Make your PDF user friendly

PDFs defined

We just finished an annual report for one of our clients. One of the interesting things about this project was that the deliverable, or finished product, was not a printed report — it was a PDF. A Portable Document Format, or PDF, is a file format that preserves document layout and formatting (such as typefaces) no matter what computer it is viewed on, or printer it is output on. PDFs are usually viewed and printed through a software application such as Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Your reader decides

With organizations trying to save money, big print runs are out, PDFs are in. So how is interacting with a PDF different from a printed piece? With a printed piece, it’s a good bet that your reader will be holding a physical object and turning the pages. With a PDF, your reader decides, not you — she can read it on her screen, print it out in black and white or color, skim it on an iPhone, even have a PDF reader read it aloud — so there are a lot of possibilities.

Best practices

PDFs are a hybrid of 2 mediums: website and print. To develop a user-friendly PDF we use ideas from both. Here are some guidelines to help your PDF work well — whatever your reader decides.

PDF navigation

Title and continuation title on two PDF pages

Navigation: when PDFs are viewed on-screen a reader needs landmarks, so they know where they are in the document. Your PDF should have a section title on every page, just like a website. Where a section goes over several pages, it should show the title, and “continued”.

Borders: since the reader prints out the PDF, there is no way of knowing what kind of printer she will use — for example, can it print to the page edge? So we recommend setting up PDF pages with a ¼” border — that way, most printers will be able to handle the document. Be cautious about small white type on black backgrounds, and other effects that may impede legibity.

Spreads: most print documents are designed in 2 page spreads — that is, left and right hand pages that face each other. PDFs are most often viewed on-screen and printed out as individual pages. The design should not rely on being read as a spread — for example, you may not want to run a big headline over a 2 page spread.

Page size: unusual page sizes, such as 7×10″, are impractical as PDFs. They will end being printed on letter size sheets anyway.

Document names:
make sure your audience can identify your document clearly — we’ve seen many chaotic and disorganized computers (not yours, of course!). So make it easy: for example, instead of “M4372 pl_ar_v6.pdf”; try “PLoS Annual Report09.pdf”. Your readers will thank you.

Document size:
make sure you’ve selected the right resolution when you make the PDF. For example, PDFs downloaded from your website should use screen resolution. Otherwise, your readers could wait minutes or hours as a huge document downloads — and instead of waiting, they’ll abandon the attempt.



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