced by traditional print methods. The book is aimed at biologists who want to use quantitative microscopy in their work (

We went to some lengths to make the mathematical and statistical methods understandable and to that end included a fair number of practical exercises that require the reader to make a measurement of a scale bar in the book and calculate linear magnifications (when writing we imagined they were on a desert island with their microscope and sets of slides). We provide worked examples of these exercises and have found in the past that if there are differences between what we say in words/numbers and the size of the scale bar in the physical book our readers get even more confused over one of the things they already struggle with.

We have found real difficulty explaining how important this is to our publishers (they now get it) and have had to do the same for the new printers. The fact is that what is printed out by different laser printers is not dimensionally controlled.

Having failed to explain terribly well with words I decided I needed an "Instruction at the Point of Need" I sent the printers the following image this morning:

instructions for printing book

-- Matt R (email)

Idea of Dutch designer Martin Boskamp: receipts are printed on eggs.

instructions on eggs

-- Ivan Poukhkal (email)

For anyone out there who has ever tried to assemble or repair a radio controlled helicopter, you will certainly be impressed by this instruction manual. It contains nearly no words, only very very high quality diagrams, all full size! In my humble opinion, this document sets a high-water mark in the world of user manuals.

Mikado helicopter manual

-- Gratefulfrog (email)

The Rugcutter Trading Company once published a note-taking template for students of ballroom dance that I found more straightforward and practical than footprint diagrams, and that doesn't tempt the reader to look at his or her feet. It uses three "staves:"


S = slow, Q = quick ....or the beat number


R = right, L = left


B = back, F = forward, S = side (i.e., apart), T = together

One could add a fourth for additional indicators, such as pivots. Using this system the Foxtrot Progressive Walk (ladies) would be notated:












& *






























































Both the system illustrated above and footprint diagrams are best used as review material. Neither is adequate for self-teaching or practical for reference while actually dancing. In social situations, however, most gentlemen have sense enough to stick with dance steps they know; what they really need is simply a reminder of all the steps they know.

The solution: a line of ladies' gowns that incorporate hardware at the shoulder (perhaps nestled discretely in a large silk flower) to which her partner can fasten a tiny flipchart—sold separately—with tabbed pages (one per dance) on which he has listed the names of all the steps he has learned.

* Foxtrot music has four beats per measure, while most Foxtrot steps are three or six beats. I find it intriguing that (1) this doesn't seem to be a stumbling block for students, and (2) I can be completely unmindful of it when I'm dancing.


-- Sharon Kittrell (email)

-- Edward Tufte

The "NO STEP" on aircraft wings' flight control surfaces. (Sorry I can't provide a picture)

-- j d mccubbin (email)

Here are samples of my signs for my show at the Aldrich Contemporary Art
Museum. The ambiguous lightning bolt plus the words have served well
to check efforts to climb the pieces.

The signposts are made from drops gathered up from my studio floor.
Drops are what is cut away from the original sheet in making the non-drop,
the desired sculptural element. When that element is interesting,
then its drop is also often interesting. After working with drops for a while,
I started to notice how often they appear in the works of other sculptors
(for example in Mark di Suvero's smaller pieces and in Louise Nevelson's work).
Excellent drops with rhythmic patterns are found in the scrap piles from
industrial cutting operations.

-- Edward Tufte

Some escalators in the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (Main Train Station) have painted feet to indicate that one side should be kept clear for those in a hurry. In the past the feet were painted on each step, but when I first saw them they were seriously worn away. The new location on the threshold should be more rugged and give people a chance to notice the instructions before stepping on the escalator.

The pole on the left contains further instructions, including lights that are apparently remotely re-configurable. The suggested pedestrian flow direction is marked on the floor to the right.

-- Jon Meek (email)

Train station schedule boards: Solari vs. LED

From Michael Leddy, Orange Crate Art:

Solari board
A bright new LED display will soon replace the schedule board at New Haven's Union Train Station. The board to be replaced clicks clicks clicks as its letters and numbers flip. Did you know that this kind of board has a name, or several? It's called a flip board, split-flap display, or Solari board, after its Italian maker, Solari di Udine.

NPR reports that New Haven's LED display will have a simulated click click click.

Related listening, looking, reading:

Solari board photographs (Flickr)
Solari board videos (YouTube)
Train Station Board's Demise Is Sign of the Times (NPR)
Tune Changed on Solari (New Haven Independent)


ET's thoughts:

As a frequent user of the New Haven train station, I have mixed views. The Solari board is a wonderful show, especially the click click click, but the information is very limited and lacking in relevant detail. The email (reproduced in the New Haven Independent story) from Pamela Sucato, a Connecticut DOT official, makes a thoughtful and nearly convincing argument for the LED change, although I love the retro look and sound of the old board. It is important that a new LED board be decently designed. The ADA compliance criteria will damage the design quality, however.

About a year ago, I investigated buying a Solari board for an artwork, in which the labels for trains would be replaced with cryptic art slogans ("Art is art, and everything else is everything else" by Ad Reinhardt; "What you see is what you get" by Frank Stella; and so on). Then the board would click click click sequentially and authoritatively through such art thoughts. But a new board was enormously expensive and difficult to obtain.

Pamela Sucato suggests in her email that the New Haven Solari board might be donated to a museum. My use would not preserve the train schedule data, but would repurpose the board's display method into showing thoughts about art by famous artists.

-- Edward Tufte

Swaddling instructions: stitched onto the blanket

Swaddling often pacifies 5-week-old Cecily. The instructions are right there, on the blanket.

-- Bonzo McGrue (email)

How (not) to tie a square knot

At Camp Barnhardt, NC, boy scout summer camp, the Nighthawks program for new scouts shows how to tie knots.


-- Craig Pickering (email)

Not exactly "point of need" but interesting indeed. (source)

-- Bill Paton (email)

Jon Meek: notice that this has failed utterly in the photo. The person with the carry-on is standing in the walk-up lane.

This reminds me of my pet hate in New York City. Any escalator or stairway in Europe would cause the users naturally to stream to one side or another for standing/walking or going up/going down. In NY the speed or direction chosen is randomly distributed across the width of the channel, resulting in hundreds of people pushing past each other each second. Observe the exit from the 4-5-6 lines at Grand Central for a perfect example.

-- Simon Pride (email)

NEED: You're lost in London, but you can see Selfridges, and you need to be at Claridges for afternoon tea.

INSTRUCTION AT POINT OF NEED: A very comprehensive set of regular maps, indexes and newly drawn maps with axonometric projections of landmark buildings.

An installment of a recent series about subway signs and wayfinding in Slate focused on London. In a nutshell, wayfinding signage with carefully-designed maps are being used on the street to supplement the geographical inaccuracies of Mr Beck's famous London Tube map.

Wayfinding signage for city streets is very different from the wayfinding programs you find in transportation environments like Penn Station or Heathrow. In an airport, the signs boss you around: Check in, go to security, proceed to your gate. On city streets, good signs are more like valets: They give you options, telling you about nearby attractions and helping you figure out where you want to go. Transport wayfinding gets you from point A to point B, but good urban wayfinding systems help you develop your own mental map of a place. As a result, they're often more aesthetically complicated than the this-way-to-baggage-claim arrows that confront harried air travelers; they usually include extensive maps or provide an index of streets or amenities.

Legible London marks one of the first efforts to subdue a city so immense.

Why is London willing to try out new signage? Surprisingly, it has a lot to do with the success of an earlier sign--the amazing, iconic London subway map. When people picture London, they often picture Harry Beck's diagram of the tube. But the tube map--though a groundbreaking, elegant, and useful piece of information design--bears only a hazy relationship to the city's real layout. The map, which was first released in 1933, abandoned the geographically accurate style then customary among transit maps. Previous maps of the London system had been hard to read, because they squeezed the stops in central London close together in an effort to make room for the elongating tentacles of suburban lines. Beck deduced that transit maps don't have to be--and perhaps shouldn't be--straightforward geographical representations. And so he straightened out the map's lines and enlarged its scale in the center of London, enabling passengers to understand how the city's most-used stations and lines connected.

Mr Beck's map

Beck's approach has been much emulated since--so much so that it's rare, these days, to find a metropolitan transit map that doesn't take some liberties with geography. But there's one major downside of Beck's map, especially considering that it's a primary means of understanding the city for locals and tourists alike: The tube diagram gives users mistaken impressions about distance--in particular, locations that are in fact quite close together can appear far apart.

geographically accurate map

As a result, people often overestimate the difficulty of walking to nearby locations, taking the familiar tube instead. In recent years, as the tube has become more congested, that's become a problem. The tube in central London often operates at maximum capacity. At rush hour, the Oxford Circus station--located in a busy shopping district--can get so crowded it will close its doors, waiting to clear passengers from the station before it lets new ones in. As a result, the mayor's office and Transport for London (the agency that runs the Underground) have been looking for ways to encourage walking in the city. They see Legible London as a step in that direction.

Legible London

Legible London hopes to reduce tube congestion by showing Londoners how disparate pockets of the city link up. Step one is to produce a geographically accurate map of London that's designed for pedestrian use and includes key landmarks--major stores, architectural oddities, even details like the style of pavement--that will help walkers find their way. Step two is to make that map available to as many people as possible, by posting it on street signs, tube stations, and bus shelters, and by making copies available to locals and tourists in shops and hotels. The project has been developed by AIG Group, a design firm based in London. A prototype was rolled out in London's Mayfair neighborhood in 2007, and in 2009, the city opted to launch pilots in several other areas: Covent Garden and Bloomsbury, South Bank and Bankside, and Richmond and Twickenham.

Legible London is an unusually narrow project in its focus on pedestrians. Most American urban wayfinding systems, like the ones in Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., are designed for drivers and pedestrians, linking highway signage to major city streets to parking options to pedestrian pathways. Legible London's brief is simply to get people to walk more. Still, the London project offers an interesting window onto how urban sign systems have evolved over the past few decades.

Legible London detail

One crucial component is the map. Traditionally, maps on these sorts of signs offered a bird's-eye view of the area in question, and were oriented with north at the top. Over the years, though, designers have learned that people tend to do better with maps that detail what the facades of buildings look like--a helpful feature for users who have trouble extrapolating from a 2-D map to the 3-D world around them. Legible London's maps put this principle into practice, featuring axonometric renderings of key landmarks.

Tim Fendley, the AIG designer heading up the Legible London project, says his firm's aim is "to help people insert themselves into the map." AIG tested several orientations during the development period, and users consistently preferred a "heads-up" orientation that puts whatever the user is facing at the top. While there were a few complaints from military men who objected to the deviation from the north-at-the-top standard, Fendley says, "We kind of figured they didn't need the help."

Another hallmark of modern wayfinding design is an evidence-based approach. Fendley's team stood on street corners in Mayfair every Friday morning for a period of months, often holding up enormous prototype maps and observing user response. These tests helped determine, for example, that the signs needed an index. Although architects had suggested doing away with the index for the sake of clean design, Fendley's team found that this frustrated users: "We took [one] out there, and three people came up and looked at it and said 'Where's Swallow Passage?' And I knew it was there; I knew the map by heart. And I was thinking, It's there! It's there! But they were like, 'Oh, rubbish!' And off they went. And I thought, 'Damn. We're going to need an index.' "

Another item that tested poorly was the original "You Are Here" icon. But AIG found that another element on its map--the target circles it used to show which destinations are within a 5-minute walk, and which are within a 15-minute walk--helped snap the user's attention to the center of the map. Initially, the circle was "a lot weaker," Fendley says, but after positive user response, "we turned the volume up."

You are here

(Continue on Slate.)

-- Matt R (email)

Train Coach position indicator via a printed tile on a Thalys train platform in Belgium. Very Useful, since the stopping/embarking times are very punctual and short!

Thalys train platform

-- Albert Lewis (email)

Here is an example from Boston, MA.
These are all around the city at storm drains that lead to the Charles.
Pardon the perspective - I flipped the photo in software (it is dangerous to
stand in the streets in Boston)

-- Art LaMan (email)

This impressively old centrifuge obtained by the French Culinary Institute has a window holding the business card of the centrifuge's service representative, including a contact phone number that still works.


-- Andrew S (email)

How to slice a grapefruit

I can't resist this perfect application of the "point of need" philosophy. After my daughter ruined one too many fruits, my wife provided the needed instruction with grace and artistry.

-- Bo Brock (email)

Car back-up camera with grid

The perspective grid overlaid on the image produced by the back-up camera greatly improves the utility of the view. See video for the perspective grid in action.

-- Edward Tufte

On a recent project I noticed these graphics attached to reels of copper wire. They were placed around the circumference of the wire, where a forklift driver should see them if he attempted to pick up the reel incorrectly.

-- Standeford (email)

Here's how the Amazon Kindle comes out of the box:

unboxing the Kindle

What's cool is that this is not a sticker. The kindle has a steady state display, meaning it only uses energy to change the screen, not to keep a display up. So the image that's pre-loaded at the factory is a set of instructions for plugging it in and powering it up for the first time. Once you plug it in, the instructions go away.

-- Mike H (email)

A classic, via friend C. DeForest.

instructions for shuttle orbiter

-- Alexey J. Merz (email)

Pasta cooking instructions always wrong?

Among the most widely distributed instructions at point of need are on pasta containers. The problem is that the instructions are all wrong.

First, as Mark Bittman has demonstrated, the pasta can be placed in unheated water in the pan. Our test kitchen confirmed this result. (Note that the recipes below suggest frequent stirring even after placing the pasta in boiling water.)

Second, no salt needed. Indeed no salt for health reasons. Some labels at least say the salt is optional. On the other hand, how much salt winds up in the cooked pasta vs. the water.

Third, massive amounts of water compared to the volume of the pasta are not necessary for successful pasta.

How much wasted heat, water, and unhealthly salt per year in the world?

-- Edward Tufte

Pasta cooking times will depend on several factors, but mainly the thickness of the pasta, which is often compounded by the tendency for pieces to stick together. A great example is Orecchiette 1 which tends to stick to itself like a stack of plates, or rouleaux, leaving the deep center of the stack often several millimeters from any water. Cooking time for orecchiette can be up to 20 minutes. Linguini, being broad and flat, would have a similar issue. Maccaroni is almost certain to not stick together, and it cooks quickly.

Other issues will be the starting water content, which may already by fairly high in fresh pasta; a high ratio of soluble to insoluble starch, which would speed cooking time; and I dare not speculate on the effects of various additives, like whole wheat or spinach.

1  I was introduced to Orecchiette by a Milanese man who learned to love it while in hiding in the mountains during World War 2. They would cook it in the red sauce, instilling as much flavor into the pasta as possible. Combined with its chewiness (al dente does not suffice), they enjoyed it "the steak of pastas".

-- Niels Olson (email)

Not instructions per se, but still some very useful information contained along the side of a trail walking stick.

walking stick

-- Michael Cusack (email)

Another commonplace example of Point-of-Need instructions: Hand-dryers in restrooms. This is an example of a high-traffic, frequent use appliance, and a hygienic issue is also presented if the dryers are not used. I am sure everyone has encountered an example of "Hold hands under dryer—starts automatically," so I won't post an image, but may also note how many dryers are engineered with a technically unnecessary "nozzle" jutting out from the front, indicating to a potential user precisely where their hands need to go.

There are, however, some alternative designs out there: I recently ran across something called a "Dyson Airblade," which blows air horizontally across both sides of the user's hands simultaneously. Labeling aside, note how both the shape of the slot (one side is cut to fit around each hand/wrist) and the yellow lines emphasize correct operation.

Dyson Airblade

-- Alex K. (email)

On a recent flight in the US, the flight attendant would cup her hand to her ear after asking if you would like anything. It was an extremely direct indicator that she was awaiting your response. Very effective.

-- Tim Holt (email)

People waiting in line for water on the grounds of a school in Sendai.
Picture credit: Kyodo News, via Reuters, via NY Times.

-- Edward Tufte

About the Emergency Water Tank

There are emergency water tanks under many Japanese parks and playgrounds. One I found in Daito City was marked with this six foot wide sign:

The translated sign text reads:


A water tank is buried at this location to provide drinking water in case of large-scale earthquakes or other disasters.

  1. To preserve life, a person requires at least three liters of water per day. (This tank holds drinking water for 33,000 people.)
  2. Clean water is always flowing through thanks to the the large pipes.
  3. In the event of a disaster in which the water supply pipes are damaged, a cutoff valve automatically closes, preserving the water in the tank for drinking.
  4. When necessary, use powered or manual pumps to draw water for distribution.

Constructed March 2002

Daito City Water Department

The translated picture captions are:

Dan Felice kindly provided the translations.

-- Dave Nash (email)

Fascinating article here from the BBC on augmented reality, particularly towards the end with an example shown for changing a printer cartridge: just point your smartphone at the printer and you will see a demonstration on how to change the printer cartridge.

-- Will Oswald (email)

Restroom door knob at La Bergamote Patisserie

Please is excitedly emphasized by its (1) top position, (2) central-axis typography, (3) all caps, (4) exclamation point, (5) larger size that the other words. Why not just S'il vous plait, which would please the customers at this Chelsea (New York City) patisserie?

The desired consequence should come first, and a distinction between closing/opening and locking/unlocking should be made since the door knob and pin are different. So how about: "To lock door, push the pin next to door knob. To unlock, pull the pin."

-- Edward Tufte

Nice use of chalk

Manhattan, New York, 2011. Sign on the pavement pointing to the point of need.

Caffeine Chalk sign on the 
pavement in front of Bowery Poetry Club & Cafe, Manhattan, New York 2011

-- Andrei Severny (email)

Golden Gate Bridge cyclist/pedestrian separation

The Golden Gate Bridge district met with the local cycling community last year to prepare "point of need" signage during some construction work that would have cyclists and pedestrians mixed at all times on the east sidewalk. Normally cyclists use the west sidewalk during peak hours (commutes, weekends) so this kind of mixing isn't as much of an issue.

It's an interesting problem in that there aren't established rules of the road for a sidewalk like this - do bikes go right, go left, up the middle? So any signs need to educate as to the convention, not just remind people to follow it. Also, most of the pedestrians are tourists on their first and only walk on the bridge; many aren't from the US. They may drive on the wrong side of the road and instinctively walk that way too - though apparently, right/left walking conventions don't always match driving ones. As for the cyclists, we're a mix of responsible riders, intolerant jerks riding too fast, and tourists on rental bikes.

I think they came up with a good point-of-need solution:

Bikes in both directions stay at the barrier on the roadway side; pedestrians are at the railing so they can enjoy the view. The bike graphic has arrows to convey how traffic should flow. A few of us commented that arrows didn't seem right beside the pedestrian graphic so they left them off (bikes need to pass each other safely in a predictable way, not so walkers).

The sidewalk graphic was repeated several times at intervals. Small blue signs were hung on the posts at the railing with a simpler bike/ped graphic. Interestingly some people commented that they noticed those blue signs, but not the sidewalk graphic (and vice versa).

Overall people followed this as well as can be expected. The bike/ped collision rate was almost zero during the several-month period of construction. Whether that's a result of these instructions at the point of need, or the 3 mph reality of trying to bike through a dense crowd of tourists in "SF" fleece hoodies, we'll never know!

Unrelated: the bridge is a suicide magnet of sorts, with someone jumping every 2-3 weeks on average. Mid-span there are crisis-hotline phones and blue signs reading, "Crisis counseling. There is hope. Make the call. The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic." Not quite an instruction, but certainly a point of need?

-- Tad Borek (email)

DSLR interfaces (Canon, Nikon for example) desperately need user interface improvement

Has anyone noticed how as the DSLR cameras are getting increasingly powerful, the user interfaces are getting to be exponentially complex? Looking at the controls on the Nikon D700/7000 or even the Canon 60D/7D/5D3 models the meanings of various buttons keep changing based on the context and often in very non-intuitive and inconsistent ways. The button/controls locations are also so inconsistent across the model ranges. It's time for some 'Apple-like' design approaches for DSLR user interface design.

ET RESPONSE: I agree completely with your diagnosis of high-end DSLR interfaces. Also there is excessive redundancy and overlap in the all the various settings, a product of featuritis. The new Nikon D800 has the same issues as well. Both Canon and Nikon have standardized on the same mess of an interface, a mutant cross between DOS and Windows 3. Maybe someday they could standardize on a better interface, or even compete with one another in DSLR interface design. Or they could build an iPhone5 into the back of the DSLR camera to preview images, control the camera, and provide different feature sets for different users. Or perhaps the user could wirelessly connect their iPhone to the camera control system, a somewhat clunky matter for shooting out in the field. Somewhere else on this board, several years ago, I proposed a new model for sorting through and sampling multivariate image space, a model that could be implemented by the suggested built-in iPhone5.

-- Albert Lewis (email)

Similar to the swaddling blanket above, sleep sacks all seem to be incorporating instructions at the point of need, placing embroidery on the front that says "back is best", referring to placing your baby to sleep on their back, not their front.

sleep sack instructions

However, it strikes me that this is perhaps not quite at the point of need, since anyone placing their child on their belly would miss the warning.

-- jonmcrawford (email)

Les Crepes Bretonnes recipe plate

Les Crepes Bretonnes 
recipe plate

-- Andrei Severny (email)

Copenhagen Airport, Denmark.

Copenhagen Airport

Light gray digits on the floor indicate approximate time it takes to walk to the gates.

-- Andrei Severny (email)

These signs from the Hara Design Institute, Japan follow the same principle as your beloved SF garage arrows.

-- Graham Larkin (email)

Green, yellow, and red appear on the floor of subway stations in San Francisco, California. (The stations are for BART, the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.) Green indicates where to stand. Yellow and red indicate where not to stand.

Green means good, that is, a good place to wait while people leave the train. Green means stand aside instead of moving forward. In other words, green means stop.

The sign succeeds as a reminder, but only if you know the rule. I see an example of misapplied colors and poor instructions. The meaning would be clearer without the green.

Another possible misuse of green appears on the street above station. A traffic lane is painted green to tell drivers where not to go. The lane is for bicycles.

-- Jay Martin (email)

I place sticky Post-it notes on the back of my laptop's screen to remind me of the things that I need to do on my journey home from work. They are discovered again when I close the lid at the end of the day, before sliding it in to my rucksack.

Generally, I put reminders in places I will visit at a time when I should be reminded. But even better yet is to put a tool in a reminding place so that it is ready for use and also serves as a reminding prompt. Eg: leaving a small screwdriver in my morning coffee cup to so that I am reminded to tighten my glasses before I leave the house.

I make piles of foods that I'm planning to cook together / eat together in the fridge. Provided I remember one of them, I will remember all of them.

I once used a hire car that had a light activated voice playback device glued inside the cover over fuelling cap. On opening, it announced that the vehicle used diesel and not petrol. interface design, while this is a superb technique, it does require some care to make sure that information doesn't become hidden until it is needed. Sometimes people want to be able to plan ahead or anticipate what will be needed before hand.

-- Benjohn Barnes (email)

Akin to the sign telling drivers along the Great Ocean Road (Victoria) to drive on the left of the road—and related to the "keep to the right" if not walking on the escalator picture—in the same Australian state you keep to the left if not walking. And further, the "up"'escalator is sited to the left of the "down" escalator when going up.

A moving escalator must surely be the ultimate instruction at the point of need.

-- Les Posen (email)

Via the BBC:

alternate parking signs

"There's a lot of information on these signs that isn't relevant," says Nikki Sylianteng, a freelance designer who lives in Brooklyn, New York. They very often fail to provide a simple answer to the question: When can I leave my car here, and for how long?

Frustrated by all this, and having been handed one parking ticket too many, Sylianteng mocked up an alternative - a sign made up of simple blocks of green and red setting out at what hours and on which days it was permitted to park.

At Last!

-- David Pitts (email)

Massimo Vignelli on New York Subway signage

From an interview with Massimo Vignelli, the late graphic design legend who designed the 1970s NYC subway map:

"We did the studies on these four stations, the traffic flow and all the analysis needed to determine where the points of decision were--because the whole thing in signage, the number one rule, is to give information at the point of decision. Never before and never after."

Massimo talks about : (a) where to place the signs, (b) the font (Helvetica) and the importance of standardization and consistency of signage.

-- Albert Lewis (email)

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