Episode #99: How to Make PDF and Print Documents More User Friendly

When you design documents destined for both print and the web, if all you do is export your layout files to low- and high-resolution PDFs, you’re missing out on providing a better experience for readers of PDFs or print and a higher value to your clients. Learn how to make PDF and print documents more user friendly.


Show Notes


So many documents nowadays are printed and emailed or posted to a website. So you should just work from a single layout file and then export PDFs in two different resolutions, or export a low-res PDF for the web and package up your InDesign files, right? Nope!

Even though you’re only working with one source file for the page layout, there are tweaks you can make for a better experience for readers.

If you’re exporting your layout files to PDF format for print and for the web, thinking the only difference is the resolution, you’re missing out on providing a better experience for readers and a higher value to your clients.

You’re missing out on a chance to really showcase your expertise by considering the user experience for your documents.

Dual-Purpose Documents for Online and Print

First off, you’ve got to ask clients how the end file will be published or distributed. It could be only for print, or it may also be distributed online—on their website or via e-mail.

Understanding how it will be published means you will give the client files with the intended purpose—a print-quality PDF and a low-res PDF.

If you use PDFs for both, it’s a good idea to always differentiate the two files. I put “print” and “web” at the end of the file names, so the client can tell them apart.

That also helps prevent them from posting a print file for download on their website. (You wouldn’t believe how many times I’ve encountered that!)

Worse, they could otherwise email the print file out to their mailing list, crop marks and all! (I’ve seen that too!)

The other thing to find out is if the document needs to be accessible, as in to people with a disability. I get this work all the time, but every now and then, a client may have this requirement but forget to bring this up. It happened recently to a colleague of mine, after the job was completed.

I’ll get into this more in a bit.

User-friendly Pages

Something else to think about is the document setup—pages vs spreads.

Let’s say you’ve got a letterfold (AKA “trifold”) brochure that you set up at the flat size in your page layout program—the flat size being the unfolded size, such as at 11 by 8.5 inches. Maybe you’ve got guides set up for the three pages on each side of the sheet.

OK. That’s fine for print. But what happens if you export that file as is for someone to read online? Could you do that? Sure.

But if you just export it to PDF at lower resolution for the web and do nothing else, the pages will be out of order because the first page (or cover) is on the far right of the first page of the PDF, the inside spread (three pages) are page 2 of the PDF, and then the last two pages are back on page 1 of the PDF. The fold-in panel and the back cover, so you’ve got two pages in the PDF and all the pages are in the wrong order because the document is being shown in spreads.

What you can do instead is, after you export that document to PDF, make a copy of it. Then open the original PDF in Acrobat and import that copy. Put it after the last page of the PDF.

Delete the page you just imported that has the duplicate inside spread.

So now you should have three pages in your PDF:

  1. page 1 showing a spread of the fold-in panel, back cover and front cover,
  2. a second page showing the inside spread, then
  3. a duplicate of page 1.

Next, crop the first page of the PDF to only show the front cover. Then crop the last page to show all except the front cover.

What you should end up with are:

  1. the cover only,
  2. the full inside spread,
  3. the fold-in page plus the back cover.

Any time you have something set up in spreads, you can use this process and crop and reorder the pages, if needed, in the PDF.

Now, when someone reads the PDF, they will see the content in the proper order—the way they would see it in print.

Clickable Table of Contents in a PDF

Incorporating interactivity is also helpful in a PDF meant for the web or e-mail. Many designers don’t take advantage of these features.

One thing that’s very helpful is to have a clickable table of contents in the PDF. If the document has a page with a table of contents on it, you want each entry to be hyperlinked, so people can get around easily.

In print, we can flip through to a certain section, so this is akin to doing just that.

For more on creating a clickable table of contents, see podcast episode 98, 6 Reasons to Use InDesign’s Automated Table of Contents.

Hyperlinks in PDFs and Print Files

If your document has hyperlinks, you can treat them differently in a digital document and print file to make them more user-friendly documents.

With the digital document—the low-res PDF—you want those hyperlinks to be clickable. Hyperlinks make it easy for readers of the digital file to get more information. You might also have text anchors that take the reader to another part of the document.

But you don’t want print readers to see a bunch of styled hyperlinks because they obviously can’t click on anything.

After the client has approved the final proof (or the final-final-final proof!), what you can do is export to the low-res PDF for the web with all the hyperlink styling intact.

Then save a copy of your layout file and add “web” or “online” or whatever to the file name.

You don’t want to duplicate the InDesign file too early in the process, because the client will surely have more edits and suddenly you’re having to make edits in two files. That’s not fun!

Then in the copy of that file, remove the styling from all hyperlinks. If you’ve used a character style for this, it won’t take long.

And if you’re not going to do this next part, you don’t need to maintain two files.

But what you can also do—again, I recommend doing this in a copy of the file—is add the URLs for the hyperlinks in parentheses after where they were hyperlinked. Of course, that will cause text reflow and possibly page count. This is something you could plan for from the beginning, though, with a bigger bottom margin, for example.

Alternatively, you could add the URLs as footnotes. That takes up less room.

Whichever method you choose, you’re enabling the print reader to get the same additional information that people reading the interactive PDF are getting.

User-friendly Bookmarks in PDFs

Bookmarks are another way to help readers of a digital document, especially if it’s a long document.

In Acrobat, the bookmarks appear in the Bookmarks panel as hyperlinks. They help a reader get to the front cover, front matter, table of contents or other sections of a document with one click.

Create them in InDesign using the Table of Contents feature and checking the “Create PDF Bookmarks” option or you can add them in Acrobat.

I recommend you set them to always show when someone opens the document. You can do this by going to the PDF and then Cmd-D (Mac) or Ctrl-D (Windows), then Initial View and set the Navigation Tab to Bookmarks Panel and Page.

You might say, “Oh, but that takes up quite a bit of screen space.” You can adjust the width of the panel.

If readers don’t want to see the bookmarks, they can close the Bookmarks panel. But far fewer people seem to know how to look for them and see if they were even included, so it’s better to have them open automatically. Plus, it helps with the accessibility of a PDF.

To have the interactive functionality like that, you need to export from InDesign with the right profile.

If you export using the Interactive setting, the bookmarks will appear in the PDF. If you use the Print setting (I don’t know why you would though), you’d have to check the option to include bookmarks.

Resolution for PDFs and Print Files

Resolution is obviously a factor with both types of PDFs.

For print, you want your file—your raster images specifically—to be at 266 ppi or higher. This will ensure those images look crisp.

But for a PDF that will be viewed online, you can go with much less—say, 72 or even 144 ppi—so that if someone is using a high-res display such as a Retina display, the images will look crisp and not be pixelated.

User-friendly File Size

With higher resolution comes a larger file size.

These days, luckily, we don’t have to worry about huge print file sizes because we have so many high-capacity file transfer options, including in the cloud and via FTP.

But back in the day, I would have to burn to multiple CDs (that’s what they called it) for each magazine issue I worked on and overnight them to the printer.

If the PDF will be posted to a website and downloaded from there, you want the file size to be as small as possible without sacrificing image quality. A good user experience means it won’t take a long time to download the file.

When you export using the PDF (Interactive) setting, you can change the resolution settings if you need to.

If the file, not the link, will be emailed, then it’s even more important to have the smallest file size possible.

BTW, I don’t recommend that anyone do that. Ask clients how the file will be distributed, as I mentioned, and then advise them it’s better to send a hyperlink in an email instead of as an attachment. Some people’s e-mail servers may reject a file that is too big or it may end up in a junk folder. Also, clients may not be able to send it in the first place if it’s too big.

Accessible Design Practices for Print and PDF

I mentioned accessibility earlier.

I’ve done several podcast episodes about accessible design and documents. You can check out those episodes at creative-boost.com/podcast and then select the Accessibility category.

Designers who create accessible files often focus on accessibility with digital documents. But even if the document will only be printed, there are things you can do to make the end result more accessible, even though it’s not interactive.

For instance, adhere to the WCAG contrast guidelines and make sure color isn’t being used to convey meaning anywhere in the document.

You can also incorporate good design and usability practices (if you haven’t done so already) such as sufficient use of white space; space between sections (above headings); and appropriate colors, typefaces and text size for the audience.

And consider this: if the document needs to be accessible and will be printed and distributed online, don’t ignore accessibility with the print file and only address it with the digital file later. You may end up having to modify the design for the digital file to be accessible, so you could end up with two different-looking documents! I see this all the time.

This is one reason why designers should incorporate accessibility into the design process, not address it at the end of the line.

Accessible design is not only good for the end user, but it’s good for business—your clients’ and yours! You’ll eliminate 99% of your competition with this skill because most designers are ignoring accessibility.

Whether you do branding and logo design work, publication design, general graphic design or even web design, if you’re interested in an accessible design course, go to creative-boost.com/courses.

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