The best typography in the US federal government

The forms and publi­ca­tions produced by the Internal Revenue Service, of course, most famously Form 1040. I would love to have a book of IRS forms over the years, purely for the design. (Note to self: this could prob­ably be accom­plished with a couple of FOIA requests.)

Though no one likes paying taxes, fans of typo­graphic design should pause to appre­ciate just how diffi­cult this project must be, which makes the result all the more impres­sive. These forms neces­sarily repre­sent a collab­o­ra­tion between IRS lawyers (who have to make sure the forms are accu­rate rela­tive to the ever-changing thicket of tax law), graphic designers (who have to create visual hier­archy & order while preserving an econom­ical density of infor­ma­tion), a ware­house of fact-checkers and proof­readers who have to make sure the forms are flaw­less before they head to the printer (can you imagine the costs of getting a form wrong?), and some chain of command that has approval over all of it.

I’ve been involved in some compli­cated design & printing projects. When­ever I try to unpack the prac­ti­cal­i­ties of how this all works, it becomes frac­tally mind-bending. Truly: no idea how they do it. And they do it every year.

Wait, that’s not even the best part. The other indis­pens­able collab­o­rator in these forms are US taxpayers them­selves. It would be one thing if the IRS were just churning out text­book-style expla­na­tions of US tax law. But these are forms meant to be used inter­ac­tively to compute results, much like a soft­ware program on a computer. So in addi­tion to the other require­ments, the designers have to create a logical, ergonomic visual path through each form.

IRS forms are often teased for being dense and inscrutable. But when you consider the require­ments—and the alter­na­tives—this is the certainly the best-case scenario: a US govern­ment agency that puts a huge effort into making sure its work is under­stood by the citi­zens it serves. And much of that effort is typog­raphy.

I salute you, IRS.