The Interactive PDF: To Be, or Not to Be

By Donna de Leo, ETMG Designer and Art Director


InteractivityThe Portable Document Format (PDF) was first introduced in the early 1990s by Adobe. Intended to provide consistency for content creators, designers, and printers, PDFs allowed the exchange of a document between machines, operating systems, and users in a way that ensured that the file would look exactly the same. It quickly became the go-to digital proof for designers and printers.

Over time the PDF as a file format has evolved to include the ability to add interactivity and embed rich media to better engage with your audience. Hence the birth of the interactive PDF.


Well, yes and no. Viewing PDFs can be something of a mixed blessing, particularly when it comes to experiencing the rich media embedded specifically to better to engage your audience. This includes everything from bookmarks, hyperlinks, page transitions, cross-references, to movie and sound clips.

Often times, the unintended result can be the opposite of your objectives in including the interactivity in the first place. If not done well, including interactivity and embedded media can frustrate your reader instead of engage them.

Maybe you’ve already taken advantage of some of PDF’s interactive features. If you have, it’s likely you too have made this unfortunate discovery.

There are two major stumbling blocks to consider when adding a bit of whiz bang to your interactive PDF:

1. The open source paradox.

Before 2007 most people viewed PDFs with Adobe Reader software controlled by Adobe. But in 2007 Adobe released PDF and its specifications to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO).

According to Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns in their book on the subject, “This means that companies other than Adobe can create and distribute their own versions of PDF creators and readers. They just have to follow the open source standards. They do not, however, have to follow the standards exactly.”1

As a result, there are now dozens of PDF reader applications available for desktop and mobile devices that vary in how much interactivity they support.

A bit ironic given that the PDF was originally created to ensure consistency!

close up of man reviewing interactive PDF on mobile and desktop 2. Just because PDF supports a feature, doesn’t mean it will work on all devices.

The other stumbling block is mobile devices. PDF uses Shockwave Flash (SWF) created by Macromedia and now owned by Adobe. This SWF format, otherwise known as Adobe Flash, allows users to insert animations, multi state objects, and video into PDFs.

In there lies the rub. Apple iOS devices still do not support Adobe Flash, which seems a little crazy, right? But back in 2010 Apple’s then CEO Steve Jobs wrote an interesting post on why that was, and still is, the case.

So, what’s a marketer to do?

Here’s how to set the odds of interactive PDF success in your favor:

  • For starters, accept that there is no magic bullet here. No single type of interactive PDF will work everywhere on all readers and devices so adjust expectations.
  • Become familiar with which interactive PDF features work on which types of devices then choose accordingly based on your audience. Usually this is a case of “less is more.”
  • Don’t be afraid to recommend a PDF reader for your viewing audience. Adobe’s own Adobe Reader still does one of the best jobs of displaying rich media on both computer desktops as well as tablets and smartphones.
  • Be sure you’re delivering great content in your interactive PDF. No amount of nifty page turns, movie clips, or sound bites is going to make up for mediocre content.
  • Review the helpful resources at the end of this article for more on best practices for creating interactive PDFs.

Don’t be discouraged. There are still plenty of valid and important reasons to use interactive PDFs. As an interactive PDF case study, check out Adobe’s InDesign Magazine.

The important takeaway here is to be sure you’re gaining the most readership and engagement with your interactive PDFs by understanding the limitations, adjusting your interactive PDF accordingly, and setting proper expectations.



1 Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CC: Moving Beyond Print to Digital, Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns.



Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CC: Moving Beyond Print to Digital, Sandee Cohen and Diane Burns, 2014.

Who Created the PDF, Adobe News, Adobe Corporate Communications, June 2015.

It’s okay to say no to interactive PDF, BobLevine.US, January 26, 2016.

Thoughts on Flash,, Steve Jobs, 2010.

10 Best PDF Reader Apps,, John Corpuz, July 2016.


Further Reading:

A Few Quick Tips for Working with PDFs

How to Write for Infographics

Is Web Design Disappearing?



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