PDFs – An almost perfect solution for universal documents

Posted on June 8th, 2020 | Tags: PDF, Printing, Problems

PDF (Portable Document Format) is one aspect of computer technology that you deal with every day even if you don’t touch a computer. More than just the forms you download from the various government or business websites or the electronic manuals and books you need to use anything these days. It’s used for designing every printed item out there from cereal boxes to billboards. It’s not static either, it has support for video and sound playback, interactive parts, security, comment features and so much more. Of course with all this power does come with a few problems. Problems that lead to the age old questions: ‘Why can’t you print the pdf I gave you?’, ‘There’s something wrong with your printer, it didn’t look grainy on my computer’, and the ever favorite ‘What do you mean you can’t edit my business card? I gave you the pdf the other guys printed with.’ So this article we are going to look at some of the problems we can have with the PDFs you supply and what we have to do to make them work.

The reasons why

It’s not really a pdf

Pretty much every program can save their files as pdf’s and if they can’t you can often use a ‘print to pdf’ function found in your operating systems. The problem is, it’s not always really a true pdf, it’s just something inside a PDF wrapper. Sometimes we can break the pdf and convert it back to the original file format, letting us edit or adjust it so it can be printed correctly, but not always. Classic examples of this are proofs from other printing companies that are saved as jpegs inside a pdf, or files from ‘budget’ designers who design things for the screen and not for print.

Formatted for screens not for print

This is a problem printers have in general. Simply put, these days a lot of pdfs are designed for the screen first and are never expected to be printed. As such they can come with a host of issues

  • Non-standard sizes – As 16×9 is the standard sized screen these days (though we still see a ton of the older 4:3 size). A pdf formatted for that won’t work on a formatted A size ratio of ~14:10. In these cases we just scale it to the best fit with big margins at the top and bottom. If wanted we then trim off the excess margins.
  • Using lower resolution images – To save file size, and because it’s not needed, most screen rated pdfs reduce the quality of images to ‘screen quality’ which is about a 9th the number of pixels needed for a printed version. In this case we can’t do much as the printer can only make guesses how to fill in the missing dots so you end up with a grainy photos when printed.
  • Interactive elements or user added content – While you might think interactive means things like videos and buttons on the file. It could also be things like forms designed to be filled in online and emailed to a government department. Sometimes we get files with post-it-note like comments or inline edits by other people. This is all fine on screen but for a printer it is more complex. Anything that alters the data from the source are saved as layers ‘on top of’ the original file and these aren’t always visible to the printer depending on how they are setup. There are ways around it but it takes some double handling and isn’t always guaranteed to work.
  • No Print PDFs – Files with the information needed for print is removed or locked off. This is the most common feature of electronic versions of textbooks where they don’t want people to print copies of the document for other people. It can also happen sometimes of the file being setup for the publishers own printers and it breaks when printed on anything else. To make it work for our printers we have to add in the information our printers need or strip out their printer instructions. Both situations take time for us to do so we have to charge for it.

Locked PDFs

Password locking is a way to prevent other people altering the information within a pdf. This is a very useful feature but as a printer we see it most often with product brochures for some reason. Normally it’s not an issue, until someone wants to print only a few pages out of a large document or we have to arrange page order. This is against the rules of a locked pdf. Again we have ways around this but it adds a time charge to deal with it.

Portfolio PDFs

You might think that a pdf file is a single document, but it can be a ‘folder’ containing many sub pdfs. Like locked pdfs, it’s all fine till you have to alter the page order or adjust print sizes and then the file breaks or just won’t print. In these cases we have to break the portfolio into separate jobs and deal with each one in turn.

Multi Layered / Hidden Layers

We get this most often with architectural and engineering program pdfs. Because they tend to use a lot of layers in their files, when they generate the pdfs those same layers are also included even if they aren’t needed and are hidden. This will make for a big file that is slow to process and can even cause the printer to crash as it tries to figure out how each layer interacts with each other even if we can’t see them. In those cases we end up running the file through a ‘pre-flight’ program that works out what is needed and strips out everything else.

Editable PDFs

Now you would think that pdfs that are designed to be editable after creation would be perfect for print companies like us where we are often called upon to do things like update a phone number on a business card. The trouble is that some programs, like all of Adobe’s Creative Suite (the ‘inventors’ of the PDF format), will by default treat the PDF as the same as their own native files and retain a complete history of every action done in the source file/s within it. Not only does this lead to an oversized file, but the printer has to then work through all the unneeded bits to figure out what to print. This is where we have to spend the time stripping out the unneeded stuff to make printable files without it mucking up what needs to be printed.

Weird characters / images look odd or go missing / becomes hard to read when printed black only

This boils down to how the creator of the pdf generated the file. If a font is a custom version that isn’t designed to common standards. If there are images which are referenced by link to a site on the internet that is no longer there. If they made poor design choices when setting up a file, colours become overly dark/light when made into greys. This is the stuff that is out of our control. While we have some tricks and software that can fix many problems, not everything can be solved without a lot of expensive time put in.

Sometimes the file is just broken

A pdf might look right on a screen but is corrupted in some way. You don’t see it because the computer will often fix problems on the fly to make a usable document for you to read. It might also print okay on your home printer, because the computer making work on the screen is making it work on the printer. With our printers being designed to print to an exacting standard and product results you are happy to pay money for, it can’t afford to just ‘fix things on the fly.’ We will do what we can to try and make it work, using our vast range of tricks and tools, but sometimes the file is in a state that our printer will not accept.

What we do to solve the problem

So what happens when we say that your file is unprintable. As the expression goes, there’s always a solution to every problem, it’s just how much money and time you have to find it. It can be as simple as letting our specialist software run over the file, scrubbing it clean and tweaking layout and it is good to go. It might take a little bit of our billable time to manually adjust things to make it reliable. In some cases we’ve even gone and rebuilt the file from scratch to make a file that is not only print ready, but is of a better quality too.

In the end it is a very rare occasion when we get a pdf file that is so broken that we can not make it printable. If we find a document we can’t quickly fix on your behalf, we’ll let you know and offer up different solutions to solve it. From there follow your instructions to give you the best results we can get out of the file and show you how to avoid the problem in the future.