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Oct 10, 2006: PDF Books: design resources?

WARNING: narcissism aheadSetting aside my somewhat snarky perspectives on information architecture for a moment... I'm looking for advice on best practices of designing books in PDF format.

Rosenfeld Media's books will be available for sale in both print and PDF. We've done some fairly extensive market research and have learned quite a bit about print book design guidelines. We'll be testing our design (using print-on-demand copies) with real live users once we have a couple final manuscripts to try out.

But the PDF side of things is a bit more muddled. I've not had much luck turning up useful guidelines, best practices, or resources of any kind that can help us make such decisions as how to balance the requirements of onscreen reading versus printing, which typefaces are most appropriate, how much navigation to leave to Acrobat versus to build into the file, and so on. I've grabbed a copy of Karen Schriver's Dynamics in Document Design, but I'm guessing it won't have much specific to PDF design.

So any suggestions for where to find PDF guidelines would be greatly appreciated, as would your favorite example of a well-designed PDF book or white paper (please be specific as to why you like it).

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Comment: Brenda (Oct 10, 2006)

Be sure to check out Adobe's tips for creating accessible PDFs:


It primarily comes down to tagging the content for structure and putting alt tags on images. Your sight-challenged audience will thank you.

Comment: Brenda (Oct 10, 2006)

Also... if you're using InDesign for layout, you can apply most (if not all) of the tags there before converting, which should leave very little cleanup to be done in the PDF. But you should plan for some cleanup... it's not a seamless process yet.

Comment: Lou (Oct 10, 2006)

Hi Brenda, great to connect with you. We are using InDesign for layout, so this should help. With what you're describing, does it come down to marking up in some sort of combination of XML and DTDs or some other type of style sheets? Thanks for the help!

Comment: Andrew (Oct 10, 2006)

The Pragmatic Programmers' books are good examples of well-produced PDFs. (The PP's operation in general is a good model for what you're doing.)

For me, it comes down to having good navigation within the file. Sidebar comments that link to other sections in the book, links to code samples, terms linked to their index entries, and so on.

Comment: Eric (Oct 10, 2006)

The nice thing about PDFs is that you can refine them incrementally as long as you allow your customers to re-download the latest version. So, for example, you could add the navigation via links on a later pass.

But it sounds like you also want to make a set of decisions with respect to font, layout, etc. that will allow you to hit the sweet-spot in both formats. After all, you undoubtedly want the same page references to work across formats.

I've heard, for example, that serif fonts work well on the high-resolution of the printed page, but that sans-serif fonts are better for the lesser resolution of the computer screen. I'm not a graphic designer, so this is just what I've heard. And that likely creates a dilemma in this process for you.

Here's an idea. Most books have portrait-like aspet ratios, taller than they are wide. There's probably a good reason for this. But screens are more landscape-like. So when reading a Pragmatic Programmers' book on-screen, you have to scroll at least once per page (at least that's true on my laptop if I want things zoomed to a comfortable level). What are the impications, though, of producing a book that has a more landscape-like aspect ratio?

Comment: Brenda (Oct 10, 2006)

Sorry Lou, I haven't actually done it myself, just looked into it (publishing behemoth = slow-moving lifeform). Here's a link to an Adobe doc that talks about it:


It's in reference to Acrobat 6; I'm guessing Acrobat 7 is smarter, but the accessibility help doc for 7 doesn't really talk about InDesign tags.

Comment: Brenda (Oct 10, 2006)

Next time I'll just email you directly, promise :)

This looks helpful: http://www.document-solutions.com/accessibility/AdobeAccessChapter3a7.html

Comment: Adrienne (Oct 11, 2006)

Since you asked for a few examples, I thought I'd offer a couple of my favorites.

This paper from the 2004 AIGA Design Education Conference does a nice job of incorporating images and uses shorter line lengths, which makes the file look much more like a printed book than a Word doc just converted into a PDF. I did find the typeface difficult to read online, however.

Ben Fry's thesis about organic information design is also quite attractively designed, incorporating sidebar notes and pull quotes for emphasis.

I also think that this thesis from an industrial design student at Virginia Tech is both beautiful and compelling (and huge!). The photographs and illustrations are amazing. However, the document utilizes a tabloid/landscape layout, which is impractical for printing and may not fit your needs.

Comment: Cristina (Oct 13, 2006)

You might want to check out the PDF book from 37 signals.
I did not read it but I just heard good things about them so I assume there must be something worth taking a look at.

Comment: Jackson (Oct 14, 2006)

I believe that "Getting Real" should only ever be used as a negative example. The book is formatted very poorly for reading online, and isn't much better when printed.

Specific complaints: initial versions had pages that were all black (imagine printing these), pages do not use screen friendly layouts (remember, a monitor is wider than it is tall), there is a large white border around the text blocks (looks nice I guess, but wastes paper when printing, and makes screen reading more dificult).

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