Step 1: The Art of Paper Model Instructions

One of the intriguing things about paper models is the process which transforms a 2-dimensional surface into a 3-dimensional object. The paper does not transform itself, of course. It must be put together by human hands. But how do you figure out how to fold and connect the flat paper shapes to create a fully-formed model?

Depending on the design and complexity of the model, it may quite difficult to figure out the correct steps for assembly. If the model kit is from another country, and you do not speak the language of the model designer, written tips or instructions may not help much.

Early model kits from the nineteenth century rarely provided much instruction to explain their assembly.

Most often, an idealized illustration of the model shows the final product without indication of the steps necessary to build it. Occasionally there may be letters indicating the general location of parts, but does the little picture show the completed paper toy or the full-sized original subject? No doubt the children who built these models learned quickly and intuitively how the kits should be assembled, and the illustration was sufficient.

Visual Symbol Languages

In the early twentieth century, modernist graphic designers began experimenting with streamlined graphical languages to convey complex ideas in a glance. In today's world, globalization has strengthened and spread this visual lingua franca of trade and travel we are all familiar with. There are variations in visual dialects from place to place but most of these symbols have a universal meaning.

For other ideas, there is not yet a consensus on which visualization is the best, and each time a sign is made, the artist must struggle to show the idea or process in an understandable way.

How many ways are there to put on a life vest? How many ways are there to explain how to put on a life vest? The wide variety of ways to explain the same thing can provide a lot of fun for the collector of information graphics. Some pictograms are clever, others obtuse. Some are appealing, while others are quite homely. Even a clumsy graphic can be beautiful and interesting for its unique way of explaining an idea.

Another graphic innovation of the early twentieth century is the comic strip. A repeated frame and repeated cartoons within the frame leads us to understand that time has passed from one image to another. It is so common it is barely noticed by us nowadays, but the comic strip speaks in its own complex visual language, with arbitrary symbols for movement, and separate symbols for spoken or internal dialogue.

In our industrial era, most of the objects around us are mass-produced consumer items, not handcrafted or unique. And almost all of these objects can be described by step-by-step assembly diagrams, whether for the factory worker on a production line or for final assembly by the consumer. From an early age we are trained to understand that these diagrams describe how the world is put together, in orderly and simple steps. No words are necessary to understand how this toy fits together.

Symbol Language or Logic Puzzle?

Despite the familiarity of these diagrams, when it comes to paper models there is no international convention for explaining their assembly. Some paper model designers seem to view the model as a sort of logic game, where you must match one symbol to another to figure out how the pieces connect to complete the puzzle.

These logic puzzles often have little consistency from one kit to another, requiring a key to symbols used.

Regional differences have evolved for some paper models. Czech designs often are explained by an elegant system of dramatic bubbles and tiny numbers to indicate where these pieces should be placed, whether in front or behind.

In general there are several symbols that each paper model kit must include. Firstly, where to cut each piece and how to fold it (forward or reverse). Secondly, where and how to connect each piece together. These can be indicated by something as simple as a thick line, dotted or dashed, or distinct colors, or by tiny symbols such as a scissors, arrows, x's, etc.

Some symbols are more commonly used than others, but there are no agreed-upon standards. It is easy to find examples of the same symbols used for opposite meanings in different paper model kits. A simple mountain fold may be shown by a dotted line in one kit, a tiny arrow in another, or not even indicated at all in another. Without a key to the symbols used, can you figure out how the following pieces should be cut apart and folded?

Like all visual languages, the symbology is easiest to understand when it relates in some way to the real world. The symbols used to explain these pieces should allow you to imagine or visualize how the pieces are folded and assembled even before you physically cut them from the page.

Visualization of Form

The confusing babel of symbols used on paper models means that most kits require some kind of extraneous instructions to help explain how the parts fit together.

Written instructions are one method of explanation and also the most limited. If you don't speak the language or the ideas are not clearly expressed, they may be frustrating or completely useless.

If the model is simple, its assembly can be explained in one single exploded diagram. The exploded diagram shows the spatial arrangement of pieces, while the numbers show the order in time in which they are assembled.

For more complex models, the assembly is usually broken down into steps. One scheme is to follow written instruction with a visual to compare against for each step. If your model doesn't look like the one in the picture at this point, you've done something wrong.

Written instructions with line diagrams can be more precise than photographs. The following example has several levels of complexity: numbered steps, written instruction in several languages, colors to indicate where to glue, arrows and numbers to show the where and when of connecting the pieces.

At the extreme end of expository completeness, some model kits include so many worrisome diagrams, numbered and lettered steps and substeps that the instruction booklet requires more pages than the model itself.

Masterworks of Instructional Diagramming

Some examples of paper model instruction diagrams are surprising works of art on their own. The detail of these compositions is difficult to appreciate from the small scans shown here, but this will give you a rough idea of the wonderful images often overlooked by paper model enthusiasts and thrown out when the project is finished.

Who would have thought that such a plain and straightforward tank model would also include this disarrayed and compelling assembly drawing on the last page?

This tugboat model includes a wordy written account of how to build it, in German, but much more interesting is the fabulous exploded drawing at the end. Its as if the boat is already assembled and is steaming on ahead, surrounded by a cloud of parts and possibilities in other dimensions.

The instructions for this tiny dump truck model are a masterpiece of multiple layers of meaning without words. The top part explains the process and techniques through loose cartoons, but the bottom shows the placement of pieces with precise drawings, numbers and colors. There are numerous places in the assembly process where the builder can choose to go one direction or another to build a simple or complex model. The diagram suggests tools to use, tips on construction and even doubles as a full-sized pattern for cutting supplemental pieces. Instead of a chore of effort, putting this little truck together seems like an exciting and dramatic project you'll want to get started immediately.