Key Steps in Illustration: Giving Instructions

This exercise asked to give instructions with picture(s) only, if possible without including any words. At first I think it sounds very simple, but when you think about it more closely it is actually quite challenging. When you can’t use words, you have to break down the steps in easy-to-understand bites, somewhat similar to playing charades when you also have to explain something without words.

I first researched what other instructions there are, and found a couple of examples on how to make tea, see here. The following example of how to prepare a cocktail is a bit more decorative than instructive, but still quite nice.

I also found that instructions for Origami usually are quite accurate and don’t use a lot of words. Instead they use arrows to indicate in what direction to fold the paper. See examples here, or here.

I also found some examples that differ in their use of colours. For instance this examples uses lots of colours, while this one only has a limited colour palette. Another example I like is this one because it includes some very nicely done handlettering.

There are also some fun instructions out there, see an example here. I think this is the development of the illustrated instructions for print, and a great way to use modern technology to explain something easily.

Coming back to the topic of illustrated instructions / recipes, I also found this gread guide by Flow magazine that explains how to draw your own recipe. It explains in very easy steps what you should do when you plan on illustrating your recipe. I think it is quite a good reference to what I’m planning to do with this exercise.

Besides the illustrations, there are a quite a lot of instructional / how to videos that are down in a handdrawn or handmade/collage look-and-feel, e.g. here.

I started of with some visual brainstorming, and just made sketches of the topic “how to prepare a cup of tea” into my sketchbook. Then I wrote down steps I thought would be necessary to make a cup of tea.

I collected a few ideas and examples on what colour schemes tea companies usually use for their tea bags and packaging. I also found some examples of illustrated instructions, including recipes, but also something toally different from various magazines. They all include text in additon to the illustrations, but I find them quite inspiring, also for the style.

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Moodboard and examples of illustrated instructions

The instruction on the right hand side is a bit confusing, but I like the style with the black-and-white lines, and the limited colours that add a fresh touch to it. The numbers and arrows help somewhat to keep track on what you are supposed to do next, but I think the illustration would benefit from a bit more space.

kat-illustrates-giving-instructions-tea (5)
Examples of illustrated instructions

For instance, I like the cirular flow of the instruction on the left hand side, but I think it only works because only four steps are illustrated. If it had more steps, it’d be too crowded I think.

I collected a few samples of materials I thought might be useful later, including fresh tea leaves, and backing paper. Moreover, I tried out how differnt materials and colours work together, and what lines the different pens and materials I have would create.

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Experimenting with materials

I continued with doing some more sketches of the objects I found in my kitchen from different perspectives, and also try out several styles and materials.

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Sketches and trying out different materials/styles
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Layout options

I also looked at various formats and layout options and sketched some options, including different flows. I found that to have all steps in one line would not be feasible since there are too many steps to consider. I found that a portrait format would probably make most sense, and you might even be able to include it in a magazine later. Other things I considered were putting in numbers to indicate the sequence of the steps to make it easier for the viewer to understand, and possibly use arrows for the direction.

I then tried out three different styles and flows in my sketchbook.

kat-illustrates-giving-instructions-tea (11)
Trying out different styles and different flows
kat-illustrates-giving-instructions-tea (12)
Trying out different styles and different flows

I think the circular flow does not make that much sense here. I think the best is to go for a natural reading direction from upper left to lower right (based on western culture). I think I like the black-and-white version best, but having it on a white background is not enough contrast I think. So I might try it in a collage style on a darker paper.

After a break of a few days to clear my mind and decide what I wanted to do, I first created a Din A3 illustration using guache.  Compared to my sketches, I left out the arrows to move from step to step, and only indicated the steps with numbers. I used a portrait format, to be able to put it into a magazine or turn it into a poster. I used the flow that equals our natural reading direction from upper left to lower right.

kat-illustrates-giving-instructions-tea (14)

I played around with some different colour schemes in Photoshop, and also tried out how it would look like in black-and-white (which I think also works).

I then added a short description / headline in the upper right corner. I had initally left it blank to include such a box. I had imagined this would be used in a lifestyle or cooking magazine, and would then probably include at least the basic information what the piece is about.

I then went on to work on a collage on a bigger scale. Here are some of the cut-outs to work out the individual steps, which I photographed.

kat-illustrates-giving-instructions-tea (22)
Collage cut-outs

The cut-ours are now in my sketchbook, in case I need to go back to them at some point. Since I used the black-and-white style with some added colours, I decided it would be better to put the cut-outs on a backing paper/wooden background to create a good contrast.

I then created a very simple GIF out of the images. The colours are not yet quite adjusted, but I think it adds to the “handmade” look, which I wanted to create. I had not idea how to create a GIF, but then looked up different tutorials and guides for Photoshop and tried it out. While this is far from perfect, it motivates me to do some similar instructions as GIFs. Reload page to view again – because I did not set it up to run in a loop.


Key Learnings: 

  • I found it quite interesting to think about a very normal situation, and how I would explain it only using pictures. It means to focus on the key moments and visualize them in a very easy-to-understand style.
  • In my research I found a great variety of illustrated instructions, so there seems to be the need for illustrators to be able to visualize them.
  • In real life I think most illustrated instructions are a mix from visuals and text, whereas in this case, I was asked to use images only. I think this is even more challenging, but if you break down the steps in detail, then it works out quite well.
  • Illustrated instructions are also often used in manuals, e.g. when putting together the newly bought shelves, because often people get the visual input faster than the written words. Plus you can understand illustrations without know the words in a certain languages. For instance, there are even picture dictionaries that show different objects or everyday situations that will help you on your travels when you don’t speak the local language.
  • Finding the right style was a bit tricky for me, because there were too many options I liked, e.g. the black-and-white versions with limited colours vs. the collage style vs. the handpainted one. What I did – also as the result from the last feedback I received from my tutor – is to experiment. I tried out different styles in my sketchbook, as well as different flows. I showed these flows to several people, who then helped me identify the one that works best (natural reading direction).
  • I also tried out a new way of working with illustrations, namely putting the photographs I did into a GIF. I think it helps to make use of such options, because GIFs or small animations are often used on the web, and illustrators are asked to expaned their print illustrations into web animations. I think this is a skill I like to develop for sure.
  • I am not quite skilled with doing PC illustrations, e.g. with Illustrator, but I think in the long run, I will have to develop those skills, and try using them more often. I feel that many “clients” would expect instrutions like this done completely digitally, rather than handpaint. Of course, this depends where the instructions will be used (manual vs. creative magazine).
  • I attempted to not stop with the first result I was happy with, but rather work on different options and styles to explain the same thing. It helped me understand that there is not one result to the project, but many. In my professional life, I’m usually on the other side, i.e. I’m the client who briefs the designers to create something, and I’m always happy when I get a few ideas / styles first to choose from. I feel that trying out a lot in my sketchbook is quite similar. I can flip through the pages, and then come back to the idea(s) that I – or someone else – likes the most for this particular project.



Flow Magazine. “How to draw your own recipe”. [Accessed on Feb 17, 2018]. URL 

Google picture search. Search terms: “Illustrated instructions” [Accessed on Feb 10, 2018]. See URLs in text. fun2fantastic. “how to draw A Blue Graduation Cap with a Gold Tassel”. Published on June 1, 2013. [Accessed on Feb 10, 2018]. URL

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