The Form Book

The Form Book

Creating Forms for Printed and Online Use

Borries Schwesinger

In order for forms to fullfill their organizational role, their content and design must fit in with the work procedures of the provider. However, this is a two-way process, since procedures may also be influenced by forms, and so herein lies one key to appropriate design: forms are always simultaneously a mirror of internal organization and an instrument that can change and/or optimize that organization.

Designing forms is therefore not just a matter of giving administrative processes a visual form but changing the processes themselves. The two actions cannot take place independently of each other, however. The aim is always to produce forms that will facilitate effective interaction with users and will create the best possible organizational structure for the provider's working practices. But since these are generally established before the forms are created, the conditions required for successful interaction, such as clarity and user friendliness, are often neglected.

Forms are based on the assumption that they are absolutely necessary. It would contradict the whole concept of the form if the same end could be achieved by filling in a different form or even doing without one altogether. There is nothing vague and there are no maybes. Only yes or no, valid or invalid, true or false. And yet many forms appear to be interchangeable and arbitrary both in their design and in the information they request.

The concept of a form promises clarity, direction and security. Everything is meant to fit into a rigid hierarchy, regulated by straight lines, and every piece of information should have its own place. There should be no overlaps, no clashes, nothing but straightforward two-dimensionality. In actual fact, however, forms are often hotbeds of chaos and confusion.

Condescending and Incomprehensible

Why certain questions are asked, and what happens to the information is often unclear to users, and so they cannot foresee the consequences of their own actions. By filling in the form, they are therefore taking a potential risk. They see themselves confronted by a bureaucracy that is a kind of 'black box' system whose workings cannot be seen, and so they feel vulnerable and oppressed.

Forms can be hard to understand and off-putting in both language and design. Often it is not clear what information is supposed to be supplied and where it should go. Questions are easily misconstrued, terms and explanations can be contradictory and hard to read, and there may be too many pages to take in. Users are left feeling frustrated and disorientated.

Consistency of image and behavior are the messages that should be conveyed through corporate identity in all its aspects. If forms express this kind of consistency, continuity, competence and seriousness they will build trust in the company's efficiency. For example, a business trying to sell precision products needs to illustrate its precision in its forms, just as a company offering simple solutions will gain its customer's trust through simple forms.

It is especially important that contractual forms convey an impression of the utmost reliability. This, after all, is the trickiest moment in any commercial relationship, and a frustrating form can undo all the preceding efforts to build up a user's trust and confidence.

Since forms organize and reflect internal structures, they are a good indication of how credible a company's corporate identity may be. Bad forms can have dire consequences, because they provide tangible evidence that a company's image does not match its reality. To ensure that this image is not merely skin deep, it should be promoted in all aspects of the company's activities, including the design of forms.

Forms set out to cover every eventuality and to fit every individual case. In their constant attempts to bring order to the complexity of the world and in their unlimited desire to embrace every possibility, they reflect the human condition, for their failure to live up to their ambitions often has a tragic inevitability.

Nine rules for form designers: 1. Learn to love forms 2. Take forms seriously 3. Get to know your users 4.Take your users seriously 5. Learn how providers think 6. Think how providers think 7. Give forms identity and style 8. Leave nothing to chance 9. Do not give users one more form – give them one less problem

Good design is not a panacea, and should not be merely cosmetic. Nothing is more disheartening than a harmless, friendly-looking form whose content turns out to be the direct opposite. The fact that tax return forms look so complicated is primarily because the tax system is complicated, and paying taxes can't be made more pleasant just by making the forms look good. Hiding things away or sprucing them up will not help, but a clearly laid-out and easy-to-read design may at least soften the blow.

In a demanding context, form design has to cope with many obstacles. It always reflects pre-existing structures, and in so doing it often brings to light flaws that can only be rectified by reorganization. But changing existing systems - personal, material or technical - is often very expensive and is liable to meet with strong resistance, so this is one of the greatest challenges to all sides. Companies need to recognize the need for change, and designers must think beyond design for its own sake and attune their minds to the structure of the company and the needs of its customers.

Communication forms serve to send information in one direction only: from the provider to the user. The provider creates the form, fills it with information, and passes it on to the user, who reads the content and acts accordingly. Examples are invoices, receipts, notices statements and records

Dialogue forms go a step further. The provider creates a form with blank spaces which is passed on to the user. This too is a kind of information, since it is a request for the form to be filled in, the object being to obtain information from the user in the manner specified by the form. The user inserts the information, and returns it to the provider for evaluation, thereby reversing the roles: the user becomes the sender, and the provider becomes the receiver. Thus the form initiates a dialogue. Examples of this type of form include applications, order forms and questionnaires.

Internal forms include such items as time sheets, expenses forms and sick notes. Their main function is organizational and they reflect internal divisions of labour. External forms include applications, contracts and invoices. They permit interaction and exchanges of information between provider and user, and as well as being efficient tools of the trade, they are also a means for providers to present themselves to the outside world.

Many providers use forms to communicate with the outside world even if they have never actually devoted much attention to their corporate identity. Indeed, without forms they would scarcely be able to function. Each one not only conveys essential information but also reveals something about the identity of the provider -- in other words whether intentionally or unintentionally, each form influences the public image of the particular company or authority. And it can happen all too easily that the image conveyed is nothing like the image the provider wishes to convey. It is therefore in the interests of all concerned that providers focus more closely on corporate identity issues and include forms as part of this.

Wherever we go, forms go with us. Without them, there are no orders, payments, deliveries, marriages, divorces, immigrations, emigrations, tax declarations, arrest warrants or sick notes. They are there from the moment we're born, and we're not even allowed to die without them. They bring order, or at least form in the most literal sense, into our lives; they promise clarity and direction, yet so often they cause helplessness, chaos and confusion. A challenge to designers, they are sometimes sadly neglected as they attempt to start a silent dialogue with the people who, frequently put off by the very sight of them reluctantly have to fill them in.