PDF In-Depth

PDF101 - An Introduction to Using Adobe Acrobat/PDF

October 03, 2000

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The Adobe Acrobat PDF format is becoming popular in a way that I can barely comprehend. I'm a trainer so I talk to lots of people who are new or self-taught. It's amazing to me that one product has begun to stand for an entire company. I receive at least one phone call or E-mail message a day asking me for "training on Adobe." When they say that, I know they mean Acrobat.

Like anything that has become popular very quickly, some people are better at creating PDF files than others. People come to the PDF 2000 Conference (www.pdfconference.com) or to me for training because they have started to use Acrobat, and then have gotten themselves into trouble. These people have a check list a mile long when they send jobs out to a printer, but for some reason they haven't developed one for electronic publishing with Acrobat. If you are one of these, here are some tips to consider.

  1. Make one set of PDFs for print, another for Web, and perhaps a third set for CD. I see lots of people who think single-sourcing means one PDF file for the web, print or CD. Single source means using a single authoring application, such as FrameMaker, InDesign, Xpress and so on that outputs to multiple formats such as paper, web, CD.

  2. When you create your Web PDF, plan it. Do you want one big file, or a series of smaller, linked PDFs? One big file keeps everything together, but download times are larger. Smaller files download faster, but it can be problematic keeping them connected.

  3. If the PDF is for the web, make it interactive. Add links. Populate the Document Info dialog box. Tables of Contents should be linked to the appropriate headers. Cross-references should be linked. Web addresses should be linked. If you don't make the PDF interactive, it's no better than a JPEG or GIF.

    Shlomo Perets of MicroType (microtype.com) did a terrific presentation [PDF] on this at the first PDF 2000 Conference. He went to hundreds of corporate web sites and came up with many, many horrible PDF files. Don't let Shlomo find one of yours!

    • When you add links, make sure they work! Use Ari's link checker or other tool to verify that the links work properly.
    • Same with bookmarks. If you use them, be consistent.
    • Review thumbnails and article threading. Do you need them? You can save space without these features.
    • Set the base URL of the PDF so users get pointed back up to your web site, not to the temp cache on your hard drive.
    • Set the opening page to the most logical spot. Table of Contents? The cover page? Is the zoom level, correct, and are the bookmarks visible or hidden?
    • Test the PDF before uploading it. Thomas Merz (www.pdflibcom) recently dinged me on this one for a file I uploaded to the PDF Conference web site.
    • Optimize the file by using the Save File As... command and checking the Optimize box. Optimization often will shrink the file, especially after you have made modifications.
  4. Use the most current Adobe PS Driver. The drivers are available at the Adobe web site.
  5. Don't make files with PDF Writer! Distiller does a much better job for professional docs. Save PDFWriter for the intranet. Check Adobe.com for the latest PS drivers and all related issues. Just last week I was using PDFWriter to generate PDFs from a database report writer. PDFWriter printed the report form fields, but not the data!
  6. Use Adobe Type 1 or 2 fonts if at all possible. Lots of great strides have been made in making TrueType work better with PDF, but if you use Type 1 or 2 you will eliminate many, many problems. (Remember to embed fonts for your web documents!)
  7. Start working with forms. Most forms are created by the human resources or accounting departments. IT also thinks they know how to do forms because they own html. Designers and tech writers know more about human interface issues than the HR, accounting and IT departments combined.

Acrobat forms are powerful tools, but they need good design to be effective. Use your skills to get involved with forms, even though they may take you outside of your usual areas. Hey, that could be a good thing. You will see more of your company, and create a higher profile for your department.

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