Layering Your PDFs Using Adobe InDesign CS6

This entry is part 12 of 17 in the series Tutorials


Last week, I showcased a PDF that scored high marks in accessibility. It made great use of layers, document structure, and bookmarks to form a PDF that was easy to read in a variety of ways. Layering, in particular, helped the book immensely; by placing backgrounds and images on their own layer, they can be toggled on or off, which means people who find those graphics distracting can hide them, and people who wish to print the book can turn them off for improved ink economy.

This week I’ll show you how to add layers to a document using Adobe InDesign CS6.

Setting Up Your Document

First of all, you’ll want to make sure you have a document imported into InDesign. You’ll also need to place one or more graphic files, such as illustrations, diagrams, and other graphical content.

If it isn’t already available to you, enable the Layers panel. To do so, select Window -> Layers or press F7.

Finally, make sure the Layers panel is the active panel.

That’s it! Now you’re ready to start working with layers.

Adding and Editing Layers

By default, InDesign works with a single layer, which they call Layer 1. To enable cool features like toggling graphics on/off without hiding the text along with them, you’ll need to add a few more layers.

I recommend using at least three layers:

  1. Text
  2. Graphics
  3. Background

You can break things up a bit more than that if you’d like, but those are the most important. If you don’t have a background and your document is just going to have plain paper behind the text and images, you don’t need a background layer either.

Create a New Layer

1. Click the Create New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers panel, or click the Options button and select New Layer… from the menu.

If you click the Create New Layer button, a new layer will appear on the Layers panel called Layer 2. I prefer to click Options -> New Layer… because it opens the New Layer Dialog, which allows you to name the layer and change a few of its parameters before creating it.

2. In the New Layer Dialog, give the layer a name, such as Graphics or Background.

3. Choose your other options. Color represents the color of the object frame for elements on that layer. For example, the object frame for an image would be red if Color is set to red. This gives you a visual indication of which layer the object is on when you’re working with the document.

It’s generally okay to leave the default options, but if you have other intentions for the layer then it’s okay to change them.

3. Click OK. The dialog closes and a new layer is added to your Layers panel.

Working with the Layers Panel

You may need to change a layer’s properties from time to time. You can quickly access the Layer Options Dialog by simply double-clicking on the layer’s name in the Layers panel. This dialog looks identical to the New Layer Dialog.

You can also quickly access certain layer controls by clicking on different elements within the Layers panel. For example, you can click the eye icon to toggle visibility (hide/show that layer) or you can click the box to the right of that icon to show a lock icon and disable edits. Objects on a locked layer can’t be selected or changed, so you can work on other objects on the page without accidentally moving or deleting objects on the locked layer.

After you’ve added a few objects to a layer, you can click the Right Arrow to expand the layer and show which objects are on it. Objects may be listed by name (for example, the file name of an image) by text (the first few words in a text box) or by description (such as “rectangle,” “line,” or “group.”

To the right of the object’s name is a small box. Clicking on that box allows you to select that object just as if you had clicked on the object on your page. This is particularly helpful if your object is hidden behind another or if it’s very small and hard to select.

Finally, you can delete a layer by selecting it and clicking the garbage can icon on the Layers panel or by pressing the Delete key.

Arranging Layers

You can rearrange objects on a layer by simply dragging and dropping them.

Moving an object or layer up in the list will bring it to the Front of a document while dragging it down the list will send it to the Back. Think of it like this:

You’re creating na art project on a piece of paper. The red construction paper is the page at the very back of the objects you’d like to place on top of it.

You decide you’d like to add a flower to the page, so you paste it on top of the construction paper on a separate layer. Then you decide you’d like the flower to look like it’s coming out of a pot, so you paste a smaller pot on top of that flower, on its own layer, to give it the illusion that the flower is in the pot.

Finally, you paste a small block of text that says “Flower” on the pot. That’s the text layer, and it goes in front of everything else.

If you moved the pot forward, it would cover the text. If you moved it backward, the flower would look like it was in front of the pot instead of inside it, and the word “Flower” would run across its stem. If you brought the red construction paper from the back to the front, you’d cover everything.

Because your text is so important, it needs to be on the front-most layer, so drag your Text layer to the top of the list. Your Background layer goes behind everything else, so you’ll put it at the bottom of the list. Graphics go in the middle.

Adding Objects to a Layer

To add an object to a layer, simply find the object’s name in the list and drag it from its current position to the new layer’s group. For example, if an image is showing on the Text layer, simply grab the image’s name from the list and drag it to the Graphics layer to move it. The object will automatically take on the attributes of the new layer.

Exporting Layers to PDF

When exporting your document to PDF, it’s easy to ensure that your layers aren’t flattened (compressed to a single layer).

1. Open the Export Adobe PDF
Dialog by pressing CTRL+E or selecting File -> Export and saving as Adobe PDF (Print).

2. In the export dialog, ensure that your file is compatible with Acrobat 6 (PDF 1.5) or later by selecting that option from the Compatibility drop-down in the top-right corner of the dialog.

3. Place a check in the box next to Create Acrobat Layers.

4. Finish exporting your PDF.

When you open your file in Acrobat, you’ll have access to the Layers panel.

Tips and Tricks

Sometimes it’s easy to miss an image that needs to be moved onto the image layer. There are two simple ways to ensure you catch every image before exporting your book.

1. Open the Links panel (Window -> Links or Shift + CTRL + D). In the Page(s) column, you can click on the page number listed next to each image that appears in the list. Clicking on the number will cause InDesign to jump to that location and select the image. You can then go back to the Layers panel and make sure the image is on your Graphics layer. Go through the entire list and do this.

2. Hide your Graphics layer on the Layers panel by clicking the eye icon next to it. Then go to the first page of your document and press Shift + W to enter preview mode. You can quickly advance through all of the pages of your document in preview mode by pressing the right and left arrow keys on your keyboard. Go through your entire document and look for any images that may appear. If they show up, it means they’re not on your currently-hidden Graphics layer. Press Escape to return to your work space, move the image to the appropriate layer, and repeat.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to note that layers are designed for digital publishing – that is, they’re meant to be viewed on computers and tablets. When you’re creating a PDF that is intended to be download and read, they’re great. However, you won’t send a layered PDF to a printer because they’ll need to have a flattened PDF. That’s okay; you can export one version of your PDF for digital publishing and another (typically in the PDF/X-1a format) for print needs. When exporting to PDF/X-1a, InDesign will flatten the layers for you.

It’s easy to work with layers, and they add a lot of usefulness to your digital products. By taking a little time to perform these few extra steps, you’ll add a great deal of functionality to your products and put yourself a step ahead of the competition.


This post also appears on Indie+ and is covered by the Indie+ Community Standards.

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Series Navigation<< So What Does an Accessible PDF Look Like?Why Accommodating Others is Your Best Investment >>

About Jacob Wood

Jacob founded Accessible Games because he wants to spread the joy of gaming to everyone, including people with disabilities. He is visually impaired and knows what it's like to need to adapt, and he brings two decades of gaming experience to the table.
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