Creating a Screen-Friendly PDF Brochure

It is rare to get a request for a hard-copy firm overview any more. Almost everyone who asks for one wants it sent via email.

The reasons for this shift aren’t hard to understand. The ability to view PDFs is now pretty much ubiquitous, and receiving information in this format enables people to get it faster, and easily pass it along to others in their organization.

There are also some clear benefits to this situation for brochure senders. It saves on printing and postage costs. It eliminates the need to store pre-printed brochures, and the waste that accompanies that practice. It makes it easy for you to customize materials on the fly. And it’s also better for the environment, assuming that the recipient doesn’t just turn around and print out their own copies.

There are drawbacks as well, however. You lose some control over the way that the brochure is viewed. And if your brochure has to be printed because it isn’t easily viewable on screen, not only will some of the environmental benefits be lost, but it may be reproduced on a printer that doesn’t show your work in its best light.

You can prevent most of these problems by avoiding the mistake that most people make when they begin getting requests for PDF brochures. What is that mistake? It is making a PDF of your existing printed materials. That is because the page orientation, font sizes, layouts, and lack of interactive functionality are geared toward the printed piece, and viewing this on the screen is going to lead first to user frustration, and then to the printing of the brochure on inappropriate equipment.


Before I go any further, I should address a question that I know some of you are asking. Why would I want to send a PDF at all when I could just send a URL to our web site? The first, and probably most important, answer is that many potential clients just want a PDF, not a link. They may be requesting information from multiple firms, and want to keep the brochure files together in one folder, or whatever. The bottom line is that you’re not going to endear yourself to a prospective client by being difficult, especially in the early stages of the process. In addition, sending a PDF does allow you to do some customization – highlighting your most relevant projects, personnel, and service offerings – and a PDF also has a better chance of printing out nicely than a web site if the recipient does insist on printing.

Convinced that a screen-specific PDF brochure makes sense for you? Here are some tips that I have picked up through doing some of these myself and talking to others about their approach:

Ideal Document Size/Orientation

This is an area were PDF brochures made from printed pieces typically have big problems. Computer monitors have a landscape orientation, and if your PDF brochure has a portrait orientation (vertical 8.5×11, for instance), then you are going to force the viewer to do one of two things. They can view the full page all at once, which will be quite small because of the wasted real estate on either side of the screen, or they can fill the screen with the width of the page and scroll from top to bottom. Neither of these options creates an ideal viewing experience, and the result is likely to be the printing of the document.

That’s why a landmark/horizontal orientation is the cornerstone of a good PDF brochure. In fact, page orientation and appropriate font sizes are probably 90% of what makes a screen-friendly PDF successful.

The actual size of the document is a little less important than the orientation, and is somewhat flexible, since varying screen ratios means you aren’t really going to be able to create something that completely fills every screen. Letter or A4 size (depending on the country of you audience) are good because the dimensions will remain the same when they are printed, but they do leave a lot of screen unused on many monitors. Dimensions like 11.7 x 6.7 come a lot closer to using the full screen, but because of all the variability in actual screen sizes, it probably comes down to the ratio you feel best suits your layout. If you do use a non-standard page size, I suggest trying a test page on a few monitors before creating the entire brochure.

Font Sizes

After document orientation, font size is probably the most important factor in a successful PDF brochure. Depending on the font you are using, I wouldn’t go much below 12pt (or maybe even 14pt) to ensure easy readability on all monitors. Captions are obviously a problem, but if you can’t live without them, you could experiment with using the PDF “notes” feature to create pop-ups for captions. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a way to make this look nice, so please share any ideas you may have.

If you’re having trouble fitting all of your copy while keeping it readable, you can also try getting creative with some of the other PDF capabilities (“next page” or “read more” links, etc.) to present your information. In general, however, you should look at this as an opportunity to make your content more focused and concise, because that is what someone who requests an overview brochure via email is probably looking for anyway. Save your detailed information for white papers, case studies, or other items that make sense in a more traditional printed format.

Image Resolution

Given that this document is intended for on-screen viewing, your first reaction may be to downsample images to 72dpi when you make your PDF. I would recommend, however, that you actually use a higher resolution – assuming that you can do it and not make your file more than 3-5 megabytes. That is because you will want the highest resolution possible if someone does print the document, and there is also a chance that some people with large monitors will be viewing the document at greater than 100% size, even on screen.

If you’re pushing the limits for an emailable document, switching the image quality from “Maximum” to “High” can also make a significant impact on your file size, and I have found that to have very little effect on image quality.

Document Properties

In the document properties window, Acrobat Pro allows you to control several factors related to how users will see your document. The most useful of these are found in the Initial Vew tab. You should definitely set the magnification to “fit page,” which will enable the user to see that this is a horizontal document intended for on-screen viewing.

A more controversial feature is the “Open in full-screen mode” option. Full-screen mode is clearly the best way to view a PDF brochure, but when someone opens a document that has this feature implemented, Acrobat gives them a scary warning message about full-screen documents being used to impersonate applications that could try and get their personal information. I haven’t done any surveys of how people react to this message, but I do have a concern that it could lead some less tech-savvy recipients to get nervous and completely close the document. You may want to consider the technological sophistication of your likely recipients when deciding whether or not to use this feature.

Links and Navigation

You should definitely take advantage of the PDF’s ability to include clickable links to your web site, blog, Facebook profile or page, Twitter profile, etc. And don’t forget that you can also create links to other pages with the PDF itself. While the possibilities here are endless, one basic application of this would allow someone to skip from an overview page with a list of services directly to a detail page for a particular offering that is relevant to their needs, without having to page past several other service descriptions.

I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about what makes a great PDF brochure, and what kind of feedback you’ve received on yours from potential clients. And if you have one that you would like to share, feel free to either post a link in the comments or send me the PDF. If I get a few good ones I’ll share them in a follow-up post.

2 thoughts on “Creating a Screen-Friendly PDF Brochure”

  1. Hi, Mark,
    This was helpful; thanks. Another question regarding PDF brochures: I get them from designers in the typical for-the-printer format – an outer side with however many panels (to be folded) and the inner side (again, with panels to be folded). These panels are not contiguous – you can’t read left to right – and the title page is often on the right hand side of the “front” panel.
    So how do I instruct my designer to make the “PDF emailable” version of the brochure so that it’s readable when it’s opened? I need a sample or two (My current brochures are all 3-fold two-sided.)

  2. The reason that I like PDF brochures to send my boss is that web pages can change or disappear on a moment’s notice.

    With the PDF brochure, I can add comments that my boss can view on screen, print, or take with her on her phone while she is deciding what action to take with a vendor or product.

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