Manuals for Dummies

Filed Under: Inspiration , Article , web design , Voice , advice

From hardware to software to that new robot that mops the floor and scares the cat—nobody ever wants to read the manual that comes with a new widget.

And why should you? Most product manuals are either flimsy pamphlet things with terse, tiny-type instructions in eight different languages or thick, impenetrable softcover doorstops that have all the visual excitement of a real-estate contract. Hardcore techies who read and write these things came up with a snarky, online abbreviation to smack down people who skipped the instruction book, but showed up in user forums asking obvious questions. You may have heard of it: RTFM, which stands for Read The [Really Bad Word] Manual.

Easier said than done. I write about computers and technology for a large part of my income, and I can barely get through some of the mind-numbing documentation out there. Much of it is unreadable and also boring to look at. If I want to look at walls of gray, I’ll go meditate on the Munsell in a photo-retouching lab.

But whether it’s deciphering Adobe Photoshop Elements or trying to set up a wireless home network, many people have ditched the official documentation and turned to a friendlier alternative: the sassy, savvy, consumer-oriented technical book that explains a program, process or product in regular ol’ English—aided by slick graphic design that keeps the harried reader comforted and entertained as he or she scales the learning curve.

Hitting the shelves in 1991, DOS For Dummies was the granddaddy of the User-Friendly User Manual. With conversational chunks of text peppered with cartoons, friendly icons and jaunty typefaces, this ur-Dummies title proved that non-nerds could cuddle up with a technical tome. The series, from Wiley Publishing, now boasts 125 million books (on a gajillion topics) in print, so it’s safe to say somebody out there finds the Dummies pretty darn smart.

This combination of elements gently eases the reader into the technical information. It’s sort of like how people, intimidated by the columns and columns of type in The New Yorker, feel secure knowing there’s a cynically whimsical Roz Chast cartoon to rest upon during the long eyeball march through an intense 10-page burst of short fiction. In addition to the predictable interior design that anchors every book in the series, each volume in the Dummies brand screams for attention on the store shelf with its loud, proud, yellow-and-black cover. (Wiley must get some sort of yellow ink bulk discount since they also publish the Cliffs Notes literary guides, the main reason most high-school sophomores can pass a test on Silas Marner.) There’s comfort in consistency.

Needless to say, the concept of the saucy, snappily designed guidebooks took off. Witness the proliferation over the years: the Complete Idiots Guides from the Penguin Group, the Visual QuickStart books from Peachpit Press and the Missing Manuals from Pogue Press/O’Reilly Media.

I was heavily biased towards the Missing Manual series even before I was asked to write one about the iPod, as it’s the brainchild book line of David Pogue, who wrote Macs for Dummies before incorporating Pogue Press and joining forces with computer-book giant O’Reilly Media in 2000. If you’re into graphics arts, digital video or publishing, odds are you’ve got at least one edition of his Mac OS X: The Missing Manual next to your computer by that can of Coke.

Thanks to designer Phil Simpson, the Missing Manual series has its own distinct look, with sidebar boxes, blurb-like tips and attention-getting graphics on just about every page. A lot of thought went into that design, particularly because most of the books in the series are printed in economical monochrome. Without the pedagogically proficient use of color within the text to call out specific points or display illustrations, the books have to make due with varying amounts of black ink on the page.

“The original idea behind Phil’s design,” recalled David when I called him to ask about the look of the Missing Manuals, “was how can we make it look like color just with shades of gray. If you look through the books, you’ll see six or seven different, distinct shades of gray used as basically color elements to make it a little more vivid and lively.” (See for yourself.)

While imparting technological wisdom in short humorous sections, the text itself also becomes something of a visual element within a Missing Manual. The discussion in any given chapter intertwines around short sidebars focused on one aspect of the topic at hand. Boxed graphics displaying captioned screenshots and brief “tips ‘n’ tricks” info-nuggets centered between horizontal rules also serve to enhance the main text.

“On the Missing Manual series, our idea was to let you open the book in the bookstore and stick your finger in at random and you will find three or four different entry points to the page,” said David, citing the various elements mentioned above. “We never wanted to have just two pages of plain text.” In a Missing Manual, the reader has plenty of graphical rest stops on the road to enlightenment.

“From my personal-training history of teaching people computers,” David continued, “I know that it’s wearying to be fed a nonstop river of new information in something that it’s not immediately apparent to you how you need it yet. We’re basically bending over backwards to keep the interest level high and the entertainment level high.”

So fear not, gentle nontechnical reader. There are computer books out there that will not put you in a state of visual vegetation. With the Missing Manuals, Dummies books, Complete Idiots Guides and all the rest here to help, maybe that old techie snark will morph into a new meaning: “Read That Fantastic Manual!”