Does your printer ask you to submit PDFs as job files, or do they ask you to send application files (page layout, plus all the necessary fonts and artwork)? Maybe we’re just slow here on the East Coast (or, more likely, justifiably paranoid), but all the printers I know ask for application files. Or, if they encourage clients to submit PDFs, they ask for the application files as a backup. (If you’ve ever tried to edit text in a PDF, you know why.)
Given the difficulty of editing PDFs (even with the big guns of PitStop), I think this is understandable. It goes beyond fixing a comma: sometimes extensive changes are necessary to make a job print predictably. For example: a solid black back cover on a brochure, if built and printed as 100K on an offset press, will be anemic and blotchy (toner-based digital presses have a more robust black). Consequently, a large solid black area is usually converted to a rich black for stronger coverage. Unless you anticipate this when building your page layout, the printer needs to be able to modify the content so the job prints to your satisfaction. Not much fun to attempt fixing this in a PDF.
I bring this up because of all the PDF Workflow hype I encounter, especially in Adobe literature (disclaimer: I love Adobe the company. I love Adobe products. And Adobe is a client of mine, too.). While I also love a good PDF, I think the “all PDF, all the time” philosophy needs a grain of salt.
The core of this is: ask your printer. Seems simplistic, but never assume. And even if your printer asks for PDFs, insist on precise specs for PDF version, compression settings, and color space. Better yet, have them send the correct .joboptions file (world’s longest file extension). If you own Creative Suite 2 or newer, import the settings into InDesign, Photoshop, Illustrator or Distiller. Doesn’t matter which application you use to import the settings: they go into a common repository and become available to all the apps. (If you have individual point products — not as part of the Suite — this trick doesn’t work.) Then, when you export or save PDFs, invoke the correct setting, and you’re good to go — in theory.
First, your original file needs to be healthy. Images must be of appropriate resolution, fonts must be embeddable, dimensions of the file (including bleed, fold positions, etc.) must be correct, and so on. Get the idea? Your job should be perfect; then it’s safe to make a PDF.
Second, you must follow the printer’s supplied specs. Oh, you couldn’t get specs from the printer? The customer service rep said “I dunno. Just make a PDF. How hard can that be?” Oh, dear. Now it’s up to you.
In this situation, I recommend you take the safe path and generate an easily-digested PDF/X-1a file. Yes, I know it’s Acrobat 4.0-compatible, and that sounds old-fashioned. Yes, I know it flattens innocent transparent objects. But if you’re sending a poor little PDF out into the wild to fend for itself, go for the lowest common denominator. Any RIP worth having can RIP a PDF/X-1a file. If your printer’s steam-powered RIP can’t chew it, find another printer.
I’m not a Luddite: I dream of a world wherein all RIPs run on the Adobe PDF Print Engine, where live transparency is maintained throughout the life of a job, where color management is not terrifying to mere mortals, and we can blithely submit PDF/X-4 files without fear. I also dream I’m 24 and skinny again. Trust me: there’s some hope for the first dream. We’re just not all there yet.