"Paperless office" via computers, ha! Instead of cutting back, computers let us print more paper faster.
A lot of that paper is forms -- sheets with blanks for filling in requests. How can computers help you cope with forms? In the long run, we might be able to discard them altogether, entering relevant information into a convenient computer that automatically will upload the results to a main storage center.
But what about now, when we're still dealing with the paper itself? Computers can help, in at least three ways: printing, filling in and collecting results. How practical this help will be depends on the software you choose and the tasks you set it to.
Everyone who needs forms needs to print them. Printing forms is the easy part. You need a program that will let you position text and graphics on paper. You can do that with a word processor, spreadsheet or even many databases these days.
There are some specialized forms-printing programs, however. These typically come with a library of sample forms on disk. They also sport some commands to make form design and printing easier than it would be with a general-purpose program.
FormTool Gold 3.0 (Bloc Publishing, $99.95, 1-800-888-2562) is the latest version of a venerable PC forms program. It comes with 150 example forms and a price tag small enough to make the program interesting even to those who conceivably could produce forms with a word processor or other program.
FormTool tries to be simple but doesn't really make the grade. It depends on menus and heavy use of "function keys." But it uses too many of these and constantly changes their action, so I find it hard to keep up with.
Still, designing a form with FormTool isn't that complex. You set the size of the form, see the page on screen, put the cursor where you want it, type labels for blanks, create blanks of a certain width and height, and draw lines around blanks. There are editing commands for justifying text and for sucking in text you've written with a word processor, database or spreadsheet.
FormTool offers things you won't find in programs not tailored to forms -- such as vertical typing and automatic drawing of a grid of lines on the page. But it lacks things you should have when creating your forms -- such as spell checking and the ability to include a graphic such as a logo.
If you need to print forms, FormTool will do the job. You might be better off sticking to a word processor you're already familiar with, however, especially if you can find a collection of templates or macros for it that will show you typical form layouts.
For most of us, filling in forms takes up the most time. If you fill out multiple copies of one, two or a dozen particular forms every day, there is computer help.
First you need the right printer -- one that will accept your form and print through any multiple "plies" of it. Then you need a program that will make it a breeze to fill in the blanks on screen and print the result all at once.
There are forms programs for this work, such as Bloc Publishing's FormFiller 3.0 ($149.95).
You start by slipping a copy of your form into the printer. FormFiller then prints a grid of rows and columns on that form. You then use this as a model for placing fill-in blanks on the screen, where there's an identical grid. FormFiller has lots of commands for nudging these blanks around to just the right place if you find they're printing off center on the real forms.
Once you're set up with blanks in the right places, you just tab from one blank to the next on screen, entering the appropriate information. You can type it in, use the automatic time and date stamps in FormFiller, import information from a database or spreadsheet and even have FormFiller calculate results for a blank. You can link one form to another, so you don't have to enter the same data repeatedly -- FormFiller will automatically copy it from one to another. When you're done, you can print on a real form or export the results to a spreadsheet or database.
If you have a limited number of forms that you're filling out repeatedly and you have a PC with the right printer, FormFiller could be easier to use than your typewriter. But not that much easier.
Collecting information from forms is where computers could really shine. A program that automatically would save entered information, combine it with the results from other computers on a network and tabulate results would save a lot of paper shuffling and filing. FormFiller and FormTool only offer that spreadsheet or database export feature -- a cumbersome and feeble approach to collection.
Can computers help you fight paper and deal with forms? A little, perhaps, but not enough. Although I think FormTool and FormFiller are reasonably priced, reasonably easy to learn and reasonably powerful forms programs for the PC, they don't sweep me away. In most cases, I'd stick with a word processor and create some forms templates of my own. Phillip Robinson is an author of books and articles about computers and an editor for Virtual Information of Sausalito, Calif.