Designing forms is not the most glorious kind of design. And yet, I’ve always had a kind-of perverse interest in it. My first job after college was for a large, multi-national corporation. In connection with the design of a new identity program, I was given the rather mundane task of designing how the new logo would work on the multitude of forms the organization used.
With my recent Swiss school of design education still ringing in my ears, I proceeded to come up with a system that needed to accommodate an extraordinarily wide range of forms—different sizes, purposes and complexity. With Helvetica (not surprisingly) as the prime, I limited typographic sizes and weights, and instituted a system of rules and bars to organize and divide the information. It seemed to work. In fact, after a year or two, there appeared an entirely new department that did nothing but create new forms, following my established guidelines.
Designers have always sought to bring order and clarity to information as well as create visual form. My design education promoted the Bauhaus ideals of “form follows function” and “less is more”. There might be nowhere more appropriate for that than in information design. The forms I created were simple, with no unnecessary or decorative elements. In design-speak, the signal-to-noise ratio was high. The signal—meaning the information or message—is not diluted by unnecessary noise. The goal of good information design is to maximize signal and minimize noise, thereby creating a high signal-to-noise ratio.
Just this week, we started on a design project for a transportation company that publishes a rate card full of rows and columns, each filled with pricing information. The card must be functional, while at the same time, must also promote their services. In the initial meeting, one of our designers suggested the elimination of redundant data. Unnecessary elements should be avoided. Even necessary elements should be minimized to the extent possible without compromising function. I’m sure we will design grids and tables with thin or light lines, and open ends. Unfortunately, the default design of grids and tables in word processing and spreadsheet programs don’t automatically promote that. Every element in a design should be expressed to the extent necessary, but not beyond. Excess is noise.
The value of good information design cannot be overstated. Think about highway signage, income tax forms—and even presidential elections. Some have suggested that a few years ago, the most powerful man on earth came to his position due to bad information graphic design. In the presidential elections of 2000, the outcome came down to the swing state of Florida. In Palm Beach County, poor ballot design caused a misalignment of rows and punch-hole lines. Voters wanting to cast a ballot for Al Gore, second position in the left column, inadvertently punched the second position hole for third party candidate Pat Buchanan. The issue tied up election results for weeks and was only solved by the Supreme Court, who awarded Florida’s votes to George W. Bush.
The corporate forms I designed over 30 years ago certainly had no political consequence, but I was surprised recently when I saw that even though the logo had changed, the design format of the forms had remained consistent.