I Puffy-Heart the Portable Document Format

Being a graphic designer, I’ve had a huge appreciation for the Adobe Acrobat PDF format ever since I first had the opportunity to version a design with it. My fondness has only grown over time.

First off, I thought it was a great thing to be able to send someone a file that looked the way I intended it to. No font substitutions, no reflowed text, free software to open it with.

I loved opening PDFs of slick print-based designs — especially of books. I loved clicking through pages. In 2003, I got a copy of Octavo’s digitized Kelmscott Chaucer and was wowed. Although the Kelmscott Chaucer is not exactly a new, slick design, I thought it was the coolest way to peruse a book I’d never have the opportunity to physically hold in my hands.

That was the simple appreciation of PDFs. Then came my appreciation for form fields. Again, no more bad page breaks because of reflowed text. The fields could be filled out, saved, printed, exported, whatever.

Commenting is a feature I use constantly now. With my clients, I can shuttle design iterations back and forth and gather comments and design markup from a whole team of people on my design project. If I note in the PDF that I need a particular revised digital file, a team member can shuttle it to me as an attachment in the PDF itself instead of as a separate file that can get misplaced or lost. To keep file size down, team members’ comments to the PDF I generated can be returned to me as an FDF (Forms Data Format) and attached to a copy of my original, local, uncommented PDF. Voila! I can see everyone’s comments, highlighting, arrows, strikethroughs, and scribbles, and I can check them off as I address them in the new design iteration.

Encryption, hyperlinked tables of contents, Web hyperlinks, sound, video: the list goes on and on to describe all the things that enhance the utility and usability of the PDF over the print-bound thing it is a facsimile of. Screen reading may not be as efficient as reading paper, but it can have it’s advantages.

My instructors at Marlboro distribute a lot of PDFs. In the past, my first instinct had always been to print these out. I always felt more comfortable reading a paper copy. In the effort to save paper, I’ve been reading on screen more often, and I’ve gotten very used to it. The ability to throw the PDF on my iPod makes screen reading a lot easier, partly by way of convenience. I can keep my reading with me in my pocket. I can read when I’m waiting for the coffee to brew, when I’m at Cheshire Tire getting the snow tires put on the car, or during any other downtime of five or ten minutes. If the PDF page source is a raster image, I can run a quick OCR on it, which allows me to use the highlighter and sticky notes in my reader and allows me to do searches of the text (assuming some OCR error due to occasional bad quality scans). The iPod app I use is GoodReader, which has a great feature set and allows me to use all the annotating features of Acrobat. For longer book-length PDFs such as the Mac-centric Take Control books that I purchase as PDFs from TidBITS, I still miss the physical feel of the book. There’s a physical memory of where things are on a page spread and where a page is located within the bulk of a book — a tactile context that helps my mental memory in a number of ways. But that’s one of the trade-offs in reading on screen.

I recently got the chance to design and composite two versions of a book interior. One was due for print, and one version was due for inclusion as a PDF file on a multimedia DVD: HTML5 Now. In Adobe InDesign, my layout program, I included hyperlinks to Web sites as well as hyperlinks to different parts of the document — all of which would be included as part of the exported PDF. All-in-all, there were about a hundred links to take the reader to additional sources of information. This was a pretty handy user experience and a very different experience than you could get from the printed version of the same book. I did a similar document but without as many external links for the town of Richmond, New Hampshire: the Richmond Master Plan 2010.

Now that we’ve turned the corner and are facing the new potential that touchscreen apps are bringing to the book metaphor, the PDF seems quite plain. But its utility is unbeatable and I still love it.

One Response to “I Puffy-Heart the Portable Document Format”

  1. Lisa Sieverts November 30, 2010 at 6:58 pm //

    Nice analysis, Andreas. But don’t forget a couple of the downsides of PDFs. First, they usually are not accessible — my understanding is that screen readers can’t parse PDFs for the visually impaired. Second, people think that because they have posted a PDF that means that they have made information digitally available. Far from it. See http://blog.jonudell.net/2008/04/22/we-posted-weeklypdf-to-the-website-isnt-that-good-enough/