How to Build Furniture by Yourself

Ikea logoOne of my favorite examples of learning from media comes from Ikea. Any owner of an Ikea product (that you assembled yourself) knows exactly what I’m talking about here. Over the years Ikea has built up a treasure trove of do-it-yourself assembly instructions for a wide variety of their products – from couches to cabinets, to bed frames, to kitchen tables.

If you haven’t experienced buying a couch or dresser from Ikea before then let me explain… Ikea manufactures home goods and packages them unassembled. This speeds up the time it takes to stock warehouses and bring new products to market. It also brings the price down on their products because there’s no need to pay an assembly crew. Bargain hunters from 51 countries, who spent $34.7 billion at Ikea in 2015[*], get instructions packed with their purchases and are expected to put their new table or bed frame together at home.

With customers from all over the world putting their own furniture together, it’s important that Ikea gets at least one thing right: the instructions. And that requires knowing your audience.

Now, it’s safe to say that most Ikea customers are not woodworkers, builders, or carpenters, so pieces of furniture have to be pre-assembled to a degree. That means bolting on some joints to a frame or providing ready-to-use wheels, for example.

Literacy may also be a potential challenge for some customers or assemblers. In order to cater to a wide range of languages, and linguistic proficiencies, Ikea would need to reflect that in their instructions.


It shouldn’t be surprising that Ikea has elected to design instructions that look like this.

Optimizing the usability of instructional material for self-assembled furniture has necessitated the design you see here. And it’s not about “dumbing things down” – it’s about making the materials friendlier and more accessible for a larger audience.

Now that we’ve looked at the audience, let’s look at the process to assemble these products. Again, without being a carpenter or woodworker ourselves, the products on sale at Ikea would need to be short-enough projects to be feasible for someone to complete in one session. Any longer and there’s risk that the customer will find Ikea furniture ‘too annoying’ and not worth their time. (Some may already think this…)

The following is a process that is relatively short and uses a couple multi-media learning guidelines and cognitive load principles. Let’s take a look at some of them.

via – Click to see full PDF version.

This is BILLY, a bookshelf that takes about 10 steps to put together. The image itself is actually meant to be printed and folded into an instructions booklet. Without any narration or descriptive text, this process allows any customer with a few common tools to build this bookshelf.


The Silent Cover image:


Imagine opening the box containing this bookshelf and finding a booklet/poster with BILLY written on it. Actually, the name of this bookshelf is written in Swedish which I wouldn’t consider to be a global language by any means. But at the same time it’s beautifully short and is part of the Ikea theme – this product is Swedish and we’re proud of it. 

By just looking at this image you know what it is. And once you open up the booklet you know that these are instructions. The word “instructions” or “bookshelf” don’t appear anywhere. It’s self-evident and this an example of the Redundancy Principle – eliminate redundancy in materials. (Note: A more accurate description of this principle would be that simultaneous text and audio does more harm than good but I’m applying it here anyway.)

Redundancy on the cover is not a major concern, since it would likely be just a few words, but imagine ignoring this principle on the rest of these instructions. In a way the images accompanied by text could send mixed messages. And think back to the audience considerations from earlier – some folks might not know the terms associated with the tools or fasteners needed to put this bookshelf together. Could you identify the following on your uncle’s workbench? Allen wrench, claw hammer, phillips-head screwdriver, vice grips, etc.

This would introduce another level of complexity that would make assembling the bookshelf more difficult than it needed to be. And from a business perspective the more people can easily assemble your products, the more likely they are to buy from you again in the future.



The DOs and DON’Ts image:

I love the introduction to these instructions because it is truly universal communication.

#1 – Don’t assemble on a hard surface. Use a carpet to avoid damaging the bookshelf.

#2 – Don’t understand the instructions or need help? Call your local IKEA!

By presenting information this way, you don’t need translators for every language either. Here’s another great example:

Carry safely IKEA

#3 – Don’t carry this by yourself. Get a buddy to help you out. (Clothes are optional, I guess.)



The Inventory Image:

Making sure you have all the parts, fasteners, and tools necessary to assemble your furniture is extremely important. This image makes it clear that, whatever these things are called, you should be able to identify their shape and amount.

If you were to write these instructions, you would have to identify that there are 12 wood dowels,  8 cam lock dowel screws, 8 turn lock fasteners, etc.

Dispense with the terminology and you now speak a global language – pictures. The Coherence Principle is used heavily here because using text would be unnecessary or distracting. Ignoring the names of these fasteners makes using these instructions much faster. You’ll also dispense with confusion between the different types of nuts ‘n bolts.



The Step #5 Image:

Lastly, there’s very little room for error with the call-outs used by these instructions. Here we can see the bookshelf on its side with four fasteners lined up to the correct holes by dotted lines. (4x also reminds us of this, just in case you only noticed two.)

The captions show you which fastener to use, with which tool, and which direction to turn it. You can even see what’s inside the hole that the fastener needs to be secured around!


I might be getting a little too excited about this instruction booklet but it’s important to realize that none of this was designed by accident… or that this happens to be one person’s mystical way of writing instructions. This was all done on purpose for very good and intentional reasons.

Imagine if your boss asked you to write instructions for a new product that required assembly by the customer. Then you offered a purely image-based format like the one above. Would your boss just think you were cutting corners or being lazy? I hope not – because there is a lot more at stake than one writer or designer’s job – the loss of a potentially delighted customer.


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