PDF Master: Graphic arts guru talks PDF and peacekeeping

Editor’s Note: Claudia McCue is a seasoned professional speaker and trainer, and has been an active participant on expert panels around the US.

Dan Shea: Can you please give our readers a brief biography?

Claudia McCue: I was a chemistry major with artistic leanings who fell into printing, because its craftsmanship appealed to both the artist and the scientist in me: Over my career, I’ve gone from Rapidograph pens and Rubylith to pixels and vectors. Several years ago, inspired by taking a *very* bad software class, I segued into being a trainer. I’m now a graphic arts trainer and consultant, teaching designers and printers to understand each others’ needs, so they’ll stop making each other miserable.

Shea: When and why did you first get involved with Acrobat/PDF?

McCue: I suppose I’m a bit of a late-bloomer: it was in 1996, when Acrobat 3 was released, providing support for CMYK. ‘Exchange’ became the Wonder Tool for dealing with customers’ awful Word files* and the like, and ‘PDFing’ became a verb. As PDFs, such nightmares became much more digestible, although the process was still painful: make PostScript, Distill, open the PDF in Illustrator, edit, make an EPS, place in QuarkXPress, cross fingers, output. This was B.P. — Before PitStop (remember ‘Tailor’?). When Lantana (now part of ARTS PDF) released Crackerjack, enabling us to image Word files as black-only, with trim marks, we were thrilled. (Now, that’s a sad insight into Life In Prepress!)

*[Public Service Announcement: Having clip-art does not make you a designer, despite what your boss says.]

Shea: For those who don’t know, what is it that you are doing with PDF right now?

McCue: Nothing earthshaking: I’m not a developer, so I must be content to proselytize and educate.

In training, I stress Acrobat’s use as a troubleshooting tool; the Separation Preview feature in Acrobat 6.0 Professional is a lifesaver. Want an idea how your tricky InDesign transparency will image? Print to PostScript using the target device’s PPD, then Distill and inspect the result in Acrobat: it’s a great way to test your settings by ‘pretend printing,’ without wasting material. (And you don’t have to get up out of your comfy chair and walk over to the printer, which is a different form of economy.)

Shea: Briefly describe the most significant change in the development or use of the technology, since you first began working with Acrobat/PDF, and why do you consider it significant?

McCue: I realize this may be considered more of a ‘side-effect’ by many users of PDF, but I’d have to cite the support for transparency afforded by the 1.4 specification. Despite the traumatic ripples caused by Illustrator 9’s introduction of transparency and blending modes (made possible by the 1.4 spec ‘under the hood’), it was a revelation in the previously opaque world of graphic arts. Transparency is maturing in the creative tools like InDesign CS and Illustrator CS, and as PDF becomes increasingly ‘the New EPS,’ imaging issues are becoming less acute. As more RIPs become truly PDF-native, jobs with transparency won’t terrify printers any more. (By then, there will no doubt be something even wackier — like home holography — and printers will be screaming because they can’t image the 3D stuff generated by Illustrator 18…)

Shea: Tell me, what is it about PDF that makes it useful to so many different people?

McCue: How can I avoid being trite? It sounds simplistic, I know, but if you can print, you can make a PDF (although, tragically, that’s no guarantee that it’s a *good* PDF). It’s like the old Saturday Night Live product ‘Shimmer’–it’s an office application; it’s a graphic arts tool, it’s a forms tool, it’s a floor wax… In its 10-year lifespan, PDF has morphed from the ‘digital carbon copy’ to so much more. It’s a substrate for so many nifty things.

Shea: What’s your next PDF project?

McCue: Practicing what I preach: churning out a series of tutorials on Doing Things Right for successful imaging.

Shea: Acrobat and PDF are now used in so many industries and in so many ways; do you see new areas that perhaps haven’t yet been tapped? Where do you see the greatest potential for growth?

McCue: Unless they’re exposed to Acrobat on the job, most home computer users have no idea how handy PDFs could be for paper-pile tasks such as record-keeping. Even personal communication could benefit: just think of the possibilities for enhancing those awful family holiday letters! Maybe there should be an ‘Acrobat Lite’ geared toward home users. (But the marketing would have to be more, ah, straightforward than those ethereal ‘gift box’ ads…)

Shea: What do you see in the future of PDF?

McCue: Even *more* portability: streamlined/seamless conversion of PDF content for alternative devices like PDAs, with intelligent rendering of the graphic aspects of PDFs, for the increasingly refined display capabilities of PDAs (like the Tungsten T3). Factor in adoption of phone/PDA combos like the Treo, and it’s a tempting market for a UPDF spec (‘Utterly Portable Document Format’). I have my PDA’s User Guide as a PDF, ‘chewed down’ for the Palm OS Reader, but it’s so painful to read on the PDA that I invariably resort to cranking up a laptop to read it. Sort of defeats the purpose… (And if ‘UPDF’ — the ÜberPDF — passes into the vernacular, I want royalties!)

Shea: What can Adobe change in the next version of Acrobat to make it better?

McCue: (This qualifies as petty whining, I know, but…) Return the ability to change a Form Field’s species after the fact, and the ability to hit Enter to exit the Field properties box. Make the toolbars more compact, and make the ‘How To’ pane resizable.

Shea: Can Acrobat and PDF be all things to all people?

McCue: Unlike the fictional product ‘Shimmer,’ no — not really: despite end-users’ attempts, it’s not a content-creation tool. But, considering the importance of PDFs across the spectrum of business, it really is unlike anything else!

Shea: Briefly describe a common misconception about or frequent problem you’ve seen with Acrobat/PDF that you’d like to try to clarify for others and/or provide a tip to address.

McCue: The most common problem with PDFs supplied to my clients in printing is failure to properly embed fonts: ‘But it looked fine on *my* computer!’

Of course it did: Acrobat was utilizing your system’s fonts for display. But when the fontless PDF lands somewhere else, it’s at the mercy of Acrobat’s font substitution. A quick way for content creators to check for font problems is to toggle between states of the ‘Use Local Fonts’ setting. In Acrobat 6.0, choose ‘Advanced>Use Local Fonts’ to quickly check and uncheck the setting. Watch for ‘wiggle’ in your text, indicating font substitution. Even better, use the keyboard shortcut so you can keep your eyes on the screen: Cmd-Shift-Y on the Mac, Ctrl-Shift-Y on Windows. (In Acrobat 5.0, it’s under the ‘View’ menu, but the keyboard shortcut is the same.)

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