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How to Create Fillable PDF Forms on Your Mac

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Difficulty:BeginnerLength:MediumLanguages:

Most of us have filled out at least one PDF form but may not have been sure how the trick was done. We’re going to take a look at two surprisingly simple ways to make PDF forms with fillable fields. It may seem like a complicated process but going through it, step by step, we’ll be creating our form PDFs in no time.

PDFs for the most part just seem like uneditable pieces of paper that happen to exist on our computers. You can read them and maybe even search them, but you sure can’t edit them. Except when you can. We’ll create a PDF fillable form from scratch and then try it out with one of Adobe FormsCentral’s templates.


What You'll Need:

  • Word processing application, such as Word, Open Office, or Google Drive
  • Adobe Acrobat

1. Creating a Form From Scratch

It's simple enough to create a PDF form yourself. The benefit of doing it all yourself is that you get to control exactly how everything in your form will look. Whereas with a template, you're hamstrung by what is already there. If you create your form on your own, you can make it into whatever you like. You'll see in the screenshots that I'm making a very basic form for the purpose of this tutorial, but you can get as creative as you like.

If you really want to have 100% control over every aspect of your form, and consider yourself something of a designer, check out the Vectortuts+ forms tutorial for a more in depth look at forms creation with Adobe InDesign!

Step 1: Create a Document

Create a the bones of your form in the word processing application of your choice. You can use anything you like, as long as you can export the finished product as a PDF.

Make sure, when you’re laying out your document, that you leave space for your form fields. All you need to worry about for now is the field labels.

I created my document in Google Drive, but you can use and word processing application. Export or save as a PDF.
I created my document in Google Drive, but you can use and word processing application. Export or save as a PDF.

Export your document as a PDF and save it where you can find it.

Step 2: Create a New Form in Acrobat

Open Acrobat and select the Create Form task. When prompted choose the option to create your form From Existing Document and import the PDF we created in Step 1.

Click Create Form under Select a Task.
Click Create Form under Select a Task.
Make sure to create your form From Existing Document.
Make sure to create your form From Existing Document.

If you get an error that Acrobat wasn’t able to process the document because of bad fonts, click OK. Everything’s going to be fine.

Don't worry about that funky error. It's going to be alright.
Don't worry about that funky error. It's going to be alright.

Step 3: Add Form Fields

Click Add New Field in the right sidebar under Tasks. You’ve got several field types to choose from, including text fields, checkboxes, and dropdown lists.

Choose the form field for your document.
Choose the form field for your document.

Select the form field type you’d like to use and place it in your document. You may need to resize your field, especially if it’s going to accept text.

Pop in your fields and resize them if necessary.
Pop in your fields and resize them if necessary.

If you want to provide your users with a set of options then you have a few different choices, among them checkboxes, radio buttons, list boxes, and dropdown lists. Checkboxes and radio buttons are similar in that the choices will appear as list items next to bullets that can be selected; however, you can click as many checkboxes as you like, but radio buttons only allow one value to be selected. Similarly, list boxes may allow for multiple selections (if you set this in your field properties), but dropdown lists will only let you choose one value.

Radio buttons are similar to checkboxes, but you must have at least two radio buttons.
Radio buttons are similar to checkboxes, but you must have at least two radio buttons.
Dropdowns save a lot of space, but you'll edit the choices in the options.
Dropdowns save a lot of space, but you'll edit the choices in the options.

Once you’ve got all of your fields in place take a look at Tab Order in the sidebar. This is the order in which the fields will be selected if users move within the document using the Tab key rather than their mouse. Click on each field name listed in order, watching as they are highlighted in the document. If they highlight in the correct order, that’s great. If not, reorder the fields in the Tab Order list until everything looks good.

Step 4: Set Form Field Properties

You may want to adjust how your field looks, or acts, in the final PDF and, to do that, you’ll need to edit each field’s properties. Select the field, with which you want to work, and click Edit Fields in the Tasks sidebar. Choose Show Field Properties from the menu. You can also get to the field’s properties by right-clicking on the field in the document and selecting Properties.

There are different preferences to edit for each type of field. In the text field, set a default value for the field in the Options to tab to give your users brief instructions. The Appearance tab allows you to change the font and text size for the field; this is important if space is limited so entry text doesn’t bump into the end of your field.

Get to the Options through Field Properties.
Get to the Options through Field Properties.

The Options tab in the Properties for both checkboxes and radio buttons lets you choose whether a box or button is selected by default. Appearance will change how the bullet looks, whether the border is thick or thin and if there’s a fill color.

For list boxes and dropdowns the Appearance tab does pretty much the same thing here as it did for text fields; you can change the font, text size, or even adjust the alignment. Options is what’s really important here, though. You’ll just have some empty boxes with nothing to select if you don’t add list items in the Options tab. Sort them with the Up and Down buttons, and if applicable, choose if you want to allow multiple selections.

Appearance will change how both the form field and user input looks.
Appearance will change how both the form field and user input looks.

Step 5: Save

Take a last look around. If everything seems good, save your file as a PDF. You can check that everything worked out just fine by opening your finished PDF in Preview or any other PDF viewer that won’t start trying to edit your form fields.

When you're done, your finished form will look like this, or even cooler.
When you're done, your finished form will look like this, or even cooler.

2. Creating a Form From a Template

If you’re the hands-off type (I’m obviously not, but it’s fine if you are) and don’t need to necessarily control how your document is created, you can use one of the form templates provided by Acrobat. Let’s take a look at creating a form from a template a how we can make those incredibly well-designed but incredibly specific Adobe templates more customized.

Note: I’m using Adobe Acrobat XI for this tutorial, which includes Adobe FormsCentral. If you have an older version of Acrobat, FormsCentral is available as a web app on the Adobe website.

Step 1: Open Acrobat

When you’re prompted to choose what kind of task you’d like to begin, select Create Form. This time, though, you won’t be loading in your own document; instead, choose From Scratch or Template. This will open FormsCentral for Acrobat, a sort of Mac app version of Adobe’s FormsCentral web app.

Step 2: Choose a Template

There are a lot of forms from which to choose; so many that I don’t can't put a number on how many templates, but you’ve got a bunch! You can sort by the purpose of the form or import your own template. FormsCentral will stop you if you try to import a regular PDF you want to turn into a form like we did above, though; anything you put into FormsCentral should already have form fields.

Choose a super awesome template.
Choose a super awesome template.

Step 3: Edit the Form Fields.

There’s likely a big image at the top of the form, which may be really cool but probably isn’t great for your form. If it is, leave it there and let everybody think you’re an awesome designer. No harm done. Let’s say the vector graphic of a pile of books doesn’t work for your Doctor Who rewatch club sign-up sheet, though. You know, just as an example. FormsCentral makes it simple to switch that image out.

You can edit a template field.
You can edit a template field.

The form fields in the template may not be just what you need, either. Click on any field to edit its properties, or select the field name to change the text label within the document. While you can’t edit the field type, for instance switching from text entry to checkboxes, you can change just about everything else.

Step 4: Add Fields

If you need to add more fields or the sorts of fields you want aren’t included, that’s easy peasy. Find where you want to insert the field and select the existing field that will either end up below the new field or next to it. You’ll see two plus sign icons appear next to the selected field, one in the upper left and the other to the right. To insert the new field above, click the upper left plus sign, and to place the field beside the current one, click the right side plus sign. (You can also add images and text this way, too!)

Add a new field to the template if you don't like what's there.
Add a new field to the template if you don't like what's there.

A toolbar will appear, above the new field, with options for the type of field you’d like to create. Select your field type, enter a label for the field, and complete any options. When you’re done, click outside of the field creation box.

Step 5: Save

When you’re done, click File in the upper right of the FormsCentral window, and choose Save as PDF form. Again, once you’ve saved your PDF, you can open it in Preview to verify your form fields are functioning correctly.

Save your PDF when you're done.
Save your PDF when you're done.

Learn more about Adobe Acrobat and Creative Cloud.


Final Thoughts

PDF fillable forms are great for gathering information, especially if you’re not sure whether respondents will be completing your form on their computers or by hand. Even better, it’s almost just as easy to create a fillable form as a static PDF if you’ve got the right tools.

Have you found another way to create PDF forms than what we talked about? Let us know in the comments!

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