You know how the government and other form-obsessed institutions provide PDFs where you fill in your data right in the form, and then you print it? Well, you too can make those kinds of forms for yourself or for your clients.
You can even make the fancy ones that do calculations automatically in the form!
A couple of years ago we started creating fillable PDFs for clients – forms where a user fills data in a PDF and then saves the form. A common type of fillable PDF we create is a custom timelog – a time tracking sheet users (in this case students in a campus organization) can fill out and print. These timelogs have lots of different data types and features, and I’ll use them here as a great example of the steps and tips needed to create a PDF a user can fill out and then print or save.
The qualifications: Students must be able to enter their info, enter daily times as numbers, and write task summaries in the fillable PDF. The form must add their daily time entries and be in a format a student can save to their computer or print, or both.
If you haven't made a fillable PDF before, here are the key steps you need to get started. If these steps are old news, skip ahead to the formatting or tips sections.
Note: I am using Adobe Acrobat Pro on Mac OS X. Your version may have items in slightly differently locations.
- Document layout. First off, the layout for the PDF needs to be created. Any layout or word processing application can be used. We typically use InDesign to create the form layouts, since they’re multiple pages, but Illustrator or MS Word work fine too. Create the document and then save it as a PDF.
- Create as fillable PDF. Open up your PDF in Acrobat Pro. Go to Tools > Forms > Create. In the dialog box that opens select "Use the current document".
- Automatic form field creation. Acrobat will automatically convert any elements of the document it registers as form fields into the appropriate editable field type, including text fields, checkboxes and large text boxes.
What if Acrobat didn't create one of my form fields? It's no big deal if Acrobat didn't automatically detect a form field. Just go to the "add a new field" button in Acrobat, pick the right field type and use your mouse to draw the field where you need it. Then make the appropriate formatting choices.
Now, you can go through the form and adjust the formatting or make your form do calculations if needed. Or, if you’re ready, just go on to saving your document.
Acrobat will make some acceptable choices for your form fields in Step 3 above, but I find they’re not perfect, and often change them. Still, it's nice to start with those, because you don't have to draw all the boxes that need to be filled in.
- Font size. To change the basic font formatting of a form field, double-click on a field. In the dialog box that opens up, go to “Appearance” and change font type and font size. I find that a font size of 8 or 9pt works well – not too large, not too small.
- Text alignment. In the same dialog box under “Options,” you can change text to align left, center or right. Center is a good choice for text fields that are smaller than one line, or fields that are part of a table.
- Text boxes. Large text boxes or text areas are perfect for free form, sentences or paragraphs. Here, you’ll want to have the text wrap onto multiple lines so it stays visible when printed. Check the “Multi-line” box under the “Options” section to have the text automatically wrap.
If a fill-in form is going to do some arithmetic, or if the form needs to ensure users only enter in the correct data type (numbers only), Acrobat offers some additional control over field contents.
- Numbers only. If a field is going to be used in addition or subtraction, you’ll want to only allow numbers in it. Otherwise, calculations won’t work. Under “Format” in the field editing dialog box select “Number” for format category.
- Read only. Fields that are calculated automatically should be read-only so they can’t be changed accidentally (or on purpose, either). Under “General” check the “Read only” box.
Save a fillable PDF for your users
Users will need these PDFs saved in a format that will open in their Acrobat Reader – since most folks don't have Acrobat Pro.
We make the forms saved in a format that anyone with only the free Acrobat Reader can open and fill out. Here's how to save your PDF in a way those with Adobe Reader can open it, edit it and save or print it.
PDFs that open and save for Acrobat Reader users:
- Close form editing. Click “Close Form Editing” to close the editable fields and functionality.
- Reader extended PDF. Go to Save As > Reader Extended PDF in Adobe Reader > Enable Additional Features
Tips and techniques
Acrobat still has room for improvement in terms of making things run a little faster and a lot smoother. It sure would be nice if it started share some features of other Adobe software (like alignment!). In the meantime, we've accumulated some tips for maximum efficiency .
Tips for speed and accuracy
Here are a few tips and lessons learned that I've picked up after working on a few dozen fill-in forms.
- Copy and paste across documents. You can copy and paste large groups of form fields from one document to another.
- Bulk formatting for form fields. If you select multiple form fields, you can edit the formatting for all of them at the same time. For example, if you'd like to change the font size and alignment for all of the form fields on your document, open up the edit dialog (by double-clicking any field). Then behind your open dialog, select several fields with your mouse by drawing a box around them. In your dialog, go to the "Appearance" tab and change the font settings. It will apply to all of the selected form fields.
- Faster editing of large documents. Acrobat tends to get bogged down when working on editable forms that are multiple pages. It starts running very slowly. We've found that working on pages in small units, 1-3 pages at a time and then merging them into a 10+ page PDF is much more effective.
- Simple custom calculations. If you're going to use custom calculations, I highly recommend using the "Simplified Field Notation," rather than the "Value is the ___ of the following fields.” The “Value is the sum of the following fields” function seems like it would be so great, but it is extremely slow. Simplified Field Notation is straightforward to use, and so much faster. Here’s an example of how you use it. To have Acrobat add up all the times for seven weekdays, you would enter something like this in the "Simplified Field Notation" box: 20120807 + 20120808 + 20120809 + 20120810 + 20120811 + 20120812 + 20120813. Each of those numbers is the name of a field from the same week. So simple!
More pro tips
Here are a few more tips that will make working with fillable PDFs easier on your users and you.
- Use custom tab order. Users will appreciate tabbing through form fields in the correct order, and you can set it up for them. When you are in form editing mode, your form fields will show up in a list on the right panel of your Acrobat Pro application. The order they display in the list is their tab order. Simply use your mouse to drag the form fields up or down to rearrange them in the optimal order.
- Keep a master document. In addition to saving your document as an "extended PDF", consider saving the original fully featured PDF document as well. This will make editing and keeping track of the different document types easier when you make future edits. I like to save a "master" version that works in Acrobat Pro, and then "web" version (the "Acrobat Reader Extended" version) that is for distributing to users or clients.
- Double check automatic field creation. I have had mixed results with the automatic fields Acrobat creates. It has a tendency to use "auto" for the font size, which I don't like. I like uniformity, and I like to set the font size the same for all fields. Acrobat tends to skip some fields, like large text boxes, so they will need to be created. And, sometimes the automatic fields are way too small, and look like itty bity checkboxes.
- Use consistent field names. Though not mandatory, it’s essential for me to stay organized by using a naming convention for form fields. I highly recommend you do too, especially if you’re going to do any sort of calculations or functions.
- Don’t re-use field names. If you're going to have calculations on your fillable PDF form, you'll need to give every form field a unique name. You can re-use field names from document to document, but you can't reuse fields on different pages of the same document, or it will conflict with calculations.
- Don’t use symbols in field names. Acrobat is picky about the names you pick. Don't include any symbols in field names that will be calculated. (For example, don't name a field like this with dashes: 3-6-2012) Acrobat will attempt to subtract the numbers within the field name as it makes calculations.
Photo Credit: Angelo DeSantis