Using form-field recognition in Adobe Acrobat 8 Pro

Learn how to use the form-field recognition capabilities in Acrobat 8 Pro.

By Carl Young – January 20, 2007


Among the biggest Acrobat-related hits during the recent 2006 Adobe MAX conference were the hands-on sessions highlighting the new form-field recognition capabilities in Acrobat 8 Professional.

In several sessions led by Lori DeFurio (I was a proctor in the classes), students whistled and applauded as she demonstrated the use of the latest version of Acrobat to automatically process a form and create text, a digital signature and checkbox fields. Several attendees told me afterward that they would upgrade just to obtain this one feature.

In this article, you will get hands-on experience with Acrobat 8’s form-field recognition capabilities and learn some techniques for completing the form-creation process.

Before you begin

Unfortunately, form-field recognition is lightly documented. I could find only three brief mentions of it in the Acrobat 8 Professional User Guide, which is available on your installation CD. Here are some tips and observations based on what I saw in Lori’s class and my own experience:

  • Clearly marked fields, such as those inside boxes, are more easily recognized.
  • If you are scanning a paper form, get as sharp an image as possible. Sharp lines that delineate fields and crisp text will work better than blurry lines and text. Try both the Formatted Text & Graphics and Searchable Image options in Document > OCR Text Recognition > Recognize Text Using OCR and use whichever gives the best results.
  • Acrobat will name the field for the text it sees closest to the field.
  • Acrobat should create a Digital Signature field if it sees “Signed” or “Signature.” (However, it doesn’t in the sample form I use for demonstration later in this article.)
  • Acrobat will most likely produce checkboxes instead of radio buttons.
  • Acrobat may name a field “Date,” but it won’t insert a date format.
  • Acrobat will not set a number format for fields that should contain numbers instead of text.
  • Text size will be Auto, meaning text in the field will shrink when the user reaches the end of the field.
  • The default font will be Helvetica.

So what will form-field recognition accomplish? It will save a lot of time by creating most of the fields for you. You may have to change the size or formatting of a field, but automatic form-field recognition takes a lot of drudgery out of creating forms.

Add fields automatically

For a sample file, I used the U.S. Postal Service Change of Address form. As you can see, this is a non-fillable PDF form, like many on the Web.

To add fields in Acrobat 8 Professional, choose Forms > Run Form Field Recognition.

Figure 1: The non-fillable form above (top), and the form after Form-Field Recognition (above on bottom) has been run

If your results are like mine, you’ll have to perform some minor cleanup. In my demonstration file, for example, the Fax Number and Attention Line fields are one field instead of two; and the Company Name, Taxpayer ID and Attention Line are missing, Acrobat missed the Digital Signature Field at the bottom and the checkboxes don’t force the user to choose just one option.

No problem. We can fix these minor errors quickly.

Fix the text fields

First, we will give the text fields a uniform look by specifying a font family and size.

1. Choose the Text Field tool from the Forms toolbar.

2. Then choose Edit > Select All to grab all the text fields at once.

3. Right-click (Mac OS option-click) a field and choose Properties.

4. Specify a font family and a font size. I selected 10 as the size and Arial as the family.

Figure 2: Font and Font Size properties
See larger image

5. Choose Edit > Deselect All and then right-click (Mac OS option-click) a field and select Use Current Properties as New Defaults. From now on, every field you create will have the characteristics you specified in step 4.

Since you should have the Text Field tool selected, add fields to Company Name, Taxpayer ID and Attention Line. To keep our form consistent, go to the General tab of Text Field Properties and use the caption information as the field name.

You also should rename the ACS Shipping Information field Fax Number, resize it and add an Attention Line. Do the same for ACS Billing Information. Go through the form and make any other changes you think should be made to text fields. Remember to use the right-click (Mac OS option-click) commands for field alignment and sizing.

Next, click the Date Signed field at the bottom of the page. Resize it and in the Text Field Properties dialog box choose Format > Category > Date > mm/dd/yyyy.

At this point you should switch to the Hand tool and enter some sample data into the form. Make any necessary changes to the text fields, such as giving the ZIP+4 fields a ZIP+4 format in Field Properties > Format > Custom > Zip Code + 4.

Now let’s step back and look at our text fields. When I see a text field instead of a Combo Box (Pull-down list in other applications) for a list of states, I think ‘Oh-oh. Potential user data entry error here.’ So let’s use a consulting trick to add a list of states. We are going to use a list of states someone else added to their website.

  1. Delete the State and State_2 text fields.
  2. In Acrobat, go to the Create PDF button and chose From Web Page.
  3. Once Acrobat has turned the Public Radio International program locator into a PDF, you now have a list of states you can reuse.
  4. Choose the Combo Box tool from the Forms toolbar.
  5. Copy the list of states from the PRI page and paste it onto your Postal Service form. Position the field in the State box.
  6. Format the list to match your other fields and rename it State.
  7. Copy the state list and paste it into the ACS Shipping Information block. Change the name to State_2.

Finish up

To complete the form, we will change the Signature field to a Digital Signature, and fix our checkboxes.

  1. Use the Text Field tool to select and delete the text field in the Signature block. Switch to the Digital Signature tool and add a DigSig field to the signature block.
  2. Now for the checkboxes. There are a bunch here, and they all get the same treatment. You will change a pair to be mutually exclusive so the answer is Yes or No, but not both. I’ll leave it to you to finish the rest.
  3. Take a look at the ACS Participation block. There is a column of Yes/No questions. Notice that you can have both Yes and No selected at once. We are going to fix that.
  4. Select the Checkbox tool from the Forms Toolbar, choose the first No checkbox and delete it.
  5. Now choose the Y checkbox. Rename it Keyline 1, switch to the Options tab and make the Export Value Y. Now copy and paste it over the No box, or use the left-click Ctrl drag option to duplicate the field.
  6. To make checkboxes or radio buttons mutually exclusive, they must have identical names, but different export values. So leave the name field over the No box as Keyline 1, but go into the Options tab and enter an export value of N.
  7. Use the same procedure on the remaining checkboxes, test the form and you are done.


While automatic form-field recognition in Acrobat 8 isn’t perfect, it certainly can give you a nice headstart on making a static PDF form fillable. I estimate that using it on this form would cut production time in half.

Give it a try, and I bet you will find that auto form-field recognition will save you time, too.

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