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FILE FORMATS & STANDARDS -- Practices Make Perfect

March 2005

Technology Editor

Since the earliest days of the digital revolution in prepress, choosing a data format has brought trade-offs in file flexibility, portability and processing consistency. For almost as long, the unique requirements of the print advertising workflow have driven a quest to achieve a universal workflow. Now, more than 10 years after its introduction, Adobe PDF (Portable Document Format) is finally providing a foundation for realizing that goal in advertising applications and beyond.

The effort to establish an open, yet predictable, workflow started with DDES (Digital Data Exchange Standard). It took a sustained effort by the DDAP (Digital Distribution of Advertising for Publications) association, however, to achieve a measure of success in the form of TIFF/IT.

With the rise of PDF, followed by the PDF/X standards initiative, the role of DDAP was eclipsed. As of press time, an agreement reportedly was still in the works to merge the association into the IDEAlliance (International Digital Enterprise Alliance) organization as a network group. The plan under discussion was to continue the organization's focus on educating the market with an individuals-based membership.

David Steinhardt, president and CEO of IDEAlliance, points out that a precedent was set for this move by the Digital Ad Lab (DAL) becoming part of the organization about a year ago. DAL is now set to expand its education program from the New York City area graphic arts community to two other cities, most likely Chicago and one West Coast location, Steinhardt reports.

Picking up where the PDF/X standard development effort and DDAP leave off, the Ghent PDF Workgroup (GWG) is attempting to establish "best practices" for the gamut of print applications. It's leveraging and expanding the work done in the advertising arena by using PDF/X-1a:2001 PLUS as a foundation.

The group's work to date has centered on nine print applications, including newspaper ads; magazine ads; web offset printing, coldset (CMYK only or CMYK/spot color); web offset printing, heatset (CMYK only or CMYK/spot); and sheetfed offset (CMYK only, CMYK/spot, CMYK/spot with low-res images).

Noted industry consultant Dave Zwang is serving as vice chairman of GWG and is its point person in the United States. "The PDF/X standard is extremely broad, as all standards are," he says. "As a result, you can create a PDF/X file that might not represent the requirements of the print process that you are using. The Ghent Workgroup is developing application-specific 'best practices' that further filter the PDF/X requirements."

Worldly Views

What may prove most significant about the workgroup's efforts is its global focus, Zwang contends. GWG is striving to establish and promote the use of one set of best practices and standards for printing on a global basis, he says.

The need for this approach was particularly apparent when the group set out to establish default best practices for workflows based on the PDF/X-3 format, since it allows for ICC color managed and RGB-based production, reports the GWG vice chairman. "This effort got very complicated when we tried to tailor the preferences to each region and application."

In an example of thinking outside the box, Zwang says the group came to ask, "Why not establish a universal set of color reference specifications?" The idea seemed doable, since 80 percent of printing ink is manufactured by two companies, most of the paper comes from a handful of companies, and the same press and prepress manufacturers sell to printers worldwide, he notes.

The workgroup set about lobbying the various regional industry bodies—like SWOP, GRACoL, ECI, etc. "We facilitated a meeting of the minds and are now well on the way toward establishing a set of global color reference specifications. It's going to take a little more discussion, but the ball is rolling," Zwang says.

Another important facet of the Ghent PDF Workgroup is serving as a voice for PDF users, its vice chairman asserts. It provides a conduit for equipment and software manufacturers to understand the needs of the marketplace. While membership isn't open to individual printers and prepress operations, their interests are well served by the associations that belong to GWG, he says.

Zwang contends that the workgroup's efforts raise the standard for printing, rather than play to the lowest common denominator of print production. "PDF/X actually is a lowest common denominator approach, which is why it has the shortcomings it does as a production tool," he says.

GWG's best practices cover more than just Adobe Acrobat Distiller settings, and tailoring them to specific market segments optimizes the results, Zwang argues. In addition to the nine segments already addressed, the group is developing specifications for packaging, office document printing and, possibly, silk screening. All completed specs are made available for downloading (free) from the organization's Website,

Going forward, Zwang expects soft proofing applications and dealing with transparency and layers to be the top three challenges tackled by GWG in the near term.

Alan Darling has been an evangelist for open, reliable data interchange since the early days of the revolution, first as a prepress/print professional and now as executive vice president of Vio Inc. He continues to be a member of several groups involved in this area.

Darling points out that DDAP has been a member of the Ghent PDF Workgroup and he expects the two organizations to continue working together going forward. Both fully endorse PDF/X as the basis of file delivery, he says, but there are differences in their requirements that need to be addressed.

The true value of PDF/X comes into play when setting up best practices, Darling asserts. Through DDAP and SWOP (Specifications for Web Offset Publications), he personally has been working on a specification for color managed, monitor-based proofing in a digital ad workflow. Using standards makes it practical to set up systems for vendor-agnostic, heterogeneous production environments, he adds.

SWOP has an affiliation with IDEAlliance, as does GRACoL (the General Requirements and Applications for Commercial Offset Lithography) and the AdsML Consortium. Steinhardt says the various groups have been feeling pressure from the marketplace to align industry initiatives as much as possible to avoid reinventing different specifications and best practices from different viewpoints.

"What we've found in the marketplace is a whole series of people working across all of these efforts. We are looking to multiply their time by cooperating on similar efforts to use resources more effectively," Steinhardt says.

Since a specification or best practice only has value to the extent it is used, the association exec sees solidifying training, outreach and education efforts as a critical second part to these initiatives. To that end, a common Website——has been established.

For its part, the AdsML (Advertising Mark-up Language) Consortium purports to focus on facilitating the exchange of business information and content at "all stages of the life cycle of an advertisement, across all segments of the advertising industry." This is a major expansion of its original implementation as a tool for handling classified ads in newspapers.

As evidence of AdsML's growing significance, Steinhardt points to the recent demonstration of an end-to-end advertising workflow (space booking through ad delivery) for magazines at the Print Media Executive Summit. Companies participating in the demonstration included Mediaplex, Vio, G+J USA Publishing and Quad/Graphics.

Along with being the underpinning for data communication initiatives such as AdsML and JDF, XML (eXtensible Mark-up Language) has been touted as an enabler of cross-media publishing. According to these experts, however, using XML as a publishing file format doesn't eliminate the role of PDF in print production.

Darling points out that reproducing typography and layouts consistently requires a more defined data format like PDF. "Content items may be stored as tagged/structured documents in an archive, but they would still need to be delivered in the most appropriate format for the target publishing medium—be that printing, Web, PDA, video, etc.," he says.

Like Darling, Rick Littrell has been at the forefront of the digital revolution and experienced it from both the user and vendor sides. He is now president of Littrell & Associates in Groveland, MA, a provider of business development and technical services to the graphic arts, with specialties in digital printing and publishing systems.

Littrell is a proponent of cross-media workflows. "The advertisers and manufacturers that drive our business increasingly have multiple channels to get their messages out," he notes.

PDF will continue to be relevant for the print channel, Littrell believes, but he expects PDF/X-3 to become the variant of choice. Support of RGB images and color management are the reasons why.

"Once you start getting into other publishing applications, there's a need to use the same image in multiple applications at different resolutions and color spaces other than CMYK," Littrell explains. "You don't want to morph the three attributes of size, resolution and color space until a decision is made about the ultimate output format."

Littrell, Darling and the others all agree, though, that the time for TIFF/IT has come and gone.

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