Making PDFs work for you – three features not to overlook

PDFs are one of the most commonly used file types in the world. The original goal, stemming from The Camelot Project by John Warnock in 1990, was to create a means for effective and universally-accessible electronic communication of visual materials between different systems and applications. Today, the PDF continues to be a standard for printing and electronic communication. However, since its creation, there have been several changes and innovations to maintain this original goal as it adapts to the introduction of new technologies. The PDF offers a multitude of features that can enhance the way we communicate.

1. Password Protection and Encryption. PDF documents can be encrypted through built-in password protection which ensures cross-platform compatibility. This is useful for documents that may contain confidential information or information intended only for certain authorized users. Adobe Acrobat outlines two methods of securing PDFs. First, a user password helps provide a layer of security by ensuring that only intended users will be able to view the document, protecting against cases of data leaks or data theft. Second, and a master password can protect against unauthorized printing, editing, and/or copying of information in a document. This preserves the integrity of the content against programs with PDF-editing capabilities. As noted in David Weedmark’s Reasons for Locking PDF Files, this tool can provide a basic form of Digital Rights Management (DRM) for contracts containing digital signatures and/or exclusive content, for example.

2. PDF tools for increased accessibility. It’s important to design with accessibility in mind. This includes graphic design and document design. The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) provides several techniques that meet the latest Web Content Accessibility Guidelines in PDF Techniques for WCAG 2.0. Understanding and using available accessibility tools can attract a wider audience to your content, while capturing their attention for longer periods by ensuring that your documents are easy to read and navigate. Proper tagging can improve the ease of navigation by ensuring a logical, hierarchical structure during content reflow (to fit on smaller screens, for example). Tagging content also helps identify its attributes – which is particularly useful for individuals affected by vision impairment, who may use assistive technologies that read information provided by the tags. Julius Nganji summarizes several of the most important PDF accessibility features in Ten Common PDF Accessibility Errors with Solutions – such as defining the document language in advanced Document Properties, adding alternative texts to relevant images and/or media, and marking background images as decorative. These steps can help screen readers better analyze and read the contents of a document.

3. Archiving PDFs. As the value of data becomes increasingly important over time, businesses must find efficient means of storing documents to retain this valuable information. While there are several short-term storage options, PDF/A (PDF for Archiving) files (an ISO standard for archival) helps to ‘future-proof’ PDFs against technological changes while in long-term storage, according to PDF/A in a Nutshell 2.0 published by the PDF Association. Notably, PDF/A files are optimal for storage due to more powerful compression algorithms and limiting functions that could hinder future usage, such as embedded media requiring peripheral software for execution. Although there are limitations on what can be included, PDF/As are a great choice for preservation of vital information while maintaining convenient functions for working and searching, such as text recognition for scanned documents and digital signatures for forms.

Information, no matter how insightful, can be limited by the method of presentation. Utilizing the tools at your disposal allows for more effective communication between and within your business, workforce and audience. The features of PDFs outlined above only scratch the surface of a multitude of methods that can enhance the way you communicate. It’s not enough to remain static in an ever-evolving world. Just as the PDF standards defined by ISO have evolved over time to accommodate changes in technology, seeking out new ways to protect data, enhance accessibility efforts and enable ‘future-proofed’ document archiving may be vital to your business not just now, but in the not-too-distant future.

Mandy Lu
Mandy Lu is a Graphic Communications Management (GCM) student at Toronto’s Ryerson University. She loves browsing online through art, photography and the latest design trends. But she also loves the feel and smell of a new book in her hands, and has never said no to a good story and fresh cup of coffee.

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