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gasman's avatar

Software for laying out a printed form -- boxes & text?

Asked by gasman (11315points) April 9th, 2011

I work at a hospital with a gazillion different paper forms that go into patients’ charts. My task is to re-do one of these forms on behalf of the users. This particular form is unusually complex and dense with detail, all in the space of a single page. Thus it requires precise sizing and alignment of elements.

All the design elements, however, boil down to rectangular boxes of various sizes & aspect ratios & grid-lines of various weights, plus small text labels with adjacent check-boxes or fill-in blanks. There are no diagonal or curved elements, no images.

I’ve seen this accomplished with MS Office Excel spreadsheets, setting a fine grid & then merging cells as needed. But that seems overly complicated & doesn’t seem to handle very small fonts like 6 – or 7-point Arial. I also tried MS Word using text-boxes but found it very awkward. Or is it just me?

In years past I actually used scissors and glue, but that’s so 20th Century! The beauty of software is nudging everything into alignment.

A few years ago I used Adobe Printshop for a similar job, which was satisfactory, but I no longer have that software. Stuck with some old .p65 files. Last month I downloaded a free trial of Adobe Illustrator but found it hard to use / learn as well—30 days came & went without much progress.

So before coughing up $600 on Illustrator & sucking up a lot of tutorial time & spinning of wheels, am I ignorant of some really great layout software that produces only lines, grids, and boxes of different weights—but with very precise spacing and alignment—plus simple horizontal text labels, one or more per box?

My end result will be a printed mock-up that goes to a professional print shop, so no particular computer format is actually required. The print shop people want ink (or toner) on paper. Assume WYSIWYG.

I beseech thee, Flutherites and Oracles of Jellies: Is there simple software for a seemingly simple job?

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10 Answers

jaytkay's avatar

You may have already discovered this, but in MS Word, if you set the text flow ( I think that is the name) property to Behind Text or In Front of Text, it makes things a lot easer. Then you can drag boxes around at will without affecting regular text and other text boxes.

That makes it tolerable for page layout. Not enough for daily use, but it might get you through the project.

Or if you have Microsoft Access, the report design screen is pretty good. You could ignore the database aspect of the program and use it simply for page layout.

funkdaddy's avatar

Are you handing off your copy to the print company so they can reformat it and then print? Or are they telling you they’ll make an acceptable print out by scanning what you give them?

I’d really advise against the second scenario, it just doesn’t produce a professional result.

If it’s the first, you could do something exceedingly simple and in whatever format you’re comfortable with, they should be able to translate that into a professional final product.

gasman's avatar

@jaykay Actually I know Access quite well—wrote a lot of VB code for a custom UI for DB a few years back. somehow I feel like Office isn’t up to the task. But I never thought of using Access reports—create a database report without an underlying database—great idea! I’ll have to give it a look.

gasman's avatar

@funkdaddy This is a vast, bureaucratic organization whose print shop re-composes the document to their own specs, assigns it a rev. number, etc. My experience is limited, but years ago (with a different organization) they accepted camera-ready copy. I’m told in the present case the shop will re-compose and it’s not as simple as a scan.

In the days when I used Adobe Printshop, once I submitted a hospital form that got re-composed but had so many subtle alignment errors that, collectively, the form was far less user-friendly (for instance, labels encroaching on write-in spaces). So I would actually welcome a scan! (Do you think one extra generation of printout / scan can ruin it?) First I need to create a precise mock-up of what it’s supposed to look like, then I’ll complain if they deviate from it lol.

jaytkay's avatar

Rather than print and scan I would give them a PDF. Office 2007 and up can save as PDF. Or CutePDF is free, and works with most any Windows program.

funkdaddy's avatar

I’m sorry, I was thinking you were handing it off to an external print shop. They’re usually accustomed to getting things in a huge variety of formats and either recreating it in the software of their choice for printing or doing their best to make it work. I figured if someone was just going to take your mockup and use it as a guide to create the final product, a rough mockup with a thorough description of what you want is often better than a meticulous mockup with no additional instructions (and saves you time).

To try and answer your original question, I think the basic options have been covered. If you have access to a Mac, you might also try Pages from their office suite (iWork), it was quite a bit easier to use for free form documents like this for me.

You might also try something like this software that’s dedicated to forms specifically. I tried the demo a while back and eventually just decided to draw what I needed out in Illustrator instead. Forms are a pain ;)

In your shoes, before I dropped $600 on Illustrator, I might look into hiring someone for a few hours of their time to help make my vision a reality. $600 goes a long way and you don’t have to worry about learning new software and terminology, keeping up with files types, or any of the other fun and games. You could probably even get specs from your internal print folks and pass those along pretty easily.

Not as satisfying as a job well done, but might be cheaper and easier ;)

gasman's avatar

@funkdaddy I was thinking you were handing it off to an external print shop. Well yes & no—the form is too complicated to verbally describe to a print shop, or even to sketch on the back of napkin. 99–100% of the layout design will be done by me, even if the printer needs to re-lay it out. That suits me fine—retaining some control for future changes. it’s always about control! lol

@jaytkay Good point – pdf is perfectly suited to this. Once composed, that’s probably the best format in which to save a file for submission to the print shop.

math_nerd's avatar

Illustrator is the wrong tool for the job. InDesign would be much better and with less of a learning curve.

gasman's avatar

@math_nerd Funny you say that, because (1) I almost asked about InDesign in my original question; (2) I got opposite advice from somebody else in real life. But you sound like you know whereof you speak. I hope you’re right.

InDesign isn’t that much more expensive than Illustrator. Isn’t InDesign a “descendant” of Printshop?

math_nerd's avatar

InDesign is pretty much the standard now for page layout. You can try it for 30 days before you need a license. It is what I would use and I used to work in print-shop.

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