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Model Citizen

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When I was a kid, I used to make models. Plastic ones, of cars, ships, tanks, you name it. There was a sort of modelling club at our local Sunday school where they doled out whatever they had in supply at the time, and as a result I must have put together enough Airfix models of HMS Manxman to start a fleet. The early ones were more glue than plastic, and resembled the aftermath of an attack on the Royal Navy’s finest by one of Doctor Who’s stickier monsters, but with a budget of about 99p.

As I got older, I discovered that Airfix wasn’t the only game in town. A trip to a Beatties model shop showed me the wonders that were imported models from the USA and Japan. Companies like Mattel, Tamiya and Bandai produced exotic (to the eyes of lad from South London) creations previously unheard of. But the fun didn’t start with the making of the model, oh no. First, there were the instructions. The American instructions were interesting, filled as they were with those linguistic tics that differentiates their language from proper English. But the Japanese instructions were loaded with strangeness. Clearly armed only with a cheap Japanese/English dictionary, possibly with a few pages missing, the producers attempted to explain what the heck you were supposed to do with parts 27 to 43 while the semi-completed fuselage dried. Often the results were confusing. Sometimes they were hilarious. The painting instructions for a tank I once had stated ‘Brush with desert or a dog’, which probably meant ‘paint using sand and brown colours’. This wasn’t half as funny, but was more practical, as getting enamel paint off of dog hair was a real pain…

Instructions need to be clear if they’re to do the job they are intended for. They also need to be correct. It seems to me that nowadays there is very little time spent on spent on ensuring either. A global market for goods has seen detailed instruction manuals dispensed with, often replaced by a series of wordless cartoons that bear little resemblance to the pile of brightly coloured MDF and mixed locating bolts on the floor in front of you. There’s also the generic, multi-lingual set of instructions, printed in bulk to cover an entire range of products, allowing you to spend copious amounts of time looking for a part which you don’t have. In Finnish.

Now signage, the type you see everywhere you go on the streets, is basically a set of operating instructions for daily life. But in direct contrast to the scant instructions we get with our purchases, these things are proliferating at enormous speed. You can barely cover 100 yards on any major road without being told repeatedly and ad nauseam the speed limit and the parking restrictions. There are more messages on static displays, moving vehicles and shop fronts. And the trouble is, with that many messages being thrown at you, you actually take little notice of any of them.

But if we do need them, then they should be both appropriate and correct. And many are neither. Mis-spelling and poor grammar is rife.

There seems to be a general assumption by big business, marketers and the authorities that people are by nature inherently stupid and need telling something loudly and/or repeatedly, as you might a child. But if they tell people the wrong thing, or say it badly, as they often do, then the only ignorance they’re highlighting is their own. Unless of course they’re all using that same Japanese bloke with his dodgy dictionary.

Say it once. Say it right. Say it well. And people will remember.

Right. I’m off to repaint my Tamiya Matilda MkIII/IV tank model in desert camouflage colours. Now where’s my dog…?

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