Tabulate This

This is a rant about people who don’t know how to create easy to use document templates and forms. These people make my life difficult, and must be punished.There is a certain class of individual in the business world who spend their days creating new and interesting ways to write document templates. These people seem to have no background in writing or graphic design, or even operations, and yet they continue to insist that other people create documents following the exact format they’ve specified.

Usually they are well meaning folks, but they have a bit of a chip on their shoulder about people not doing as they’re told. I used to be guilty of this, but I learned that people will fail to follow process no matter what you do. The solution is to make it hard to get things wrong, or make it fatal and let evolution do its thing. The misguided way of making it hard to fail is to lock everything down so that you can’t do anything outside the constraints of the system.

The drawback to this approach is that the person designing the form has to think of everything, and from the document templates I’ve seen inside most large corporates, these people have no idea what they’re doing. When I compare and contrast the work done my qualified graphic designers (I happen to have quite a few as friends, which is handy) to that done by these self-important weenies, the difference is striking.

Well designed templates and forms are easy to use. It’s obvious what needs to go in each space, what sort of information is required. Usually the forms that large corporates provide to their external customers (credit card application forms, paying a bill online, eBay, Google) are clean and simple, even if they need to be filled in with a lot of information, or complex information. The documents used internally (so-called Human Resources forms are a classic) are usually created by a completely different set of people who have no training and little experience in this kind of thing. The results, universally, suck.

The best part of it is that as an internal person, there’s no incentive for the company to change. If you complain, so what? It’s not like you’re going to go and buy someone else’s product, is it? There’s no direct feedback to the company to correct their poor behaviour in language they understand: money or lawsuits. It’s much more insidious. The lost productivity in having to spend several days working out how to fill in your performance review paperwork could have been spent getting more work done that customers would actually pay for, or at least reduce administrative overhead, i.e. cost, which comes straight off the bottom line.

And I reckon that’s the way to get the company’s attention. As a contractor, I have a direct measure of what my time is worth: my daily or hourly rate. It’s easy enough to convert a permie salary to a rate as well. If you don’t have to track your time in lawyer like increments already (timesheets! Another classic of poorly designed document mayhem!), make little notes about how much time you’ve spent figuring out how to fill in an internal form correctly. Compare your times to others. If you’re all much the same, then you can be assured that it’s not just because you’re a colossal thicko but that the culprit is probably a poorly designed form. I’m not even going to get started on people’s choices of fonts and colours.

Here are some hints. If you find yourself committing any one of these heinous sins, you don’t know enough about document design and should stop immediately. Find someone who does, or learn about it yourself. Anytime you find yourself thinking “How hard could it be?”, it’s a lot harder than you think.


  • Use more than 2 fonts in a document. One for headings, one for text. Unless you know why you’re using more, and can prove that it’s a good idea to someone else who really does know, you’re wrong.
  • Use fun or interesting fonts for documents because you think they look fun or interesting.
  • Use more than 2 colours, for exactly the same reasons. This is even more difficult to understand, so you’re even more likely to be wrong.
  • Put anything in a table if it has more than a single paragraph. Use sections with sub-headings or lists if you can. Tables should be reserved for actual tabular data. If you’re using it to control layout, stop, close your word processor and go read a book on document design before you cause any more damage.
  • You scoff at any of this and don’t have “graphic designer” in your job title.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get back to trying to work out what Actualise Situational Accountability means in English.

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