An Office Life 4: Form Design


Form Design (by hand)

One of the main issues in running a manual reporting system was form design. While at school, I’d taken price in my mathematical, logical approach to… well things. The thing is, this wasn’t adequate preparation for work, and particularly for the self-reliant aspects of office work. This, as will be seen, quickly circles back to form design. To return to pride, principle part of this lay in my ability to do not only mental arithmetic, but to set the necessary cross checks and sub-totals in such a way that I was certain my manual computations held no errors. What was less desirable was the tiny space afforded by the Foolscap¹ production reports where, inevitably, space was at a premium – after all, it had at least 11 (sometimes 12) columns, and a minimum of 50 rows.²
Then the lines weren’t exactly at right angles, so the little space you wrote in would decrease or increase, depending on how the form design had gone. Yet when my boss offered me the chance to improve things, I realised just how difficult it was to get a good design onto the wax masters. The problem was this: a touch, any touch such as an elbow, or the footprint of the industrial sized desk calculator could transfer the coloured wax from the underside onto the second copy; then hey-presto, you botched up the design. And as for drawing lines: well it was firstly necessary to clear the desk – any obstruction would mean removing pen and ruler and once you did that, it was guaranteed that recommencing that line would mean an amateurish finish Rack of the eye guesswork meant sub-par reports which wasn’t good enough. On the other hand it was essential to use as much of the paper as possible, while ensuring the forms were clear, regular in shape and lines didn’t stray outside.
Now this was an area where the General Office might help (we had one of them) run by Margaret Calvert with Denise as assistant, or even the typing pool: Julie, Gail and Pauline Wilde (who also ran the switchboard / works tannoy³). Typewriters were precision machines and delivered a much more professional result than hand-written but there were several problems here. The General Office did ad hoc typing, internal mail, post and other duties – work such as mine mustn’t interfere with the smooth running of that department – my view of smooth running was jaundiced by being aware of the amount of time spent on gossip – the Work Study office door was within 20 feet of the General Office door. The one time I once managed to get the General Office to complete the wax masters, the result was a disaster – the production report ran onto two pages – it was a mess. Typewriter spacing was the comment.
The typists’ pool was a different kettle of fish – here rank came into play – as one of the lowest paid staff with the unimpressive title of Work Study Assistant, I ranked slightly lower than a slug’s belly – and then they had a queue of several days for typing which somehow never seemed to clear – certainly not as far as I was concerned. Yet the very few times I put work through them, the result was neat and professional… but on the whole I stuck to my own designs. My powers of persuasion were little better than a gnat’s, and as far was sweet-talking went, that was just another blank in my armoury of social skills.
My technique involved a clear desk and resolving not to answer the internal phone.
Then begin by marking the line positions on the edge of the paper with a soft pencil;
Draw the borders of the table – the report was essentially a table that just fit in Foolscap – this was the most challenging as 12″ rulers didn’t fit Foolscap too well (the return of rack of eye!)
Finally draw the table innards and (usually) hand write the headings. With experience I improved the design to incorporate double lines, separate sub total boxes and the like (and as you do I acquired a book on design principles for corporate reporting)
I mocked up a sample (as you do). Pretty simple on Excel. Back then there was no Excel, or even Supercalc. Visicalc – the ancestor of Lotus 123 ran on the Mac – came out in 1979. A Mac? In Newmarket Street, Colne, Lancashire? Spreadsheets? That was a couple of recessions off, and even then, that was by Amstrad. Who remembers Amstrad PCs?

Mock up for daily production sheet (as used on three shift work, Bell Woven)

Mock up for daily production sheet (as used on three shift work, Bell Woven) – this benefits from WYSIWYG (remember that?) having said which rigid cell structure + textwrap can play hell with your design

Work process taking you from Picks + stopped time cards to production record.

Work process taking you from Picks + stopped time cards to production record.

¹ Also noting that Foolscap was slightly longer (and narrower) than A4
² Why didn’t I print one from my desktop computer onto a printer, you might ask? The answer is desktop computers were 10 years off (and when they came they set the purchasing business back the best part of at least £2,000 for a primitive tech-spec)
³ The tannoy had to be heard over the looms in the weaving shed – noise levels in spots could peak at over 90 dB so an announcement to, say the Managing Director – who could be on walkabout in the factory – that an important client was waiting on the line, needed a bit of umph to be heard over the general mechanical clatter of looms. Pauline was well up to this – she belted out tannoy announcements so fiercely, it felt like a reprimand. You made good time to the nearest internal phone. Pauline Wilde had respect.

About Terence Park

Board games, US Comic books, SF Paperbacks, Vinyl records; I've plenty of them all. I write SF (the serious sort). I also do spreadsheets.
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