They’ve got form

Inland Revenue formThe ‘Designing information for everyday life’ team write:

The official form – in the literal senses of ‘a set order of words’, ‘a formal procedure’, and ‘a document designed to elicit information’ – remains a void in design history. There exists no account of the development of this neglected genre of information artefact.

This month at ‘Writing design’, the Design History Society’s annual conference, Paul Stiff convened a panel on ‘Designing and reading forms of discourse’ at which he and his colleagues Paul Dobraszczyk and Mike Esbester gave a sequence of three talks on the official form, arising from their work on the AHRC-funded project, ‘Designing information for everyday life, 1815–1914’.

Why is this work of interest to design historians, information designers, and people working in applied language studies? Because forms instantiate the earliest type of what came in the late 20th century to be called interaction design. They give concrete shape and particularity to the abstractions of ‘discourse’. They offer the prospect of insight into modes of (anonymous) designing before designers. And they promise the possibility of richer conceptions than are currently usual of historic users of design, readers who were required to respond with acts of compliance but who misunderstood, committed errors, stubbornly made refusals, and routinely transgressed the boundaries of the question field inscribed by the official mind.