A Touch of Class


When to Use PDF

A Belorussian translation of this article is provided by Uta Bayer.

What is the PDF format good for?

XP printing format
A document designed and finalized for the printer should be encoded as a PDF. There is no better cross-platform printing format: the pre-formatted layout and all its details, pagination, and print settings will be properly preserved through transport and onto the paper while still staying independent of machine specifics.
intensively designed static documents
I.e. artwork. It doesn't have to be a picture, it could be an essay. But a high quality document into which a serious typographer has poured attention and skill cannot be transmitted in a fluid format like HTML+CSS. When a document has been masterfully laid out, changing anything—the font, the paper size, the kerning, the ligatures, the positioning, the line breaks, the page breaks, etc.—will collapse all the labored fine-tuning. A typographer will pay attention to details you wouldn't notice, to delicate problems that none but the highest-quality publishing software (and often not even that) can automatically correct. A graphic designer will adjust layouts that you wouldn't know are wrong unless you've seen what she truly has in mind... and even then you may not notice the patterns that drive her design. In these kinds of presentations, the details of the layout are as much a part of the document as the text content itself, and PDF excels at representing them together.

What is PDF not good for?

online presentation of information
PDFs are great when the layout of the document is important to preserve, but they are clumsy, unwieldy things to deal with on the computer screen. Where PDFs are awkward to read and navigate, however, HTML+CSS is effective. Though it lacks the detailed control to represent perfected static design, instead the designer's skill goes into allowing the document to gracefully adapt. Web documents are fast, compact, accessible, convenient, and adaptable. Their fluid layouts conform to different screens, pick up available fonts, and accomodate different text sizes. Divorced from its presentation by marks of semantic and structure, an HTML document can render its intent onto many different canvases, from laptops to cell phones and voice-based readers. Text can be read, searched, auto-translated, restyled, cross-linked, and exerpted: because HTML is a format designed to be used and manipulated, not just optically admired.

Why do so many people still use PDF inappropriately?

People are stuck in a static layout mindset. But as long as there's nothing strong enough to pull them out of it, they'll just stay stuck there.

mpt refers you also to Joe Clark's notes on how PDF is overused