Office Forms

1. The Purpose of Forms

An organisation works by communication, very largely recorded on paper. If variable information under fixed descriptions is frequently required it is most quickly and efficiently dealt with if the information is provided in the same fashion and in the same order on all occasions. Hence the use of forms. A form is merely a device which tries to ensure that all the information required for a particular purpose is provided and that it is presented in the way and in the order in which it can most easily be used. This explains the increasing use of forms and the emergence of the skill of form design, for upon the use of forms, effectively designed, depends to a large extent the efficient operation of all kinds of en­terprise.

Briefly, then, the use of forms makes the recording and presentation of data uniform. It enables information to be easily recognised, compared and, if necessary, further processed. Most procedures are based on a form or forms and the form is now the basis for reporting and directing services. Consequently, a heavy responsibility rests on the form designer to provide forms that are appropriate to the task they are to perform and are, at the same time, easy to use and handle. This task requires skill and a good knowledge of the organisation’s procedures and practices, as well as acquaintance with the circumstances in which the forms will be completed and interpreted or otherwise processed.

First, there must be an awareness of what the form is required to accomplish – to provide hours of work for wages calculation, check lists for procedure control and so on. Second, there must be an understanding of how the form can contribute to the smooth operation of the organis­ation, remembering that it has been estimated that filling in a form costs at least twenty times the value of the form itself.

2. Principles of Form Design

Whereas it used to be the practice that departmental managers designed their own forms, this is now recognised as inefficient because such forms are drawn up from a very limited viewpoint. Increasingly, form design is centred in the hands of a form designer.

When asked to raise a new form the designer will approach the task with three questions in mind. First, is a new form required at all? Specially designed stationery ties up money in stock and it may be that the information supposedly required on a new form can just as effectively be provided by a memorandum or by other means.

Second, the need for a form having been established, is there already in use, probably in another department, a form which could be amended so that it could be used for the new requirement as well as for its existing use? This saves stocking additional special forms and, also, may mean that an entry made at one point may be used at another, instead of information having to be abstracted from one form and transferred to another. Copying besides being a wasteful operation, is also one that gives rise to errors.

Third, are all the questions being requested for inclusion on the form really necessary? The designer’s own knowledge of the systems and procedures, and collaboration with the department concerned, will almost certainly permit the contents to be pruned so that only the essential questions are asked and redundant material eliminated. Here ruthlessness is necessary: every inessential entry must be cut out as being a waste of money (a) in producing the form itself and (b) in the time taken to complete and to interpret the unnecessary items.

3. Practical Considerations

The need for a new form having been established and the essential contents agreed, the form designer now has to give consideration to the form itself. This involves a series of decisions that have to be made based on the following questions:

  1. How should the entries be arranged? A logical order will speed the completion of the form and will help to avoid mistakes, especially if the information is new and not being taken from an existing record. A simple example is the entry of name and address. If this were asked for as ‘address and name’ the chances are high that a large percentage of the forms would be completed giving the name first, especially if the forms were filled in by members of the general public.

Besides the necessity for logical order or sequence, attention must be paid to the grouping of like information, again in a logical fashion. Such groupings are known as fields. Name and Address, Nationality, Marital Status and so on would be designated as a field, for example.

Similarly, where information has to be copied from other sources or forms, so far as possible the entries on the new form should be in the same order as the existing, otherwise the incidence of error by transposition of items will tend to be high.

  1. Who will complete the form and by what means? A manual worker using a pencil needs a different kind of document from the office worker using a typewriter. In the first case instructions must be particularly clear and simple and the spaces for writing large, whereas in the second case the instructions may be brief and the writing space at a minimum. The wording of the questions and the style of type are also matters of concern under this heading.
  2. Under what conditions will the form be completed? This will be particularly pertinent where the form has to be entered up in the factory, or out on a building site. The substance of the paper, its resistance to dirt and damp, the size of the print, will all be determined to a large extent by this factor.
  3. To what use will the completed form be put? If it is to stand on its own for the communication of data then consideration as to means of emphasising certain areas may be needed: if it has to be used in conjunction with other forms, as a source document perhaps, then it needs to relate to them, particularly in ease of transcription and order of contents.
  4. Are copies required? If so, how many? The answer to this question will determine the weight of the paper to be used, the manner of production having regard to the need for accurate registration of all the copies, and also the means of copying.
  5. How will the forms be kept after completion? This will have some bearing on the kind of paper used and whether or not a wide margin needs to be left for punching or binding.

Having laid down the essential, basic principles of form design, it will be profitable to examine some of the points in greater detail.

4. Contents

Whilst it is necessary that only essential information should be included on the form, it is equally necessary to ensure that nothing essential is omitted. In consequence, in settling what the form should contain a complete list of all probable and possible entries must be made, which can then be pruned so as to leave only the vital minimum. If the preliminary full list is not prepared there is a real danger that something of importance may be omitted.

When examining the contents, the order in which they appear must also be considered. It is sometimes urged that the most important information should appear first, with the other entries going down the form in descending order of importance, and this is, in general, a logical approach. Where material has to be copied from another source it helps accuracy if the form order matches the source order; original material must flow logically.

5. Putting the Questions

Here the designer must have firmly in mind the type of person or persons who will complete the entries, as this will have a distinct bearing upon the manner in which the questions are asked and the style and type of language used: wording understandable to a high-level manager may be incomprehensible to an operative on the workshop floor. Even the style of type may have some effect on understanding and interpretation.

Ambiguity or vagueness should be avoided at all costs. Where instructions have to be given on completing the form, these should be given at the beginning if at all possible. Reference to marginal notes or separate sheets for instructions should be avoided unless this is abso­lutely necessary. Answers should require the very minimum of writing and if questions can be formulated to provide for ‘yes/no’ answers so much the better.

6. Means of Completion

The mode of entry has a very great bearing on the spacing required for answering questions and on the kind of paper used for the form. The following are some guidelines:

Handwritten entries. These may be by pen and ink, ballpoint pen, felt-tipped pen or pencil. A smooth paper is needed for entries in traditional ink and by felt-tipped pens, otherwise the image may tend to spread and become difficult to read. A rougher, and cheaper, paper may be used for the others. Spacing is very important here. The formal calculation for handwriting is an allowance of eight letters to the inch horizontally and four lines to the inch vertically, the actual spaces allowed being based on the expected number of words to be written. Typewritten entries. The material here should be hard-surfaced and reasonably smooth, but not glossy. Bond or bank papers are normally used, the former being the more expensive. Horizontal spacing is usually reckoned as 10 to 12 letters to the inch, depending upon whether the typewriter has pica or elite size type, these being the most popular sizes. However, other type spacings are available which give characters up to 20 to the inch and if this kind of machine is to be used then answer spaces may be designed accordingly. Vertical spacing on typewriters is almost always six lines to the inch whatever the horizontal letter spacing.

Mixed entries. Where entries are to be made by either hand or typewriter, or by both on the same form, then the recommended allowances are eight letters to the inch horizontally and three lines to the inch vertically.

Other machine entries. Where entries are to be made by machines other than typewriters the spacing requirements will follow those set by the equipment concerned.

7. Place of Entry

The chief concern here is the material. A stouter, more crease-resistant paper is needed where forms have to be used under factory or external site conditions than when they are to be used entirely within the office. In the factory they will pick up dirt and grease; on an external site they may be creased and folded and carried about in workers’ pockets, as well as being subjected to damp and, possibly, wet conditions. If the precise circumstances are explained the paper suppliers will give advice on the exact type of paper required to suit any situation.

8. Layout and Other Matters

The layout of the form should be as simple as possible, of neat and uncluttered appearance, and the type style should be clear. Headings should be in capital letters and/or underlined, and the title of the form should be prominent so that it can be easily identified.

It is frequently recommended that entries be made across the page where possible as this reduces the length of the form. This is particularly valuable where entries are to be made by machine, because tabulating across the page is less time-consuming than returning the carriage to the beginning of the line and turning up the paper. However, if this design is adopted the various reply sections should be so laid out that they fall under each other going down the paper, otherwise more time is lost in selecting the entry point than by returning the carriage.

Column headings need particular attention. Wide columns present no problems because it is easy to set the headings horizontally, but narrow columns often have headings set vertically so that it is necessary to turn the form round to read them. In such cases a splayed heading makes reading much easier.

It has already been suggested that writing should be reduced to a minimum and the use of questions requiring ticks or deletions are alternatives that will save time in completing the form.

Where additions or calculations have to be carried out on forms one or two points should be watched to minimise the incidence of mistakes:

  1. Wherever possible figures should be added in vertical columns rather than across the page. Cross-casting is more subject to error than vertical addition.
  2. Where figures have to be subtracted and the order is vertical the amount to be deducted should be beneath the gross figure. If subtraction is required horizontally it seems to be more natural to subtract from right to left.
  3. Where extensions have to be calculated, as on an invoice, the quantity and rate should be adjacent and not divided by narration.
  4. Where items have to be filled in for product and quantity, and the variety is not too great, omissions are avoided by having the item descriptions preprinted. In this case it is essential that all complement­ary forms have the items printed in the same order, otherwise mistakes of transposition are likely.
  5. Where a particular item, especially a figure, has to be picked out from many, speed and accuracy can be assisted by emphasising such items in some way. Two very successful methods are to box round the item with thick lines, or to hatch the space lightly.
  6. Where there are many columns of entries across the page – for example, statistical tabulation – every fifth and sixth row should be divided by a heavy line, lighter lines dividing the other rows. If there are no horizontal rulings a slightly wider space should be left between each fifth and sixth row. This guides the eye across the page and helps prevent it running off to another line of entries.

Finally, the question of paper sizes must be considered. Unless there are very strong grounds for doing otherwise, forms should be designed for standard paper sizes. Non-standard formats mean cutting paper to waste and extra cost, as well as leading to possible filing difficulties.

9. Forms for Export

What has been written in this chapter is applicable to the design of any kind of form, from the simplest to the most complicated. However, organisations engaged in export face a special problem in that forms for this purpose are both many in number and detailed in content. Efforts have been made, therefore, to simplify the documents concerned. This has been done under the auspices of the Simplification of International Trade Procedures Board, more commonly referred to as SITPRO.

Any undertaking engaged in international trade is recommended to obtain SITPRO’s booklet entitled Systematic Export Documentation in which will be found specimens of forms for all export procedures, together with a great deal of technical advice on their production and use.

10. Control of Forms

Apart from the actual design of the forms, their issue, make-up and availability should also be a fixed responsibility and not left, as so often is the case, to heads of departments or supervisors. The job of forms control can be amalgamated with that of designer or may be separate, depending upon the size of the organisation. Where the functions are separate there is no doubt that the final authority should rest with the controller (by whatever title this position is called). The main responsi­bilities of the controller will be to control the publication of forms and to ensure their most economical use, and to minimise the costs of produc­tion.

Under the heading of publication there will be the responsibility to make sure that unnecessary forms are not produced and that a form will be used only where needed. Duplication of forms in different depart­ments will be avoided and forms will be circulated only to those who need them either for entry or for interpretation. To ensure efficiency in publication the controller will need to be aware of the office procedures as practised in the organisation and will need to know the purpose to which each copy of each form is put.

In order to avoid duplicating and to identify each form, the controller will give each form a code number and maintain a file holding a copy of each and every form used throughout the organisation. Repeat orders for forms from users should then be accepted only against the identifying code numbers. If the number of forms is very large it may be helpful for two files to be kept, one in code order and one by form title.

Cost control embraces not only economy in use but also economy in the actual production of forms. Economy in use is achieved by ensuring that the number of entries are made in the quickest manner and that they can be read in the quickest way – the main features of good form design. Economy in production requires examination of paper and printing costs, and needs some knowledge of the different methods of production. These can range from printing by outside printers, through offset litho duplication, stencil duplication or spirit duplication in the office itself.

Finally, the controller will institute a periodic review of all the forms in use. Circumstances alter over the course of time and occasionally it will be found that a form and the information it calls for have become redundant, even though the form is still being completed and circulated. If a periodic review is carried out such cases will come to light and can be remedied.

Source: Eyre E. C. (1989), Office Administration, Palgrave Macmillan.

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