RTFM – but what a beautiful manual to read

I got my start writing computer manuals. Wait. I got my start in BBC local radio. I got a lot of starts. I’m still starting. But one of them was that I was employed writing computer manuals. It’s called being a technical author and I’m afraid there was a big part of me that always heard that as only technically being an author.

There was a woman – sorry, I’ve forgotten her name, this was a very long time ago – who I felt was a kind of technical author groupie. It’s probably good that I’ve forgotten her name, then. But I don’t mean she threw her FiloFax at me, she wasn’t a groupie of mine, she was of the industry. I remember a group of us talking about our writing ambitions and she was really clear about hers: she wanted to be a technical author. Yes, I said, and then? No. Technical Author. That’s it.

I’m afraid I felt that was a pretty severe lack of ambition. But I think I was also wrong. Computer manuals to me were, yes, a way to help people use these preposterously complex tools but there was an element of me feeling they shouldn’t be that preposterously complex. One local government official phoned in to the office to say thanks: finally he understood how a particular key feature worked. Do you feel good when you get that call or not?


Hopefully for this woman and certainly for some technical authors, manuals have turned into something more. Something I think you would say is art.

When you invest seven figures in securing one of the most exotic, exclusive vehicles ever made, perhaps you just expect that the owner’s manual is going to be a work of art. I don’t know, I’ve never been in that position. Every owner’s manual I’ve ever had has ended up stuffed in a glovebox, pages greasy, creased, and torn.

With the McLaren F1, mishandling the owner’s manual would be a crime — doubly so after you hear the amount of thought and effort that went into it. Mark Roberts, the man who hand-sketched the artwork for the manual leading up to the supercar’s release over 20 years ago, describes the process in a video released by McLaren this week. “We were actively encouraged to make it more and more special,” he says.

This is the most beautiful owner’s manual you’ve ever seen – Chris Ziegler, The Verge (18 October 2014)

Read more about the video and the manual in full piece on The Verge.