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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  1. Chantelle says:

    My husband constantly complains that the men he works with (he is a construction foreman) ignore his instructions, and/or say they understand when they do not. I used to sympathize until I worked with him. He has an understanding of how to put things together that is amazing, I would venture to say he may even be a spatial genius, if there is such a thing. The thing is he has never been credited with it. So since he is just average he is pretty sure that everyone can do what he can if they just try.
    Working with this man is hard. I do not process verbal instructions well, and he tends to gloss over the ‘obvious’ (to him) bits and like his subordinates I will say yes, just to get him to stop. It is too much input.
    The funny thing is that he is 100% blue collar. Yet he fits your designer profile. Currently he works as a liaison between the guys who make the drawings and the guys who actually build it.
    Anyway like your designer I am getting to my point eventually, in that I have realised that when work with him I need to be pushy and blunt. As you say statements like ‘show me how’ are most appropriate and specifically asking ‘why are we doing this?’ is clarifying too.
    Construction workers are plain speakers. I assume that sewing lines are a genre of construction. Polite correction is lost on us, it is too vague. Specificity is king.
    Also as a side point I agree with Eric, although for a different reason. Charlie Brown’s teacher was a woman and would have used the higher pitch ‘wah’ sound. A male teacher would have made the deeper ‘wuh’ sound (which confused me anyway with it’s similarity to helicopter sounds).

  2. Rachael W says:

    This brings to mind Japanese sewing patterns. 90% illustration and 10% text. At a glance, you understand what to do and you don’t even need to know a lick of Japanese!
    Your example looks to me like a product spec sheet, just showing the change in measurements. Very clear, and hopefully a familiar format to those involved.

  3. Bernadette says:

    I was absolutely hearing Charlie Brown’s teacher et al when reading your post. You nailed it, once again.

  4. Bente says:

    What a great post! Reminds me of when I realized to change all my spec sheets and instruction to contain only what the pattern maker and operators needed to know instead of putting all the information I knew or wanted to tell, when 50% might be irrelevant.

  5. Kathleen says:

    When I first starting reviewing the Japanese drafting books -before they were translated into English- it used to drive me crazy that people seemed a bit put out that they weren’t in English. I agree with you, you don’t need to know a lick of Japanese. Or at least, spatial learners don’t.

  6. I love this post so much that I was drawn to respond before I clicked to finish the post. I fell into reading the fabulous comments. Excellent and very helpful.

    When I first showed my college pattern making and draping students the (then) one and only Pattern Magic, it was so interesting to watch the various responses. A very few could see that you did not need to read anything. Many were pleased that the measurements were metric. Others “feared” that system. Most were dazzled. Most also felt that the patternmaking was nearly magic, as it confounded them. I was thrilled that the garments were presented on a BJD* and I still love to see new students’ responses to the books.

    Watching the wave of garments on the market which have been inspired by the Pattern Magic books and Drape books, I am dismayed that so many of the styles are poorly “pattern made”. They are also sometimes ill conceived, not thinking of how that particular added fullness or pattern manipulation will affect the line, drape, fit or focus when worn on the human form. Maybe the designers, etc. should try out their styles on a BJD before they get into human scale. It was good enough for Vionnet! (And apparently it worked for her quite well.)

    This oberservation shows me that you can encourage someone to think, but only they can encourage themselves to think correctly, accurately, and precisely. And if those three adverbs are redundant, I still mean it!

    *BJD = Ball Jointed Doll and refers very specifically to a well-articulated doll, made of resin, designed and produced in Asia. If the ball jointed doll is from the United States, it is called an American BJD. (Just in case you had never heard of these dolls.) BJDs come in various sizes. There is the 60 – 63 cm dolls who are 1/3 scale approximately. There is also 41 – 45 cm BJDs that are 1/4 scale approximately. They are easy to dress because of their atriculation.

  7. PS – a very important point about the BJDs as it relates to fitting – these dolls are truly scaled like well built, young humans (although not everyone’s target market) and you can even determine the bust size of the female dolls or the build type of the male dolls!

  8. ” I think it is fine but I’m not sure.” – sounds like this customer confused you with a design or branding advisor.

    “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” – Kathleen, you put into words what needs to be known! Thank you

  9. Melissa says:

    Wait… you mean all this isn’t just common sense stuff? The example email sounds like a 13 year old wrote it. Although I guess common sense can be rare these days.

  10. Doris W. in TN says:

    Great post, Kathleen, and I can so relate!

    With interpreting instructions, written or verbal, it can sometimes be a true challenge. I’ve taken a few sewing workshops when verbal instructions are given and I have to ask for clarifications. Some students “got it” at the first pass. Depending on the instruction(s) given, I can (sometimes) interpret or visualize them from different angles/approaches, because they are not perfectly clear to my brain. Thus, there can be more than one way to do that ‘instruction’ with different outcomes. Drives me crazy, but it’s the software in my brain and can’t be helped.

    An illustration, mock-up, or model says one thousand words. (The Japanese patterns sound wonderful) Isn’t that why the old Singer sewing books were so popular? They had very good photographs.

    30 years ago, we made an addition to our then home. I wanted the small porch over the back door to look a certain way. Having had experience with subcontractors, including excellent ones, I knew words would not be sufficient. I cut up some thin cardboard and made a 3-D model of what I wanted and handed it to them, with no other instructions. The men recreated it perfectly!

    As for the purse strap length, someone petite will like 15″ strap and a tall person would like 18″. The pattern instructions could point out the option that a taller person might prefer a longer strap. Seems like a simple fix, to me.

  11. Merry Jo says:

    I once got pre-surgery instructions from a doctor. They were a rambling 6 pages. I read, and re-read. Finally, I made notes. I discovered what was missing, called the office, and made more notes. From the notes I made a checklist. Typed, it was 2/3 of a page. It was easy to use, was in chronological order, and actually included a bit more info than the 6 pages.

    Brief, organized, and complete. It’s a blessing.

  12. Sabine says:

    One of the requirements in my college course was a class on technical writing. Everything boiled down to KISS. (keep it simple, stupid) ;)
    Even though sometimes I tend to rant on, I aced that one.

    Kathleen, the girl who wrote you obviously never got near a course like that. What’s more, she was not giving instructions at all. She was merely asking for advise on which way she should make up her mind. I don’t envy you getting communications like that.
    You did as usual an amazing job in pointing out how things can be improved. Thank you.

  13. Kathleen says:

    About customers wanting my feedback… this is about validation and it’s natural to want it because it can be pretty scary and sometimes expensive going down a new path which is why I tend to think of myself as a handrail so much of the time.

    The thing is, I can’t validate on the wrong things and besides, what do I know? I’d rather abstain because [I have lousy taste] I want to be heard about the things that really matter or at least, within my realm of influence and can be justified in dollars and cents rather than something ambiguous like “taste”. I would have been wrong so much of the time. I need for designers to gain confidence in their execution so I can’t also be their muse.

    Lastly, I intentionally abstain from design commentary **even mentally** because I would be extremely distressed if designers thought I was judging them (they think that anyway). I can’t have that. My job is to help them execute. It is not my job and very inappropriate, for me to pass design judgment.

    There was one time that I and a friend thought a designer’s color concept was terrible… I can only roll my eyes at how wrong we were. My friend and I still guffaw with laughter at how stupid and wrong we were. Thankfully the designer in question never knew altho I told her years later.

  14. Susan Wright says:

    A few questions, perhaps because I’m not in the biz.

    How would I know the spec update was in inches and not centimeters or vice versa? Would the original spec have indicated this?

    What does a tolerance of .25 mean? On second thought, it has to be absolute or chaos would ensue in the stitching :-).

  15. Natalie chim says:

    I think the adage ” A picture is worth a thousand words” is very apt in this case.

    It is one thing to know something it is another thing to teach it, as I have learnt with my daughter’s math’s homework. You are so right Kathleen we do need to understand cognitive learning styles if we are to communicate effectively.

  16. Ellen Eustace says:

    Uggh! I work in the garment industry and I know all too well. I make sketches for everything – call outs, blow-ups, open and closed versions. If we get lazy or we’re too busy to pay extra attention to the sketches, we end up with a “wrong” sample.

  17. Carolina C says:

    Oh, boy… this happens all the time with our sewing contractor, poor thing. The company I work for has this long story specs that, to tell you the truth, I have a hard time reading through them. Some times we have pictures or sketches available to send our contractor when we need to make samples, but some other times is just that long story 2 page spec sheet… And many times our contractor misses details. Luckily, we are implementing new ways in our department and we are making technical sketches in full detail, but limited text, because they won’t have time to read all that anyways. Too much information is distracting. The point is just to include what the sewers need to know. Leave for a different report all that extra info. Maybe for your own reference looking back on previous styles.

  18. Mary in FL says:

    Well, this is one way to remind me to update my project instructions, just like I keep telling myself to do. I think I’ve known that “more pictures, less words” is the way to go, i just “gotta do it.”

  19. Heather says:

    My sew shop fired one of his best customers who was “wishy washy” like the example. He finally got so tired of working with her that he told her he was done. The lady was a grown woman with a robust company, two kids, etc. But she couldn’t communicate! And when my sew shop manager tried to guess at what she meant, it was never what she wanted, resulting in upset emails and tearful phone calls. Bleh. I’ve always used her as an example of how NOT to act.

  20. Gabrielle Shearer says:

    Wow. This kind of floors me. I used to work for a company that made parts for the aerospace industry. The idea of receiving design specs in some sort of narrative form is boggling. I was in QA, and I can’t imagine trying to sift through something like that myself, let alone expect the people on the line to do so. Seems incredibly inefficient and risky.

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