Template Design 101: Getting Started

So you have this great idea for a template, and you've looked around in vain for a similiar one. Despite a few polite suggestions and heated requests to various designers, they're booked solid and don't have the time to make it. So what can you do?

Well, make it yourself! You'll find that it isn't really that difficult. All you need is an idea, a little brainstorming session, and some software you either already have, or can find for free.

If you have the urge to make a template, you're not alone. One of the questions I generally find in my mailbox at least once a week is, "What's the best way to go about making a form?" That's usually followed by further questions about the suitability of OpenOffice.org, Illustrator, Word, InDesign, Scribus, Inkscape, and so on. So I decided to jot down a few rough notes about the best way to create your own template. This is going to be a bit vague, and I'm not going to dwell on certain applications; this little article is only meant to give you the bare basics.

The Idea

Say there's something in your life bugging you, and you get the distinct impression that --if only you'd have some way of tracking or prompting things-- you could get it under control and even excel. Or maybe you see the need in someone else: the significant other that wants to record exercise sessions; the neighbour that's homebrewing and keeps records via stickies; the mildly autistic friend that needs little reminder sheets to aid focus; or the babysitter that gives your kids way too much junk food and never seems to remember where you are.

All these are perfect examples of a template just itching to be made. It might be simple, it might be complex, but ultimately it could get the job done effectively.

So come up with an idea. If it's something you actually have a burning need for, all the better: by using it, you'll have the opportunity to test it and improve it. If it's for somebody else, have a chat with them and see what they need.

Information Design

Yeah, that sounds a little scary, but it isn't so bad. This is basically the act of figuring out what goes on your template. Although people have written major textbooks and studies on information design, you can apply the following general and very rough procedure and still create an effective form.

  1. Take a quiet moment and consider your idea. Who could use such a template, and what might they think is important? Don't worry about specifics for now: think big picture.
  2. Take out a blank piece of paper, or open your favourite text editor/outliner/mind-mapper to a blank document. This is where we brainstorm. I prefer paper because there's less structure: I like brainstorming to be completely free-form, where I'm not limited by any sort of structure, and I can draw lines, doodle, underline stuff, circle things, write big, write small, etc.
  3. At the top of the page, write down a working title for your template. Then write down your objective. This isn't a make-work project here; it's meant to keep you focussed.
  4. Besides the occasional reference form or chart, you should remember that the two basic premises of a template are: 1) tracking something; or 2) prompting something. Tracking is straight-forward. Track your tasks, track your diet, track the books for your report, track the number of red cars that pass in front of your house, whatever. Prompting is a matter of providing a space to get you thinking about something, like an interviewer uses questions to prompt an interviewee about certain subjects. For example, the prompt might be to come up with obstacles and solutions, or a source of conflict in a story, or your weekly goal, or the four different ways to approach a challenge. Keep this in mind as we progress.
  5. On the paper, or in the document, write down every little thing you can think of that you might need to know about your subject. Don't worry if it sounds silly. Write it down anyway. One idea will probably lead rapidly to another.
  6. Cross out those items that are too silly. Other items that might be broken down further, do it. For example, is it just enough to track classes of equipment (e.g., "AudioVisual"), or should you be tracking subclasses (cameras, mics, tripods, monitors, etc.). Calories, or types of calories? Exercises, or types of exercises? Break it down, if necessary.
  7. Now, here's the hard part: grouping the items while remaining flexible. Let me explain.

    First of all, a group is a set of related items. In a new submissions form for writers and illustrators that I'm developing, it's necessary to keep track of how things are mailed. So I'd group mailing cost, packaging, insurance, type/speed (e.g., overnight, 5-day express, air, ground, etc.), and anything else pertinent. I'd separate this from the addressee details group which includes name, position, company, mailing address, and so on.

    Second is the need to be flexible. Remember that everybody has slightly different needs, and these vary by methodology, country, language, and personality. Yup, that's a lot to keep in mind, but the key is to contruct fields (this is what we're calling each new item space on a template) to allow for maximum usage. A blank box might be a space for priority, for initials of delegates, for funky symbols, and so on. Let the users come up with whatever system works for them. Give them ideas, sure, but don't limit them arbitrarity.
  8. Write these groups down in separate blocks on a new piece of paper (or document, or whatever). Then figure out a logical order for presentation. Write a number by each one. A general rule of thumb: go from general to specific. Start with descriptions, synopsis, objectives, etc., and then move down into the nitty-gritty particulars.
  9. At this stage, you should have all the fields ready for your form. It might be three fields, it might be 40. Regardless, the hardest part of your template design is over.

Choose Your Tool

My first piece of advice is to use whatever tool you know best. I've seen some amazing templates developed in a regular word processor, and some pretty unusable templates created in $700 illustration software.

That being said, certain applications will tend to be easier to use and better suited to the task of creating a graphical form. The four main types will be:

  1. Word Processor : A good choice only if you want a very simplistic looking form. On the plus side, it's generally easy to use and to create lines (via a string of underline characters). I don't recommend using multiple frames and boxes unless you're a sucker for punishment or know the word processor extremely well. More that once, I've loaded up a Word document wherein someone created a form, only to have boxes overlaying each other or bumped onto new pages by themselves, since Word often reformats a page depending on printer, platform and version settings. Ouch.
  2. Spreadsheet : Oddly enough, a decent choice, as long as you are well aware of how margins and sizing works. Since you can set borders, backgrounds, fonts, etc., and everything is essentially based on boxes, it is a viable option for people endeared to their Excel, Quattro Pro, or OpenOffice.org Calc. (Personally, I'm not.)
  3. Illustration/Diagram Software : This includes Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, CorelDRAW, Freehand, OpenOffice.org Draw, OmniGraffle Pro, and others. Great choices, as long as you tackle a bit of a learning curve. If you're unfamiliar with these, I can recommend that beginners start with OpenOffice.org Draw, part of the OpenOffice.org Suite since: 1) it's free; 2) it strikes a good balance between power and ease of use; 3) it produces excellent PDF files that you can share with everybody; and 4) the official D*I*Y Planner Widget Kit uses OOo Draw, which gives you a good head start. I personally use Adobe Illustrator for the main D*I*Y Planner kits, but OOo Draw 2 for smaller and experimental templates, or for ones for which I want to distribute the source. (We'll get to this in a minute.)
  4. Desktop Publishing (DTP) Software : This includes Microsoft Publisher, CorelDRAW (and Corel Ventura), Scribus (free), InDesign and others. Not quite as well-suited to the task as regular illustration software, it's nonetheless powerful enough to design excellent templates. The downside is that it's often a little more complicated to use than illustration software, and many of the tools are counter-intuitive to the beginner.

Choose whichever one makes the most sense for you. If this is a one-off and you'd prefer not to tackle an illustration program, go with the word processor or spreadsheet that you're familiar with. If you think you'd like to learn more about illustration (including producing posters, brochures, CD covers, etc.), then you might want to take this opportunity to start learning something like OOo Draw.

The Layout

The first choice you have to make is your page format, which includes letter-size, Classic size (half letter), Hipster PDA (index cards), A4, A5 and so on. Remember that the most hassle-free one for most people is letter-size (in North America) or A4 (in most of the rest of the world). But people love their half-size or tiny planners, or their Hipster PDA stacks. Use whichever one makes the most sense for the user, and then set up your software to format the page in this size. I personally design my kits as Classic size, and then use this base to produce other sizes.

Set your margins appropriately. If this is meant for a binder or planner, remember that the rings need about 1//2" to 3/4" on the inside (left for odd pages, right for even pages). I design Hipster PDA cards with a little over 1/4" margins. If you find your printer doesn't like this margins, adjust as necessary.

Next up, your bits and pieces. You'll need a header, boxes for each of your fields' writing space, and small text to describe each of your fields. Getting started, don't be too particular about your layout at first. It's often better to design the forms in bite-size chunks and slowly bring everything together.

If you're using an illustration program, design a standard "box", move it off to one side, and then keep duplicating it for each item you wish to create. Turn your "snap to object" on, and you'll find it very easy to start bringing things together. "Group" objects when necessary, and remember to follow your notes regarding order. Read the help and tutorial files for your application if you find you're getting stuck, or if things just don't seem to be working how they should.

Part of the challenge in designing a form is to figure out how to place everything you need just right, with the correct amount of writing space. And of course, it all needs to fit on one or two pages. This is a matter of trial and error, but here's a tip: when it's necessary to extend certain groupings another line, don't be afraid to insert another line for addresses, objectives, or anything else that might benefit from additional writing space.

Once you have the layout you want, print it up and start using it. It's very rare to get everything right the first time. You'll often think of new fields that are needed, or that you require more space for certain items. Don't worry about. Keep notes, and after a week or so, start tweaking. Better yet, let other people use it and send you feedback. They'll think of things you never thought to consider.

Do's and Don't's

Do:

  • Provide enough space for people to write the information they need. Think of those little sweepstakes forms with approximately 3/4" for writing your address, and you know what I mean.
  • Keep things consistent. If your outer box for the top part of the form is 75% grey and 1 pt, then the outer boxes for the rest of the form should be, too. The same with fonts, cell backgrounds, cell field sizes, and so on.
  • Test your form by printing. Remember that this is what others are planning to do, so pick up on and fix your mistakes beforehand. Check the colours, the fonts (for legibility), the margins (for binder rings), and so on. Keep making changes and reprinting until you get it right.
  • Provide odd and even pages. Remember that binder rings take up a half-inch or so, and thus odd pages should have a 3/4" margin on the left, and even pages should have it on the right.
  • Ask for help or advice if you need it. There's plenty of talented people hanging out here in the forums that should be able to lend a hand or provide some input, should you desire it.
  • Be concerned for other people's printing issues. For example, using vast tracts of navy blue will be hard on colour ink, and come out as vast tracts of very dark grey on laser printers (also wasting much ink). Balance the aesthetic with the practical.
  • If sharing with others, provide a version that everybody should be able to use. This generally means PDF format. Many applications can churn out PDFs either natively or with add-ons. You might also want to consider providing the "source file" of your template, such as the original Illustrator, OOo Draw or Excel file, if you think that other people might be able to tweak it to their uses (e.g., for different languages).
  • Share. The Template Directory has a lot of different templates for many different uses, but people love to see more. While I can't say that I use every one of them (heck, I only use a small percentage of my own), I know that others will find every one invaluable. Be sure to write a nice description, think about some usage information, and create a thumbnail (people love thumbnails) for your submission. Any questions, contact me.

Don't:

  • Use thick black lines to surround everything. Not only does this look clunky and boxy, but it's very distracting. Use thin grey lines of selected shades if developing in black and white.
  • Use distracting colours. Keep the colours muted and elegant, and try not to clash or use too many. This is a form, not a disco.
  • Use too many fonts. Keep it to two at most, and use different sizes sparingly. Standardise. Write down your fonts and sizes so you don't forget what you're using.
  • Create a hundred different fields. No one will use it except the occasional obsessive-compulsive. To everybody else, it's a waste of space and a source of frustration.

Why?

One of my main motivations in creating the D*I*Y Planner was to re-learn Adobe Illustrator, a powerful program I hadn't used in years, but which I knew would be helpful for other work. To that end, the development of several hundred templates has really accomplished that: I am as familiar with AI as any other application I've every used, and have no issues with using it for all manner of multimedia and print work. It was a good choice. If you think you'll have need of using illustration software in the future (a fairly safe bet), it's a great opportunity to learn such an application.

For information junkies, template creation is also mildly addictive: you start seeing hundreds of ways of making your work and play more efficient. It alters your brain chemistry, it seems, and suddenly you analyse, compartimentalise, process and propose hypothetical solutions to every issue. Or, for creative types, you might find that a new series of prompts can trigger the exploration of ideas and the furthering of concepts, and perhaps lead to a re-organising of your thoughts in fresh new directions.

But ultimately, template creation is more about applying information design and creativity to solve a challenge at hand. Regular users of a planner system will tell you how it's changed their lives, and the power to create your own personalised forms and prompts can take one productivity one step further. All you need to start is an idea and a need.

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Wow, met the challenge head on..

What a zinger you have here. Well done.

Pick a tool,
Learn your tool,
Figure out what you want to actually track,
and then KISS!

The followup is:
Test, jot down changes, iterate, and move forward!

I've really been digging your OpenOffice widget kit. It helped jumpstart me in a big way to making my own index cards that print out of my quirky laser.

Now I just keep thinking as I fill out my cards and think before I discard a project (for being done of course); did this fit right? What more or less could have been said to help expidite this process.

Good job,

-a