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When All Else Fails, Read the Instructions : Consumers: An exhibition of user manuals--including 600 volumes on building a plane--has many yearning for simpler times.

May 01, 1994|DOUGLAS BELL | COLUMBIA NEWS SERVICE

NEW YORK — For the technically challenged, solace can be found here.

It's not a 12-step program to overcome the anxiety of wading through perplexing VCR instructions. Rather, it is the American debut of a Dutch user-manual exhibition that showcases more than 800 confusing or downright strange examples of instructions for everything from condoms to German tanks.

Anxiety, as the exhibition demonstrates, is feeling the ground shake and watching a mushroom cloud develop in the distance while thumbing through a Cold War-era, Soviet nuclear-blast manual for using low-level radiation-resistant gas masks.

No less confusing, but certainly of less consequence, are the 600 volumes in 48 feet of shelf space that attempt to explain how to build from scratch a Fokker 100 series airplane.

"Our modern life is getting more complicated every day," said the show's Dutch designer, Peter de Rooden. "The need for clear and simple instruction is therefore more urgent than ever. This is the point of the exhibit."

De Rooden, founder of the Art Project Foundation, a nonprofit organization in the Netherlands, said it took more than 10 years to gather the items that appear in 11 languages in the exhibition, housed through the end of May at the Fashion Institute of Technology's galleries in the Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea.

Dorothy Twining Globus, museum curator at FIT, conceded that user manuals are a twist for a gallery that usually showcases fabric and clothing. One recent exhibition displayed ancient cloth used in mummifying a cat.

"FIT is best known for its fashion design," she said. "We hope to have more exhibits like this one that reflect the entire curriculum of the school." FIT offers a bachelor's degree in advertising design, with some course work devoted to user-manual writing.

Although the exhibition is chock-full of convoluted instructions that might drive users mad, De Rooden insists that manual writers are usually unfairly branded as feeble-minded or evil.

The real problem, De Rooden said, are the technical complexities introduced by computers, which have rendered obsolete the old "slip Part A into Part B" instructions.

The result is all too often mounds of technical hieroglyphics. The 300-page manual for a 1990s Canon computer laser printer, replete with industry jargon and confusing tables, dwarfs a more simple 40-page manual for the 1985 model and a 20-page version for a 1980 printer that even a child could understand.

A manual for a Philips VCR remote includes a diagram that more closely resembles an electrical engineer's schematic--a centipede-like drawing with 88 straight and squiggly lines and circles identifying various functions.

Ouilda Benitez, who took in the show during her lunch break, hovered over 51 airplane emergency-evacuation procedure cards, about half of which have diagrams.

"I only understand the ones with pictures," she said, pointing to diagrams. "Put the mask on your face, and when the plane hits the water slide down the slide."

Globus said the exhibition demonstrates the need for communication to transcend language and cultural barriers.

"There is no reason why instructions and manuals, particularly in the area of safety, aren't entirely universal in terms of the methods of communication," she said. Globus pointed to a display unit that had four symbols from four countries warning against transporting butane gas in the trunk of a car.

Most entertaining is the display labeled "Failures." "Lighting will commence in the course of the evening dawn," one manual said about installing a light fixture. And what's the "antecedent extinction of programme"? Another manual's dire warning against touching two wires together.

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