The manual of the 21st century

The manual of the 21st century

In the eighties IBM had developed word processors which still had a steep learning curve. For this reason IBM focused on the development of manuals to go with the software. When a research team tested the effectiveness of manuals, they discovered to their own surprise that less is more. Rather than explaining at length how functions work, it appeared to be more effective to provide the user with a minimum of guidance, allowing him or her to explore the software relying on his or her own curiosity. In other words, manuals no longer explained at length the functionalities of the software, but became task oriented. Verbose texts were transformed into short instructions, such as Click save. The evolution would eventually yield the help functions we are familiar with today. Minimalist topics became the standard to be integrated in today’s software. If one reads a Help topic of iTunes, for example, one experiences the state of the art of minimalist writing.

The look and feel of these Help topics mirror their functionality. A very clean text is standardly given a minimalist lay-out. Colors are virtually absent; text is often rendered in black and white and perhaps some grey tones. Pictures and graphics are completely functional and restricted to arrows, bullets and screenshots. As such, the minimalist lay-out mirrors the style and function of the manual which is meant to be clear and effective.

In this respect manuals mirror an earlier evolution in architecture. During the first half of the 20th century architecture became functionalist. Architects and designers adopted the view that form should follow function. Elements or design features that do not reflect the function of the object were omitted. Design no longer permitted beauty for the mere sake of beauty. As a result, a minimalist, functionalist building such as Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye stands in sharp contrast with a decorative art nouveau building such as Otto Wagner’s Villa I.

Villa Savoye. a modernist villa in Poissy (France), which was designed by Le Corbusier and built between 1928 and 1931.

Villa I, a Jugendstil Villa in Vienna (Austria), which was designed from Otto Wagner, and built between 1886 and 1888

In architectural design strict minimalism has not been the endpoint. Minimalism certainly has a certain esthetics intrinsically and companies such as Apple have been very successful in exploiting this source of beauty. However, principles that work well for the design of computer devices, do not necessarily work for other objects. For buildings and furniture strict minimalism is often experienced as distant and cold. For this reason, it became a trend to soften down minimalist design and architecture. The famous Kapelle der Versöhnung in Berlin is an example of a building that combines a minimalist design with a more organic and softer lay-out.

Kapelle der Versöhnung, (simply : Chapel of Reconciliation) stands on the site of the old Church of Reconciliation  in the Mitte district of Berlin, Germany. The old church building was destroyed in 1985 in order ‘to increase the security, order and cleanliness on the state border with West Berlin’ according to the official justification by the German Democratic Republic government. 

By integrating materials such as wood, natural stone or clay into buildings minimalism has entered the 21st century. Designers started to understand that minimalism can reconcile its principles with a more confortable and welcoming look and feel.

Just as one desires to feel comfortable when one enters a house, one hopes to feel at ease when opening a manual. Manuals are consulted when people face a problem. Readers should be able to trust that a friendly interface will welcome them. Of course, the manual should still have all the qualities of a functionalist, minimalist manual. It should be clean, well-structured and to the point. But all this can be combined with a more approachable overlay. Whereas the manual of the 20th century resembled the Villa Savoye, the manual of the 21st century will be a true chapel of reconciliation between functionalism and friendliness.

by Marijke De Belder, Technical Writer – Touch Of Content, MindForest Group