Fashion fades, only style remains the same. - Coco Chanel
Style is a simple way of saying complicated things. - Jean Cocteau
One arrives at style only with atrocious effort, with fanatical and devoted stubbornness. - Gustave Flaubert
And finally, my usual musical reference, containing the title for this blog:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tWCq9PaJPQI - (The artist formerly known as) Prince
Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t. Ask any of my colleagues who saw me dressed up for our end of year party, and they will shake their heads and tell you that I don’t. I think I have a few redeeming qualities, but style isn’t one of them. And even if you have innate style, as Flaubert says, it takes a lot of effort.
But I do recognize style (and the absence of style) when I see it. And I do like to be able to lean on those who do have a sense of style in order to make me look good. (In most cases, this is my wife – if I ever look good, you pretty much know she dressed me. And increasingly my daughter.)
But what has all this got to do with my usual topic of electronic forms?
Well, in the software world, we usually try hard to separate out the style from the content, and have different people, with different skills, focus on each. In the authoring world, this is usually implemented as a “Style Sheet” – in the HTML world this is a Cascading Style Sheet (CSS). In the electronic-form world, we have used the concept of Style Sheets extensively in the design of SmartForm Composer.
Let me backtrack a little. This all started with a discussion on Linked-In about the role of Templates when creating forms – full discussion here.
Some excepts are below. The bolding is mine.
“Usually I make (my forms) from scratch … and at times it feels as though I am inventing the universe.”
“..what can be useful and reusable, are functional blocks, such as personal identification blocks, signature blocks, etc. Functional considerations aside, there is the visual effect…. The consequence for this is to have styles which can be applied to the functional description of the block, in order to create the final product.’
“…most forms will be custom-built; have to be custom built. Therefore, the tools to build the forms should best provide suitable building blocks.”
“99% of all businesses in the EU have fewer than 250 employees. http://bit.ly/7aIt3C For a significant number of those, the “form designer” = IT manager = marketing executive = plumber = day care provider = cook. Figuring out the optimal ways to collect information to run their business may not be something they have time or budget for (especially these days). It’s never perfect, but a simple template relevant to their field or what they want to accomplish can help an individual get up-to-speed and get the job done quickly.”
We hear these types of comments from our customers, and our internal form developers, over and over. The summary of requirements is:
- I need someone else (a graphic designer perhaps) to come up with a Style Sheet (or template) for my organization’s forms.
- I need to be able to apply that style seamlessly to any form that I build, and have it just turn out right.
- If the organizational style changes, I need to be able to change the Style Sheet, and regenerate the forms. Simple. No fuss.
- In order to be productive, I also need to easily be able to create a re-usable building block that I can drop into any form.
- But… When I drop a block into a form, it needs to adopt the style of that form, rather than imposing its own style.
- The whole thing must be easy to use.
Note that not only has the background colour of the block changed to match the form, but also the Address fields in the form have been resized automatically to fit a form with section headings presented in a side bar, leaving less space for the Address lines.
Even if the device that you are using is not your usual desktop, such as (surprise!!) a tablet, you want your custom block to match the styling of the particular device. The screenshot below shows the exact same address block rendered in the same form, but this time styled for an iPad.
It’s also important to have features that accommodate the needs of developers who have a large portfolio of forms they need to manage and maintain. For example, if I do have a nicely re-usable Address block, how many forms will be affected if I decide to make a change to that block. Composer has a very useful feature known as “Impact Analysis” that allows you to answer exactly this question.
The important part of all of this is:
The form designer should be completely isolated from and independent of the style of the form. The form designer should be able to concentrate purely on the “data collection” experience and business rules. The styling of the form should just “happen”, based on the template and style sheets that they choose.
Note: The depiction of a cigarette in Coco’s photo does not in any way endorse smoking. In fact, it’s not a cigarette, it’s a pencil. Really!
Learn more about using Avoka SmartForm Factory to create and publish your own online forms.