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PDF/X-4: Opportunities Abound

Monday, August 20, 2012

Press release from the issuing company

In 2001 – that’s more than 10 years ago already – the ISO released what is commonly known as the PDF/X-1a standard. If you’re doing quality control on PDF files in any way, either because clients are delivering content to you or you are delivering content to a printer, that standard should be familiar to you.

It really should because PDF/X-1a is the most used ISO standard in print production, either used directly or because it is built into the quality specifications of other organizations such as the Ghent Workgroup (www.gwg.org). The reason it’s so common is because it offers an ideal balance between being strict yet allowing everything that actually works today in a print production workflow. And if you haven’t heard of it, that may well be because the software you are using to do quality control with – whether it’s from Adobe, callas, OneVision or someone else – has settings based on PDF/X-1a built right in.

Ten years is a long time however and because our workflows and the PDF format itself didn’t stand still, our trusted PDF/X-1a standard is starting to show its age. The ISO has developed a more powerful version, called PDF/X-4, which will be coming to a workflow close to you soon. For a variety of reasons.

The limitations of an aging standard
The PDF/X-1a standard refers to PDF version 1.3. This is the version of PDF developed by Adobe for its Acrobat 4 software and it lacks a host of very interesting features that today are commonly used by designers. The most important and most disturbing in today’s workflows is support for transparency. A PDF/X-1a file is not allowed to use any transparency and as a result PDF files often go through a process called transparency flattening to remove all traces of transparency from a PDF file while retaining the PDF file’s visual appearance.

This is a potentially dangerous operation that increases the complexity of those flattened PDF files, can introduce visual or printed artifacts (such as thin white lines between or inside objects and colored ‘ghost’ outlines of objects) and makes flattened files noticeably larger than their originals. But to obey the rules of PDF/X-1a, all files must go through this process if they contain transparent objects, no exceptions allowed.

Similarly, PDF/X-1a files are not allowed to contain optional content (often referred to as layers) that can be used to allow different regional versions or different language versions inside one PDF file. And there is a restriction on color spaces as well: PDF/X-1a files can only use CMYK and spot color. So anybody using a workflow where optional content plays a role or where for example RGB images are used will have to remove those features to create a print-ready PDF/X-1a file.

The needs of changing workflows
At the same time, the way we used PDF has changed significantly over the last ten years and different market segments place a range of new demands on the PDF files used in their workflows.

In large-format-production and packaging workflows PDF is slowly making inroads as an interesting file format and in those demanding workflows (both from a production and from a marketing point of view) optional content could allow a host of automation and faster collaboration. At the same time much of the content in traditional print production workflows now also has be re-targeted in some way to mobile devices such as the iPhone and iPad, which highlights even more what problems exist with the aging PDF/X-1a standard.

Larger numbers are better
PDF/X-4 solves many of these problems. It’s based on a more modern version of PDF and it allows transparency, optional content and a variety of properly color-managed color spaces. It has everything to make modern prepress workflows and RIPs look good and should be the ideal answer for more demanding markets such as packaging and mobile publishing. So why aren’t we all using it?

First of all, all change is difficult. Even though PDF was much better than PostScript, it still took applications and hardware years to accommodate the change to PDF. The same is true for PDF/X-4; it is only now that the majority of software and hardware is ready to take on files with all of those more modern features in a consistent way.

But even more importantly, this new PDF/X-4 standard also imposes changes in business processes. If you receive a file with optional content, it should be clear how that optional content must be handled. If you receive a color-managed RGB file, you will need to convert that content to CMYK somewhere in your workflow; where before that conversion was probably done by your client. And while more control later in the workflow is usually better – because it allows printers to more quickly and dynamically optimize output processes – it also brings with it shifts in responsibility.

Embrace and prosper
It’s important to realize however that these changes are inevitable and also bring opportunities. Vendors have embraced the new PDF/X-4 standard and many industry organization (such as once more the Ghent Workgroup) are preparing specifications to ease the pain for you. Learn about the new standard before it’s forced on you and learn where you can use it to improve your process and better serve your clients.

PDF/X-1a isn’t going away tomorrow, so this change isn’t going to suddenly break all of your existing processes. But you are going to see more and more demand from your clients to support this new standard and the possibilities it enables for them. Learning about PDF/X-4 now will allow you to guide and help your clients to fully take advantage of those new possibilities together with you; it will make your clients stronger and you’ll become their hero.


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