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If you’re a freelancer, small business, or running a non-profit organization, fillable PDFs could be really useful for you. You might send them to clients to apply for your services, or to create a design brief for a project. You may use them yourself if you regularly need to provide clients with standard information that only changes a little, such as an invoice for payment. This article will show you how you can design your own fillable PDF form, completely free.
Free & Open Source Fillable PDF Creation
Most PDF-creating programs charge if you want to do anything more involved than reading a PDF. With LibreOffice Draw, an amazing open-source program in the LibreOffice Suite, you can take full control of creating documents including fillable PDFs, and it won’t cost you a dime.
Incidentally, LibreOffice Draw, which we covered more generally before, can be a decent overall alternative to Adobe InDesign and Adobe Illustrator for creating art, illustrations, and documents.
Adding Plain Text
After you download and start up LibreOffice Draw, your document will be blank. You’ll need the Drawing Toolbar to put shapes and text on the page, and you’ll probably find it at the bottom of your screen (although you can dock it where you prefer).
To put text on the page, click on the T symbol in the Drawing Toolbar, and then click on your document about where you want the text to go. I like to put down all the plain text (like titles, headers, and questions) first, roughly where I imagine they should go, and then move them around afterwards, taking into account the space for the answer fields.
To add a form field to your document you’ll need to turn on the Form Toolbar, which you’ll find under View > Toolbars > Form Controls. I re-sized mine to a more squat rectangle so you can view the name in the image.
To edit the form fields themselves, you’ll need to be in the Edit mode. Toggle the Edit mode on by clicking on the Form Control item that has a little hand on it, until it’s selected. Toggled off, you can ‘test’ the form itself to make sure it’s working the way you want the user to interact with it.
The Option Button (aka Radio Button)
If you want the person filling out your form to select 1 item from a list of options, add Option Buttons to your form (also known as Radio Buttons).
To add a set of Option Buttons, ensure Edit mode is turned on and click on the round Option Button item. Then click-and-drag a rectangle roughly where you want the option button and accompanying text to be on your document.
Right-click on the Option Button you just created and select ‘Control’.
Give this set of Option Buttons (the ones that represent possible answers to one question) a name. In this example, the question asks, “Did you liked the article?” and the three options will be ‘yes’, ‘a little bit’, and ‘not at all’. I’m calling the group of option buttons ‘liked-it’, and labeling the first Option ‘yes’.
After you create one option button, you can Copy it (CTRL-C) and Paste it (CTRL-V) (it may paste in place so you might not really see it until you move it), and then nudge it into position with the arrow key or by clicking-and-dragging, until it looks something like the below example.
The key to the Option Buttons is ensuring that each option that belongs to the same group has an identical name. When you toggle Edit mode off to test the buttons, you should be able to select only one of the options in a given group at a time.
The key difference between an Option Button and a Checkbox is that the Checkbox is designed to let the person filling out the form select multiple options.
To put checkboxes into your document, you’ll need to select the Checkbox item in the Form Control menu. You can ignore the 3 options at the end that are toggled-on. Draw a box where you want a Checkbox to appear, and then (just like with the Option Button) name the group and label the individual checkbox.
After that, copy-and-paste enough checkboxes for all the ones you need, move them into place, and re-label.
The Text Field
The option right after the Checkbox option is the Text Box, which allows for open-ended answers from the person filling out the form. This is the easiest one to create. Click-and-drag to create a rectangle for text-entry, and you’re done!
The important thing to remember is to make the text box large enough for the letters entered. You can choose the font that entered text appears in, but the program a person uses to fill it out may not necessarily render the spacing around the text the same way. That just means you’ll want to leave a little more space than you think you need, just to be on the safe side.
After you’ve got all of your form items placed in your PDF, you might want to organize and align them, so it doesn’t look like a jumble. Fortunately, LibreOffice Draw has a handy Align toolbar, which you can turn on by going to View > Toolbars > Align.
To use the Align toolbar, all you have to do is select the elements in your document (form or plain-text) by clicking-and-dragging to encircle them (or Shift+Click), and then click the appropriate button in the Align toolbar.
The upper left button will align everything to the left, the upper middle will centre things horizontally, and the upper right button will align everything to the left. The lower set of buttons vertically align elements, either to the top, centre, or bottom.
Test Your Fillable PDF
When you’re done creating your form, export the PDF and try it out in a program like Adobe Reader or one of it’s many alternatives. You can even test out the fillable PDF I created in LibreOffice Draw for this article.
There’s so much more that you can do with LibreOffice Draw when it comes to creating PDFs and forms. A hint of the customization options can be seen in the screenshots in this article, but you’ll have to dig in yourself for me. If you have very specific questions about PDFs, the LibreOffice Ask site is a great resource for learning more from advanced users.
Finally, for those of you who may be looking for a fillable PDF solution for work and have program installation locked down, never fear: there’s a portable version of LibreOffice you can carry on a USB stick, too.
LibreOffice has had PDF form creation as a feature for quite a while, but one of the nice things about the software is they’re updating it all the time and always adding new features. It’s worth keeping your ear to the ground for developments.
Have you ever had to create a fillable PDF form before? What software did you use, and if it was commercial, was it worth paying for over LibreOffice Draw?