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For designers Accessible PDF design


Research shows that users find PDFs more difficult to use than web pages, so we should publish in HTML wherever possible.

PDFs are not accessible because they:

  • do not change size to fit the browser
  • are not designed for reading on screens
  • do not work as well with assistive technologies like screen readers
  • are harder to maintain
  • cannot be adapted for users' preferences like HTML can, such as changing text size and colour

Read more about why the Government Digital Service (GDS) advise publishing in HTML instead of PDF (opens in a new tab) 

If a PDF is necessary, you must alter the document to meet accessibility standards. It must be written in Plain English and follow a logical reading order.

PDF files are typically created in an application such as Adobe InDesign. Optimising a document for accessibility should begin in the original document format.


Any essential information should always be available elsewhere as HTML

InDesign accessibility guide

How to make sure your document is accessible before exporting to PDF.

Convert the document colour profile

Change the document colour space from CMYK to RGB by selecting “Edit”, “Transparency Blend Space”, “Document RGB”.

This setting should be used for all digital products.

Add a document title and author information

Set the document title by selecting “File” then “File Info” and enter your title in the title field. The title should be clear, useful and follow our house style for PDF titles (opens in a new tab) 

Author information can also be added here in the author field.

Set up paragraph styles with tags

PDFs should have correctly tagged hierarchical headings, text, bullet lists, tables and images so screen readers can understand the structure.

To apply tags while creating your paragraph styles:

  1. Select “Type” then “Paragraph styles”.
  2. Right click on a paragraph style and select “Create new style”.
  3. Select “Export tagging” at the bottom of the menu.
  4. Select the appropriate tag from the “PDF Tag” drop-down menu.

You do not need to tag bulleted and numbered lists. These are automatically tagged appropriately during the export process.

Add tags to existing paragraph styles

To apply tags to existing paragraph styles:

  1. Select “Type” then “Paragraph styles”.
  2. Open the burger menu icon and select “Edit all export tags”.
  3. Select the radial button next to “PDF”.

Any paragraph style that displays “Automatic” in the tag column should be amended accordingly.

There is further Adobe guidance available on how to create and work with paragraph styles (opens in a new tab) 

To tag new tables, in the “Table” menu:

  1. Select “Create table”.
  2. Choose the amount of header, body, and footer rows your table requires.
  3. Place the table into your document.

To set the header and/or footer rows to appear on every page that the table appears on:

  1. Highlight any part of the table.
  2. Select “Table”, “Table options” then “Header and footer”.
  3. Change the “Repeat header” drop-down to once per page.

Add tags to existing tables

To tag existing tables:

  1. Highlight the header row.
  2. Select “Table”, “Covert Rows” then “To Header”.

If you want to draw attention to the bottom of the table, this will need to be tagged as a footer row under “To Footer”.

Add alt text to images

Alternative text, or alt text, needs to be applied to images that are helpful to understanding the surrounding content or purpose of a page.

It should summarise the information for users who cannot see the image.

To add alt text:

  1. Select the image.
  2. Select “Object” then “Object export options”.
  3. Add a detailed description of the image.

Alt text should be no more than one sentence and include a full stop at the end.

Hide decorative objects

Images that are not essential to understanding the content and purpose of a page are decorative. These should be hidden from assistive technology.

To hide these images:

  1. Select the image.
  2. Select “Object” then “Object export options”.
  3. Choose “Tagged PDF” from the tab menu.
  4. In the “Apply Tag” drop-down, choose “Artefact”.

Add articles

Articles help to create relationships between page items and define the order of the content.

To add articles:

  1. Open the article panel by going to “Window” then “Articles”.
  2. Select all the items on the page.
  3. Select “add selection to article” at the bottom of the panel.
  4. Name the article when prompted.
  5. Tick “include when exporting”.

Objects within an article are given default names based on the object’s type and content.

Create document bookmarks

To create bookmarks:

  1. Select “Window”, “Interactive”, then “Bookmarks”.
  2. Highlight the text you want to become the bookmark.
  3. Select the “Create new bookmark” in the bookmark panel.

The text you select will be the title of the bookmark.

You can change the order of the bookmarks by dragging to a new location. A black bar will appear indicating where the bookmark will be placed.

To nest bookmarks, select the individual or range of bookmarks and drag the icon onto the parent bookmark.

Run a final check

Before exporting to PDF:

  • reformat tilt and turn files to display correctly, Welsh should lead English
  • check the nesting of heading and paragraph styles
  • add URL descriptions where required
  • check interactive elements function correctly
  • hyperlink social media icons
  • save the file with interactive PDF/A settings, without crop marks or bleed in single pages
  • select “fit to page”, “create tagged PDF”, display “document title” and set document language
  • test with voiceover software if possible

Export to PDF

When the document is ready to export:

  1. Select “File” then “Export”.
  2. Open the format drop-down menu, choose “Interactive PDF” and save.
  3. Go to the “General” tab in the “Export to Interactive PDF” window.
  4. Select “pages” as the export option.
  5. Tick “Create tagged PDF” and “Use structure for tab order”.
  6. In the “Advanced” tab, set the display title to “Document title”.
  7. Set the document language in the drop-down menu.

If a language does not appear in the menu, enter the code from the ISO 639.2 Language Code list (opens in a new tab) 

For Welsh, use code “cym”.

Only one language can be set per document. Multilingual materials will need to be separated.

Acrobat accessibility guide

How to run a final check in Acrobat to make sure a PDF is accessible.

Set bookmark navigation to automatically open with document

To do this:

  1. Select “File”, “Properties”, then “Initial view”.
  2. Open the drop-down to the left of the navigation tab.
  3. Select “Bookmarks panel and page”.

Run the Acrobat accessibility check

Use the accessibility checker to confirm that the document has no accessibility issues. To run:

  1. Select “Tools”, “Accessibility”, then “Accessibility check”.
  2. Make sure all 32 category options are ticked.
  3. Select “Start checking”.

Any errors should be corrected before the document can be published.

Document titles, bookmarks and language can be corrected in Acrobat as well as InDesign.

To add a document title and author information:

  1. Select “File”, “Properties”, then “Description”.
  2. Enter a title and author.
  3. Select “Initial View”, then choose document title from the “Show” drop-down.
  4. Press OK to save.

To create a bookmark:

  1. Select “View”, “Show/Hide”, “Navigation panes”, then “Bookmarks”.
  2. Open the “Options” menu.
  3. Choose “New bookmarks from structure”.
  4. In “Structure elements”, select the tag to use for the bookmark.

To set the language:

  1. Select “File”, “Properties” then “Advanced”.
  2. Choose the language from the drop-down, if not found then enter the code from the ISO 639 list (opens in a new tab) 
  3. Use “cym” for Welsh.

Only one language can be set per document. Multilingual materials will need to be separated.

Table summaries

Summaries can improve accessibility in complex data tables. They are optional unless the information within the table cannot be understood without it.

Provide a summary for tables where needed to make the data easier to understand, or to give instructions on how to review the data.

Help improve this page

Let us know how we could improve this page, or share your user research findings. Discuss this page on GitHub (opens in a new tab)