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Many times people send PDF documents for final printing, but the reality is that a PDF itself is simply a wrapper. Meaning that a PDF itself is only as good as what's inside of it. For example, if you put a low resolution RGB image into a PDF and you send it to a printer for high resolution output, just because you have made it a PDF file doesn't mean it's not going to print beautifully and not have any color shifts at a high resolution. In fact, that's why many engineers refer to PDF as a garbage-in, garbage-out format. So therefore just creating a PDF file is not enough. You need to make sure that when you are creating a PDF file, that you are actually creating a good PDF file. For example, you want to make sure that all the fonts are embedded. You want to make sure that any RGB content is converted to CMYK.
An additional concern is also transparency. PDF itself can't contain live transparency in an unflattened state, but there are actually different versions of PDF. Transparency itself was first introduced in PDF version 1.4 or you may understand which transparency flatten a preset to use, but how can you ensure that the person who is receiving a PDF knows how to do that correctly as well? Therefore, if you actually save your file in an older version of PDF, for example, PDF 1.3, you can flatten a document by yourself using the right settings. This way ensuring that your file will always print correctly. In fact, I like to think of it in this way. I want to be able to create a bullet proof PDF file that no matter who prints it, no matter where it is in the world, or from what computer that it's going to print correctly. Well, this is actually a way to do that.
I am going to take my document here, which has several artboards inside of it. I'm going to choose File. I'm going to choose Save As. To save my document as a PDF document, I'll choose here PDF. I'll save it on my Desktop here. I'm going to basically choose to export all of my artboards. Now when I click on the Save button, I'm going to get this dialog box called Save Adobe PDF. Now you will notice here for Compatibility, I have the ability to choose between PDF versions 1.4, 1.5, 1.6 but also PDF 1.3. As I mentioned before, anything after PDF 1.4 supports live transparency, but you have to think of PDF 1.3 as if it were some kind of EPS file. This version of PDF doesn't support transparency.
So again, if you want to send this PDF file to somebody and you want to make sure that they will be able to print the file correctly without having to worry about flattening, by choosing PDF 1.3 you will be doing the flattening yourself. Now actually, many printers and many publications face this problem everyday. They get PDF files that are submitted to them on a constant basis. How can they ensure that those PDF files are going to print correctly? So the answer is that they all got together and they drew up a set of standards, something which they called PDF/X. Now in the print industry specifically, there is a standard called PDF/X-1a. So instead of you having to actually go through all these settings manually and set them, by simply choosing to save your file as a PDF/X-1a file, you are ensured that it has everything it needs to print correctly.
So over here where it says Adobe PDF preset, I'm actually going to go ahead and choose PDF/X-1a:2001. It says 2001 because that's the year that this standard was actually defined. When you choose that option, everything else is automatically set for you. In fact, you will see if I go to Advanced, you will see that Illustrator automatically chose the High Resolution flattened to Preset. This ensures that I'm going to get the highest quality results, when I print my file that has transparency inside of it. If I go back to the General panel here, I see that I can also choose this option called View PDF after Saving. In doing so when I save my PDF file, it allows you to launch Acrobat, so that I can just view my PDF file to make sure it looks okay, before sending it off to the printer.
So at the end of the day if you are ever asked to deliver a file in PDF form and you are not really sure who you are handing that file off to; meaning that you are sending to a client and the client hasn't decided yet which printer they want to use; or maybe you are sending it overseas and you haven't even spoken to the people who are actually going to print the file. Choosing to save your file in a PDF/X-1a format is actually the best thing that you can do. It's the closest thing to a bullet proof PDF and you are sure that the file will print correctly.
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