How to create interactive PDF forms

If you’re like me then you like everything from your website down to your legal contracts to look well designed and function to your client’s liking — which in most cases is… easily!

The problem with creating forms and other documentation for a client to fill out is most are created in Microsoft Word, or other form of word processors, because we’re afraid the client won’t have the right software to open, add to it and return it.

In doing so, the design is compromised because of word processor’s inability to function like professional design software. While MS Word is typically found on most computers and regarded as the most compatible document to send someone to fill out and return, that doesn’t mean you can’t have your cake (aka “good design capabilities”) and eat it too (aka “compatibility).

Adobe Acrobat Professional to the rescue!

Adobe Acrobat Professional gives you the ability to turn your previously designed, standard PDF file into an interactive form that clients can download, easily fill out, print or effortlessly return to you by email. All they need is the free Adobe Acrobat Reader, which can be download here. And most clients I’ve spoke with already have it installed. Here’s how you can create your own interactive PDF:

Create your document

First, design your documentation or form in the software of your choice. InDesign is my first choice of page layout programs, but feel free pick your own…

Once you’re completely satisfied with the design, save it as a PDF.

Open it in Acrobat Pro

From the top toolbar, choose File > Create PDF > From File… Then, choose the PDF file you created above and click Open.

pdf open in acrobat

You should now see your beautifully designed PDF open in Acrobat Pro with a toolbar that looks similar to the highlighted image above. This toolbar is where you provide interactivity to your static PDF.

Adding Interactivity

Select the Text Field Tool (pictured below):

text tool

Drag out boxed areas on your PDF where you would like the client to add their information. NOTE: Acrobat can also use its auto-detection feature to assign text box areas to predetermined underlined areas.

text field area

After each box you create, a dialog box will appear that allows you to customize the text field area. Below you can see my changes, but feel free to customize to your liking.

general

appearance

options

Adding the ‘Submit’ Button

Now that you have your text areas specified, it’s time to add a ‘submit’ button so your clients can easily email you back the completed form.

For this we need to select the Combo Box tool (highlighted below):

combo box tool

Once again, drag out an area where you would like your ‘submit’ button to appear.

combo box area

Again, a dialog box will appear. While you can customize these settings as well, the steps (images) I have listed below are essential for making the form submittal by email.

actions

Once you click ‘Add…’ a new dialog box will appear. Change these settings to:

url for submittal

Click ‘Ok’ and continue making changes to the other tabs:

submit options

click to email

Click ‘Close’. You should now have text areas and a submit button that looks similar to this:

completed form

Last Step… Customize the Form Preferences

This step is not necessary but handy!

From the menu bar choose Acrobat > Preferences… (or Edit > Preferences on a PC). From here you are able to change the default yellow highlighted text areas (seen above) to better fit the look of your form.

customize form settings

That’s it! You now have a PDF document that can be edited by your clients and quickly emailed back to you.



Discussion and Comments

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  1. [...] How to create interactive PDF forms to impress your clients | The Design Cubicle [...]

  2. Shayne says:

    I have done a complete interactive sales aid for a client as a PDF. It is working beautifully and they are loving it – however when the first click through happens from the first to the second page in full screen mode, the page size shrinks considerably… and its all been laid out in Quark in one document.

    Any ideas why I am getting the page size jump? Its only happening on the PC side, I’ve tested it on laptops and monitors on both platforms and it just started happening, and only in full screen mode.

    Your ideas would be very helpful. Thank you!

  3. Brian says:

    Shayne
    Unfortunately, I’m not a PC user and have not been able to test it on a PC. Many of my clients are PC-based and never heard complaints about it. I’ll will do some asking around and try to get a better response to you.

  4. Jean-marc says:

    Hi Brian,
    I recently created my first interactive PDF form and I now have a little problem that you might be able to help me fix.
    I have an interactive box for a zip code that is giving me problem. When I try to enter a zip code I get this comment:
    “the value entered does not match the format of the field [RZIPCode]”
    How can I correct this?

  5. Brian says:

    Afovea,
    I’ll have to look into that for you. Feel free to email me, brianhoff@thedesigncubicle.com and i can look a little further into the problem with the right details.

  6. Dan says:

    Brian, I’ve been scouring the web for tutorials on this very thing, except now that I have made on using “designer” and published it to web I’m wondering if I can send the form results to an ASP script so that the PDF could directly be mailed with out having to save the file first or point the form to an external email app. Essentially just use Acrobat or Designer to create the form and pass the data on to something like form2mail. Any suggestions???

  7. Regarding Philip Downer’s comment about tax forms, specifically W9 – I was filling one out recently using Adobe Acrobat, the first time I’ve filled one out this way, but when I got to the signature line I got stumped.. I have a digital signature on-hand (just a scanned signature in PNG format) and I was trying to just insert it in the correct spot but couldn’t figure out how. I ended up just opening the PDF form in Illustrator and placing the PNG… What’s the best way to insert signatures through Acrobat? Is there a way?

  8. Dan says:

    Daniel, see this article from Adobe… http://www.adobe.com/security/digsig.html
    About half way down the page you’ll see Create a digital signature.pdf under Certified Documents. Hope this helps.

    Dan

  9. Shannon says:

    Hello– is there a way to override the security in an interactive from so that I can edit it (it was created by our former ad agency)? I am able to make the changes I need, but upon saving, I am unable to maintain a very important feature– saving the form. That is, folks filling it out need to be able to save it to their computer (it is very involved and can take clients in out industry months to fill out). After I made my edits, I was alerted that this feature was no longer available. I see in the PDF Properties that Document Assembly and Creation of Template Pages is not allowed?

  10. Hi Brian,
    I’m an illustrator just learning Photoshop , very traditional painter in watercolors & acrylics. I just started painting pet portraits on the side and wanted to make an interactive commission form. Using Adobe Acrobat 7 on a Mac and I did the form over 4 times and simply cannot get the submit button to work. I tried sending it cack and forth to myself from the above email addy to my gmail addy, like someone said above tries to open in preview, doesn’t work…
    So hard to find a way to do this on a Mac (g4, OSX10.4.1)
    I’m so frustrated, I really want to make this happen!
    If you send me your email addy, maybe I could send it to you.
    Thanks so much!
    Wendy Edelson

  11. Troy says:

    Shannon. Unfortunately, if you are using Acrobat Reader to fill out a form you will not be able to save the completed form. It can be printed, but not saved. Not really a security issue. Rather a limitation of Reader. If you are using Acrobat Pro then you can save the file under a new name.

    This limitation has definitely cause me to use these types of forms much less than I would like to. I have a creative brief in this format but few of my clients are willing to invest in Acrobat Pro. It would be nice if they could at least save a copy to their machines in addition to submitting the file to me.

  12. Brian,
    Wendy Edelson again here, it was very late when I posted the previous post.
    After 5 hours of sleep I remembered that I had meant to write, also, that when the form is opened in Adobe Reader and I click “Submit” a message comes up and tells me that “This Operation Is Not Permitted”
    Some other instructions on forms from PDFs inform me that “if the users that fill in the PDF form are using Adobe Reader you must choose either FDF or XFDF for the Export Format option……” I tried this in the “Action” section but this is not what the person meant…still doesn’t work….
    any ideas why not?
    Help please
    thank you
    best, Wendy

  13. Hi again Brian,
    ok last comment
    I changed PDF to FDF in Actions and clicked all fields and now it opens perfectly in Adobe Reader.
    The only place it is nonfunctional is in Preview, but if I download it, then I can fill out the form and click submit and it all works!
    Is the Preview nonfunctional thing normal?
    thanks
    I wonder why yours worked with PDF checked? You’re on a Mac, too, right?
    I would love a response on all this.
    thanks
    Wendy

  14. Sylvia says:

    I seconded Jodith’s comment regarding the COST. Apparently in its EULA there’s a statement that only up to 500 data can be collected, whether by paper or online submission, per form. So legally any forms created using Acrobat pro or Lifecycle requires the Reader Extension bit to let more than 500 users and this costs heaps. Please correct me if I am wrong and I am certainly happier if I am wrong….

  15. michael G says:

    Thanx for your helpful post,
    i’d like to ask if you know a way to put a javascript that can convert numeric values to words like when i write 300 it writes three hundred in another box

  16. boringrick says:

    Nice tutorial. Simple and worked perfectly for my needs. I wonder why you used a combo field rather than a button field for the submit button?

  17. James says:

    Hi, Can you open the interactive forms created in Acrobat 7 pro from any basic acrobat reader and submit via email?

  18. Dee says:

    Hi,

    Thanks for the tutorial. I just got Adobe Acrobat 9 and this tutorial will help. I recently, though, created an interactive form with Acrobat 7 and now I see that when numbers are typed in, commas are added. Very inconvenient in phone numbers. Do you have any trouble-shooting ideas? Or a direction I could go in? You are the main source on a web search for Adobe Acrobat!

    Thanks for the informative tutorial.

  19. [...] Interactive PDF’s That Impress Clients [...]

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Brian Hoff
About Brian Hoff: Designer, Writer and Speaker

I’m a graphic designer living in Brooklyn, New York who loves creating compelling and useful websites and memorable interactions across the web. When I’m not designing I can be found writing, speaking and occasionally part-time teaching at colleges — all on the subject of design. I started this blog to share my passion and experiences with designers and clients. I'm most active on Twitter; say hello:


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