Why I Like PDF

Is PDF the perfect file format? It seems to be everywhere, do anything and hold the key to everything we do as designers. I do think it’s the (almost) perfect format—here’s why.

Being a web designer, acronyms are often on my mind: XHTML, CSS, XML, XSLT and RSS among many others. They’re often at the forefront of any discussion of web technologies, but I don’t hear as much discussion about print technologies among print designers. Maybe it’s because they’re too busy playing with the new features of QuarkXPress 7 to wonder what LZW compression means. Maybe they don’t care, as long as the printer is getting the files they requested and the job is plating properly. Maybe it’s because web design is a new and “emerging” field with standards still in the air, while print designers rest easy knowing that, as long as they stick with their QuarkXPress 4.11 and EPS files, they don’t have to think about the technology at work.

Some designers think like this but many others do not, and these folks are most likely either sending Portable Document Format (PDF) to their vendors or achieving a full PDF workflow (placing PDF images in their layouts, delivering PDF output to vendors who create plates without converting to PostScript). It’s amazing how this file format, which at first was only a method of delivering electronic books to consumers, is now considered integral to producers of the highest quality of content as well as the lowest.

It makes sense though:

PDF is based on PostScript—and everything else. PostScript is the standard for defining type on a computer, but that was its first intention and wasn’t necessarily a vehicle for raster images and all the other pieces that make up a layout of most any kind (including multimedia, which we’ll get to later). PDF combines PostScript and raster images, essentially making it capable of expressing everything on the page.

PDF knows what’s important and strips the rest out. By that I mean the PDF format by its nature strips out the extraneous data in a native file (text boxes, guides and so on) and returns a file that looks like the original and will output like the original, but will be harder to edit and much smaller in size. The size breakthrough is what makes PDF so popular, in my opinion: designers no longer have to collect files for output and burn them onto CDs and DVDs, a PDF attached to an e-mail will often do just fine. An aside: I recently had an executive at a company ask me why Acrobat Reader didn’t edit PDFs the way Word edits Word documents, thinking that was a no-brainer. PDF’s lean code is the reason why.

I think the PDF format will become the true standard of print file formats—no more TIFF, no more EPS, definitely no more BMPs—because of its lean structure and ability to contain any data you might possibly need, but there are other points to consider too:

A designer’s role has changed over the last decade. It used to be that a designer was specialized. He or she would be in charge of designing layouts and not much more; photos would be handled by specialized color correction experts, writing would be handled by copywriters, high-resolution output would be handled by service bureaus, and so on. There’s still designers out there who cling to the old model and feel scanning, or digital photography, or even strategy need to be left to others.

That’s not the way it works nowadays: designers have a vastly expanded skill set and are called upon to do an expanded variety of work including scannning, shooting photographs and developing marketing strategy. Along with this is also the outputting of files for the printer (which before would probably be handled by a service bureau), and preparing proper files can’t be blamed on your bureau anymore. You’re in control, but you’re also held accountable. Fortunately, PDF makes it a lot easier to achieve quality output (and it’s almost a sure thing if you’re using PDF/X-1a).

PDF has grown up. Back in the day of Acrobat 3 and PDF version 1.2, using PDF for quality output was not a done deal. Some designers who tried using PDF back then may have had a bad experience and went back to working with QuarkXPress 4 and collecting all those native files. Fortunately Acrobat has moved foward to version 7 and the PDF to 1.6, and the technology is battle-tested.

Designers not only do more, but they author more. How many print designers today do strictly 100% print design? No web, no multimedia? Probably not very many, especially now that web design software is either a part of a package deal (Adobe CS2) or a part of the application altogether (QuarkXPress). What if your boss wants to make your latest InDesign document into a presentation akin to PowerPoint or Flash? Create a PDF Presentation, a special PDF with presentation capabilities (and available in practically all the Adobe CS2 apps). What if the boss also wants to include a QuickTime movie of his grand speech to the board? You can still use a PDF Presentation. And what if afterwards he wants to distribute the presentation to the board so they can all see it? PDF Presentation.

Practically all applications can output to PDF. If PDF can contain data of most any kind, then it stands to reason that most applications should be able to produce them—and reason would be right in this case. Photoshop PDFs are very handy for creating small, layered files that can be placed in QuarkXPress or InDesign (though the implementation of the Save As PDF dialog box in Photoshop is potentially dangerous for later editing in that app). Illustrator has been working with PDF for quite some time and even its native format is basically a PDF with Illustrator data attached to it. InDesign, of course, can export as PDF. And to tie it all together, the PDF presets are available in all Adobe CS2 applications.

For non-Adobe apps such as QuarkXPress, output to PDF has been around for awhile but has seen a boom over the last 3–5 years. QuarkXPress started native PDF export in 6.0 (I think). The Macintosh OS X began creating PDFs in all its Save and Save As dialog boxes, and that’s been going on for a few years now. These PDFs are often not as good as those coming out of Adobe’s applications (QuarkXPress PDFs are unusually large, and the Mac OS X PDFs are unusually crappy) but the technology is there and working.


PDF is a proven file format that is practically everywhere, more foolproof day by day, and can output at any quality needed. Are there any reasons not to use it?

Yes, there are actually. PDF does not stand for Perfect Document Format or Pretty Damn Foolproof. There’s lots of ways to ruin a PDF on the way to the printer (both on the designer’s end and the printer’s). A PDF can’t improve low resolution or just plain bad content. There are still some font issues sometimes, tbough that’s not always the PDF’s fault. And even when everything seems to be going right, sometimes weird illogical stuff just happens (that’s what computers are for, right?). But despite all those things, PDF is a great choice for a standard file format and with the industry moving toward consolidation and combination a standard will undoubtedly emerge.