PDF In-Depth

PDF and Prepress According to Roelof

August 23, 2004

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Roelof Janssen first became interested in graphic arts when working as a pre-press manager for a printing company. After over a decade of experience that included founding the Screens & Pages consulting firm, this initial interest ultimately led to the Dutch expert becoming a partner of the Amersfoort-based Independent System Integrators (ISI). The company, which specializes in pre-press workflows, digital printing and Internet technology, has a client profile that spans printing companies, trade shops, print service providers, advertising agencies and corporate publishers. As the head of the Consultancy and Development department, Janssen is responsible for developing the XCPS (eXtensible Content Publishing System) framework.

"What you want to be added or left out (of the PDF format) depends on your needs for a specific area or job. On the other side, publishers do want one file that contains everything for any media, and there you have conflict that's not easy to solve."
Roelof Janssen, CEO, Independent System Integrators

Acrobat 6 Professional was a major development, with many features focused on the PDF Prepress and print areas. That begs the question though: how will this and future versions of Acrobat affect the print workflow? Will prepress houses embrace Acrobat Professional's enhanced feature set, or continue to rely on the trusty 3rd-party tools that have gotten them this far?

I recently caught up with him in person to ask him about his views on the PDF format, the state of PDF prepress, and the future...

DAN SHEA, Planet PDF Associate Editor: How do you think the adoption of standards such as PDF/X has affected the use of PDF in prepress environments?

ROELOF JANSSEN, CEO, Independent System Integrators: I think it's vital to have some sort of standard because, in our view, PDF alone is not a complete solution. There are many ways of making PDF, and in prepress, people are always interested in precise reproduction. Because of this, you need more than standards -- you need guidelines on how to use the standards. That's what's necessary, and that will also promote the use of PDF, because if a bad PDF breaks the workflow, printers will not look upon the format favorably. In these cases, printers need to ask for native files as well in order to correct the problems.

SHEA: What would you say to people who describe PDF as a panacea/cure-all?

JANSSEN: Well, I think that in many cases, it's only partly true. The most interesting thing about PDF is that it bundles different kinds of objects into a single format, while if you are talking native, you'll have three, four, five different formats to take care of. Looking from preflighting angle, it's much harder to support the newest versions of all the native applications than it is to work with one defined set of rules. That alone is very interesting, so whether it was PDF or some other format, it concentrates the developers of preflighting software to one specific format.

The other thing is that what can be in a PDF is public, and hence can be analyzed and described. In other words, it's known, while native formats are proprietary, and can change from one version to another without anyone even knowing.

On the other side, it is not really a panacea, because you can do a lot things wrong with PDF generation. Also, there are still systems that show very strange behaviour with some PDFs.

I've instructed people to take in only PDFs -- it's not digital film, let's say, but it's still better than having all the additional problems associated with native files. There you go: it's a step towards a more error-free workflow, but it's not 100% reliable.

SHEA: What are some of the best things about PDF for print workflows and why?

JANSSEN: Well, I'd say that the visibility of it is a very important thing. Of course, in the days of PostScript, the idea was that you could edit it; you had the PostScript red book etc., but no-one really did it. No-one will do that with PDF either -- you're not going into the low level PDF constructs, but the fact that someone who wants to send in a PDF file can really see what he's doing; he can even see if the text is reflowing because of his settings. That's the main thing, and once this is communicated to them, at least they have the alert that something is wrong, and that they are probably not very well off if they send that erroneous PDF to their printer. If they did, the printer would call them back and tell them that it was rubbish.

Visibility is the main thing, along with the concept that, having one file format which is open and publicly described, you can have preflight tools with the designers who are creating the PDFs. This brings the preflighting up-front, which is a very big improvement.

SHEA: How do you regard PDF prepress in general, and especially the new prepress features of Acrobat 6?

JANSSEN: There are still some limitations in some specific areas of PDF prepress, like packaging with the trapping settings, so there's still some work to be done in PDF. I'm not sure about 6 or 7 color printing for instance, but for the mainstream of commercial print work, it has meant a lot in terms of standardizing and getting things to work.

I don't know if people use the new prepress features a lot, because they were a little late. People who have already built their PDF workflows have the tools outside of Acrobat to check their files, and maybe they will stick to those tools because they are familiar. For instance, they may have learned how PitStop works, and what you can get out of it. Another big thing is that in many cases, you restrain yourself to checking what you have to add or repair, and that's perhaps where other tools are giving better output.

It may be of interest to people on the print buyer side if they are knowledgeable about, say, separations or overprinting. For them, it's a big advantage that they don't need extra tools to check that now. Still, you may also wonder who has the version of Acrobat that really does this. In many office departments, they will not give anyone that feature, and so it will not be used that much. So its widespread use is probably some time off. Meanwhile, other tools will be combined with Acrobat to repair files, etc.

Basically, the printing world is copying from each other, so if anyone is using PitStop, then you had better buy that as well. I think that prepress people will continue to want and use special tools.

SHEA: Is there anything you'd like to see added, removed or modified in the next versions of Acrobat and PDF to make your life easier?

JANSSEN: I think that developments are going in different directions. If you look at PDF/X and Certified PDF, then much of it is about leaving out things that PDF supports. PDF is basically targeting a lot of different user groups, like people building CDs with interactive tools, people using video, animation etc. The print world, at this point, wants to leave all that out, or they're perhaps a bit paranoid that it will disrupt their systems. That's why I think that there will maybe be some different PDF versions or guidelines in special media areas like forms. With enterprise computing, forms are very, very important, and if you leave or strip that out, you may end up with a PDF that the organization that you got it from is not very happy with.

...What you want to be added or left out depends on your needs for a specific area or job. On the other side, publishers do want one file that contains everything for any media, and there you have conflict that's not easy to solve.

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