What is PDF/X?

June 28, 2013


The Portable Document Format (PDF) file format is an indispensable tool for moving files from the designer to the printer. But not all PDFs are built the same, and knowing the differences can save you time and money.

PDF/X-1A is the earliest iteration of standards based PDF for the printing industry, created in 2001. It requires the fonts be embedded, and graphics delivered as CMYK or spot colors. For instance, if you had a picture in your layout, that picture would be converted to CMYK.

The next iteration was PDF/X-3 (in 2002). In addition to spot colors and CMYK, it also let you use RGB and CIELAB (scientific) color spaces, both of which allow you to define any color in the spectrum. This is an improvement over the conversion to CMYK, as that process acts like a filter to restrict the number of colors and thus delivers a less saturated image. The X-3 has more flexibility, and can be preferred for output to a digital device, such as a wide format inkjet printer. In essence, the X-3 gives you a wider color gamut and number of color ranges.

However, both the above do not address transparency and layers. When the graphic artist is working with a software program that utilizes these functions, this can translate into problems when the PDF is created.

And that’s where PDF/X-4 (2008) comes in. X-4 supports layers and PDF transparency, as well as CMYK, grayscale, RGB, and spot colors. Within X-4 there are a further 5 versions, very specific to the output, such as newspaper or catalogue.

The benefit to understanding and conforming to these standards is that it will help reduce the number of problems that the printer will encounter. You’ll get your proofs quicker, and with more predictable outputs, i.e. what you get back will be what you expected. It’s a matter of choosing the right tool for the job.

And more important than understanding the above is to communicate with your printer before and during the process of submitting your work. At Still Creek Press, we have a full understanding of all the iterations of PDF.  Don’t know the differences, or which is best for you? Just ask one of our Print Made Easy account representatives.

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