Adobe InDesign is a powerful tool to create both print and electronic documents with complex layouts. No matter which electronic format you plan to generate from InDesign, the same universal design features apply. Whether you’re creating a PDF, an EPUB, or an HTML file, the most critical features to include are headings and styles, reading order, and alt text for images.

How you organize and present information plays a big role in determining the usability and inclusivity of your electronic content. Visual formatting—layout, spacing, color, and font selection—all affect the degree to which information can be easily read and understood. We know this from age-old principles of graphic design as well as modern studies of usability.

Yet we mustn’t rely on visual formatting alone to convey important information. That’s because not every reader will see your document the way you designed it due to varying screen sizes, printing, and photocopying. Others won’t see it at all; they will hear it using text-to-speech software. Thus, Visual formatting should be combined with structural formatting.

Structural formatting is accomplished with Headings. Headings are used to create an outline, or table of contents, that helps users to navigate the content more efficiently. This is especially true for readers who navigate using assistive technology. Thus, using headings is a very simple method of increasing the usability of your electronic content. You can apply headings in Word documents, on the web, and in Canvas courses.

  • Use headings to provide a page structure or outline
  • Nest appropriately - do not skip levels
  • Use headings to indicate sections of content. Avoid over-using them, especially for links.

Further resources on appropriate use of headings:

Setting Styles in InDesign

Use Paragraph Styles to format your InDesign document with headings and styles instead of using the font settings in the toolbar. An additional advantage of setting styles is that you can apply changes globally across your entire document, saving the time it would take to change each section individually.

Window > Styles > Paragraph Styles

In InDesign, select Window menu, styles, then paragraph styles

Once in the Paragraph Styles window, select the structure type that you want to assign to the highlighted text.

Paragraph styles window with H1 selected

To change the appearance of a particular style, double-click on it to bring up Paragraph Style Options.

Paragraph style options window with Basic Character Formats highlighted to change H1 style font settings

The headings and styles document structure that you create will not automatically transfer to PDF when you export from InDesign. In order to maintain headings and styles, specify how the styles should be recognized in the resulting PDF.

In the Paragraph Styles Options window (the same window where you edited the appearance of your styles), select Export Tagging. Under PDF, select the style that you want to see in the converted PDF. In this case, H1 will map to H1:

Export Tagging menu showing H1 selected in the PDF dropdown menu

Reading order is important to consider for content that isn't linear. It applies to the more heavily visual layouts such as websites and PowerPoint presentations, as well as to PDF documents with columns, images, or forms. Setting the reading order allows text-to-speech or screen reading software to read the information in a logical order. It also ensures that links and form fields can be tabbed through sequentially for users who navigate with a keyboard or screen reader.

To set reading order in InDesign, use the Articles panel: Window > Articles

Select Window, Articles

Drag content from the document into the Articles panel in the order the content should be read. You can drag multiple items by holding the shift key and selecting them in the correct order before dragging to the panel.

Articles panel showing content order

Images convey information quickly and powerfully—assuming they can been seen and understood. However, some readers may not understand the meaning of the image; others may not be able to see it due to visual impairment, personal viewing preferences (especially on the web), or technological limitations.

Alternate text (“alt text” or "alt tag") is added to an image to provide a textual alternative to visual information. Why is this important? Remember, some users won’t see your information; instead, they’ll hear it using text-to-speech or screen-reading software. By adding an alt text to an image, you make its meaning available to people who, for whatever reason, cannot see it.

Alternate text should be added to all non-text elements, including:

  • Pictures
  • Graphs
  • Charts
  • Tables
  • Microsoft Office SmartArt

Make alternate text meaningful to a listener:

  1. What is the context of the image? What meaning does it add to the page?
  2. Be concise. Describe only what you expect visual users to get out of the image.
  3. If the image is already described in the surrounding text, the alt text can be very short.
  4. Avoid redundant statements like “Image of” or “This is a picture of.” Simply state what it is.
  5. If an image is purely decorative, mark it as such (various methods depending on software).
Adding Alt Text in InDesign

If alt text does not exist from an originating document, it can be added manually within InDesign:

Select the image with the Selection tool. In the menus, select Object > Object Export Options

InDesign Object menu with Object Export Options selected

In the Alt Text tab, choose Custom from the Alt Text Source drop-down menu.

Note: Alt text can also be imported into InDesign from Microsoft Word or from Adobe Bridge metadata. To import existing alt text, select XMP: Description from the Alt Text Source menu instead of Custom.

Alt text dropdown menu with custom selected

Type the description in the text field.

Alt text box with description