For Position Only: Perform Prepress Acrobatics with PDF
If you look at the recent news from Adobe, you'll notice a theme. The company is putting the finishing touches on its Acrobat Reader for the Palm OS; releasing its Acrobat eBook Reader; and announcing hundreds of ebook titles. And if you look at the company's Web pages and at the media's reviews of Adobe Acrobat 5.0, you'll be hit heavy by an emphasis on corporate collaboration -- discussions of easily converting Microsoft Office files to PDF, support for XML tagging, and boosted encryption and digital signatures.
With Adobe pitching Acrobat as "the best way to share documents online" and generally obsessing on all things corporate, mobile, and ebook, one might wonder if the company has lost sight of what it does best: develop software for graphic design professionals. The answer, thankfully, is no. Although Adobe is a little over the top when it comes to hyping ebooks and pushing its "network publishing" vision, the fact is that there's a lot in Acrobat 5.0 and its cousin PDF 1.4 for graphic designers and print publishers to appreciate. Since Adobe isn't going out of its way to do so, let me give you the rundown on some of the most important changes to Acrobat that you, as a graphics professional, will need (and want) to know.
First Things First
First of all it's not so much Acrobat 5.0 as its accompanying spec, PDF 1.4 that makes the difference to the creative professional. PDF 1.4 supports a little feature known as object transparency. (I hear your whoops of joy; I wish I could take credit but I'm happy just to be the messenger.) What this means is that PDF 1.4 will display objects that use Illustrator and Photoshop's blending modes and overprints in Acrobat 5.0; you can also print them on composite devices and go back and edit them in Illustrator. So while Adobe is busy pitching the new-and-improved comments features in Acrobat 5.0, you'll probably be happier to hear that you can now soft-proof transparency and traps in a PDF file.
Along those lines, you'll also be glad to know that Acrobat 5.0 supports the Adobe Color Engine and the ICC color management implementation that are already in Photoshop and Illustrator; this should ensure more consistent display and printing of color documents across applications. Keep in mind, however, that InDesign is behind the times in terms of transparency and ACE color management: it doesn't support either -- yet. If you create a PDF from Illustrator with transparency, you'll be able to see it in Acrobat 5.0, but not in InDesign 1.5; likewise you may notice color shifts. This means that some of the greatest benefits of PDF 1.4's transparency and color management features come for proofing comps rather than final page layouts.
Be Careful How You Distill
Again catering to the corporate user, Adobe has changed the Acrobat interface as well as the process of creating PDF files, both of which might leave high-end graphics users squirming. The toolbar bears a spooky resemblance to Microsoft Word; gone is Adobe's familiar left-column tool palette. (One might muse at the ironies of Adobe suing Macromedia for patent infringement for its tabbed palettes, and then the company turns around and emulates Microsoft's toolbars, but we'll save that discussion for another time and place.) And now you can create PDF files from within almost any application's Print dialog box, bypassing the cumbersome process of saving PostScript files to disk and running them through Distiller; Acrobat will distill the file for you automatically in the background based on your chosen job options when you click "Print."
However -- and graphics professionals, listen up -- you may very well need to Save As or Export your PDF from Photoshop, Illustrator, or InDesign instead of going through the Print dialog box. This is because you must bypass the PostScript path and let Acrobat create PDFs directly from its libraries in order to save trim and bleed definitions and transparency, which PostScript itself still doesn't support.
On the bright aside, prepress folks will be glad to know that Adobe has done away with PDFWriter, the utility that captured 72-dpi bitmaps of an operating system's graphic data and saved it as PDF. While this was an OK way to create PDFs of simple text documents, these PDFs were the bane of the prepress workflow since they didn't support PostScript commands and couldn't handle embedded EPS graphics, among other drawbacks. And while you may have heard about OS X and its capability to create PDF files, keep in mind that while those files can be viewed in Acrobat Reader 5.0, they're based on PDF 1.2 and 1.3 (so they don't support transparency) and they're generated from uneditable, preset parameters that are geared for desktop printing and viewing, not high-end prepress.
Before you go and start sending PDF 1.4 files to your prepress partners willy-nilly, talk to them first. While on the one hand they may tell you they're not ready to accept them, they might turn around and give you a Distiller job settings file that will make the process painless from start to finish.
Adobe's Dirty Little Secret
Adobe never intended PDF to be the file format that takes PostScript workflows to a more flexible, reliable level; the format was originally intended to simply enable corporate document exchange. Since then it has evolved into a productivity tool for collaborating on documents in that same corporate environment, and it's probably going to evolve further into an ebook standard. All that's well and good, but Adobe has a dirty little secret: the current round of improvements to Acrobat and the portable document format spec might just give PDF the push it needs to actually become the standard file format for graphic design and prepress, instead of just hovering like a storm cloud on the horizon threatening to do so.
Oh by the way, did I mention that I'm writing a book about PDF for graphic designers? If you want to know the whole lowdown on how to create and use PDF files in design and prepress workflows (not just a spattering of conclusions based on my initial research), watch for and read Real World PDF with Adobe Acrobat 5.0, coming from Peachpit Press later this year.
Read more by Anita Dennis.
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