Why nobody reads your instructions

This applies to any service provider -the key problem is communication. This is not an intended slam of designers because they typically do a lot of talking and or a lot of writing in an attempt to get their point across. In spite of these near heroic efforts, you can be very frustrated because judging from results, your words fall on deaf ears -or blind eyes as it were. It is good to remember that not everyone communicates in the same way and even if two parties do, there remains ambiguity because one cannot be certain that the other shares the same definitions for terminology.


The communication conflict between design and production has a very long history. Designers communicate with language, gestures, and facial expressions. Production people tend to express themselves spatially by doing something. The difference in communication style can amount to different languages (worse if each literally speak different tongues). This is roughly how it works:

  • Designer talks a lot to make points
  • Contractor hears “wuh wuh wuh wuh deadline wuh wuh cost wuh wuh…”

You get the picture. Or, a designer writes a lot to make her/his points and nobody reads it. One tries but finding the objective amid the dense text is an exercise in futility for spatially minded people. Think I’m kidding? Below is one paragraph of a 6 page email sent to me by a designer which listed some desired changes. Purported changes. It’s been over a year but today was the first day I actually read beyond the first page and that was only because I didn’t want to expose her name or product but I assure you that I changed fewer than 10 words. As a kindness to you, I’ve linked to just this portion because it took 783 words to get to this point:

Everybody who tried the bags thought they were great but some people said the strap was a little too long but when my sister tried them, she thought it was great. I’m wondering whether this should be lengthened depending on how people are using them. Right now, the length is 15″ and it is possible that it should be 18″ instead. What do you think? Lengthen or leave the same? The bag got a great response, it got everyone very excited. It was a slow market so I didn’t get any orders but maybe it should get longer. I think it is fine but I’m not sure.

And she still managed to leave me hanging. Do I lengthen or shorten the strap? The other stuff about market was just so much wuh, wuh, wuh.

Indirectly, this is but one reason providers are now charging by the hour. It takes hours to go over text, hours to go over illustrations when we never had to do this before.


  • Be brief,
  • illustrate rather than describe images,
  • less is more, and
  • use numbers.

Simplicity is also important. Only illustrate what is absolutely necessary. Only use numbers to describe what’s necessary. It’s not a deal killer if you do something like the image I opened with -which reminds me of something so forgive me for digressing. It is a known fact that web visitors are much more likely to click to read content that is illustrated. And you know why? It’s because they’re scanning. It is important to realize that production people are always scanning; that’s their default. I write and read prodigiously but when I’m making patterns or sewing, that switch in my head flips and I’m looking for an illustration, not a book. I can’t even read pattern books.  I can only process information in the pictures. Reading pattern books is painful, almost impossible for me.

By way of explanation, if you have provided a pattern and want changes to it, you don’t need to provide a lot of documentation for what you’ve provided. Use documentation to describe changes. Don’t do this -also bad because it buries numbers in the text:

The bag height is 8 inches high and the width of it going across the bottom and top (it is square) is 10″. I’m thinking that may need to be modified somewhat because it looks too rectangular and I’m shooting for cosmopolitan-bridge, do you agree? It can be modified somewhat, maybe by lengthening the height by an inch or so, maybe two. At the same time, the body may look a little narrow after the height is increased so bump that up a skosh, say 1″? The strap is 15″ long which is just long enough to carry by the strap rather than close to the body and it still won’t drag on the ground -that is something that really annoys any of the buyers I’ve talked to so we shouldn’t need to change that.

Do this instead:


We are just looking for instruction. If it’s all text, even if it consists of a well formatted outline, it becomes difficult to wade through.

Would this be a good time to remind you why you may be getting the run around? The comments were very sobering. Oh wait, that’s not it, it’s why people don’t return your phone calls.  One visitor wrote:

I truly had no idea. Coming from an academic research background, the more you talk through issues the better! Though, the longer I’m in this line of work the more I’m getting clued in.

spec__still_simple_productStill, with tech packages such as they are these days, much of that information is being lost too (and I know how you labor over those!) because data is spread over however many pages. The more complex your product, the more detail you need to provide. This is but one reason that manufacturing for yourself is the best option because there is less noise and data loss -you can show someone who is standing next to you. That’s key: show, not tell.

Another thing to keep in mind is that illustrations aren’t static either, one such example is at right. Were you to make a more pronounced style change such as widening the base, you’d have to modify the illustration because the default of production people is a visual. Since you can’t get all the information in there, use a scant table with measures off to one side as I showed in previous illustrations.

Lastly, a lot of production people aren’t going to tell you that they can’t understand your intentions. One, they will feel stupid; some have had life long reading problems and since you are smart and college educated, you’re yet another unofficial judge and jury of their literacy and competence. Others just won’t have time. They won’t read and will skip to whatever visual you provided and run with that -to your benefit or detriment.  In the event you haven’t provided visuals, they delay getting back to you because (like you) they figure they can get to it at X time only that time never comes.

I’ll bet that when you got into this you never imagined that you’d have to become an expert on people’s cognitive learning styles but that is one thing that makes a great designer. Great designers are effective managers who can intuit their people’s cognitive profiles to get the most out of them.  Never forget that the best and most highly skilled production people often have weak reading and expression skills. Some of them are like me in that they also have auditory processing disorders and have difficulty recognizing sounds as comprising speech (usually with message machines).

I’ve seen more waste of human potential in sewing lines than anywhere else. Some are literally geniuses even though they never finished high school.  I sincerely hope you can be noble and wise to go more than half way to help your partners understand your intent to everyone’s mutual profit.  It’s no fun feeling like you’re stupid…

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