1530.0 - ABS Forms Design Standards Manual, 2010  
ARCHIVED ISSUE Released at 11:30 AM (CANBERRA TIME) 25/01/2010  First Issue
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While aspects of these standards will be of interest to those outside the ABS, they were developed for internal use. As such, some information contained in these standards will not be applicable to an external audience. ABS staff should refer to the Corporate Manuals database for the most recent version of these documents, as some details (names, phone numbers etc.) have been removed from the online version.



Typography is the art of organising the printed word on a page. To use typographic contrast effectively, it is essential to use it in a consistent and controlled way. The terms and their application in this standard are explained below.

The controlled use of type faces is an important aid to guiding a respondent through the form. The basic rule is this: whatever type family you use for the questions on the form, use the other for parts of the form set aside for other purposes. If using Verdana for the questions, use Times for administrative functions such as 'Office Use' boxes. Respondents tend to recognise patterns within forms subconsciously, and will follow them.
Upper-case vs leading capitals

Upper-case text has been proved to be difficult to read, especially for large amounts of text. The reason for this is that words lose their shapes, all becoming converted to rectangles. This can be seen in the paragraph below.


The words lose their distinctive shapes and so take longer to recognise, thus reading is made more difficult. This adds to respondent fatigue and is likely to create response problems. Therefore you should set text in lower case, using capitals for the start of key words in form titles, the first letters of sentences, section headings and captions. You can also use capitals for the first letter of appropriate names, titles, and abbreviations. Do not set whole words in capitals.
Underlining words

Underlining also interferes with the ability of people to use the shape of a word to assist reading, though not as badly as using upper-case. Only the underlining of key words has been permitted on ABS forms, and only when emphasis is essential for data quality. Even this limited use is now discouraged due to the recently emerged standard in electronic documents. Electronic documents use underlining to indicate a hypertext link. The ABS has begun to develop electronic forms and using different methods of emphasis in the electronic version of a form compared to the paper form is undesirable. It is therefore recommended that ABS forms use the other methods of emphasis detailed below rather than underlining.
Alignment of type (justification)

Columns of text can be aligned on a page so that they have a straight edge on the left, on the right or on both the left and right. Text can also be arranged so that all lines are set about a mid point. The process of aligning text is called justifying. For research on justification, see for example Wheildon (1990).

Text is fully justified when the columns of text align to both left and right margins. In order to make the lines of equal length the spacing between words is adjusted or long words at the end of lines are hyphenated. The word spacing used in fully justified text can create an untidy (and difficult to read) arrangement of words and spaces in small blocks of text, as in the example below (see Diagram 5.1), making this alignment of type unsuitable for most of the text of ABS forms but suitable for the front page.

Diagram 5.1
Text is left aligned (justified) right ragged when only the left margin follows a straight line. Word spacing remains constant, the right margin remains ragged, and the line finishes at the word break closest to the maximum line width, as in Diagram 5.2.

Diagram 5.2

Left justified text is preferred for most parts of ABS forms. Line length can be adjusted to suit available space and it is possible to avoid awkward breaks in phrases and sentences which poor readers find particularly difficult. If text is fully justified (as mentioned above), awkward hyphenation and word spacing are often necessary to fill up a line, making reading difficult.

Text set left aligned right ragged, with eye guides, is required on ABS forms for response options that have captions of about four words or more (see Diagram 5.3).

Diagram 5.3
Eye-guides consist of an irregular dotted line to avoid any confusion with the regular dotted lines used in answer spaces.

Text is right aligned (justified) left ragged when only the right margin follows a straight line. Word spacing remains constant, the left margin remains ragged, and the line begins at the word break nearest to the maximum line width, as in Diagram 5.4.

Diagram 5.4
If the form contains a large number of tick boxes in a vertical row, preceded by short captions, these should be right aligned, with 3 mm between the captions and the answer boxes (see Diagram 5.5).

Diagram 5.5
Text is centred (or centre justified), when each line is centred about a mid point. The length of each line is independent as in Diagram 5.6. Centre justification is used on ABS forms for elements such the "Please read this first" instruction heading.

Diagram 5.6
Which ever alignment of captions is used on a form, it is preferable that it be applied consistently, rather than having a mixture of methods on the one form. However it is not necessary that all answer boxes in the one form are aligned with each other, some may be arranged further in than the page margins for readability and so on. It is recommended that the answer boxes for similar types of caption are aligned throughout a form so that for example, all the financial items line up and all the no/yes options line up. This graphical presentation helps inform the respondent what kind of response they need to give.
Line length of text

One of the most important principles when laying out the form is to keep line lengths short. Eyes have a clear focused range of only a few degrees. This means that it takes several eyeball movements to scan a line of text.

More than two or three such movements may lead to eye fatigue. There is a subsequent tendency for people to lose track of which line they are reading. This leads to backtracking through the text, or misinterpretation.

With a 10 to 12 point text, a suitable line length is about 110 mm, and should not exceed 115 mm. On ABS forms this includes questions, headings, text within notes boxes, all use of text. No line of text should exceed 115mm.

When shortening a text block to fit within the maximum recommended line length, be aware of awkward sentence breaks, e.g. do not break a date (25 December 2004) over two lines and avoid having only one word on a new line.

In questions, always allow the top line to overhang a bottom line. This prevents a poor reader from skipping from the end of the first line to the end of the second without reading the intervening words.

For ABS collection forms you can use one of two typeface families, Times or Verdana (see Diagram 5.7.1).

Diagram 5.7.1

You should never mix them together on the same form, except as directed below. These typefaces have been selected because of their legibility and general availability. Times is a serif face, Verdana is a sans serif (without serifs) face. The serifs are the little curls at the extremities of letters. In general, large slabs of text are more readable when set in serif faces. However, for short lines of text, such as those typically found on forms, Verdana is more legible.

Use either Verdana or Times on forms with simple questions and notes. Use Times on forms with long explanations or notes because Verdana is not suitable for long passages of prose. Whichever typeface family you choose for the respondents, use the alternative face for data entry or processing codes and 'Office Use' boxes.
Form titles

Use 36 point bold for forms with short titles (see Diagram 5.7.2). If you do not have enough space for the title on one line use 24 point bold (see Diagram 5.8).

Diagram 5.7.2

Diagram 5.8.
Form sub-titles

If you still haven't enough room for the title on one line, then your title is probably too long and should be shortened or shown as a heading followed by a sub-title. When used, sub-titles should be in 18 point bold type (see Diagram 5.9).

Diagram 5.9
Section headings

When used, section headings should be in 14 point bold (see Diagram 5.10).

Diagram 5.10
Sub-section headings

Sub-section headings should be in 14 point plain (see Diagram 5.11). As these can be lost within the question text, they should only be used when necessary and should be reasonably long, preferably more than one word.

Diagram 5.11

Set main questions in 12 point bold. Where key words require greater emphasis or contrast, bold italics may be used. Alternatively type size can be increased by 2 points. (see change Diagram 5.12). This kind of emphasis should only be used for one or two words in a question or the reduction in readability is counter-productive to the aim of emphasising the words.

Diagram 5.12

Sub-questions (subsidiary questions) should use 12 point plain type, aligned to the same grid line as the question text. Sub-sub-questions use 12 point plain type and are indented to the next grid line. Sub-sub-sub-questions should use 12 point plain type and are indented to the same grid line as sub-sub-questions, with the text placed after an 'n' dash (see Diagram 5.13).

Diagram 5.13
Question numbers

Question numbers should be set in 14 point bold, with the first digit of a two digit question number left aligned to the first grid line and single digit numbers sitting one letter space to the right of the first grid line (see Diagram 5.14).

Diagram 5.14
Major notes at beginning and end of form

Any 'general notes' for respondents before the questions begin, should be larger than the remainder of notes on the form. For forms printed in colour, these instructions should be set in 12 point plain type, placed in a 10% screened box drawn with a 2 point white line. For forms printed in black and white, use 12 point plain type placed in a box drawn with a 0.5 point black line. This layout gives greater impact to general notes, while maintaining the graphical standards used for all other notes throughout the form. Add 'Please read this first' in 18 point bold as a general instruction heading above the general instruction, centred inside the top of the instruction box at the top of the page (see Diagram 5.15).

Diagram 5.15

Major notes at the completion of the form e.g. instructions on return procedures, should follow the same style (described above), with an appropriate heading.
Column headings in a matrix

For colour forms, matrix headings should be set in 10 point plain type, centred above the column(s) they refer to. Headings should be placed in a 10% screened box, drawn with a 2 point white line. One point white lines should also be used to separate the sub-headings between columns (see Diagram 5.16).

Diagram 5.16

For black and white forms, matrix headings should be set in 10 point plain type, centred above the column(s) they refer to. Headings should be placed in a box, drawn with a 0.5 point black line (see Diagram 5.17).

Diagram 5.17

The text of each matrix heading should be short and never contain more words than the actual question text.
Instructions, explanations and notes within questions

For forms printed in colour, the 'Including', 'Excluding' and 'Note' headings should be set in 10 point bold italics type, the bullet in 10 point plain and text of the instruction in 10 point plain, placed in a box filled with a 10% screen and drawn with a 2 point white line (see Diagram 5.18).

Diagram 5.18

Forms printed in black and white use the same type styles, with instructions placed in a box drawn with a 0.5 point black line, without a 10% screen (see Diagram 5.19).

Diagram 5.19
Includes for excludes

Where an item listed as an excluding is to be recorded at another place on the form, an instruction can be added in brackets to indicate where the item should be included (see Diagram 5.20). "Include in Question xx"" as shown should be used when all of the data related to that item should be included in that question. In other cases, where the respondent will need to read the instructions for the other question, "See Question xx" may be more appropriate.

Diagram 5.20
Instruction vs questions

Instructions and questions are displayed using two different graphic standards (i.e. 10 point plain type in a 10% screened box, and 12 point bold type respectively). Often, however, when using 'abbreviated questions' more information is added which could either be interpreted as part of the question, or as an instruction. The extra words may be procedural information e.g. "Total (sum of Questions xx to xx)", or a single include or example, or a short definition and so on. Where additional words follow the question they should be in 12 point plain type in brackets immediately after the question (see Diagram 5.21). Long questions should be broken up in this fashion as it is more readable than several lines of bold text.

Diagram 5.21
Bullets: Bullets (dot points) should be the same size as the text they accompany, e.g. bullets in a list of 'Includes' should be 10 point. Bullets should be left aligned under the beginning of the heading text.

Punctuation: Instructions presented as 'Notes' on a form, should be written as complete sentences, with full stops being used. However, 'Includes' and 'Excludes' are presented as lists and should not use full stops. Only simple punctuation should be used on ABS forms.

Hyphens and 'en' dashes: A hyphen is correctly used only within a word-break, whereas an 'en' () dash is slightly larger and more correctly used for graphic purposes such as in forms design. For indented lines of text such as presenting sub-sub-sub-questions, an 'en' () dash should be used.

Use of Latin and abbreviations: Latin abbreviations such as 'i.e.', 'e.g.' and 'etc.' should only be used where there is insufficient space for the complete words 'that is' and 'for example' or where you are confident that they are commonly understood. Where abbreviations are used, full stops should be included as shown in the preceding examples. Latin terms such as "ad hoc" should always be italicised. Similar to abbreviations, the use of symbols as short forms of words should be avoided unless well understood by respondents.
Data entry or processing codes

On forms using Times, use 9 point Verdana for all processing codes; on forms with Verdana, use 9 point Times. Whichever font you use plain, italics, bold or bold italics do so consistently so that the same function is always represented in the same font (see Diagram 5.22). It is preferable that data entry codes are printed in drop-out colour so they are less obvious to respondents.

Diagram 5.22

Data entry codes can also use 9 point Verdana bold type, reversed out of a solid rectangle (see Diagram 5.23). When using this method, use Verdana regardless of which font you use for the rest of the form. The advantage of using this method is that readers tend to overlook areas of reverse type, yet it is easily recognised during data capture. Data entry codes are placed to the right hand side of answer boxes for the same reason.

Diagram 5.23
Office use only box

Where an office use box is used it should not stand out from the background screen (shading) on coloured forms, i.e. it should not use white answer spaces but should be 'clear' filled and shown in the background only (see Diagram 5.24). The lines of the boxes themselves should be in solid background colour. The text should be 9 point or less.

Diagram 5.24
Form ID

The form identification should be 14 point bold, and placed on the top right hand corner of the front page, at least 6mm below the 10mm top page margin.

Diagram 5.25
Page number

Page numbers should be set in 12 point plain, to be centred on the top of each page except the front page, with the top of the number 5 mm above the 10mm text and line boundary. Blank pages, such as at the end of a form, should still have page numbers and for scanning purposes may need numbers at both the top and bottom of the page.
Questions continue

Where a note is required to tell respondents that 'Questions continue over the page', this instruction should be in 14 point bold type (see Diagram 5.26) in the bottom right hand corner of the page.

Diagram 5.26

Where a section or question continues over more than one page (or column), the text of the heading or question may be repeated at the top of the new page (or column), followed by an 'en' dash and '(continued)' (see Diagram 5.27). The word 'continued' should use the following standard:
  • same type size as the text being repeated,
  • italic type style,
  • brackets in italic type, and
  • lower case type.

Diagram 5.27
Thank you for completing this form

Where a form has sufficient space for a note to thank respondents, this instruction should be set in 14 point bold type and centred at the end of the form (see Diagram 5.28).

Diagram 5.28

Do not put the "end" of a form anywhere other than the last page. Even if sequencing means that certain respondents answer fewer questions than others, do not put a "Thank you for completing this form" instruction anywhere within the body of the form. Sequence those respondents to the physical end of the form, assigning a question number to the "Thank you" if necessary. Having an early "end" within the form encourages respondents to give the responses that allow them to answer fewer questions.
Respondent comments

It is required that comments from the respondent are requested at the end of ABS business forms, as the second last question. It is recommended that the question shown in Diagram 5.29 be used, or see the section on Optical Character Recognition(OCR forms). This question should be set in 12 point bold and followed by as much space is considered adequate. This allows respondents to provide information on the three different aspects. This wording may be tailored depending on collection specific needs, in addition to general comments on the form. The question may be used to ask specifically about data, such as changes since last quarter, but it is preferred that such issues are asked about separately where space allows.

Diagram 5.29
Time taken

The question asking for an estimate of the time taken to complete a form is also a required element in ABS business forms. This should be the last question in the form. The following wording should be used: "Please provide an estimate of the time taken to complete this form" (see Diagram 5.30).

An instruction box should provide the following text:
        • The time actually spent reading the instructions, working on the questions and obtaining the information
        • The time spent by all employees in collecting and providing this information"

A single answer box should contain the captions 'hrs' and 'mins' set in 12 point plain. Separate boxes for hours and minutes with their captions to the right of each box is also acceptable.

Diagram 5.30
Go to

'Go to' instructions can be presented in two ways. The entire text of a 'Go to' instruction can be in 12 point plain type followed by the question number only in 14 point bold type (see Diagram 5.31). Alternatively, the word 'question' in 12 point plain can be replaced by an upper case 'Q' in 14 point bold type (see Diagram 5.32).

Diagram 5.31

Diagram 5.32
A 'Go to' instruction should only be included where the respondent is asked to 'skip over' the following question. An instruction is not required to tell the respondent to go to the next question as respondents will automatically go on if not told to do anything else. It is preferred that any unnecessary elements on a form be avoided. Be careful when placing a sequencing instruction towards the bottom of a page as the respondent may not see it.

Where a respondent is asked to go to a particular 'Section' or 'Part' of a form, the 'Go to' instruction should include the section or part number (or letter) as it appears on the form. This method of sequencing will generally be needed if it is important the respondent reads the section title and any section-specific notes before starting the next question. The text of a 'Go to' instruction should be in 12 point plain type followed by the heading 'Section 9' or 'Part 9' in 14 point bold type (see Diagram 5.33). See also 'Filter Questions' and 'Use of sections or parts' in Chapter 6.

Diagram 5.33
When more than one answer option in a question requires respondents to make the same skip, the 'Go to' instruction should not be presented twice. In the case of a yes/no question a larger arrow that joins the answer boxes may be used to point to a single instruction (see Diagram 5.34). Alternatively the instruction may be presented beneath the answers, by itself or with an arrow head at the beginning of the text (e.g. see Diagram 5.35).

Diagram 5.34

Diagram 5.35
Arrow head

A standard arrow head is used for locating instructions placed around the address box and 'No/Yes' instructions. This standardises ABS forms to a single style of arrow (see Diagram 5.36).

Diagram 5.36
Wording in Address box

Wording for duplicate forms is 'Duplicate Please keep this copy for your records' which is displayed in the address box in 24 point bold for 'Duplicate', 18 point bold for 'Please keep this copy for your records'. Both text should be in 10% black shading and centred within the address box (see Diagram 5.36 above).

The range of typeface sizes and fonts given above have been carefully selected to give you a set of clear and unambiguous rules for representing the different features of each form. If you follow these rules consistently, respondents will be able to more readily discriminate between the various kinds of information on the form.
  • Wheildon, Colin (1990) Communicating or just making pretty shapes: A study of the validity- or otherwise- of some elements of typographic design Newspaper Advertising Bureau of Australia Ltd, Sydney.

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