Information Design & Tattoos

I know what your thinking, what the frack does Information Design have to do with getting a tattoo?

Nothing. Well, sort of. Let me explain. Back home in Indiana my adventurous parents have owned a Tattoo parlor for the last ten or so years. I’m very proud of them for following their own path, despite the fact it’s not your every day profession.

In Indiana, everything from cleaning & sterilization to customer record keeping is closely monitored by the Department of Health. That means frequent surprise visits from Mr. (or Mrs.) health inspector.

Aside from creating great tattoos, another very important aspect of my parent’s business is recording customer information. For every tattoo that my father does, he must collect two forms of identification, record a written description of the tattoo (or body piercing), photograph his work, and document any details about the equipment used. Aside from general record keeping, this information is also required by law. As “helpful” as the Health Department is, my parents are essentially on their own when it comes to collecting data. This is where the problem starts.

How to get a tattoo

A customer walking in to get a Tattoo is first greeted my Mother (or Sister) at the desk. Residents of Indiana as young as 15 can get a tattoo with the consent of a guardian, so before anything happens the customer’s age is verified.

If the customer is of age (or with a guardian) my Mother hands them a customer information sheet. This is the document that is used to record the identification information required by law.

By law, this form must collect the following information:

  • Customer name
  • Address & telephone number
  • Photo ID
  • Signature card (something that can validate the customer’s signature)
  • Date of Birth
  • Signature
  • ID, Address, Signature of guardian if needed

There is also a second sheet that documents the tattoo:

  • Name of “modifier” (their words, not ours)
  • Type of “modification” (again, not our words)
  • Written description of “modification”

In addition to the legal requirements, in needs to be convenient for my Mother:

  • Needs to be no more that two pages
  • Has to be in black and white (and survive a copy machine)
  • Has to be easy for the customer to fill out unassisted (they get really busy)

Form design is really hard

Form and document design is an art and science – just take a look at Karen Shriver’s work.

My father is a master at putting down tattoo ink, he’ll be the first to admit that document design isn’t his strength. They did their best to cover their bases when designing their customer information form, but in the end there were some major problems that left customers confused.

Confusing language – customers didn’t understand that “modification” meant piercing or tattoo.

Confusing workflow – there was no workflow. Visually there was no path to guide your eye down the page. Looking at the page it was hard to tell where to start.

Duplicate information – because the form also had a section for guardian consent, there essentially was two duplication customer information sections. This was confusing, especially to customers over 18 who didn’t need to fill this section out.

Not enough instruction – by far the most common error or confusion was around the “Two ID’s Used” section. The form simply had a blank line. Some customers would write in their driver’s license numbers, but most just put “yes.” This section was meant to capture the type of identification used.

Information Design to the rescue

After enough pestering, I finally carved out some time to really help them nail this form (I try to be a good son). Here is the end result

Getting the basics right

First, I started by simply laying out the page and applying some simple typography to get the form looking better. Second, I added numbering down the page to create a sense of steps, something to give the customer a start and end point.

(or get the PDF)

(More) structured workflow

You’ll notice that the is a cleaner breakpoint in the page. I used this area to contain the guardian information. The gray container ropes the section off and the lack of numbering doesn’t confuse customers as being duplicate information. In fact they can ignore it until they get to step 5 where it tells them to see below if they are a minor.

Add detail (and instruction) to clarify

As I mentioned before, the customers just didn’t get the “Two ID’s Used” section. In my design I actually added more text, more steps, and more choices, but the end result is much clearer. By providing some examples of what is allowed, the information that is being requested is much more obvious. Without seeing an example, would you know what a signature card is? There are many more forms of acceptable identification and signature cards that I listed, but I simplified it down to the most commonly used and added an “other” option that could be filled in to account for the rest.

Eyes above the waist

(or get the PDF)

My favorite part of this project was the second page of the form where the customer documents their tattoo or piercing information. This was a perfect scenario in which a visual aide would really clarify the form. Instead of an open text area I actually drew out a diagram (in Keynote) that the customers could use to circle or draw to indicate the location of their tattoo. And, because this page also has signature/guardian signature on it, it can be used as-is for returning customers (who don’t need to prove their identity).

More info-tasty

Craving more information design? Stephen P. Anderson and I actually presented on this very topic at this month’s Refresh Dallas where we discussed good (and bad) examples of information design and broke it down to principles that you can use in your work.

See What I Mean (Part 1)
view presentation (tags: form forms tufte infographics)
See What I Mean Pt. 2 (Case Studies)
view presentation (tags: form forms tufte infographics)


  1. Cam Beck said:

    Hey Travis -
    Great job last week at Refresh Dallas. I took your challenge on. Let me know what you think.

  2. Travis said:

    Cam, really nice work. Way to run with the principles we discussed at Refresh. Go read it people!

  3. Jennifer McIntosh said:

    I didn’t know that it is a requirement that tattoo artists take pictures of the tattoo…that never happened for all three of mine. They did have me fill out those forms though, but none of them looked as nice as the one you created.

  4. emily dubisky said:

    that is really good work my family has good ones like those!