PDF In-Depth

Digital Publication Design - PDFs Improve the Creative Process

December 15, 1999


Over the last dozen years, the explosive use of computer graphics has greatly expanded, speeded up, and improved the creative process. It has also cemented our reliance on telecommunications devices to quickly transfer proofs and files.

Most publication designers are well versed in the advantages of using graphics programs for the creation of vector, bitmap, and typeset layout graphics. But good design benefits from clarity of communication between the designer and the client. It improves with quick feedback through a series of proofing cycles. How can Adobe Acrobat help improve this creative process?

PDF "Color Fax Machine"

The fax machine has provided a terrific means for designers to communicate concepts and layouts with their clients. Clients fax their sketches, specifications, and modifications in, designers fax their drawings and compositions back. But fax technology has some glaring weaknesses--poor resolution, snail-paced transfer rates, weak paper substrates for archiving, no grayscale or color, etc. Even if someone had invented a super "color print" fax machine, it would have required that all potential recipients have compatible hardware for receiving the pages.

The Portable Document Format (PDF) is changing all that. Approximately US$200 (street price for Adobe Acrobat) enables users to create highly compressed color PDF files with remarkable fidelity to the original. Email and internet users can either link these files to HTML pages for viewing on the internet or attach the files to email for group-wide distribution. All the recipient requires to be able to proof and print out a paper copy of the color PDF file is an installed copy of the freely downloadable Adobe Acrobat Reader® developed by Adobe for their specific computer platform.

A little known capability of Acrobat is its ability to open electronic faxes (saved in the Group IV compression format) and save them as image PDFs. This would allow the user to combine faxed information with other PDFs for distribution as email or through EDMS systems. To achieve this, simply FILE/IMPORT/IMAGE and select the fax file you wish to convert to PDF. In some cases, these image PDFs can be converted to text by using the Capture plug-in (TOOLS/PAPER CAPTURE/CAPTURE).

PDF Advantages over Paper Faxes

The advantages of using PDFs in place of paper faxes are overwhelming:

  • Time Savings -- PDFs can be attached to email. No waiting for the fax lines to free up before transmitting. Laser printing PDF files is much faster (pages per minute) than the printing speeds of most fax machines (pages per hour).
  • Simultaneous distribution -- A single attached email can be distributed to groups simultaneously. Paper fax machines are rarely equipped to send more that one page to one location at a time.
  • Full resolution Vector graphics and embedded fonts -- Vector and embedded text graphics are always at full resolution.
  • Bitmap resolution is variable -- Bitmap graphics resolution is variable --the more resolution required, the bigger the file. This resolution is set in Acrobat's Distiller component.
  • Proofing fidelity and scalability -- Colors are reasonably close to the eventual printed version. PDFs can be zoomed up to 1600% of size for proofing even the smallest text elements and vectors.
  • Risk reduction -- The more accurate the proof, the more responsibility for proofing errors resides with the client. Mistakes are usually caught at an earlier stage of the production process.
  • No second generation quality loss -- Most proofs pass through several hands--the designer, the account executive, and the client. Each can look at the same proof, forwarded up the line, with no second generation quality loss as is common with faxes.
  • Paper proofs and tax savings -- PDF proofing transfers can substitute for matchprints or paper color proofs. Not only are the cost of these expensive proofs saved, but because no physical product changes hands the PDFs are not taxed.

A Hardware PDF Fax Solution

Hewlett-Packard proves the PDF-based color fax machine concept by offering a new scanner/modem/color laser printer hardware combination called the HP 9100C Digital Sender. This workgroup device loads up to 50 b&w or color sheets into a hopper, scans the sheets, and converts them into PDF image files which it then transmits to either email addresses as attachments, or sends to other JetSend compatible devices for output as color fax prints. It can also scan individual pages on its glass platen.

Of course, buying proprietary hardware for sender and receiver defeats the whole purpose of using PDFs for most Acrobat users. We prefer to convert the original digital files to PDF, rather than scan from black & white or color prints. However, what is interesting is the acceptance of PDF as the interchange file format of choice by no less a manufacturer than Hewlett-Packard.

PDF Workgroup Enhancements

Version 4.x of Adobe Acrobat has also provided users an impressive array of annotation tools. While these tools are NOT contained within the free Reader and do not work if the file has been secured from editing, they provide a sophisticated means for workgroup involvement on a creative project.

The most interesting aspect of these tools is the ability to export and import annotations. Suppose designer "Dave" has created a 50-page layout for clients "Cora" and "Clark." He can email a PDF of the layout to his clients. Cora can add her annotations to the file in green and Clark can annotate his version in Red. They each export their annotations by using FILE/EXPORT/ANNOTATIONS to create Forms Data Format (.FDF) files trom within Acrobat. Compared to the 50-page original PDF, these files are normally tiny. Each client can then email their .FDF files as attachments back to Dave who can then import them using FILE/IMPORT/ANNOTATIONS onto the original PDF file he had sent to them. He can also invoke the TOOLS/ANNOTATIONS/SUMMARIZE ANNOTATIONS function which will give him a printable page-by-page summary of their notes. From these notes he can make the necessary changes to the original layout.

Final Pre-Press Delivery

Once a proof is signed off by the client, the same Postscript file used to create the compressed PDF can be used to create the final Pre-Press version--using the higher resolution Press(Optimized) Distiller settings. This file is not always smaller than the Postscript file it is distilled from but it is suitable for distribution and/or printing by a growing array of printing services companies.

For example, the Associated Press has made the distribution of press optimized ads via PDF a very profitable business. AP AdSEND is an advertising distribution service that will take a PDF file of an advertisement and distribute it via the internet to any of 1,400 newspapers that receive the service. Some of the very efficiencies that hallmark PDF advantages over paper faxes come into play here--time saved, fidelity to the original, full-resolution graphics and embedded fonts, etc.

Today, only a select number of printers can actively support the use of PDF files in place of film separations. It usually requires the purchase of a new Raster Image Processor (RIP) and a significant training period. But the advantages are so obvious to printers and so appealing to their clients that the PDF standard appears to be the next evolutionary plateau achieved in the development of print systems technology.

So, if you are interested in improving the communication and creative process in your work environment, implementing a PDF-based production workflow is a cost-effective way to go.

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