What Actually is a PDF? (+ How to Design Better Ones)


March 24, 2021


Nika Simovich Fisher


Versatile, consistent, universal: what's not to love about the mighty PDF? But let's take a moment to delve into what a PDF actually is, where it came from, and why it became so popular. Nika also shares some tips to help you create a thoughtfully designed presentation – PDF and beyond.

While ubiquitous, the portable document format has an air of mystery around it that has always intrigued me. Upon beginning my design career, the most common request I had was to design a deck (a fancy name for a presentation, oftentimes saved out as a PDF). People oohed and awed at the prospect of a designer synthesizing basic information into a visually captivating slideshow. In essence, the process of a designing PDF distills many skills a designer possesses into a platform that everyone can understand and view. But what even are PDFs? Where did they come from? And are there best practices to designing them? I’ll share a little about what I’ve learned.

A little bit of history

PDFs were officially released by Adobe in 1993 alongside Adobe Acrobat. PDFs were envisioned as a self-contained universal document type that could be viewed and printed in its original design across all computers, without additional software. They were also intended to help people reduce their print usage and for this reason, were an important part of the digital revolution.

Prior to the release of the PDF, Dr. John Warnock, one of Adobe’s co-founders, wrote an essay called “The Camelot Project” in 1990. This essay later became the groundwork for the PDF. In the essay, Warnock explains the need for a unified, universal document type and explains how it works.

The functionality was imagined through Interchange PostScript (IPS), a language that contained information about the file that could be printed across PostScript printers.

Once the IPS was set up, an IPS binder interpreted the contents and included the fonts in the original document, only including the characters that were used in that document. If you’ve ever tried to extract a font from a PDF and were missing numbers or characters, this is why – because the IPS binder only stores the used characters rather than the entire typeface. This was done so the file was self-contained, meaning that the recipient wouldn’t need to have the font used in the document installed on their computer.

At the time of “The Camelot Project”'s writing, the idea of e-mailing a document with its full text and graphics was unheard of, as was the idea of searching and finding keywords within a text. It’s easy to take this for granted, when sharing and receiving files has become an integral part of digital culture.

A New York Times article released on June 16, 1993 (the day after Acrobat launched) contextualize this progress even further, In the article, Richard Shaffer, a publisher of an industry newsletter was quoted saying, “The publishing world is still cautious. The real sign that the world is becoming paperless will be when publishers like The Washington Post, The New York Times, and S.I. Newhouse start using Acrobat.”

What about today?

We’ve come a long way since the release of the PDF. The ability to send and receive documents and have them look the way they were intended is now common. This document type helped reduce the need for printed materials at large and is now used in a multiplicity of ways ranging from office communications, distributed information, design work, and digital publishing at large.

As a graphic designer, PDFs are a standard format for certain print practices and for sharing design work between people. My earliest design commissions were client requests to create these types of documents – whether it was an internal design presentation or a visually lead document. While the task itself can feel mundane, the act of creating a PDF is pure graphic design and the same thought process that helps you design anything else can be applied to create a visually consistent document. I’ll share a few tips that can help you create a thoughtfully designed presentation – PDF and beyond!

Where will the document live and who is it for?

The first step to creating an awesome PDF is to know what your document is for and what the content will be. Create an outline that includes everything your document will present and see if you can edit it down into a logical flow with sections.

It’s also important to understand who will see your document and how it will be distributed. For example, is the document a visual supplement to a presentation? Will it be experienced on email only? Will it be downloadable online and be a standalone document?

It’s helpful to think through where the file will actually live because your content should shift to accommodate its setting – stand alone documents will need more text information, while a supplement to a presentation could be more visual.

Additionally, it’s helpful to know if your document will be printed or presented digitally. If there is ever a possibility the document will be printed, it’s helpful to design it as a landscape orientation at a standard printer page size (8.5 x 11 in the United States, for example). In all other instances, designing at a 16:9 aspect ratio is best because it will seamlessly fill a computer screen in presentation mode. No black bars on the edges!

Where will you design it? Will it actually be a PDF?

Once you know what your presentation will include and who will see it, decide on where you’ll design it. Most contemporary tools have an option to export as a PDF, but depending on your needs, an online tool like Google Slides might be more functional.

The first consideration for where you’ll design the presentation is if it needs to be edited, and if the design language is specific.

Option 1: Online Tools (Example: Google Slides)

If the project needs to be edited continuously (especially by non-designers) using a tool like Google Slides is a good idea because multiple authors can work on it in real time and most people know how to edit this type of document. Additionally, this type of document is great for presentations that require embedded videos or animations. While PDFs technically can include videos, it’s still not a seamless process and they can be slow to open. On Google Slides, you can link to other media easily and as long as sharing settings are open, it can easily be viewed.

A downside to online tools is that there are limitations within the design. For example, you’ll need to use the fonts available, and setting up a page structure is a little slower and clumsier than in a more design-focused tool like Adobe InDesign.

Option 2: Presentation Tools (Example: Keynote or PowerPoint)

Keynote or PowerPoint are not my favorite tools personally, but many people outside of design use them, which is why they’re a good option for presentations that need to be edited by a group of people, but require a little more precision with the design language than available on online tools.

Option 3: Design Tools (Example: InDesign, Figma)

If the design will either not be updated again or will only be updated by designers, a graphic design tool like Adobe InDesign or Figma is a strong option. Both of these tools allow full customization in terms of layout and typography. Figma also allows for multiple users to edit a document at the same time, but it might be a less familiar platform to people outside of graphic design.

Designing Tips

Regardless of the software you use to design your presentation, having a clear structure will help add clarity to the document. Take a look at your initial outline and see if you can identify similar content types and decide on a page template idea for each. For example a page that requires more of a visual explanation could have a full bleed image; a page with a lot of details might need a chart; other pages that are more standard could have an image on one side and text on the other. Based on this content analysis, go ahead and design the page templates and test them out with your existing content, editing where necessary. When designing the pages, try not to overwhelm the page with too much information. If a document will be a standalone piece that requires more text, design a template that accommodates longer format copy and isn’t difficult to read. Also consider breaking these pages into a few more visual pages that break the details into more digestable chunks. Throughout all of your templates, exercise control and use a limited amount of type changes.

If you’re new to design, stick with one typeface that has multiple weights and try to have the same size headings throughout all the pages and the same size body copy.

Pages that require additional hierarchy will become more obvious when everything is the same. When adding additional changes to the typographic system, make sure to make changes that are dramatic enough to be noticed – for example, don’t add a 15pt font to a system that uses a 14pt font.

If your templates are functioning, you can make them your master page templates so that if you need to make a change, you’ll only need to edit it in one place. Having a set of page templates initially allows you to work quickly and also have a sense of uniformity throughout the presentation. There may be “special” pages that require a custom treatment, but if you can flesh out most of the content consistently, it’ll save you time at the end to improve these outlier pages. Once your pages are assembled go through and see if there’s a fluid rhythm to it, and adjust pages that feel repetitive. You could adjust it by changing the page templates, adding breaker slides between sections, or by dividing content-heavy pages up into multiple pages.

Depending on what kind of document it is, it might be helpful to include headers or footers to ground the page. You could consider including section headings or page numbers to provide a point of reference visually.

Final Thoughts

While PDFs were created nearly 28 years ago, the idea of a consistent digital document lives on! In design, PDFs are still a standard file format, while the idea of a designed document can now include other presentation formats, too.

Resources Used

The Camelot Project – John Warnock The Evolution of the Digital Document: Celebrating Adobe Acrobat’s 25th Anniversary – Bryan Lamkin

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About the author

Nika Simovich Fisher is a multi-disciplinary graphic designer, educator, and writer based in New York. She is currently a partner at Labud, a design and development studio she founded in 2018 and teaching at Parsons School of Design and the University of Pennsylvania.


March 24, 2021


Nika Simovich Fisher


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