Introducing the Smart PDF Workflow

In our previous article, we discussed the many advantages of using what we call Smart PDF as a means of distributing and collecting information. This time around, we’ll get down to the basics and discuss a general PDF workflow which would include the option of turning base information and distributing it on paper or online.

For the sake of brevity, we won’t be covering the issues of PDF print and prepress workflow. In any case, this has been covered in great detail by our colleague and prepress guru, Stephan Jaeggi, in his four-part ‘PDF Workflow’ booklets. (English versions can be downloaded in PDF here at Planet PDF, or in German or English from Jaeggi’s Web site.) Instead we are going to examine how to include the online-output option as seamlessly and painlessly as possible.

Looking at the workflow

Here is a example scenario: you’re have a mailorder business selling clothing. Right now you are selling things via mailorder, and you don’t really have a web presence yet beyond a ‘brochure-ware’ website. You want to be able to present your products online and also be able to accept online orders.

By asking around, you’ve been told that you will have to have someone to convert your catalog to HTML. It’s going to be a lot of coding and a total re-design since on-paper designs don’t translate well to HTML-based browser pages. It’s not going to be cheap either.

Let’s look at the company’s current workflow (note that all the workflows are simplified to show just the issues that pertain to the theme of this article.)

Workflow 1

The products are typically in some sort of database/inventory system, and the pictures of the products may be in another database or tied to the base database. In any case, the workflow is straightforward: the catalog pages are designed by a graphic designer, the information is imported from a database, and the appropriate photos or illustrations included. The photos are adjusted for printing.

Now let’s take a look at what happens when the company goes online:

Workflow 2

The base database is set, and it is not a complicated process to make it usable by an online ordering system. However, the actual webpage production procedure is very time-consuming. The biggest problem is that web pages cannot be easily converted from paper format to HTML (though there have been various attempts). For the most professional results, the online pages must be completely redesigned. The pictures also have to be re-adjusted for use in HTML pages, which usually means reducing both the resolution and the physical size – and often also converting to another file format such as JPEG or GIF. Finally, the web pages must include HTML forms fields, which then refer to the appropriate server-side scripts. Because of the current limitations of HTML in the browsers, form fields cannot be ‘designed’ – they have fixed looks, which differ by the platform.

Now finally, here is a Smart PDF workflow, where the paper catalog is used as a basis for an online catalog:

Workflow 3

If you examine the design/creation part (the blue section), you will see that you still have to put in form fields and program them appropriately. However, the greatest effort of a paper-to-online migration effort using HTML only – the redesign of pages – is practically eliminated. All the form fields can be applied onto the base documents on separate ‘layers’, and with some minimal pre-planning at the design stage, can be seamlessly integrated into the overall design. Furthermore, Acrobat form fields are much more flexible in many ways than HTML forms when it comes to appearance in that they can be made to look like a natural part of the paper rather than an element that sticks out, as in HTML form elements.

The server side issues remain the same – since Acrobat Forms use Javascript, the form fields can interact with server side scripts.

Offline viewing

There’s an added advantage to online PDF catalogs: they can be ‘packaged’ for offline viewing. While it’s possible to make the user view individual pages while connected online, you can also provide the option of downloading the entire catalog, sections of a catalog, or even distributing a larger catalog on CD-ROM.

For placing orders or otherwise interacting with the server, the user will have to be online. As with HTML forms, you can provide the option of saving partial results online by using cookies for example. This is the same as with any HTML ordering system. However, it’s possible to program the pertinent form fields so that ordering or other information is ‘saved’ locally (as long as the PDF document remains open) and then packaged for delivery via email. This way, the user can browse the document offline, then connect only when she wants to send in the order or other information.

Design issues

There are some basic design issues to consider when you are creating documents for dual paper and on-screen output.

First, work with your designer so that the space for the pertinent form fields are reserved on the appropriate pages. While you’re at it, it makes good sense to have the designer create the appropriate buttons and icons that will fit the page.

Examine your forms or other pages that accept form fields carefully, to eliminate any unnecessary ‘junk’. For example, If you are creating a form which has large multiline fields, a paper-only form might have lines to help the person filling out the form to keep their lines straight. This kind of thing would qualify as ‘junk’, which should be erased.

Even though the same photos and other graphics can be used, you will probably want to have on-screen versions of each if possible. The only consideration here would be to have 72 dpi RGB versions. (in all likelihood your designer already has ‘low-res’ versions of the photos for online proofing.) If all else fails you can set the images for 72 dpi when running your pages through Distiller.

Finally, but very importantly, be sure that your designer does not use PDF Writer to output their Quark or other files! Rather, instruct him to just save to Postscript file (set to Postscript Level 2 for most layouts, fonts embedded) and to give you the raw Postscript files, which you can then distill in any way you desire.

Hybrid solutions

As you can see, a paper and Smart PDF solution is much more streamlined than a paper and HTML solution. However, you may want to consider a ‘hybrid’ solution too, especially if you or your client is concerned that your users can’t be bothered with installing Acrobat Reader and the plug-in. For example, the clothing catalog company might put some of their highlight items on their HTML pages, while offering their entire catalog as a PDF download. The PDF catalog and the HTML catalog can both use the same server-side processing options.


As you can see, there are a great many advantages to using Smart PDF. Next time, we will show you an actual working example that uses the workflow models we’ve described here. Stay tuned!

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About the Author: Max Wyss and Makiko Itoh

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