Q&A with prolific Acrobat author Donna Baker

Editor’s Note:
We talked recently with Donna Baker, author of several books covering previous versions of Adobe Acrobat, and with a variety of new books dealing with Acrobat 7 released or soon-to-be shipping — including ‘HREF=’http://www.peachpit.com/title/0321305302′
TARGET=’_NEW’>Adobe Acrobat 7 Tips & Tricks: The 150
Best‘ and ‘Adobe Acrobat 7 in the Office,’ both published by Peachpit Press/Adobe Press. In early April 2005, we’re hosting a promotional contest to give away eight copies of the ‘150 Tips’ book. Both of Baker’s new books and a number of others can be purchased at a special Planet PDF discount from Peachpit Press.

Download several example tips (Adobe Acrobat 7 Tips & Tricks: The 150
Best) from Chapter 10, which covers ‘Touching Up and Modifying a Document.’

KURT FOSS, Planet PDF Editor: Congratulations on the recent release of your latest book covering Acrobat & PDF — ‘Adobe Acrobat 7 Tips & Tricks: The 150 Best,’ published by Peachpit Press/Adobe Press. We’ve had a chance to look through it and it seems to follow nicely in the footsteps on your previous books covering earlier versions of the software and format — very well done! And it includes 50 percent more tips than your similar Acrobat 6-specific edition — how/why did you decide to produce 150 tips this time?

Donna Baker, Author, Adobe Acrobat 7 Tips & Tricks: The 150 Best: ‘Why thank you Kurt. It is quite similar to the original, which was a format that readers seemed to find useful for identifying tweaks and improvements they could make to their use of Acrobat. Yes, we decided to ‘super-size’ it this time. It was very difficult to edit me to 100 tips the first go-round, and having the extra space was a treat in this edition, although some topics again couldn’t make it into their own numbered tips and became sidebars. All of the tips were rewritten for the new version of the book.’

FOSS: How did you approach the development of the tips — what was the process you used to develop the so-called ‘150 Best?’ Any particular favorites?

Acrobat 7: 150 Best Tips
BAKER: ‘I hadn’t thought of the development from this perspective before — good question. I think I used a three-pronged approach. First, tips had to cover all the functional areas of the program, such as page manipulation, security, reviewing. Second, I looked at these different areas and hunted for specifics that could make a reader a better Acrobat user — the ‘ah ha’ factor. For instance, a user may be quite capable of rearranging a document’s content by dragging thumbnails in the Pages pane, but may not know those thumbnails (and pages) can be dragged between documents. Third, I went for the seriously cool stuff — the ‘I didn’t know you could do that with Acrobat’ factor, like embedding Flash movies. Although it isn’t new in Acrobat 7, it’s not something that enough people are aware of.

I have a number of favorite tips. Pretty much everything related to interactivity from buttons to page actions to layered Visio documents intrigues me. At the risk of sounding very geeky, I quite like the tips that describe how to use aspects of the program like batch files and droplets. I am also pleased with the tips on accessibility, an area which I think will continue to increase in importance.’

FOSS: In addition to your books covering Acrobat 5, 6 and now 7, you’ve authored books on other Adobe software products, and on HTML. We note in this book that you call Acrobat ‘my favorite piece of software.’ Tell us a bit about that — why, and how do you personally use Acrobat and PDF?

BAKER: ‘That is a big question! It is my favorite piece of software, and I think that harkens back to the days when I was a student working on a thesis. I was using Lotus 1-2-3 to generate tables and charts and they were integrated in a very early version of Word as a big X. At the time I thought it would be neat if the actual chart could be on the page, not just printed. Fast forward a decade to when the idea of ‘integration’ in Office and other products was quite new, and programs didn’t interrelate or share information in the same ways as they do now. I found that immensely fascinating. I still do, and Acrobat lets me take a bit from here, a bit from there, add some internal coordinating structures like footers, and create a finished document.

Personally, I use Acrobat all day long, and not just when I am writing an Acrobat book. I put source material for future work together into binder files regularly. I keep a number of collections in the Organizer that I cull and replace depending on the project of the moment. I have started keeping email threads as PDF files, which I am finding incredibly useful.

I have also been using Acrobat for some interesting shortcuts in my workflows. I transfer files to several FTP servers for different projects, and keep the emails with the FTP site address and my login information in a single PDF file on my desktop. When I want to access a server, I open the PDF file and click the appropriate link to load the server in my browser. I can’t recall when I came up with that one, but I must be on the 3rd or 4th version of that links PDF file by now.

Another way I have been using Acrobat lately is for document reviews. Not that reviewing via Acrobat is new, but I have developed an interesting system that has been quite effective the last few months. I believe the first book I used it in is the Tips and Tricks book. I have a batch of custom stamps that I use in the review documents to indicate any new figures, content, or cropping that I want done. I have found the Attachments process invaluable for including any revised material.

Hmm. I seem to be doing a fair bit of round-trip editing between Acrobat and Photoshop lately, which is a very slick process. I regularly build files from 30 or 40 images, then use the Crop Pages dialog to set each page automatically to a standard letter-sized page, which I can then use for adding comments and notations. It’s a small feature, and I am not sure when I started using it as a part of my regular workflow, but it is a terrific timesaver. Combine that with the TouchUp tools, and anything I want to compile is easy to do. Of course, most things are easy to do when you know how, aren’t they?’

FOSS: You refer in Chapter 1 to what we’ve often called the ‘neither fish nor fowl’ description of Acrobat — or as you put it, ‘Acrobat isn’t like ‘ordinary’ software in that you can’t define its purpose in a single word as you can with a spreadsheet, word-processing, or image-manipulation program.’ Do you think people are developing a better understanding of Acrobat and PDF now more than 10 years since its launch, or has the growing power and complexity of the successive product releases inadvertently contributed to a continued misunderstanding? What’s your impression from talking with a lot of users at different levels — what helps people grasp what Acrobat and PDF can do for them?

BAKER: ‘That is such a difficult question. People are both developing a better understanding, and not understanding it at all. I think in general we have gone beyond the concept of using Acrobat for simply making a file that prints like the original, but probably not too much further. For example, how many times do you open a complex PDF file from someone and think there must be a bookmark structure, only to find that there’s nothing there at all? I notice that regularly, and it is a shame as Acrobat handles a navigation structure so easily. I don’t think that most people are aware of the idea of Acrobat being a ‘communications controller’, if in fact that is a term I could use, rather than just something for changing a document for printing. I still can’t think of a single phrase to describe the program!

Beyond anything else, I think what helps people grasp what Acrobat and PDF can do is by example. To tell someone they can do a review using Acrobat is one thing that may seem rather obvious. To show them how using certain commenting tools lets them import those comments and make edits in a source Word file automatically, for instance, is infinitely more powerful.’

FOSS: You also write that Acrobat ‘can assist you in a wide range of tasks, and it handles information and content in mind-boggling ways.’ In your research and general awareness of the increasingly varied applications, can you cite a few applications that demonstrate those assertions — both the range and degree of amazement?

BAKER: ‘Where should I start? Layered documents, for one thing. I like to work in Visio and enjoy being able to assign bookmarks to layers and control them in Acrobat. I also appreciate converting custom properties for a Visio object to Object Data. It’s another way entirely of communicating layers of information.

I like to combine content into one PDF file for making interactive/multimedia type material, and it’s surprising how customizable something like adding video has become. Interestingly, I have sent samples of PDF files to colleagues in other realms of interactive work who have been amazed at what they see in a PDF file.

Within the less-obvious areas, it’s relatively simple to organize and manage the content in a document using the Tags and Content panels’ features, which I have noticed myself doing more in the last few months than in years past.’

FOSS: What’s your overall impression of Acrobat 7.0, and what do you see as the key feature changes or enhancements — i.e. are there clear reasons for current users to upgrade?

BAKER: ‘There are some features that clearly make an upgrade worthwhile. In many organizations and workflows, the simple fact that Acrobat 7 Professional can be used to enable commenting features for Adobe Reader users is reason in itself to upgrade.

For those who work regularly with programs other than the ‘big three’ — Word, Excel, and PowerPoint — the new PDFMakers added in a much broader range of programs is a terrific feature. Sometimes, depending on my mood, I prefer to work in Publisher rather than InDesign, and I like the Publisher PDFMaker.

From a functional standpoint, there are several changes that make work much smoother. The Organizer is a very good feature, as I mentioned. The processes for consolidating reviewing and security are simplified as well, as is the process of configuring Acrobat for accessible use. The Accessibility Wizard is very easy to use, and I’d like to commend Adobe on their inclusion of it in this version.’

FOSS: Maybe it was in part due to the long winter in the ‘heart of the Canadian prairies’ where you live and work, but you appear to have been especially prolific since the release of Acrobat 7. We see that Adobe Press/Peachpit Press is promoting the release of another book this week — ‘Adobe Acrobat 7 in the Office.’ Tell us a little about that book and the type of content you included. How does it complement and how does it differ from the new tips book? I understand that you’ll be offering several free chapters on your Web site — what will they cover?

BAKER: ‘The winters here are long, once you’ve seen a million snowflakes you’ve seen them all, and I have a very low threshold for boredom! I am terrifically pleased with the upcoming Office book, which contains 14 Acrobat-based projects. As I mentioned earlier, Acrobat’s extensive capabilities can also be its downfall. In a program that does so much, perhaps the best way to understand how to use it is to show its features in action, which is the focus of my Office book.

The Office book has a different approach and purpose from the Tips book, but many of the processes I covered in the Tips book are shown in context in the Office book. The book was probably the most challenging I have ever written, and the most fun. In each scenario, a significant problem or workflow issue was defined, and the project then goes on to describe a solution using Acrobat in combination with other programs, as applicable.

Each project features fictional characters and a scenario — from Joe and Jim, the twin brains behind DoggoneIt!, a magical pet-stain remover who need a presentation to woo a potential investor; to Henry the union officer who needs to index and catalog hundreds of legal documents; to Chuck Norris (no relation to the actor), the real estate agent who wants both PDF and HTML versions of his listings, to the ongoing saga of Joe’s Deli, whose form dilemmas are featured in three chapters.

The challenge was to design projects that were logical. There are several instances where I had finished a project/chapter only to decide to redo a part of it as there was an aspect that wasn’t as practical as it could be. I guess the overriding challenge was to consistently answer ‘Would I really do this?’ and ‘Is this the best/fastest/easiest way to do xx?’ I think we achieved that outcome.

The reason there are four bonus chapters on my Web site is simply that I wrote too many projects! It was a book that evolved as we went along, and therefore difficult to pin to a certain number of pages. Originally I had intended to have the source files, iterative PDF files, and finished projects available from my Web site.

When we realized how much bigger than book would be than originally estimated, we assigned content to the Web site. Projects on the Web site include a bookmarked/linked résumé converted from several Word files, a layered brochure created from a Visio document, a survey form built in Adobe Designer, and an interactive catalog built from several image files. These four complete project chapters also include the materials required to build the project. There are also several enhancements for some projects available from the Web site. All in all, it was quite an undertaking!

FOSS: Rumor has it that you have another Peachpit Press book on Acrobat coming out next month — part of their handy Visual Quickstart series — that will cover how to perform a document review cycle using the latest versions of Acrobat and/or the free Adobe Reader. Tell us a little about this book, when it is due to become available, and why you felt this specific application merited its own tome.

BAKER: ‘The rumors are all true. There is indeed a third book I am writing for Peachpit Press that will be out late spring. It is a single project (as are all the books in the series) that shows the life-cycle of a document review process. The topic was chosen for several reasons. Reviewing is one of the biggest features and uses of Acrobat, and can be highly customized to fit within the parameters of a specific workflow, which may not be well understood. Functioning as the initiator or a participant in a review are quite different processes, and we wanted to show how the entire cycle works in a visual way.

The project features the table of contents and two sample cover pages for a fictional magazine called TravelASIA. Sadly, I didn’t have time to take a quick trip to southeast Asia to shoot images for the book. The review is initiated in Acrobat 7 Professional, and the reviewing/commenting portion is done via Adobe Reader, before returning to Acrobat Pro for comment management.’

FOSS: Any other 2005 book projects in the works you’d like to mention that might be of interest to the Planet PDF community?

BAKER: ‘Yes, I am co-authoring a book on Acrobat and PDF with my colleague and pal, Tom Carson, whom I am sure is known to your readers for his work in engineering, the recent Engineering Valley Tour, and as an Acrobat trainer.

Tom and I are writing a book on Acrobat and AEC (Architecture/Engineering/Construction) for Springer-Verlag, London, due for release late summer. The book is designed for both students and professionals working in the field. We are featuring a real-life project, the Dupont Soccer Field in Chattanooga, TN. I am honored to be included in the project as we have some AEC industry luminaries contributing content for the book, such as Michael Bufkin of Layton Graphics.

As for other projects that may be of interest to your readers, I can’t say at this time. Of course, it’s only March!

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