Acrobat 6 Pro — a new forms layout tool?

Note: The following covers Acrobat 6 Pro version only.

The Challenge

I was recently asked by my employer to do some research on various form designer packages to see what they had to offer. Right around that time Acrobat 6 was released, but to consider it a fully featured forms ‘layout’ tool was the last thing on my mind. Little did I know that I would soon change my mind. After working with Acrobat 6 Pro for a while and getting to know all the new and useful tools it has, it gradually started to dawn on me that it offers form design and layout capabilities that one could only dream about with the previous versions of Acrobat.

The earlier versions are good at enhancing (adding fillable fields) form layouts created in other applications, and then converted to static PDF forms, but to actually try to create complex form layouts from scratch with the older versions (emphasis on the word try) was mostly an exercise in futility. Acrobat versions 3, 4, and 5 just aren’t layout tools, period.

New Possibilities

Acrobat 6 Pro changes all this. New features such as Rich Text support, rulers, guides, measurement tools, the table tool, and more, now provide form designers with a layout tool set that rivals the best dedicated form designer tools currently available! All this new layout power is sort of strange in that Acrobat 6 still lacks a File | New feature to allow users to create a new blank PDF document.

I’m not even going to speculate as to why this strange omission still persists in the File menu. It’s an easy problem to remedy. Simply open the JavaScript Console and type in the following line of JavaScript:


and execute it. This will create a new blank PDF document. See the Acrobat 6 JavaScript manual under newDoc (page 74) for an example of how you can create your own File | New plugin. While on this topic I want to thank Adobe for finally starting to include some useful and usable code examples in the JavaScript manual.

Try The Demo

PDF Expert demo formSince a picture, or in this case a working demo, speaks a thousand words, I’ve included a ‘Lorem Ipsum’ version of the original proof of concept form I designed for my employer. You can view it in Adobe Reader 6, Acrobat Standard 6, and even Acrobat 5, but you will need Acrobat 6 Pro to be able to edit the form. By activating the Select Object Tool (Tools > Advanced Editing > … ), you will immediately notice that the form contains nothing but form fields. Some fields are used for layout purposes only, and they have been set to Read Only, while the data input fields remain editable.

Now a brief disclaimer is in order. This demo form was not designed to be used as a fillable or interactive PDF form. It is only designed to demonstrate the new page layout capabilities of Acrobat 6 Pro. Things like the tabbing sequence and data formatting have not been completed.

Like any software, Acrobat 6 Pro does have its own idiosyncracies. While building this demo a few quirks soon became evident.

The table tool is quite unique and does not work like most table tools. Do expect a bit of a learning curve, but with a bit of practice you will become adept at using this new table tool. Trying to do fine alignment with the mouse or keyboard can be difficult since there is no option for controlling the amount of ‘nudge’ you can apply. Instead, learn to rely on the built-in alignment tools, guides and grids with the Snap To option activated. The new and vastly improved pan and zoom tools are also very useful for getting in really close for doing those fine adjustments.

Be sure to activate the Properties Bar (View | Toolbars menu). You need it to access the Rich Text formatting tools. It also provides you with intelligent shortcuts to many properties that frequently need to be accessed.

How It All Comes Together

The demo form does use a few unconventional tactics to fine tune the layout. Some of these tactics include using Tab spaces to produce some of the more complex alignments in the Rich Text fields, manipulating the size of blank lines to get some of the leading (fractional line spacing) to match the original form, and on a few occasions actual spacer text had to be used to create very fine adjustments in alignment. This spacer text was them made white so it would disappear into the background.

I’ll be the first to admit that Acrobat 6 Pro is not a PostScript page layout tool, but the same can be said of virtually every forms design package. They all have minimal typographical controls. The tactics I used to get the demo form to look just right are very familiar to most form designers who use these dedicated form design packages, so I make no apologies for using them.

The bottom line is this: Acrobat 6 Pro is just as capable of producing complex form layouts as other dedicated form design packages. So if you are in the business of producing PDF forms, then you should consider consolidating your layout, scripting, and interface development into a single application. It could lead to significant cost savings, less maintenence, flatter learning curves, and a more efficient forms development workflow.

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About the Author: Bryan Guignard

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