Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just because you can

As a communications consultant, I realize good communication isn’t just about words. How a document looks has an impact on how the information is received. To me, the best projects are ones where the text and design work together to create a document that’s both useful and compelling.

The ability to “PDF” (which stands for Portable Document Format) documents has gained popularity over the past five years and many companies and organizations have found “PDFing” documents an easy way to put information up on their web sites.

One of the main features of PDF is that it allows you to append the document in a way that reproduces the formatting, layout, and colours of the original. And, with the right software (Adobe is the most common), users can see the document in its original splendor and, theoretically, print it for themselves, if they want.

I used the adverb “theoretically” because on at least two occasions recently, I printed out PDF documents I downloaded from the Internet and, when I retrieved them from the printer, I was irritated to find that they didn’t print right – somehow a bunch of text got cut off. After trying again with the same result, I looked more closely at the print dialog box and noticed that the document was formatted for oversize paper (81/2” x 14” in one case and something even bigger in the other case).

In both cases, I'm sure the original documents were made and printed for handing out to customers and clients. The documents were lovely to look at and the organizations no doubt thought they were just making the most by putting the documents (brochures in both cases) up on their web site. Unfortunately, they never gave any thought to how readers might use the PDF version. (I’m sure I’m not the only person who prints things off.)

So, my advice is simple: while attaching PDF documents to your web site is a great way of maintaining the look of the document, remember that there'll be readers who will print the information and chances are they will be using standard paper. So, if the PDF document doesn’t print well on standard paper, rather than doing your audience a service by providing the information, you’ll end up just irritating folks.

In other words, don’t just PDF because you can. Be mindful of the way people use PDF documents and consider re-formatting them if necessary to make them printer friendly.


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