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Designing an interactive PDF newsletter

Why and How?

Question: How can you disseminate a graphically interesting, beautifully designed small book to a large number of people cheaply?
Answer: Email an interactive PDF.

Almost every computer has Adobe Reader (formerly called Acrobat Reader) and PDFs are widely used as a way to present information with a fixed layout similar to a paper publication.

Question: Why make a PDF newsletter?
Answer: It's cheap. Why pay for printing when you can get you readers to do it themselves?

The advantages of PDF publishing over internet publishing are:

NOTE No need to worry about browser or platform differences or complying to standards - if you can view a PDF properly in Reader the chances are that everyone else in the world can.
NOTE You can use any font you want.
NOTE Vector graphics appear pin sharp at any magnification.
NOTE You don't need an internet connection to read or print it.

Ah, I hear you say, the web is interactive but PDFs aren't. Wrong again! So you want to make a cool, interactive, screen resolution PDF for emailing to multiple readers? How? Use Adobe InDesign. Obvious, I know, but you wouldn't believe how many people are still trying to do it in Quark.

Format, body copy and image

Landscape, portrait or square. It's your call. I know what I prefer - landscape all the way. The perfect format to go for is A4 in the UK and Letter in the US so it prints out on everybody's printers and a horizontal orientation (on it's side) so it fills the monitor.

No need for spreads so leave Facing Pages unchecked in the New Document dialog box in InDesign. Set some columns and margins if you wish, leave bleed at zero, and let's get going...

Always design for the lowest common denominator. So if your PDF is being read on a 15-inch screen then you will have the type at 12 point at least. Prefer vector graphics to bitmapped images as they will appear sharp and smooth at any magnification on the PDF. Keep images RGB and make them as colourful as possible. And don't be afraid to use large high resolution files for the bitmapped images, they'll be made smaller when the PDF is exported.


PDF NewslettersOne of the first things you need to do is to set up a master page. Master pages are used for elements that need to be repeated on multiple pages, for example page numbers, headers and footers.

In a PDF newsletter you may want the newsletter's name repeated top left or right, a "home" button to return to the contents page or a couple of arrows to go to the next or the previous page. All these elements should be put in the master page. Do it here once and it'll be repeated throughout the whole document.

Here we must use InDesign's powerful interactive tools. I find it's better to make buttons with no fill and no stroke. Either choose a button from the toolbar or an empty rectangle and go
Object > Interactive > Convert to Button.
It works the same way. Do not use an element such as picture or text to make interactive.

Double click your button with the Selection Tool or go
Object > Interactive > Button Options...
with your button selected and you will get the all important Button Options dialog box.

In this dialog box you will see two tabs. The first is General. Here you have three fields. The first is name, this is for you - give it a name. The second is description, this is for your readers - it is the tip that appears when their mouse hovers over the button. So, depending on what the button is, put in a handy navigational tip like "Go to contents page". Finally, choose Visible for your Visibility in PDF.

The second tab is Behaviours where you will see two drop down menus. On the Event drop down menu, I choose Mouse Up. This is for when people have clicked down on the button and then released, whereas Mouse Down is for when they have only clicked down.

The second drop down menu is the Behaviour - what'll happen when the button is clicked. Here you can select one of 15 different actions.

Select the Behaviour you want, click Add (very important) and OK, and your Behaviour has been set. For Exit, Close, Go To First Page, Go To Last Page, Go To Next Page and Go To Last Page this is all you have to do. For every page you use in your InDesign document and the resulting PDF this interactivity will work beautifully. For navigation and interactivity: Do it in InDesign, don't do it in Acrobat Professional.

Setting Bookmarks

For setting a Button Behaviour to go to a certain page you need to set a page as a Hyperlink in your InDesign document. This is very easy!

Pick the page in the main body of your InDesign document that you want to set as your anchor by double clicking on it in the Pages palette. In the Hyperlink palette (go Window > Interactive > Hyperlink) make a new Hyperlink by selecting New Hyperlink Destination... in the Hyperlink palette and select the zoom. Give your Hyperlink page destination a memorable name.

Then when you are setting the Behaviour of a Button you choose Go To Anchor and select the Hyperlink you require (and the zoom). Add a link to your contents page as a "Home" button on your master page then your readers can click this button on any page of the PDF and return to the contents page. This is a handy and very intuitive navigational element.

Exporting the PDF

When you are exporting the PDF direct from InDesign choose the Smallest File Size preset. In Options, make sure you have Optimize for Fast Web View checked. In Include, make sure you have Hyperlinks and Interactive Elements checked. You may like to check your Bookmarks as well.

In Compression, you may want to Downsample the Color and Greyscale Images to 92ppi in order to keep the file size down but still look nice on a large screen. Keep the quality at Medium (or Low if you want to cut down the size). If size really doesn't matter then bump up the resolution in order to keep the bitmap images nice and crisp.

Hit Export and, there you go! You've made an interactive, screen resolution, printable PDF. Clever!

Addendam, extra bits and stuff I left out
Dan Brill of Graphic Exchange wrote to me with a few pertinent points on the subject of interactive PDFs. Thanks, Dan!

Dan's first top tip is an embarrassing omission on my part: InDesign's default transparency blend setting is CMYK so it should be changed to RGB. Go Edit > Transparency Blend Space > Document RGB. Otherwise the nice bright RGB colours will come out mucky and muddy on pages where you have used transparent objects.

Dan and his colleague, Lerrick Starr, regularly make all singing and dancing PDFs (or rich media PDFs or rich PDFs) complete with sound, movies, rollovers and pop-up windows. I must say that many of the more interactive and rich media elements have to be set in Acrobat Professional and can't be done properly in InDesign.

The last thing one has to do is to set the initial view. This has to be done in Acrobat Professional.

Rob Cubbon

Rob Cubbon was born in Kent, England, and completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in University of East London in Cultural Studies. He's been in publishing since 1989, involved in writing, photography and design for various magazines and newspapers. Worked abroad as English teacher. Today, he's a freelance designer for print and web since 1995.

title = Designing Interactive PDF newsletters - Why and How?
author = Rob Cubbon
url = http://robcubbon.com/?page_id=66
dept = DTP: publishing, page layout, type, fonts
audience = General: cross platform anyone
overview = Tips and tricks on how to make an interactive screen resolution PDF in Adobe InDesign. And why.


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