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How to Flatten PDF Files

2021-12-07 14:59:34 • Filed to: How-To • Proven solutions

The term "flatten PDF" refers to the process of taking the multiple layers of a PDF file and removing any interactive elements to create a "flat PDF". The mechanics of how to flatten a PDF can be explained by comparing it to composite images that Photoshop users are familiar with. Just as there are layers in an image that can be flattened in order to be converted to a different format, there are layers in a PDF that can be flattened, such as interactive elements, embedded fonts, and so on. It's also similar in some ways to the "flatting" process used by colorists in the comic book industry. As such, the method to flatten PDF documents involves a careful process of merging the text in the PDF stream to the data layered on top of it. More on that later. Let's look at the process of using a PDF flattening tool like PDFelement to flatten PDFs.

Three Steps to Flatten PDF

PDFelement is a full-featured document management system designed to handle PDF and other digital workflows. Since flattening a PDF is a delicate process, it is prone to errors. PDFelement eliminates the potential for such errors and renders a true flat copy of any PDF file you process, even one with complex text, objects, form fields, and other data elements. The process to flatten PDF files are explained in detail below:

Step 1. Open the PDF Flattening Tool

Open PDFelement and import your PDF file using the "Open files" button on the software's home page or simply by dragging a file icon into the interface.

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Step 2. Flatten PDF 

Under the "Tool" tab, you should be able to see a button called "Flatten File". Click on it to proceed.

flatten pdf layers

And your PDF file will be flattened in a few seconds and the flattened PDF will be open as a new tab in PDFelement. As you can see, the previous PDF interactive and fillable forms are not fillable anymore now.

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Step 3. Save the Flattened PDF

Finally, click "File" > "Save As" if you want to keep the flattened PDF file and hit the "Save" button after assigning a new name for the flattened PDF file.

how to flatten a pdf

PDFelement is a solid PDF flattening tool, but it is capable of much more. Here's a quick look at some of the exhaustive PDF actions you can perform:

  • Edit PDFs: Full editing suite for PDF workflows. Easily edit any component of a PDF, including images, text, hyperlinks, forms, footers/headers, watermarks, tables, and many more.
  • Create and Convert PDFs: Convert any document format to PDF and vice versa with stunning accuracy even in the case of complex layouts with mixed elements like tables, graphs, links, etc.
  • Fill Forms and Sign PDFs Digitally: It can handle any type of form creation, form conversion (non-interactive to interactive format), form field recognition, import/export, and data extraction. A legally binding digital signature can be created and added to documents.
  • PDF Security: To protect PDF documents, security elements can be added, such as password access, editing and other restrictions, watermarks, redaction of content, etc. The latest and strongest encryption algorithms are used and continually updated in new iterations of this software.
  • Advanced OCR: The pro version comes with a plugin module for optical character recognition that works with over 20 languages.
  • Batch Processes: The Pro version also offers numerous batch processes for handling repetitive tasks, large extraction jobs, and even OCR processing.

Now that we have a basic understanding of how to flatten PDF files and where the process is typically used, you're ready to go deeper into PDF flattening, real-life applications, and benefits.

Flatten PDF: Meaning and Definition

A non-interactive PDF document is typically considered to be a flattened file even though it may contain a mix of images, text, and even shapes. Think of it as just having a single layer that cannot be flattened further. However, most PDFs often have elements that won't be available in the PDF stream. Some of these include markups and annotations, form field data, interactive form elements, image layers, and so on. In some cases, you might not want these interactive elements to remain separate; you may just want them to appear as special characters. Hence, the "flatten PDF" process.

Reasons for and Advantages of Flattening PDF Files

By flattening a PDF, what you're doing is rendering all these non-static elements into the main PDF stream according to their visibility properties and then removing them altogether. There are several reasons why you may want to do this:

  • The PDF renders faster if it's flat, which is useful when sharing a PDF URL with a wider audience, so they can view it on their browsers.
  • You can display specific values for drop-down menus, checklists, etc. that can't be altered.
  • For forms, you can flatten a PDF to prevent others from changing data easily.

There are also several advantages to having your PDF files flattened. For example, it's easier to distribute a PDF link to a flat document, so it loads faster on the browser - very handy when you have large files with tables, filled-out form data, and so on. You can also 'lock' the content, in a sense, which is especially useful when forwarding forms and other interactive data. In addition, since you're removing the interactive elements and rendering them on the imaging level, this vector information can be removed, essentially making it a simple PDF that's easy to share and view.

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Margarete Cotty

chief Editor

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