Designing an interactive PDF newsletter

Question: How can you disseminate a graphically-interesting, beautifully-designed small book to a large number of people cheaply?

Answer: E-mail 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:

- 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.
- You can use any font you want.
- Vector graphics appear pin sharp at any magnification.
- 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! 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.


One 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 an Bookmarks 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 Bookmarks palette (go Window > Interactive > Bookmarks) make a new Bookmark either by clicking on the arrow on the palette and choosing New Bookmark or by clicking on the Create New Bookmark icon at the bottom. Give your Bookmark a memorable name.

Then when you are setting the Behaviour of a Button you choose Go To Anchor and select the Bookmark you require (and the zoom).

Now this will work even if you move the pages around in your InDesign document and if you double click on a Bookmark in the Bookmarks palette InDesign will jump to that page while you’re designing, making it a handy navigational tool of its own!

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 72ppi in order to keep the file size down. Keep the quality at Medium. If size doesn’t matter then bump up the resolution in order to keep the images nice and crisp.

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

© Rob Cubbon 2007 Freelance designer and artworker in London.


5th March 2007

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