Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

A crop of newly reimagined government forms beautify and clarify the documents that define us (as far as the government is concerned, at least). But should we be thinking harder about how these forms function, alongside how they look?

Earlier this month, a London design agency called I Want Design introduced a new concept for the birth certificate at the behest of Icon Magazine. The purpose? To imagine government forms as “living documents” that remain interesting long after the paper certificate is locked away in a safety deposit box. The revamped certificate is a beauty, full of extras like the baby’s name etymology and star sign, which is goofy and fun.

The certificate also comes with a dynamic digital version, readily accessible across devices. “We agreed on a traditional hard copy, but one that paints a bigger picture of a person and when they were born,” the studio tells Icon. “This could be accompanied by a dynamic digital file that could expand on this content.” It's amazing we've yet to see birth certificates go digital—it likely has something to do with security issues. This concept wouldn't change much about how the hard copy functions (that'll always be controlled by the government), but it's nice to imagine a digital version that functions almost like a birth announcement.

Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

Then, last week, another theoretical redesign made its way across the Internet, just as most of us were wondering where our tax returns are. FormNation LLC, a New York-based design studio, unveiled a lovely little concept for a new breed of IRS forms, including the 1040 to the W9. The new forms use color to pull out the essential information, while the details fade into smaller type at the bottom of the page.

Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

“The current US tax forms, and most forms we encounter at a government level like banks, have a severe lack of visual navigation,” Jan Habraken, the founder of the studio, told me over email. “The specific design changes we propose aim to lead the eye through the form. Our redesign is the first of what we hope will be many redesigns [where] we can show how design can improve those everyday activities and make the problems less painful.” The IRS updates its forms from time to time, but rarely to change something aesthetic. The truth is, most of us rarely read our tax forms directly, except to look them over after an accountant or a tax prep company has done the dirty work. Would these friendlier versions spur more of us to do our own taxes? It's hard to say. Habraken, for his part, is hoping to meet with the IRS to discuss possible implementation.

Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

It’s wonderful that designers are focusing in on large-scale problems that affect entire populations. At the same time, it’d be interesting to see them take on more complex problems surrounding bureaucracy itself. Personally, I’m not sure how I’d go about accessing my birth certificate, or even my tax forms, from the federal or state government. It’d probably involve a lot of uninformed Googling. In hand, the forms are clear enough—but getting ahold of them? Not so much.

One example of a theoretical redesign that rethinks both aesthetics and the functionality? The Health Design Challenge, a recent competition to redesign the Electronic Medical Record (the digital file that documents your doctor’s visits and conditions). The winning designs all focus on improving how patients understand and leverage their EMRs. Take the one below, for example: patients and their adult children can use it to schedule medication dosages and predict drug interactions. Three of the winning designs are now being developed into a single concept, which will be tested by millions of patients at Veterans’ Affairs hospitals.

Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

Fortunately, there are some big brains that have already made significant progress in using razor-sharp design to cut through bureaucratic red tape. Just a few weeks ago, London’s Design Museum made an interesting choice when they crowned a simple government website Design of the Year 2013. Their reasoning? The straightforward, aesthetically unassuming site collected every necessary government form in one place. It may not have looked “design-y,” but it was a remarkable piece of design.

Form(s) vs Function: Making Official Docs Look Better--And Work Harder

In the same sense, it'd be great to see a designer take on a theoretical redesign of the online infrastructure for accessing government documents like birth certificates and tax records. There’s definitely no harm in rethinking the clarity of the documents, but it’s also worth asking: is it the form that’s broken, or the function?