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Hugh Pearman follows the instructions of Open Here, a book cataloguing the enigmatic and amusing world of instructional diagrams

“Push up wings and press back to form pouring spout”. A familiar mantra, yet flawed. The silly little diagram you find on your carton of milk never helps, does it? The authors of Open Here positively enjoy such flawed graphics, particularly when they look good rather than merely inadequate. They appreciate them for their own sake. As to whether they convey the message or not – who cares?

Paul Mijksenaar, a design academic from Delft, and Piet Westendorp, a technical author from Eindhoven, are clearly obsessives. Mijksenaar has been collecting visual instructions for more than 30 years. Westendorp – a man who actually writes instruction books for a living – has collected user manuals for over a decade. We are close to anorak country here. Yet Open Here is refreshing precisely because what it describes and illustrates is something that everybody encounters all the time.

True, there is a bit of Clive James syndrome evident: namely that the attempts at instruction diagrams by foreigners – particularly non-Westerners – are intrinsically amusing compared to our own, supposedly more sophisticated, versions.

Ours are not so much amusing as infuriating. Setting the timer on the video recorder is, of course, beyond most people. But did a graphic designer really need to do a little illustration showing how wrong it is to wash out your electric toaster under the tap?

Yes, he did. Because even if most people know how something works, plenty don’t. Most of us understand that to use little packs of drink with straws attached, you poke the end of the straw through the seal on top. But what if you have never previously encountered such a device? You might hack open the pack and lose the contents.

The best way to deal with this book is simply to flick through and revel in the contents. Such as the admirably clear construction-kit instructions; the baffling pre-war exploded diagram of a German truck – where DOES the pick-axe go? Where to find the emergency knife in the emergency aircraft inflatable life-raft and how to de-flea your cat.

Ah – that last one is, in fact, a spoof. The process it illustrates is entirely accurate, yet the graphic style is ironical – by a Dutch artist who obviously likes these diagrams just as much as the authors.

Instructional graphics are, outside the contemporary art world, almost the last area of design to remain untouched by Post-Modern irony. Not for much longer, I fear.

What the hell. It’s a fine book. It depends for its effect on the shock of recognition followed by the knowing grin. And why not?

It offers us a way out of frustration and chaos. It offers us salvation by presenting dodgy graphics as art.

Open Here: The Art of Instructional Design by Paul Mijksenaar and Piet Westendorp is published by Thames & Hudson, priced £17.95

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