Join Michael Murphy for an in-depth discussion in this video InDesign vs. Acrobat: Which to use, and why?, part of Creating PDF Forms with InDesign.
Before we get into how exactly to set up an InDesign document that can be turned into an interactive PDF form, you might be asking why you should use Indesign to create an interactive PDF form since the same result can be achieved in Acrobat. And that's a perfectly valid question. So let's take a quick look at how Acrobat has historically been used to create PDF forms from InDesign documents and compare that to building form functionally right within InDesign. In this document, I've got a fairly simple form layout.
And right now, it would just be a static form. I could print it out and have it filled out, but I want to turn it into a PDF form. So, the normal workflow has been I would export this to Acrobat and use Acrobat's tools to turn it into a working PDF form. So, let's do that by choosing File > Export. I'll save this to my desktop and for this particular workflow, it doesn't matter whether if I choose Adobe PDF for Print or for Interactive. So I'm just going to leave it at Print for now. Click Save and here also, I don't really have to concern myself with these export settings because I'm just doing this as a test, but I do want to make sure that View PDF after Exporting is on so it'll open automatically in Acrobat.
I'll click Export and there's my PDF form, and it looks just like my InDesign layout. There's no form functionality here still. To make this a working form, I'll choose Tools, then Forms and click Create. I'm asked if I want to create this from scratch or from a template or from an existing document. I want to create this from an existing document, so I'll choose that, then Next. And I want to create if from my current document, so I'll just click Continue. And in almost no time, Acrobat has completed the task and it puts me into Form Editing Mode.
I'll dismiss the dialogue that's telling me that. And you can see here that I have a number of text fields in here and Acrobat's done a fairly good job of associating all of the text adjacent to those fields with the fields themselves, although not as successfully down here where it says undefined. But there are a few things that Acrobat really hasn't done that well and Acrobat's results will vary, sometimes dramatically, depending on the layout of your form and the elements within it.
So one of the problems I noticed right away is that up here at the top, under Membership Status, these options should be either or. I shouldn't be able to pick more than one. So they should be radio buttons, but when I look at them over here in the Fields pane, they're all just check boxes, which means I can check as many of them as I would like. And that's also the case for these Conference Registration options. I should only be able to pick one of these, but as I scroll down here, these are all check boxes, so I can check as many as I like.
And finally, up here where it says Print and Submit, these should be working buttons that either print the form or submit it. But right now, they're just static boxes with text in them and I would have to add that button functionality. Now, none of these fixes are all that horrible. It'll take me a little time, but not that much. But all the work has to be done here in Acrobat and the problem with that is if I then have to make a change to this form and modify my InDesign document and re-export it, all of these little fixes that I do are going to be lost and I'll have to do them again.
So, unless I know this is a completely final form ready to go out the door, I'm going to have to be prepared to do more work on the back-end every time I export this PDF using this method. Let's compare this to how we'd do it the InDesign way. I'm going to close this PDF without saving it and I'm going to switch to my InDesign-based form layout in this document, which, when viewed in Preview mode, looks exactly like the other form. However, when I turn off Preview mode and look at it in Normal view, you can see there's a lot more going on in this layout than there was in the other.
I'm going to zoom in a little bit here by switching to the Zoom tool and you can see that where to the naked eye, I have only underlines for fill-in fields, I actually have drawn shapes here for all of the fields in this form. And the same goes for all of the check boxes, which are actually drawn shapes, and the radio buttons as well. And for each of these, there is interactivity assigned to it. If I select any of these text fields and go to Window > Interactive > Buttons and Forms, I can see that this selected field is a text field.
It has a name of Company, the description is also Company, it's printable, and it has a font size setting. And these types of settings, although they're unique for different types of fields, are applied to every shape you see in this layout. Now, establishing all this functionality for all of these fields does require more up-front time. Depending on your form, it could be quite a bit more up-front time, but let's take a look at the payoff for that extra work up-front. I'm now going to export this layout as a PDF by choosing File > Export, but this time around, I have to chose Adobe PDF Interactive.
None of the form functionality that I've built into InDesign is going to survive the trip to Acrobat unless I check this option. I'll also save this to my desktop. Click Save. And we'll go into these options more in-depth later in the course, but at a minimum, I need to make sure that Include All is checked for Forms and Media in order for my form functionality to be preserved. I'll click OK. The form is exported and it opens up in Acrobat. When I look at this version of my form, I immediately see some subtle differences.
For example, some text fields that are outlined in red, which indicate that they're required fields and that was established in my InDesign layout. When I hover over my Print and Submit buttons, I get rollover states and these are actual working buttons that will print or submit my form respectively. If I go back to Tools and edit my form, we can see that Membership Status is in fact a series of radio buttons. They're either or choices grouped together. If I scroll down the list, the same is true for Conference Information and for Method of Contact and Payment Method.
So, all my fields are the right type of field and all of my buttons are functioning. And I have additional things in here like a signature field and required fields. All of which was established in InDesign. So, this version of the form, where the prep work was done in InDesign is much, much further along and far more accurate than the results that I got by using Acrobat's built-in tools. But the ultimate benefit here is that if I have to go back and change anything in this InDesign document, if I have to make any revisions at all, everything about this form is saved in the InDesign document.
So when I re-export it to PDF and replace this one, all of this functionality will still be here. I won't have to go in and make a number of repetitive fixes, as I would have the other way. So, when you're trying to decide if you should go with Acrobat-based form creation or InDesign-based, the deciding factor is really going to be how final your form is. If it's a one-time form that you just need to get out the door and off your plate, in that case, running it through Acrobat and making a handful of fixes and moving on is a perfectly valid choice.
But if you think you're going to have to come back to this form and make further changes, whether it's later the same day or week from now or six months from now. Or if you think that there are elements of this form that you could copy and use in other projects, then the up-front time spent building an interactive form in InDesign will pay off for you substantially and save you much more time down the line.
- Designing hybrid (print/PDF) forms
- Working with styles
- Creating text fields
- Adding check boxes and buttons
- Using button actions to present contextual options
- Exporting and distributing a PDF form