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Every couple weeks we’ll get a call from a client producing interactive PDF forms. Inevitably, what they want is a way to define the Acrobat form fields directly in their InDesign layout.

There isn’t a way yet to build your form fields in InDesign. However Acrobat 8’s new automatic Form Field Recognition feature can save you a lot of work the next time a PDF Form project crosses your desk.

Unfortunately, the new Form Field Recognition feature in Acrobat 8 Professional is lightly documented (a euphemism we borrowed from Carl Young). In today’s creative tip we’ve provided some sample files and a simple tutorial to walk you through the basics. Plus we’ve compiled a collection of links to articles that dig deeper into the voodoo art of form field recognition.

Step 1: Create your form layout in Adobe InDesign.

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Build your form layout in Adobe InDesign. For this example we’ve used tabs to create the underlined areas, and stroked rectangles for the checkboxes and card number areas. You can download a zipped copy of our the original document to see for yourself in InDesign CS2 or CS3:

Credit Card Form.zip

Step 2: Export the form as a PDF, and Open in Acrobat 8 Professional.

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Export your form as a PDF. Choose File > Export and select Adobe PDF as your format. Open the resulting PDF in Acrobat 8 Professional. You can download our example PDF below:

Credit Card Form – Before.pdf

Step 3: Choose Forms > Run Form Field Recognition.

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There are no options for this command. Acrobat 8 Professional inspects your PDF using it’s own internal logic and guesses where to insert new form-fields. You can download the results of this auto-recognition on our sample:

Credit Card Form – After.pdf

Step 4: Inspect and correct the form results.

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When Acrobat’s guesses are accurate the results can be astounding.

In this example, Acrobat correctly identified all the major form fields, including several checkboxes, a special comb-field for the credit card number, and a digital signature field at the bottom. This is a form we’ve used in our own office for years, and the first time we ran it through Acrobat’s Form Field Recognition, we were amazed at how well Acrobat identified the major fields.

The process is rarely perfect. You’ll need to clean-up your forms, add missed fields, adjust default font settings, and other general clean-up. When it works this feature should save you a lot of time.

Acrobat’s Form-Field Voodoo.

But what do you do when Acrobat’s guesses are way off? In our case, Acrobat refused to recognize half of the checkbox rectangles in our original form — and with no options, preferences, or documentation for this auto recognize feature, we were left guessing about how to fix the problem.

We’ve introduced the term “Form-Field Voodoo” into our Acrobat lexicon. After playing with a variety of adjustments, changing the stroke width on our in-line rectangles solved this particular recognition problem. For now, the troubleshooting process is hard to document and somewhat reliant on intuition.

More Acrobat Form Recognition Resources:

Using form-field recognition in Adobe Acrobat 8 Professional A well-written introductory tutorial on form-field recognition. Uses forms from the United States Post Office as a clever example. — by Carl Young at the Adobe Acrobat User Community site.

Forms from Scratch using Adobe InDesign CS3 and Acrobat 8 Professional Another good tutorial showing the InDesign-to-Acrobat process with a little more detail on inspecting and cleaning up forms after running the auto-recognize feature. — by Tim Huff on the “I did not know Acrobat could do that” blog.

Prepare Forms for Run Form Field Recognition Run Form Field Recognition works great on simple forms. However, the Run Form Field Recognition feature really falls apart when trying to recognize fields on complex and graphically intense forms. This blog entry describes a clever way to use a temporary layer in InDesign/Acrobat to provide cleaner Form Field Recognition, which can be deleted after the form is created. — by Ted Padova on his Acrobat User Community Blog. (Note: We might write this technique up as a tip ourselves in some future issue)

Automated Forms with Acrobat 8 and InDesign Steve Warner provides another take (with more straightforward language) on Ted’s temporary-layer technique for creating complex auto-recognized forms. — by Steve Werner on InDesign Secrets.

Lori DeFurio’s Acrobat Tips A large collection of tips (including some video tips) for getting the most out of Adobe Acrobat. Including an interesting little tutorial on calculation fields in Acrobat. — by Lori DeFurio on the Adobe Acrobat User Community site. (This link was recommended by reader Deane Nettles)

Source: This tip inspired by Jason Hoppe’s excellent mini-workshop last Wednesday on creating interactive PDFs in Acrobat. The new auto-recognition features in Acrobat 8 are always a crowd pleaser.

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