PDF Unfit for Human Consumption?

My response to: supergee: PDF: Unfit for Human Consumption

Just like with page lay­out, HTML, graph­ics, and every­thing else, the right tool in the wrong hands pro­duces bad results. PDFs are designed to work in print, yes, but they are also designed to work in dig­i­tal form if you take the time to under­stand them.

PDFs are XML struc­tured (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them cor­rect­ly); PDFs will reflow to fit any display--graphical brows­er, text brows­er, PDA, cel phone, WebTV, et al--with less work than HTML gen­er­al­ly requires to achieve the same results (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them cor­rect­ly); PDFs dis­play in the font (e.g. the voice) the author intends, unlike HTML (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them cor­rect­ly); PDFs allow the con­tent cre­ator to spec­i­fy the read­ing order, unlike HTML (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them cor­rect­ly); PDFs can be secured to pro­tect the doc­u­ment con­tent, lay­out, usabil­i­ty, and the under­ly­ing code, unlike HTML (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them cor­rect­ly); PDFs can be marked up, com­ment­ed, and col­lab­o­rat­ed upon with­out the require­ment for print-outs, scans, fax­es, or addi­tion­al hardware/software, again, unlike HTML (if the human who cre­ates them cre­ates them correctly).

I could go on.

The point is, PDF, like the ham­mer some­one else men­tioned, is only good for the uses to which peo­ple apply it. With soda PDF plat­form you can cre­ate PDFs that are only good for print­ing, you’ll get PDFs that are only good for printing--just like HTML and XML were not too long ago only good for pre­sent­ing tech­ni­cal data; they could­n’t do graphically-rich lay­outs like this LiveJournal.

Pariah Burke

Author, consultant, trainer, guru: Digital Publishing, ePub, InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Quark. Empowering, Informing, Connecting Creative Professionals™

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6 Responses

  1. Bea says:

    Thanks for the les­son on PDF. I’m an ama­teur web design­er with del­lu­sions of grandeur, try­ing to help a guy in California with his com­pa­ny and he pre­tends I play the graph­ic design­er too. Believe me, I’m gath­er­ing all the infor­ma­tion I can; so far, I’m learn­ing about dpi, Illustrator and related.

    I guess I’ll stick to the web design 72 dpi for now. And from your entry I can under­stand why the PDFs I’ve cre­at­ed are so lousy: I had no idea of all these things you talk about, ha ha ha!!!

  2. Aaron says:

    Of course, at the same time, using a PDF on the web for the wrong pur­pos­es (an entire­ly PDF site, for exam­ple) can be dis­as­trous. People tend not to under­stand that PDFs don’t func­tion exact­ly like HTML code.

    On a side note, Michael J set up a PostScript based web serv­er. Yeah, yeah, I’m sure you’ve heard of it, but I thought it was neat.

    BTW, thanks for fix­ing the way jus­ti­fies here. (Safari 1.0v85 Mac 10.2.6)

  3. Robin says:

    IRC the PS web serv­er was bound to a port via inetd (or some­thing similar).

    I dis­agree with some of you com­ments about HTML. Sometimes it is not con­vienent for the read­er to view the doc­u­ment as the author intend­ed. If the user is par­tial­ly sight­ed, with HTML they can spec­i­fy their own style sheet with which to view the page, AFAIK this is not pos­si­ble with PDF.

    And as for order of read­ing, quite often I like to skip around doc­u­ments, prob­a­bly not read­ing them in the order the author intend­ed. Although grant­ed I can do this with PDF.

    The secu­ri­ty behind PDF is laugh­able too…

    Having said the above I do agree that a mon­key will write bad out­put giv­en any lan­guage; C,PDF,HTML,PERL etc.


  4. Pariah Burke says:

    That’s great, Bea! Congrats on the web design gig.

    For more info about PDFs, check out:

    1. The help file for your program
    2. http://​plan​et​pdf​.com
    3. http://​pdf​zone​.com

  5. Pariah Burke says:

    Actually, I was­n’t aware that Michael J had set up a PS-based web serv­er. PS is a page descrip­tion lan­guage. How the hell does it do http ser­vice? Got a URL?

    Actually, Safari dropped sup­port for jus­ti­fi­ca­tion prop­er­ties in FORM fields. :-)

  6. Pariah Burke says:

    Thanks for the com­ments, Robin.

    Actually, in the case of a par­tial­ly sight­ed user view­ing a PDF, the user has the con­trol. Users can zoom in up to 1600%, over­ride the doc­u­ment col­ors, adjust CoolType view­ing pref­er­ences, and more, as long as the author encod­ed the doc­u­ment with XML struc­ture (done auto­mat­i­cal­ly from many PDF-generating applications--MS Word, InDesign, FrameMaker, etc.) and defined arti­cles, or the flow of text data. With HTML, the author must have the fore­sight and skill to cre­ate stylesheets for var­i­ous users.

    No for­mat is per­fect, espe­cial­ly when it comes to acces­si­bil­i­ty. PDF and HTML have their advan­tages and dis­ad­van­tages, but the point Dr. Neilsen attempt­ed to make about PDF being unfit for elec­tron­ic view­ing is total­ly unfound­ed and naïve.