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The Evil PDF

Gerry McGovern brings up a provocative thought in his February 5th issue of his New Thinking Newsletter. The title can make many a technical communicator sit up and take notice: PDFs are evil, lazy, slothful and sinful!

We’re back to the basic question here: what are you trying to communicate? I think Gerry McGovern has a point when he says the customer already knows about your company and looks for more information about something specific, not a repeat of the company’s message. It would be disappointing to go to the trouble of downloading the document and finding that the majority of the material I printed out did not cover the topic I was researching.

However, you don’t know where that document will end up. Does it get downloaded to be read on the train? Does the document change hands many times? At some point, the connection to your company might disappear. Therefore, there has to be some reference back to the source, at least to give you credit for the work.

One example where the message comes first is ChangeThis. Of course, this is not a typical company. Still, look at those PDFs. You read the message first. All the details about ChangeThis come at the end. On a simply flyer-type PDF (just one page, printed on both sides), the constraints tend to limit the amount of information about the company. You only have two pages to discuss your message, so the company information is most likely reduced to a minimum.

I think the problem stems from moving from the print world to the online world without thinking about the differences between those two worlds. Must you really copy everything exactly? That could be where Gerry McGovern gets those PDFs that make him shudder. Massive graphics or introductions that look great on a stand at a trade show are only an annoyance when printing that same brochure in PDF form on your little black-and-white printer at home or at the office. Ink is expensive, you know! Massive graphics that aren’t so vital also lead to larger PDFs, and this means longer download times. Remember, not everyone has broadband access and incredibly fast download times.

Obviously, the basic message in glossy material for a trade show and in a PDF on your website should be identical so customers do not feel they are missing out on information. This brings up the idea of single sourcing. Could you maintain your message in one spot only, and simply “package” it differently depending on the output – a web page, a glossy brochure, a PDF? Of course you can. There are many ways to do this, all of which are discussed constantly on various discussion lists, such as the Single-Sourcing SIG discussion list at STC. Such a discussion is outside the scope of this post, but I want to make sure you know the option exists.

Some of you might cry out, “We don’t have time.” You can be under time constraints at work, and you simply cannot see any other solution than to take the one PDF and post it to the website. I understand. Been there. Done that. Are you just doing this out of habit and not thinking that there could be a better way to get your message across? That is not so good. Again, I have done that. You can get so busy or stressed that you forget to think about what you are doing. That is where many newsletters or RSS feeds are a great inspiration. They can make you stop and reconsider or reevaluate what you are doing. You might want to party like it’s 1999, but do you have to make PDFs like it’s 1999?

Oh, and don’t get me started on accessible PDFs. That’s a topic for a future post.

You can read Gerry McGovern’s thoughts in his weekly newsletter or RSS feed. I can recommend a subscription. Even though his writing is aimed specifically at Web communication, a good technical communicator should be able to find inspiration for any kind of communication.

Are you trying to master PDFs? Get more inspiration at Planet PDF and PDF Zone where you will find articles, newsletters, and discussion fora.


  1. Tom Johnson
    Tom Johnson 13 February 2007

    I’m no fan of the PDF format easier, and I agree with your point that writing for the web is different from writing for trade show booths. The only real benefit PDF’s offer for me is printability. Acrobat 8 has made some significant improvements, but it’s still the static format.

  2. Milan Davidovic
    Milan Davidovic 14 February 2007

    Hi — saw your post to single-sourcing-l and thought I’d check out your blog…

    Let’s see… I buy a piece of music gear through Craigslist, but the guy lost the manual. No problem — I go to the Roland (or Yamaha, or whoever) site and download the manual. In PDF. Great!

    I’m a member of the Society for Technical Communication. I have an e-Membership, so all the publications are online. When the new issue of, say, Intercom becomes available I can peruse the contents and if there’s an article I’m interested in having in hard copy (to read on the subway, doodle on, or whatever) I can download it. In PDF. Excellent!

    I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.

    As Gerry points out that “What may work exceptionally well in print may fail miserably on the Web”, the reverse is also true: great Web can make lousy hard copy (it needn’t be so, but so often is). And unless you’ve got a convincing case against using the Web to deliver printable documents, I say we take the heat off PDF and aim it where it belongs — at those evil, lazy, slothful and sinful Web designers!

    ‘Nuff said


  3. karen
    karen 15 February 2007

    Thanks for your comments, Milan. All your points are perfectly valid. I think it all boils down to common sense and really thinking about what you are about to produce, as well as how, why, when, and where. Not to forget – who is it for? Someone traveling the metro? Sitting at a computer? Listening to a podcast? Using a screen reader? I’ll be happy to tackle poor web standards and usability and accessibility issues in future blogs! 🙂

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