PDF forms can actually be as attractive as HTML5 forms. But just like those home renovation shows on HGTV, to make it pretty you need to gut the place before you apply the new design. Click on the image above to download an example.
Ever since Bootstrap and a few of the other gorgeous HTML5 UI frameworks have come out, I’ve been a bit envious. Using Acrobat, there’s a lot you can do with PDF text fields and standard buttons, but the options for radio buttons and checkboxes are more limited. You can set the colors and border style and have a few options for the symbol to be used when the item is selected but that’s about it. PDF is actually far more flexible than the options Acrobat… and every other PDF authoring tool… present you with.
In PDF, the representation of the field value on the page is completely separate from the value of the field itself; they are associated with each other but they are very different things. This means you can change the visual components of the field, known in the PDF specification as “appearances”, without changing anything about how the field works. This separation of the data layer and the presentation layer is what makes PDF forms so powerful. You can represent your data in any way you like while storing the data as values that make sense to your backend application… just like HTML5.
The only reason that PDF forms (generally) are not as pretty as HTLM5 forms is that when you use Acrobat to create a radio button or checkbox field, the application automatically creates some rather generic looking appearances for the button states; checked or unchecked. Unlike button fields, you don’t get the option to select the graphics that represent the various states of those elements… but that doesn’t mean you can’t. You just need to have a good PDF library tool and some basic programming skills to replace the existing appearances for the fields and replace them with your own. I used the PDF Java Toolkit to create the sample file above. Because the customized fields can be copied from document to document, I can create a set of “form clip art” that you can use over and over again.
If you need your PDF forms to really stand out, contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss how to apply this technology to your next project.