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The Trouble With PDF Proofing No One Likes to Talk About

January 28, 2021 | Product News

We’ve all used PDFs, and we’ve all faced issues with them. While they do have a function in society, we tend to use them in far more situations than they were intended. A mere three years after their inception, web usability expert, Jakob Nielsen, stated that PDF’s should never be used online – a sentiment many feel holds true to this day. PDFs are finicky at best, and trying to find or solve quality issues during PDF proofing can be a lengthy, frustrating process. 

PDF: The Titanic of Filetypes 

For better or worse, Portable Document Format files, abbreviated to PDFs, are the standard format for viewing files online. PDFs were created so that virtually anyone with a computer could send, view and print documents. This was revolutionary for file sharing in 1993, but almost thirty years later, the largely unchanged PDF is still on its maiden voyage and sailing ever closer to the proverbial iceberg. 

Despite the growing number of issues with PDFs, they hold value in the right situations. Unlike program-specific formats such as Microsoft Word documents, PDFs work on all operating systems, so you don’t need to download any special software to open them. You will need a PDF reader, but those can be downloaded for free, and it doesn’t matter which PDF reader you choose. This is beneficial when sharing documents with large numbers of people, as you don’t need to ascertain that everyone has the right programs to view your work. 

The other benefit to PDFs, perhaps the only other reason they’ve endured, is that they (supposedly) look the same everywhere. This makes PDFs the document type of choice for government forms, legal agreements, employment forms, and other important files of that nature. 

Rendering: Taking on Water in the PDF Proofing Process

In layman’s terms, Rendering is the process of converting a file from one format to another. This process is the mothership of PDF proofing issues; whether the file renders incorrectly, in terrible quality, or not at all, trying to get PDFs to appear the way they were intended can be a designer’s worst nightmare. 

The Trouble With Typefaces 

Some of the most glaring errors you may see in a PDF are in the fonts. If the person viewing your PDF doesn’t have the typeface you chose on their computer, the PDF viewer they are using will substitute the typeface for another. The substitute font may not cause any issues, but it can look very different from the original choice. For design projects, in particular, we can’t take any chances.

Luckily, there is a way to guarantee the typefaces appear as they should; you just need to embed them. Embedding a typeface means that the entire set of characters will be stored in the PDF, so even if the person viewing your document doesn’t have that font downloaded, they’ll be able to see it in the file.

The Quality Quandary 

Problems with quality, unfortunately, are a bit trickier to correct than issues with typefaces. The challenge is that there are a number of things that can lower a PDF’s quality, and those things can come at any step in the process. 

Often, designers will create a file, proof it, then convert it to a PDF to send to the printer. In scenarios such as this one, it’s quite common to have unforeseen issues with quality. Luckily, issues in this area are fairly easy to avoid. The problem is that designers aren’t doing any PDF proofing; they approve the artwork in a different format, assuming the PDF will look identical to the original. The solution to this is pretty straightforward – after you approve the artwork, do a round of PDF proofing to ensure nothing has changed. 

Other issues with quality can be a little more difficult to detect. For instance, when everything looks good on your end but turns out fuzzy for those you share it with. This error could be caused by low image resolution, incorrect export settings, incompatible software, or a handful of other small mistakes. 

Disappearing Layers 

We all want to create a little magic with our artwork – but not in the form of a disappearing act. PDFs are comprised of layers, and those layers can have varying levels of transparency. Most of the time, when a PDF layer disappears, it’s because of the transparency. When you print a PDF, the printer only reads the layers it can see – meaning layers with less than 100% transparency may vanish. 

The solution for this in the Adobe Creative Suite is flattening the image. Flattening an image deletes transparency information by converting it to one layer; after that, it should only show what can be read by the printer. The downside is that once a document is flattened, those layers can no longer be edited independently, so designers tend to save this step for the very end. 

Solve The PDF Proofing Problem With Rasterization

Rasterization is typically the most effective way to guarantee a document shows up as it should. Most PDFs are created as vector files, meaning they are composed of lines and polygons. When we rasterize a vector file, it converts these lines to a grid of pixels, such as those you see in a digital photo. In the Adobe Creative Suite, flattening will rasterize an image. You can save a rasterized file as a BMP (bitmap), JPG, PNG, GIF, or (occasionally) a PDF.  

Benefits of Rasterization

One of the biggest advantages of rasterization is the file size. While the quality remains unaffected, rasterized images can be saved in much smaller files than their vector-based counterparts. This allows designers to upload documents in a fraction of the time – especially if they are using a mobile device. 

When printing materials, rasterization is a must. Printers are best at separating colors in dot form, so a rasterized file will result in a far cleaner printed output. The catch is that you need to save the file right, or you risk lowering the resolution of the image. The quality of a raster file is dependent on the number of dots or pixels per inch. Images with a small number of pixels per inch (PPI) or dots per inch (DPI) will become blurry when scaled up, so you want to make sure you save the file with a high DPI or PPI. 

Whether you should adjust your file’s resolution by dots or pixels per inch depends on how you plan on sharing your artwork. When printing, you should always look at DPI as it will show the number of ink dots within a printed image. For digital artwork, PPI is a better option; it shows the number of pixels that can be displayed per inch of a screen. 

Ashore Makes PDF Proofing a Breeze

One of the major drawbacks to rasterization is that it typically requires photo-editing software such as Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator. These programs, while useful, are far too expensive to purchase if your only goal is to rasterize a document for the purpose of creating a better PDF proofing experience. 

Luckily, Ashore’s new automatic rasterization feature allows users to convert vector files to raster files right in the app. This feature is a game-changer for PDF proofing; with the click of a button, you can reduce file size without negatively impacting the quality. This guarantees that your files look exactly as they should – both during and after the PDF proofing process.

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