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Fools and Their Foolproof Workflows --McIlroy

April 2003
In my last two columns I reviewed "PDF Workflow Shootout & Usage Survey" (from Seybold Publications), an 84-page report that I called "the only comprehensive survey yet conducted on PDF utilization in the graphic arts."

I was wrong. Another survey has come to my attention, and it's a very good complement to the Seybold study. In a comprehensive new report from GATF called "The PDF Era: PDF Usage in the Real World," author Julie Shaffer, director of the Center for Imaging Excellence at GATF, provides an in-depth examination of "the experiences of the people who work with PDF files 'in the trenches' of print production."

The Seybold study segmented its audience into "PDF Receivers" and "PDF Generators," with a much higher response rate from generators. GATF, albeit with a smaller sample size, focuses exclusively on the receivers, mainly commercial printers and prepress shops.

Some of the questions, naturally enough, were the same (or very similar) and it's worth comparing the responses from each survey.

Seybold asked "Which file types do you currently receive for print output most often?" and GATF asked "In what primary formats do your clients submit page layout files?" Seybold reported QuarkXPress at 40 percent and PDF at 29 percent. GATF reported QuarkXPress at 53 percent and PDF at 23 percent.

We knew that QuarkXPress is still the dominant format for page layout, and now we know that most QuarkXPress users are not yet creating PDFs from their files before submission. That's too bad, because PDF is a better workflow. But more about that later.

Both reports reveal that a substantial minority of PDF generators submit their original application files (QuarkXPress, or whatever) along with their PDF file, just in case. The reports reveal that this is often a requirement from printers and prepress shops, or, in some cases, the customers insist. There are a lot of opinions on the whys and wherefores of this odd workflow redundancy. For some it's just a precaution. But clearly the PDF files submitted are far from error-free, and sometimes it's appropriate to make corrections in the original application file.

Oddly enough neither report asked the simple question: What percentage of the PDF files you receive require additional work? How does this compare to the percentage of QuarkXPress files requiring rework? Is the reworking of PDF files, on average, easier, the same as, or more difficult than the reworking of QuarkXPress files?

The Seybold study asked "What are the three best things about working with PDF?" and the top responses were "fewer cross-platform issues" (55 percent mentioned), "more efficient workflow" (35 percent) and "smaller files" (32 percent).

Looking for More Speed

The PDF print production respondents to the GATF survey responded to the question, "What do you consider the top benefit of working with PDF files in your organization?" "Faster system throughput" was the number one answer at 32 percent. Second was "reduced cross-platform issues" (about 23 percent). Third was "smaller files, easier to work with" (about 22 percent).

Again, very similar results in each survey. It sounds like PDF workflows are faster and somewhat less error-prone but, as we also learn, far from error-free.

Seybold reports the file receivers rate the biggest problem in working with PDF as "more difficult to edit than native files" (61 percent). I guess you only need to edit files if there's a problem. Tied for first place is "file not made properly" (61 percent). The next five responses each gain about 25 percent ratings: "PDF different from native file," "RIP and output problems," "hard to troubleshoot," "display doesn't match output" and "final color doesn't match original."

Over at GATF the print production folk were asked "What do you consider the top two problems of working with PDF files?"

Hold onto your seats as you read this! Eighty-eight percent report that "clients do not create them properly," while 64 percent lament that "they're more difficult to edit than native files." I think you can guess what some of the other responses were, and their relative percentages. Again, very similar feedback.

I can also report that from a second question looking at problems of greatest concern, it's agreed by both reports: Fonts not embedded or missing, followed closely by wrong color space and insufficient image resolution (or image missing altogether).

Until I sat down to write this, I had not realized just how closely the responses track in both reports. Given that these are two different studies conducted by two different organizations, at roughly the same time, but with different sets of respondents, the results can be considered as near-conclusive.

"It's impossible to make anything foolproof because fools are so ingenious." —Murphy's Second Corollary

As I reported in my last column, the Seybold survey revealed a key disparity underlying the problems being faced in working with these "foolproof" PDF workflows. While most PDF file receivers (printers and prepress shops) report that they offer training to their customers, less than half of PDF generators think they receive any training at all.

The GATF survey looks at this discrepancy at a more profound depth. "Nearly half of all participants in the survey said they provide formal training on PDF creation, and 78 percent provide settings to help clients prepare PDF files to their specifications, yet 88 percent say that the biggest problem in working with PDF files is that clients don't make them correctly," Shaffer writes.

"One has to wonder what accounts for this disparity. Are we not providing the right training to content creators? Are we talking to the wrong people when we do provide training? Are they simply not listening or bothering to follow the instructions provided?" she continues. "Is the process more difficult than we think? Are there so many caveats and exceptions to the rules in composite PDF workflows that it's impossible to anticipate problems and provide training to cover it all?"

Shaffer then goes on to note another equally mysterious response discrepancy: "While 64 percent of respondents contend that PDF files are more difficult to edit than native files and note that this poses a problem in working with them," she writes, "most don't get and/or don't ask for the native files!"

While Adobe's PDF has clearly improved the efficiency of prepress workflows, it's still a long way from delivering on its promise. Why is PDF falling so short? Are the clients really so dumb? This is what the printers could no doubt assure us. Or are the printers, who grew up thriving on their ability to address every chaotic calamity a client could catapult in their direction, unwilling to face the fact that the tools are now available to make peace, not war, to finally have the kind of dependable, repeatable workflows they've claimed have always been their goal?

Instead of making peace with their customers are they taking the necessary steps (by failing to take steps) to make sure that chaos will always be with us? Isn't it a fact: now that quality, price and delivery schedules are a given, the only way to stand out to a client is to show how well you can bail them out of a jam. And if they aren't in a jam, hadn't you better make one!

"More people would learn from their mistakes if they weren't so busy denying them." —Harold J. Smith

—Thad McIlroy

About the Author

Thad McIlroy is an electronic publishing consultant and analyst, based at Arcadia House in San Francisco. He welcomes your comments at


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