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Interactive vs Print PDF in InDesign: Adobe’s Frustrating Mistake


No one’s perfect. People make mistakes. Companies make mistakes. That’s fine. We should not be judged on our mistakes but rather how quickly we react to correct them. In my opinion, Adobe made a mistake in InDesign CS5, and it’s an important one to understand. If you’ve been listening to our recent podcasts, you know about our new “What the Heck” feature, and this… um, feature… certainly falls into that category.

The mistake was to separate the PDF export workflow into two different dialog boxes: print and interactive. This may seem like a little thing, but it’s like a thorn in my side, a pebble in my shoe, which I’ve been living with for over a year, and which just just gets more annoying.

I’m sure the folks at Adobe had it in our best interests when they proposed this crazy idea . Maybe they were thinking, “bless the souls of our poor, muddled users, they need us to make everything simple and easy for them, because they obviously can’t handle too many checkboxes in one dialog box.” Or maybe they were thinking, “we have to make it obvious that these PDFs are radically different, because they’re designed for the new (at the time) Acrobat 9 engine, which includes Flash.” But whatever they were thinking, they were wrong. (You know I’m InDesign’s biggest supporter, but a guy has to call it like he sees it!)

Here’s a short list of problems introduced by separating this into two different dialog boxes:

  • Users are more confused now than before, because they don’t know what they heck to choose. “I have hyperlinks, should I choose interactive?”
  • Users who have documents with facing pages spreads have no way to turn them off, to get single pages.
  • Users who want to color manage their interactive documents are out of luck.
  • AND THE NUMBER ONE PROBLEM: Users who need to create a single PDF that works for print and onscreen viewing are up a creek without a paddle.

I heard someone say recently (was it regarding Jobs’ new biography?) that Adobe has lacked vision since Warnock and Geschke left. I wouldn’t say that, as Adobe has clearly come up with some amazing stuff since then. However, this is the kind of thing that I’m sure John and Chuck are scratching their heads about, saying “WTH?!” I mean, the whole point of PDF was that there was a single file that could do whatever you wanted it to do! It was a portable document, would look right on screen and would print properly. I was there in the early 90s when Adobe was pushing this crazy format and they promised that it would print, it would contain video, it would flow, it would do whatever you needed when you needed it!

And InDesign CS5 broke that. It broke the fundamental promise of PDF as being a single file that did whatever you needed.

I want a PDF that includes a video, but which uses a high-resolution CMYK poster image when I print. I want a PDF that includes RGB and CMYK images, properly tagged with color profiles, and which also has buttons. I want a PDF that has animations but won’t print as 4-color cmyk black (because all the text got converted to srgb). And most of all, I want a single Export PDF dialog box that lets me choose whatever settings I want, in one place.

Come on, Adobe. Fix this mistake and give us One PDF again.


David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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30 Comments on “Interactive vs Print PDF in InDesign: Adobe’s Frustrating Mistake

  1. Hear Hear.

    I think I brought it to David’s attention of the weakness of the Interactive PDF settings in the facing pages option. To which a blog post was posted

    There are workarounds in the blog post.

    1. Set the pages to break apart and use the script mentioned there to separate all the pages.

    2. Harbs later posts a two line script to deactivate the interactive pdf spreads.

    I hope the Adobe sorts out this muddle they’ve made of PDF options.

  2. Authoring interactive PDF is possible in InDesign since CS(1).

    7 years later, the features still don?t meet real life requirements. We spend more time fixing links and actions in Acrobat than to really rely on InDesign features.

    1. Why links are absolute and not relative when prepared in InDesign ? We must recreate all the links in Acrobat so they point to a file so when the PDF and the folders nearby containing the resources (files, videos) are moved together… everything works.

    2. Why InDesign populates the PDF with Forms feature if we create buttons ?

    3. How to add an action in the PDF so that the purple bar does not show up at the bottom of the window ?

    4. Why can?t we add a STOP option for videos when we jump to another page (must go to the Video properties to fix the issue, for each video)

    5. I prefer not to do anything in InDesign and create LINKS in the PDF, it is a lot of work but it is more stable than Buttons.

    6. Since InDesign CS5.0, it is impossible to avoid that a PDF does contain embedded Flash video and instead place them as external resources. It seems that InDesign CS5.0 and + always embed the Flash videos and when the PDF is open in Acrobat X it is impossible to relink to an external file. This is true there is major problem here compared to the old method where we imported a VMW file using the Movie tool in Acrobat.

    I need to create a CD-ROM that contains a PDF with videos. Previously, I let the page empty in InDesign and in Acrobat for Windows I import a WMV movie. The PDF stays light as resources are stored in a specific folder. When the PDF is read off a CD player, the video plays immediately.

    When I have tried the method where the WMV file is embedded in the PDF, the video needed 5 to 10 seconds to be “loaded” before being played. Client of course rejected the job and we had to apply the method with the external resources, which in many cases is the best.

    Today, I have noticed that even if I import a FLV file, it can only be embedded and when the PDF is saved, the PDF gets havier and heavier each time I add a video and save it.

    This is a major setback.

    I really don?t understand why it is so complicated to create Interactive PDFs in InDesign CS5.5 in 2011.

  3. I said it when CS5 was released and I’ll say it now. Splitting interactive and print was a solution in search of a problem.

    The only reason I’ve ever heard was that is was to force compatibility with Acrobat 9 or later. That could have been accomplished by graying out anything else when choosing to include interactive features.

  4. David,

    I agree with your sentiments, and think there should be one dialog box (with better preset choices).

    However, I think you went overboard with rhetorical flourishes when you said, “And InDesign CS5 broke that. It broke the fundamental promise of PDF as being a single file that did whatever you needed.”

    You can never use one single PDF for everything, or it will fit everything poorly: The main reason is that you need to make different image resolution choices, different color space choices, and different transparency flattening choices for different purposes. A simple example: A PDF made “light” for the web would never serve as a PDF for commercial printing.

  5. @Steve: I understand that there are reasons why you might want to make a PDF lean more toward print or more toward onscreen (file size is obviously one of the more important choices), but I disagree that we shouldn’t have the choice.

    For example, InDesign Mag is a PDF magazine, but a lot of people want to print it. It should be able to do both, and if that adds 5 or 10 MB to the size, no one really cares that much.

    True, I am prone to rhetorical flourish, but in this case, I stand by my words. This was a philosophical mistake as much as a practical one.

  6. My only complaint is that the Interactive option is the default…I can’t count the number of times I’ve had to clear the Interactive PDF dialog and try again to get the Print dialog.

    What’s worse is that sometimes Print -is- the default…I’ve never figured out why. It happens just enough that I have to keep a bottle of aspirin on the desk!

  7. Amen, hear hear, and you betcha! It wasn’t broken — why “fix” it? Can’t they go up into the attic and borrow a cup of code from CS4?

  8. Hi David,
    Thanks for confirming something I started to investigate just yesterday.

    My application is printed double sided training workbooks for students, and I want to create an interactive PDF for the instructor just to play some videos during the presentation section of the class.

    I do not have many videos today, so I’ll just add them manually using the tools in Acrobat.

    The InDesign team should stroll down the “hallway” and have a chat with the FrameMaker team who does this just like we all need.

  9. I think the implementation of interactive PDF is also broken. Are there any PDF viewers besides Adobe Acrobat that support Flash animations, Portfolios, video or audio?

    An interactive PDF is no longer a universal file format; it is a collection of proprietary files in a universal container.

  10. I totally agree that the split options misses the point. We are creating PDFs. We should be able to choose what format to use and how to build it. I can’t tell you how many times I blindly click Export to PDF and ended up in the wrong dialog box! Cancel, start again.

    Sure, it’s easy to understand that the dialog box has to get bigger or more complicated, but hey we’re smart. We’ll adapt. Have faith in the user.

  11. To add my 2 peeve cents to the PDF export fray. I was delighted to see that the new ‘Interactive PDF’ feature allows one to set “View” and “Layout” options at export. This great in my situation, as our company requires PDFs be set up a certain way to make things easier for non-Acrobat-savvy clients. What baffles me is why those same features are NOT included as options when exporting to print versions, instead one must open the PDF in Acrobat go to “Document Properties” and then to the ‘initial view’ tab. Annoying.

  12. Totally agree. They’ve managed to make me unsatisfied with both export dialogs now, you can’t save any presets in Interactive (also a WTH lacking feature) and the zoom preset options (which are great) you can’t use in Print.

  13. @Jeff g.:
    “View” and “Layout” options are not compatible with PDF/X. That could be one reason, but not a good one?
    But what’s most annoying is that you cannot save a Interactive PDF Export-preset.

  14. I?m sure the folks at Adobe had it in our best interests when they proposed this crazy idea

    Of course they had. They want us to buy Acrobat

  15. The answer is of course a tabbed dialog box like so many other programs use. With a ‘print options’ tab and an ‘interactive options’ tab. You go into each of those and you get the further subdivisions as appropriate, so no extra confusion, but you still can choose from both sets when setting up your export.

  16. Totally agree with David. I stumbled upon this bug/issue back in June. Doing some research for upcoming Netherlands InDesign User Group Magazine article about interactive PDF. I couldn’t get stuff right. Had a twitterconversation with James Fritz about it and ended up writing about it as well (english post with dutch screenshots :P) Please Adobe “Make it easier not even more complicated!”

  17. Usually the magazines, newsletters, brochures, etc. when printed they are in portrait. But, they look much better and they are more efficient landscaped for on-screen viewing.
    I always make two layouts (similar ti the iPad apps): portrait for print and landscape for interactive PDFs. This way everything works great. For print PDFs I use presets based on requirements of the printer, for interactive PDFs I just Export to PDF.

  18. I agree to most of the above!
    Also: the “go to button” in InDesign (CS5.5) does not keep its interactivity when exported to pdf. Does anyone here know a nice script to solve this?

  19. I have a question if anyone could help me out with! I am a graphic designer and need to upload my portfolio on the web. I am using InDesign. Exporting my images as pdf Interactive does not give me great quality, but the pdf Print does for some reason. Can I just save the headache and stick to pdf Print option and still be able to upload my portfolio on the web and email to employers?

  20. Yes I agree, I’m more frustrated that the CS6 made so many changes that Im beginning to wonder if it’s even necessary or just to justify to upgrade the software! Like for example, image placement and text box resizing, scaling, etc. is overkill! Interactive feature is very interesting but also, very limited. (eg. pdf button is off limit to animation.)

  21. I’m still working in the print world (ID CS5, Mac OS 10.6.8). The toggle for Interactive/Print seems to be random – even when I make changes to an existing file and want to export a new pdf, the toggle may not come up as print (I have never used interactive). Is there a way to make the print option stick?

  22. I am creating a PDF for use on mobile devices, based on a print document. The only interactivity is navigation – basically, hyperlinks to the web, hyperlinks to other pages in the document, and bookmarks.

    This can be exported with either Interactive or Print setting, if I turn on hyperlinks & bookmarks in the Print pdf menu. So, does anybody know the difference between the 2 options, or which is best for this use?

    With interactive, my resolution settins are 96, 144, etc. vs. in the Print setting I can set image resolutions in the compression tab. They both work, so maybe it doesn’t matter which I use.

    I do a fair number of these pdfs from print docs with limited interactivity, so it would be great to feel confident about which is best.

  23. ha, that’s how I ended up here because I’m using InDesign to write a book and it has hyperlinks in it so – Interactive PDF according to Adobe, but wait it’s a tutorial how-to book so I need high quality images that people could print out if they wanted to so -PDF.

  24. I tried multiple times and it is not exporting a file at all, let alone the annotations. I tried to different locations and the problem is still the same. I tried by synchronizing but still did not work. Anybody facing a similar problem and having solution for that?

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