Designing complex forms is one of the tougher challenges in information design. It requires more than the usual command of graphic design and typography…A well structured and laid out form can considerably speed up its processing, whereas in the worst case poor design can negate the function of a form, effectively rendering it worthless.
As for font types, look for sans serifs, which work well at small sizes. A large x-height is also useful. Look for those fonts with Bell in the name … they were designed for the phone books, and as such work well in small sizes. As far as font choice, I have done literally HUNDREDS of medical forms in the past 20 years or so, and Helvetica Condensed or Univers 47 & 57 have seen the heaviest use.
Technical documents are often set in sans-serif. There are a couple of reasons why this is preferred over its serif counterpart: Serif typefaces are usually designed to be as transparent to the reader as possible. In a novel, reading should be a fluid activity, and the typeface must not call attention to itself.
Technical documents are often filled with important notices where the reader is supposed to make stops, and be the structure must easily “scannable” with your eyesight.
Sans-serif allows for a greater range of weights, from thin to black. Technical documents often have deep, nested hierarchy, and having many weights at your disposal allows you to transmit this hierarchy. A pair of good choices for technical documents are:
Whitney is a very complete typeface with a very wide range of weights. It also provides “lining figures” which are great for tables and such. It also has built in numbers and letters encased in circles and squares, which are very handy when making annotations.
Thesis is a serial typeface (it has serif, semi-serif, mono, semi-sans, and sans-serif choices), also in a very wide range of weights. It’s monospaced font allows you to write code in the same great looking typeface.
A type family originally developed for New York’s Whitney Museum, Whitney contends with two different sets of demands: those of editorial typography, and those of public signage.
Typefaces for catalogs and brochures need to be narrow enough to work in crowded environments, yet energetic enough to encourage extended reading. But typefaces designed for wayfinding programs need to be open enough to be legible at a distance, and sturdy enough to withstand a variety of fabrication techniques: fonts destined for signage need to anticipate being cast in bronze, etched in glass, cut in vinyl, and rendered in pixels.
While American “gothics” such as News Gothic (1908) have long been a mainstay of editorial settings, and European “humanists” such as Frutiger (1975) have excelled in signage applications, Whitney bridges this divide in a single design. Its compact forms and broad x-height use space efficiently, and its ample counters and open shapes make it clear under any circumstances.