PDF standards

PDF stands for Portable Document Format and is a common internet file format. It's used for electronic distribution because it keeps the look and feel of the original document, including the fonts, colours, images, and layout.

It can also be used across many different types of computers and browsers and is commonly used for government publications, leaflets and forms.

In a large institution which processes hundreds of documents daily, it is important that we all produce PDF documents in an unified way in order to keep PDF documents accessible while abiding by our corporate identity.

When to save a document as a PDF

PDF file standards have improved over the years. They are more accessible due to technologies like screen readers, navigation through the keyboard and enhanced screen viewing.

Sharing a file in PDF format allows anyone to view the document regardless of what word processor was used to create it. More importantly, it prevents formatting errors from cropping up due to word-processor incompatibilities, making PDFs a must for official documents like resumes and important letters.

Here are instances when it is recommened to export your document as a PDF:

  • important documents that are to be shared with anyone external from the University
  • graphic design development in which team members are working at a distance and need to explore design ideas online
  • the online distribution of any printed document in which you want to preserve its printed appearance.

Corporate identity

It is recommended that when publicly distrbuting written PDF documents online they are processed using the University branded Microsoft Word templates that can be downloaded from the corporate identity pages.

File format considerations

There are a total of six PDF ISO standards. ISO stands for International Standards Organization, which issues certifications for products that meet their standards across many industries, PDF documents included.

ISO sets standards, based on a rigorous certification process, to assure quality, reliability and universality. Each PDF standard from ISO has guaranteed quality which was based on a specific set of circumstances. So, which standard you use will be determined by your set of document circumstances – how your PDF will be stored, viewed, shared, and printed.


This general PDF standard is sufficient for in-office use, sharing and viewing online and for standard quality documents.


This standard was developed for long-term file storage, commonly used by archivists, records managers and compliance managers. It has a restricted set of features, including JavaScript, audio and video content and encryption, because they may disallow users from opening and viewing accurately in the future.


Architects, engineers, construction professionals and manufacturing product teams will use this standard most often. According to Planet PDF, “This standard was intended to address key issues in the areas of large-format drawings, multimedia, form fields and rights management – to name a few – that might prevent the engineering community from embracing PDF in their workflows.”


This standard best suits print professionals, graphic designers and creative professionals. High quality, professional grade documents can be expected when using this standard. This PDF standard will ensure documents are print-ready by correctly embedding fonts, images, colour profiles and more.


This standard enhances the readability for people with disabilities, IT managers in government or commercial enterprises and compliance managers. The UA stands for Universal Access; this standard will work with assistive technology that assists users through reading and navigation.


Print professionals will also use this standard for documents. This standard is based on components of the PDF/X standard, allowing some features such as color profiles, layers and transparency to be maintained. The biggest addition is the ability to customize data within these files, such as bank statements, business invoices or personalized marketing material.


It is recommened that when producing PDF documents for internal office use that decorative images are used sparingly if at all.

Images that convey useful information must have text alternatives (or “Alt text”).

Decorative images and repeated headers and footers should be removed from the reading order so that screen readers and other “assistive technologies” ignore them.