How to make an on-screen PDF

I regularly make PDFs for clients that are designed primarily to be viewed on-screen. Of course, the person viewing the PDF may choose to print it out on a desktop printer or other device and this should be taken into account. And with everything there is a right way and a wrong way, so here are some points or “rules” that I have. I have made them into an on-screen PDF for you to download to show exactly what I’m talking about.

They are not meant to be golden rules but after years and years of doing them I find they come in handy!

Click the image below to download the PDF.
PDF image with Acrobat icon

Six “rules” for making an on-screen PDF

Here they are:

  • Do it in RGB not CMYK This may not be an issue when exporting the PDF from Word or Powerpoint but very much is if exporting the PDF from Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign. In InDesign go Edit > Transparency Blend Space > RGB.
  • Use A4 (297mm by 210mm) or Letter (279.4 mm by 215.9 mm) size so it will print out on desktop printers This just makes it easier for people using your PDF to print it out.
  • Do not put anything within 10mm of the edge of the page as it may not be printed out by a desktop printer Most printers will not print right to the edge of the paper. This is a shame if you have a background image or graphic covering the whole page and is worth noting when considering a background.
  • Make the format landscape not portrait so that the PDF fills the screen Seems obvious, but …
  • Use vectors (AIs, EPSs) for graphics and logos not JPGs or other bitmaps This is a big, big issue for me. I am often very surprised to see PDFs from large corporations who have graphics (in some cases their own logos) in a jagged, pixellated bitmap form when the vector will appear beautiful and sharp in a PDF. It is possible to export PDFs with vectors from the Adobe products (Illustrator, Photoshop or InDesign) but, sadly, impossible when exporting from Word or Powerpoint. Mac users, good news! Apple’s Pages application, which is free with all Mac’s, will create PDFs with vectors! If you don’t know the difference between vectors and bitmaps download the PDF and you will see what I mean.
  • Enable interactive elements and hyperlinks so that users can click on websites and email addresses One of the great benefits of PDFs are their interactivity. It is important to check when exporting, especially from InDesign, that Interactive Elements and Hyperlink are checked so that buttons, web addresses and email addresses are clickable.

Interactive PDFs and rich media PDFs

I have written more about interactive PDFs and how to make them on this site. Also there are many more exciting things that can be done with the humble PDF. Buttons, rollovers and showing and hiding layers on a page are all possible in PDFs. Video and audio can also be added (either embedded or streamed from the internet). It is an area of great potential.

What are your experiences?

Do you make on-screen PDFs for widespread circulation? What are they for? How do you make them and what sort of extra functionality do they have? Do you have any more “rules” to add to mine?

Did this help you? If so, please share!

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  1. says

    i would love to use on screen PDF’s. however, normally the PDF’s that i create are ones that you save and come back to later. I’m in web developing and most of my customers just either forget to save or they click away and end up getting upset with me rather than themselves and exclaim how they arent filling it out again.

    • says

      I know, Elijah, most people equate the PDF with a 50 page instruction manual that they only consult when something goes wrong. Not a lot of people know that there is the ability to include and fill out forms in a PDF. The data can then be save into the PDF and emailed back or emailed as a much smaller FDF file. Either way, as you say, people are just more used to online form filling!