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One of the most famous edicts in design emphatically declares that “form follows function.” It originated with an architect, Louis Sullivan, but it applies as much to graphic design as to architecture. Graphic designers fail to heed it at their peril.
This is especially true for forms themselves (and yes, we love that play on words). Forms that people have to fill out – to apply for a job, register for an event, make a donation, etc. – must be designed for ease of use.
This applies to both print forms and digital online forms, which provide greater flexibility with expandable windows and pull-down menus.
Take special care when designing a printed form that will be filled out by hand:
- DON’T assume anything is “self-evident” to the user. Include a title and instructions at the top, explaining the goal of the form and how it should be filled out.
- DO leave adequate space for the user to write legibly, rather than scrunch down a long email address, making it unreadable.
- DO group related questions together to give the form a logical flow.
- DO use boxes or color areas to visually separate categories of information.
- DON’T try to cram your form onto one page. If there are too many questions to fit comfortably, expand the form to multiple pages.
Where did that quote come from?
When Louis Sullivan famously said “form follows function,” the phrase became the battle cry of modernist architects who felt that “ornament” and decorative elements were superfluous in modern buildings. The quote came from the 1896 article “The Tall Office Building Artistically Considered,” which was poetic as well as visionary:
Whether it be the sweeping eagle in his flight, or the open apple-blossom, the toiling work-horse, the blithe swan, the branching oak, the winding stream at its base, the drifting clouds, over all the coursing sun, form ever follows function, and this is the law. … It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul.