Setting up InDesign articles for PDF export

The basics

A key task in preparing an InDesign document for export to a tagged PDF is setting up the Articles panel.

The Articles panel is an ordered list of document objects to be exported to the tagged PDF. Add objects to the Articles panel by dragging them into the panel. When you release the mouse, the object is listed in the panel at the spot where you let go. You can re-order listed items by dragging and releasing within the panel.

In the Articles panel menu, check ‘Use for reading order in tagged PDF’. When InDesign exports to PDF format and generates the tags, it follows the order of the items in the Articles panel, from top to bottom.

Importantly, there are two types of objects you can drag to the Articles panel: graphics frames and stories. If you drag a text frame to the panel, InDesign adds the entire story, whether the story consists of just that single text frame or it consists of multiple threaded text frames. It doesn’t matter whether you drag the first frame of a story or a subsequent frame, the effect will be the same. If you drag another text frame from the same story to the Articles panel, both instances will be displayed in the panel but only the first instance will be exported. So it’s important to be aware of the scope of each story and avoid these duplicate instances, because they will make it very difficult to check the export order. Inline graphics are treated as belonging to the story in which they are embedded.

If the entire substantive (non-artefact) content of your document consists of a single story, then you can just drag one text frame from that story to the Articles panel, and the entire story will be exported to tags in the correct order.

For ease of setup, then, it’s a good idea to lay out your entire document as a single story. For standard long-document layouts, that’s always been a good way of working anyway, and most of us have done it that way when it suits the layout. But we also sometimes split stories – for some layouts it’s just a practical necessity. But now, if you choose to (or have to) split stories, it means you have to drag each story to the Articles panel and arrange them in the right order. As long as the stories don’t overlap each other, this doesn’t take long and and it’s easy to check. However, it’s quite common for InDesign layouts to have some complexities, and then it’s not straightforward to define where one story starts and the next begins.

The challenges

Let’s look at a scenario that all graphic designers will be familiar with – marginal text frames. It’s a scenario that exemplifies the core difficulties of setting up the Articles panel when the layout is complex. If you understand the options you have in this scenario, you will be much better prepared to deal with the challenges of other types of complex layout. For this reason, I’ve listed three possible solutions below, with pros and cons for each option.

In our example scenario, the layout has a regular-sized left margin and wide right margin on each page. The main story is in a one-column text frame between the left and right margins. On the wide right margin, small text frames are placed for supplementary material (for example, quick tips that relate directly to adjacent content in the main text frame/story).

How do you deal with each of those marginal text frames? You want each one to be read in the correct reading order, so you have to identify the spot in the main story where you want to insert that tip. Having done that, what are your options in terms of the Articles panel setup?

The first time I had to deal with this scenario, I tried something that works in MS Word and seemed the most logical solution for InDesign as well. I anchored the marginal text frame to a spot in the main story. From a layout point of view, this is good practice because the marginal frame will move with the anchor if there is a reflow in the main story. I figured that the tags for the marginal frame would be exported within the main story at the spot where I placed the anchor, and sure enough that is what happened. Unfortunately, the tags for the entire content of the marginal frame were scrambled and useless. I checked with Adobe and they confirmed that InDesign does not export tags correctly for anchored frames. So the anchoring option is out.

This leaves three other options, each with their pros and cons. For all three options, the cons are rather unpleasant, so you’ll have to decide for yourself which of these options suits you and your document best.

Generally, I would prefer option 3 (repairing the tags in Adobe Acrobat), but perhaps not if the document was updated frequently. Option 3 is the only option that avoids unorthodox layout practices in InDesign, and this underlines why it is important for designers to be fluent in working with tags in Adobe Acrobat.

Option 1: Thread the main story through the marginal frame (and back again)

Pro

  • Problem solved as far as exporting and reading order goes – the marginal frame is now part of the main story

 Cons

  • Potential constant headaches dealing with reflow of text through those small frames
  • Potential for a late reflow to be missed by everyone and the mistake ending up in the printed document

Option 2: Split the main story

Splitting stories is not a native function in InDesign but there are scripts available to do this.

Pros

  • The marginal frame can now be dragged to the correct position in the Articles panel (because of the split)
  • The marginal frame is not subject to reflows

Cons

  • Reflows of text in the main story will probably necessitate manual adjustments, e.g. if you delete text in the upper text frame, you may need to raise the bottom edge of that frame and raise the top edge of the lower frame
  • You have more stories to deal with in the Articles panel
  • You have more objects to deal with in the Layers panel (since the order in this panel determines the display order in Acrobat’s reflow view)

Option 3: Repair the reading order after PDF export in Adobe Acrobat

In this option, you leave your layout as it is, with the main story flowing without interruption until the end of the document or until some other natural break, and you leave the marginal material as separate frames. Drag the marginal text frames so they are aggregated in the Articles panel at the end of the document or after the next break in the main story. After exporting the PDF, drag the tags for the marginal frames into the correct position in the reading order.

Pros

  • You can avoid the unorthodox layout practices suggested in options 1 and 2

 Cons

  • The interface for moving tags is not that quick and easy – if you’re not that experienced with the process, mistakes are likely, and there is no undo
  • If you have to do a fresh export of the entire document from InDesign, you will have to repeat the whole time-consuming process of moving the tags

Workflow implications

As you can see, there is no avoiding pain in this scenario. This is just one challenging scenario – there are plenty of other scenarios in InDesign where standard layout practices require disproportionate setup efforts before the document can be correctly exported to an accessible PDF.

This raises a number of workflow questions:

  • Do your corporate templates have these difficulties built into them?
  • Are these difficulties avoidable or unavoidable? (that is, could the templates be reconfigured so they look the same but are correctly set up for export?)
  • Are your in-house and freelance graphic designers exporting correctly from these templates? (remember, the Adobe Acrobat accessibility checker does not pick up reading order problems)
  • If they’re not currently exporting correctly, how much extra would it cost for each job to achieve a correct export?
  • Are you willing to pay that much, or would it be preferable to remove the difficulties in your templates and layouts?
  • Alternatively, can you publish these documents in other accessible formats instead, such as HTML and MS Word?