Paper forms design standards: Typography

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ABS Forms Design Standards
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Consistent and controlled use of fonts help respondents easily distinguish between the various elements of a form. For example, survey questions versus data entry codes. 

Follow the guidelines in this chapter to select appropriate fonts for your survey form. Refer to additional resources for more information about typography.

Note: The styles mentioned in this chapter are what we use for our surveys. Other survey organisations may use different styles that reflect their context.

Underline words sparingly

Only underline key words where emphasis is essential for data quality.

Avoid underlining words unnecessarily because it interferes with the readability both for average people and also for those with reading disabilities like dyslexia. Underlines disrupt letters that extend below the baseline (letters such as p, q, y, and g) which can make it harder for people to read your text, especially if long phrases or sentences are underlined.

Underlining for emphasis is generally unsuitable for multi-modal surveys. Underlining typically denotes a hyperlink in web forms so is not recommended for emphasis. The paper form equivalent should use the same method of emphasis for consistency.

Use other methods in this chapter for emphasis rather than underlining (see 'Questions'). 

Keep lines of text short

Keep line lengths short so respondents are not required to move their eyes too much. People can lose track of which words they are reading and misinterpret the text or have to spend time backtracking through the form.

Line length on forms include questions, headings, text within notes boxes and all other text.

Aim to keep line length to about 110mm when using a 10 to 12-point text.

No line of text should exceed 115mm.

Avoid awkward sentence breaks over two lines when shortening a text block to fit within the maximum recommended line length (e.g. do not break a date over two lines).

Avoid having only one word on a new line when adjusting text to keep line length short.

Ensure the top line overhangs the bottom line for questions on more than one line. This prevents people jumping from the end of the first line to the end of the second without reading the words in between.

Make passwords easy to understand

Online form access details such as passwords can be included directly on paper forms. Encourage online form uptake by ensuring that respondents can read and transcribe this on their first attempt.

Use 14-point bold type for printed form access details.

Select a font where each character is clearly distinguishable. For example, Consolas has a line through the zeros distinguishing them from the letter 'O'. 

Break a long string of numbers or letters into clusters of three to four characters.

Use spaces between clusters rather than hyphens or dashes.

Do not use zero as the first numeral for a string of numbers.

Do not use vowels, zero, 1, or lower-case L in passwords.

Do not use the same letter or number three or more times in a row (e.g. 'ccc' or '333').   

Do not use capital letters.

Use one font for each part of a form

We use both serif and san serif fonts in ABS paper forms. Serif refers to the small lines at the end of strokes within letters.

  • Serif fonts are traditionally considered the most accessible for long-form printed content like newspapers and novels. 
  • Sans serif (without serif) fonts are considered the most accessible for digital content due to simple, clean letterforms.

You can use one font for questions and another for other parts of the form. This creates recognisable patterns that respondents will follow. For example, whichever font is used for questions, you can use an alternative font for data entry or processing codes. 

Use appropriate fonts for each form element consistently

Form titles

Use 36 point bold for forms with short titles (Diagram 1).  

Short title typography

Diagram 1

When the title is too long, use 24 point bold to ensure it fits on one line (Diagram 2).   

Long title typography

Diagram 2

Shorten your title if it does not fit on one line even in 24 point. The shortened title can be followed by a sub-title.

Form subtitles

Use 18-point bold type for form subtitles (Diagram 3).


Diagram 3

Section headings

Use 14-point bold type for section headings (Diagram 4).

Section heading

Diagram 4

Sub-section headings

Use 14-point plain type for sub-section headings (Diagram 5).

Sub-section heading

Diagram 5

Ensure sub-section headings are reasonably long, preferably containing more than one word so they do not get lost within the question text.

Use sub-section headings only when necessary.

Column headings in a matrix

Use 10-point plain type for matrix headings.

Centre the heading above the column(s) it refers to.

For coloured forms (Diagram 6):

  • Place headings in a 10% screened box, outlined with a two-point white line. Screen (also known as opacity) refers to the shading on a form's background created by printing the same colour in varying intensity.
  • Separate sub-headings between columns with one-point white lines.
Column headings on a coloured form

Diagram 6

For black and white forms, place headings in a box, drawn with a 0.5-point black line (Diagram 7).

Column headings on black and white form

Diagram 7

Keep the text of each matrix heading short, with fewer words than the actual question text.


Use the following options or a combination of the options to emphasise or create contrast for key words

  • Bold 
  • Italics 
  • Increase type size by 2 points (i.e. from 12 points to 14 points) (Diagram 8)
Emphasising keywords on a form

Diagram 8

Use the same option for emphasis or contrast consistently throughout the form.

Only emphasise one or two key words to ensure that it does not interfere with the readability of the question overall.  


Format sub-questions (subsidiary questions) as follows (Diagram 9):

  • 12-point plain type
  • Align the text with the same grid line as the question text.

Format sub-sub questions as follows (Diagram 9):

  • Use 12-point plain type
  • Indent the text in the next grid line from the sub-question.

 Format sub-sub-sub questions as follows (Diagram 9):

  • Use 12-point plain type
  • Place the text after an en dash
  • Align the 'en' dash with the same grid line as the sub-sub question.
Typography of sub-sub-sub question

Diagram 9

Question numbers

Use 14-point bold type for question numbers.

Align the first digit of a two-digit question number to the first grid line (Diagram 10).

Place single digit question numbers one letter space to the right of the first grid line (Diagram 10).

Alignment of question numbers

Diagram 10

Questions continuing across pages

Include a 'Questions continue over the page' instruction when necessary and format it as follows:

  • Use 14-point bold type (Diagram 11)
  • Place the instruction on the bottom right-hand corner of the page.
'Questions continue over page' instruction

Diagram 11

If a section or question continues over more than one page (or column), repeat the heading or question at the top of the new page (or column) followed by an 'en' dash and '(continued)'. Format it as follows (Diagram 12):

  • Use the same size type as the text being repeated
  • Use italic type style for both the text and brackets
  • Use lower case type.
En dash added to instruction '(continued)'

Diagram 12

Major notes at the beginning and end of the form

Ensure general instructions that appear before the questions and at the end of the form are larger than other notes on the form to highlight their importance.

Use 18-point bold type for headings.

Use an appropriate heading for instructions that appear before the questions. For example, ABS business forms use the heading 'Please read this first’. 

Use an appropriate heading for instructions that appear at the end of the form.

Centre the heading inside the top of the instruction box at the top of the page.

Use 12-point plain type for the body of the text.

Instructions, explanations, and notes within questions

Use 10-point bold italics type for headings such as 'Including', 'Excluding' and 'Note'.

Use 10-point plain type for the bullet.

Use 10-point plain type for the instruction that accompanies the bullet.

Instructions in brackets within questions

Present wording in 12-point plain type within brackets immediately after the questions to:

  • Abbreviate long questions and make them more readable by avoiding several lines of bold text (Diagram 13)
  • Add procedural information e.g. 'Total (sum of Questions xx to xx)'
  • Add a single include or exclude instruction
  • Include an example
  • Provide a short definition.
Instructions in brackets within question

Diagram 13

Sequencing instructions

Only include sequencing or 'Go to' instructions when the respondent is asked to 'skip over' the following question. In the absence of a 'Go to' instruction, respondents will automatically move on to the next question.

There are two options for 'Go to' instructions. Use the same option consistently throughout the form.

Option 1 (Diagram 14):

  • Use 12-point plain type for text
  • Use 14-point bold type for the numeral. 
Sequencing instruction: 'Go to Question 6'

Diagram 14

Option 2 (Diagram 15):

  • Use 12-point plain type for text
  • Use 14-point bold type for upper case 'Q' and the question number.
Sequencing instruction: 'Go to Q8' ('Q8' is bold)

Diagram 15

Avoid placing sequencing instructions towards the bottom of the page, where possible, as respondents may not see them.

Include the section or part number (or letter) in the 'Go to' instructions when it is important for respondents to read the section title and any section-specific notes before answering the next question. Present the instruction as follows (Diagram 16):

  • Use 12-point plain type for text
  • Use 14-point bold type for the word 'Section' or 'Part' and the number.
Sequencing instruction: 'Go to Section 9'

Diagram 16

In general, place a standard arrowhead beside the relevant tick box to point to the instruction.  

Avoid presenting the 'Go to' instruction multiple times when all of the answer options in a question require respondents to make the same skip, where practical.


  • Use a larger arrow that joins the answer boxes so that it points to a single instruction for No/Yes (or Yes/No) response options (Diagram 17)
  • Place the instruction beneath the answers, either by itself or with an arrowhead at the beginning of the text (Diagram 18).
Large arrow joining answer boxes pointing to single sequencing instruction: 'Go to question 15'

Diagram 17

Instruction 'Go to question 3' is placed beneath the answers.

Diagram 18

Form ID

Use 14-point bold type for form identification (Diagram 19).

Place the form identification on the top right-hand corner of the front of form, at least 6mm below the 10mm top page margin.

Form ID

Diagram 19

Page number

Use 12-point plain type for page numbers.

Centre page numbers on the top of each page except the front page.

Place the top of the number 5 mm above the 10mm text and line boundary.

Include page numbers on blank pages. Page numbers may be required for both the top and bottom of the page to enable machine scanning.  

Thank you note

Add a 'Thank you' note for respondents when there is sufficient space on the form.

Use 14-point bold type (Diagram 20).

The wording for the note is, 'Thank you for completing this form'. 

Centre the note at the end of the form.

Thank you note

Diagram 20

Only place the 'Thank you' note at the end of the form on the last page. Placing the 'Thank you' note anywhere else within the body of the form (for example where there is sequencing that 'ends' the form in multiple places) encourages respondents to give the responses that allow them to answer fewer questions.

Assign a question number to the 'Thank you' note, if necessary, to sequence respondents to the physical end of the form. 

Processing codes

Avoid displaying processing codes on survey forms, if possible. Anything the respondent doesn't need to see adds clutter and cognitive burden.

Present processing codes as follows if it is necessary to display them:

  • Use 9-point plain type Verdana for processing codes if Times is used for questions on the form. Conversely use 9-point plain type Times if Verdana is used for questions
  • Place processing codes (e.g. data processing codes) to the right of answer boxes
  • Use the same style (i.e. plain, italics, bold or bold italics) consistently throughout the form for the same function
  • Print data entry codes in a drop-out colour so they are less obvious to respondents. 

Another option for presenting data entry codes is:

  • Use a reverse type out of a solid rectangle (Diagram 21)
  • Use 9-point Verdana, regardless of which font was used for the rest of the form.
Data entry code: '059K'

Diagram 21

Office use only boxes

Ensure that office use only boxes are sufficiently differentiated from answer spaces.

Format office use only boxes as follows (Diagram 22):

  • Place the box against a 20% background screen
  • Avoid using white answer spaces
  • Boxes should be 'clear' filled and shown in the background only
  • Use a 0.5-point line for the boxes
  • Use solid background colour for the lines of the boxes
  • Use 9-point type or less for text.
Office use only box

Diagram 22

Duplicate forms

Centre the text indicating that a form is a duplicate within the address box (Diagram 23).

Use 24-point bold type for the word 'Duplicate'.

Use 18-point bold type for the words 'Please keep this copy for your records'.

Use 10% black shading.

Additional resources

Bringhurst, R. (2004). The Elements of Typographic Style. Hartley and Marks Publishers.

Lupton, E. (2010).  Thinking with Type 2nd edition: A critical guide for designers, writers, editors and students. Princeton Architectural Press.

Santa Maria, J. (2015).  On Web Typography. Adams Media.

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. 

Typography in Inclusive Design Part 2: Choosing Typefaces and Laying Out Text Content | Vision Australia. Blindness and Low Vision Services.

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