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PDF Standards and Your Business

By now you’ve most likely used PDFs in your business or personal life and you’ve come to understand the benefits that this versatile format can offer. But did you know that you can tailor your PDF format even more to better suit your business needs? Here’s a look at some very important PDF standards that could dramatically change the way you print, archive, and exchange your documents.

PDF/A – The PDF Standard for Long-Term Archival

What is PDF/A?

In September 2005 the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) approved the new PDF/A standard for archiving electronic documents. According to the standard ISO 19005-1, PDF/A is a derivative of PDF that "provides a mechanism for representing electronic documents in a manner that preserves their visual appearance over time, independent of the tools and systems used for creating, storing or rendering the files."

This means of preservation allows PDFs to be self-sustainable. PDF/A achieves this self-sustainability by embedding the information (content, color, font, images, text, etc.) needed for displaying the document within the document itself. In other words, PDF/A does not require any additional outside information to display properly. However, for this format to achieve self-sustainability, it must exclude certain features allowed in standard PDF files such as movies, sound, and transparency.

The PDF/A classification is divided into two parts, PDF/A-1 and PDF/A-2. The first classification, PDF/A-1, is further subdivided into two more categories, PDF/A-1a, and PDF/A-1b. The primary difference between PDF/A-1a and PDF/A-1b is the way in which each handles the extraction of text:

  • PDF/A-1a: This level, also referred to as Level A Conformance, is fully compliant with the ISO 19005-1 Standard. This version includes tagging, so that text can be extracted and viewed by multiple devices including hand-helds.
  • PDF/A-1b: Referred to as Level B Conformance, this category is considered to be the minimal compliance level for PDF/A. This level guarantees that the document can be displayed and read on a computer monitor, but the legibility of the text is not guaranteed.
  • PDF/A-2: This is a newer addition to the PDF/A standard and is still being formulated by the Technical Committee. Essentially, PDF/A-2 will deal with some of the newer features being added to the PDF Reference like digital signatures.

What it means for your business...

PDF/A is a new standard that will revolutionize the way businesses and government institutions archive critical documents and records. Currently, many businesses archive their documents by keeping hard copies (paper). Another current archiving method is the use of microfilm and microfiche. PDF/A is designed to replace all of these with a single standardized format that is easy to update, searchable, easy to organize, efficient, transportable, and above all, sustainable. For your business, this means a low cost, low volume alternative to keeping stacks of papers and folders in your archive. Also, because this is an electronic format, you can easily store your archived documents in multiple locations making them much less vulnerable to fires, floods, or any other natural disasters.

PDF/X – A PDF Standard for Prepress Data

What is PDF/X?

PDF/X, like PDF/A, is a subset of PDF. The purpose of PDF/X is to provide designers, illustrators, engineers, and graphic artists with an electronic file format that can be printed correctly by any service provider. PDF/X allows for total consistency even when files are handled at multiple locations by people using different equipment. This format is ideal for most inter-company print-ready transfers where the sender of the print-ready information and the receiver do not have a strong affiliation. In addition to providing a sturdy delivery format for print jobs, PDF/X also delivers other benefits including a file viewer, better compression (smaller file size), support for spot colors, a means of identifying the printing condition for which the file was prepared, and more. However, like PDF/A, the benefits of PDF/X are offset by compromises. Features like transparency, encryption, and JBIG2 compression are prohibited in PDF/X.

The PDF/X standard is subdivided into three categories:

  • PDF/X-1a: This standard is ideal for file senders who want to retain the most control over the print job. It supports blind exchanges and conforms to common requirements in many parts of the world.
  • PDF/X-3: The most important difference between PDF/X-3 and PDF/X-1a is the fact that a PDF/X-3 file contains color managed data. This means that any tools that can read a PDF/X-3 should also be able to read a PDF/X-1a file.
  • PDF/X2: Unlike the first two formats mentioned above, which are designed for blind exchange, the PDF/X2 is geared toward exchanges where there is more dialogue between the sender and the receiver. It is a superset of the PDF/X-3 format, which is a superset of the PDF/X-1a format.

What it means for your business...

The PDF/X standard is designed to be applicable across many sectors and businesses within the print industry. If you’re on the receiving end of print-ready files, make sure you are clear on exactly what types of files you can accept (PDF/X-1a, PDF/X-3, or PDF/X2). Also, it’s safe to upgrade to newer versions of PDF/X tools as they are made available, because they’ll be able to read older files. Most products that support baseline PDF will also support PDF/X files. Make sure you pre-flight any incoming print files to determine that they comply with the proper version of PDF/X. Also, if you are a printer or a publisher, make certain that your entire workflow is PDF/X compliant. If you are sending print-ready data to a publisher or printer, consider carefully your options with regards to the subsets of PDF/X to determine which is best for your business. Ultimately, the goal of PDF/X is to provide a means to send full-bodied digital files with the confidence of knowing that they will get through the prepress process without any errors or rework.

Around the Corner…PDF/E and PDF/UA


PDF/E is an upcoming standard that focuses on the engineering industry. In particular, it deals with some of the more recent features of PDF that are used primarily by the engineering community including object-level metadata and 3D modeling.


The “UA” stands for Universal Accessibility. This standard, still under construction, focuses on providing accessibility to PDF by expanding on the principles of Section 508. PDF/UA will ensure the usability and accessibility of PDF for any users regardless of disability.

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