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The Shape of Electronic Documents

A4 is a very common paper size. Most office documents seem to favour this paper size. Student notebooks take on this size and shape.

A4 Problem?

There is no problem with A4. The problem is created when digital documents that are designed for reading online are assigned physical sizes and aspect ratios that were designed for printed documents. The most problematic such format is PDF. 

Why is PDF a Problem?

PDF is not the problem. The problem is created by the absence of an option to change the document's aspect ratio at the time of saving it. Most computer monitors use the 16:1 (widescreen) aspect ration. Ideally, PDF readers should allow the user to set the aspect ratio to use when reading the document.   PDF creators should offer a number of common ratios as a minimum or, even better, set no fixed aspect ratio but leave this to the reader.

Fixed is Bad

PDF is not a responsive e-document format unlike ePub. Its a fixed layout format. Fixation is a key strength of PDF as an epaper format. This is the very feature that makes it unsuitable for responsive ebooks.Water flows to fit the shape of the container. So should a responsive ebook.

Way Out.

The way out for the time being - as we wait for word processors to acquire the ability to export to ePub format - is to create PDFs that better fit mobile devices in terms of page width and height. Keep in mind that most readers using left-to-right scripts prefer to swipe to the left to turn the page rather than scroll down. It means PDFs should have a navigational feature to facilitate swiping horizontally. Ideally, each page should fit the smartphone or tablet screen yet be easily readable. 

Thoughtful Document Design

Word processors such as  Word or Writer will save a document in PDF format but, if it was designed for printing, will probably be in default A4 format. To create a useful ebook format, it would help to reformat the document into a more friendly layout. The two  graphics below show two documents. One in A4 format and a second in a custom format. The second document, when viewed in a PDF reader is clearly much easier to read. 

Help Save the Trees

Keeping these issues in mind, it's not surprising that people prefer to read printed documents rather than read them on their monitors. Reason?  The document creator has provided a hostile document that is stressful to handle on a computer or smartphone screen. We can help save the trees by creating more usable documents. Like all other "software", you should test e-docs for usability. Creating difficult-to-read documents makes others lives a little harder. You can create two versions of your document: one designed for print, a second designed for reading in a digital device.

A4 Book

Custom Aspect Ratio

The custom aspect ratio (9.13 x 7.38 inch or 330.5 x 187.5mm) in the second image fits the widescreen screen well. The 16:9 widescreen aspect ration is equivalent to 1.77:1. The second PDF document shown above is 1.76:1 which is a virtually identical aspect ratio.

Way Forward
The common smartphone, tablet and laptop screen aspect rations are:
Common Smartphone Screen Aspect Ratios
 Common Tablet Screen Aspect Ratios

Common Laptop Screen Aspect ratios

When designing PDFs for reading on a tablet or laptop (do desktops still exist?), it's best to adopt a 1.77:1 aspect ratio or a ratio close to this. This improves the usability and user experience making the world altogether a happier location in this universe.  


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