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Special Feature 29 September 2014
Moving forms online: Bring forms printing back to your shop with interactive PDFs
By Bob Atkinson

In GM's October 2013 issue we took a look at a specialty market that got away, and explored how you can bring it back to your shop. One market segment that’s been impacted less than others by the decade-long decline in business levels is forms printing. Each month, millions of print forms are used in Canada, whether simple one-part forms or multi-section/multi-copy forms.

That said, over the same decade we’ve seen a big move away from paper forms to electronic, designed to be completed and returned online. The shift started in the late ’90s when federal and provincial governments and big businesses (the largest users of forms) began adopting interactive PDFs or web-based forms. Many of the existing forms-printing companies moved to keep up, adding electronic form products and services, but much of the work disappeared into government and enterprise IT or fulfillment departments.

Smaller businesses and local governments still use a lot of paper forms, but as the cost and complexity of developing and maintaining an e-forms system goes down, they’re increasingly moving to digital as well. If you’re a printer—especially a printer with forms experience—it’s now quite easy to offer electronic forms products and services using software you already know, like Adobe’s InDesign and Acrobat. Let’s have a look.

An interactive PDF eZine subscription form buil entirely in In Design CC. The actions of each interactive element can be customized in the Buttons and Forms Properties panel

The two most common types of eforms are direct webpages connected to a database on the sender’s server, and interactive PDFs which can be viewed and completed online or downloaded to fill out later. If you have in-house web development services you already know how to build and deploy forms directly on a client’s website. But for the 90% of Canadian print shops who do not possess that skill set in-house, let’s talk about building and using interactive PDFs.

The PDF format has long included the ability to use rich media (audio and video clips), interactive controls (buttons, check boxes, URL links, navigation to other sections of the document, etc.) and the ability to enter text or numerical information with text boxes or pop-up lists. An ‘interactive’ form like this can be used directly on a website using the standard PDF plug-in that’s built in to all browsers, or downloaded to the user’s system from a website or email and then opened with Adobe’s free Acrobat Reader. Either way, when a user completes the form and hits ‘Submit’ (or ‘Send’ or ‘Done’), the data entered and choices made are returned to the appropriate person or organization. This data can be sent through an automatically generated e-mail or posted to a specific web-based data entry page, depending on the client’s preference. 

A simple eZine subscription form, just text and graphic elements, created in QuarkXpress 9.5.1 and exported to PDF format. It was converted to an interactive PDF in Acrobat Pro

Either way, it's automatically entered into a database. It happens in the background. Most pre-press and design departments at print shops use Adobe’s InDesign for page layout and Acrobat for producing print- or web-ready PDF files. As InDesign and other programs like QuarkXpress gained more and more PDF and interactive capabilities over the past several years, the need for Acrobat has been reduced to specialty applications like online collaboration, proofing and approvals. But many shops still combine a page layout program with Acrobat to create interactive PDFs. The process is relatively easy.

You create the form in a program like InDesign or QuarkXpress (or even MS Word), then save it as a PDF file. In your design you include form instructions, related graphics or logos, boxes for text entry, check boxes (where more than one box can be checked) or radio buttons (where only one can be chosen from a set), etc.

All you’re creating are the text and graphics—nothing is interactive yet. When you open the PDF in a recent version of Acrobat, you convert the file to an Interactive Form. Acrobat searches the page(s) for items that appear to be text entry boxes, check boxes or radio buttons, etc., and when it finds them, it converts them into actual interactive items. You’ll still need to specify what the variable names for each item are when sent out (i.e.: firstname, lastname, email address, phone number, etc.)—these variable names are the same ones the client uses when user information is posted to their database.

One important note if you use this workflow—you’ll need to keep the planned interactive objects very simple when designing them. If not, Acrobat will not recognize them as interactive items. Even then, Acrobat may not recognize all of them, so be prepared to use the Acrobat tools to add text boxes, buttons, etc. as needed. If you work with InDesign CS6 or InDesign CC, you can complete the entire process within these programs. To create an interactive PDF, create a new InDesign file with any online dimensions you want and add the desired non-interactive elements.
Now switch to InDesign’s Interactive for PDF interface and tool set (in the upper-right corner drop-down menu). Open the Sample Buttons and Forms panel and you’ll find a complete collection of interactive objects. Pick any one and drag it onto the layout. (You can also create simple interactive elements using the regular tools for adding a text box or solid box. Right-click the element and follow the Interactive and Convert To options in the popup that appears.)

Now you can customize the appearance of each interactive element with the usual Colour and Border controls, and adjust their interactive features using the Buttons and Forms panel. There, you can specify what function each element will have. When your form is ready you can save it as an InDesign file and as a PDF, then test it in Acrobat Reader to see how it works.With InDesign or QuarkXpress (and, optionally, Acrobat) you can offer interactive PDF forms with relatively little effort, and it can be a lucrative product niche.

Bob Atkinson is a technology consultant with graphic art and publishing clients all over North America.

*This article was first published in the October 2013 edition of Graphic Monthly.*
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