Years ago (sorry, I mean decades ago), I obtained a degree in Fine Arts. It was a great time, surrounded by creative, expressive people. But the Art world has more than its share of snobs. I remember one professor describing the misery of his military service, where he was reduced to making “manipulation drawings.” These are drawings of human hands performing some task, such as the disassembly of a complex piece of equipment, used to illustrate instruction manuals. I guess it never occurred to him that drawing for the Army was pretty soft duty, considering that most of his comrades were slogging through the mud in Korea while people shot at them. I vowed never to turn my nose up at such work.
At one point in my career, I made lots of manipulation drawings, and I loved doing it. Most of the commercial artists I met felt it was beneath them, but I took pride in making clear, well-rendered illustrations that would easily communicate a tricky procedure.
Over the years, I’ve been fascinated by the lack of quality I see in such illustrations. It must be difficult to find someone who enjoys it enough to do a good job. I remember one occasion where someone had purchased a small “party keg” of beer. The instructions for tapping it were rendered without words in the form of a series of manipulation drawings embossed on the lid. The hands in the illustrations were so poorly drawn that they didn’t resemble human hands. I wondered if we needed to find a gorilla to tap the keg.
The same issues occur with common forms. Everybody has to fill out forms - forms for work, forms for government agencies, forms for health care providers, forms for school, etc. But when was the last time you saw a clear, well-designed form?
I’ve always enjoyed designing forms, especially those that require a complicated set of optional or condition-dependent information. But in real life, I find that the people who design most forms invest very little brainpower to make the form easy to use.
My new employer just dumped a pile of forms on my desk that have to be completed tomorrow. The health care coverage form asked me to provide the code of my primary care physician, which could be obtained from their Web site. But the Web site requires me to be enrolled before I can use it. I went to HR to clear up this chicken-and-egg problem, only to be told “Oh, you don’t need to fill out that part of the form.” OK, so why is it here?
That same form asked me for my coverage dates. Well, I can tell them when I want coverage to start, but how the hell am I supposed to know when it will end?
The 401(k) form required me to specify the distribution of my contribution among 10 potential mutual funds. But it didn’t provide a way to compare them, and it didn’t give me the stock symbols so I could look them up. Perhaps they should have been provided in the form of a dartboard.
The dental coverage form asked me to check a box indicating whether I wanted “Dental” coverage or “Voluntary Dental” coverage. No explanation was provided to define these terms. I had no idea there was such a thing as involuntary dental coverage, but I checked the “Dental” box anyway. I hope it doesn’t mean they’ll strap me to a chair against my will and give me Regis Philbin teeth.