Why on Earth Would I Have to Convert Text to Outlines to Output a PDF?

Answered by Jay Nelson, Editor and Publisher, Design Tools Monthly

Our one-color design includes multiple fonts and original line art. We prepared the file in InDesign and sent it to the printer as a PDF (with the fonts embedded). Now the printer says they need the fonts converted to outlines in order to process our file. I thought one main advantage of providing PDFs was to eliminate this type of issue. Why on earth would we have to convert the fonts to outlines in the InDesign file?

My solution to this problem would be:

1. Make sure all the text in your document is on a layer above all items containing transparency.

2. Tell your output provider to give it a try.

3. If it fails, give them the original InDesign file and all its fonts and placed graphics. Also give them a PDF for proofing purposes. Ask them to process the file any way they have to in order to match the PDF.

4. Ask them what to do to prevent this problem in the future (other than converting your text to outlines).

If they can't do number 3, and don't have a good answer to number 4, then you're working with a company that isn't prepared to work with you. Look for a different output provider.


Here's my explanation:

As with everything in the technology world that has been around for any length of time, the PDF file format and fonts have a history that in some cases makes them incompatible with some devices and workflows.

PostScript is the predecessor of PDF, and is the language that most current output devices use. PostScript does not understand transparency at all. So, a PDF containing transparency must be "flattened" when printed to a PostScript device. Flattening means that the virtual layers of items on a page, along with their drop shadows and transparency settings, must be merged into one cohesive big ol' single-layer page that gets pushed to the output device.

Easier said than done.

Fonts are vector-based. They don't exist as dots. They exist as mathematical outlines. The other items on the page that were created within InDesign or QuarkXPress are also vector-based. But every drop shadow, transparency effect, and imported raster (bitmap) graphic is made up of a finite series of dots.

Combining the two takes some serious computation. Where vectors meet bitmaps, the vectors must be converted to dots that match up with the dots in the bitmaps. Where transparency overlaps vectors… it's even more complicated.

Adobe's advice, going all the way back to the (premature) introduction of Transparency eight years ago in Illustrator 9, is that you always maintain your text on layers above your items that have transparency effects applied to them. That way, the transparency never overlays the text, and the text can be simply rasterized on top of the transparency effects.

If your design follows this rule, then you may need to have a conversation with your output provider. Ask them exactly what they want you to do to ensure that your files will output properly. If they repeat that you need to convert your fonts to outlines, I suggest looking for another output provider. Here's why:

Fonts are not just shapes. They're actually little programs that are called upon by your desktop applications whenever they need to be imaged. (That's one reason they can cause havoc with your system -- but that's a different topic.) Part of the intelligence in a font file determines whether a printer dot is "on" or "off" whenever the edge of a character falls in-between two printer dots. This is known as "hinting".

When you convert your fonts to outlines (as your output provider has suggested), that information is lost and text may appear thicker than if it were printed using the actual font file. This is especially apparent in small type. If this doesn't bother you, then converting to outlines is one option.

But another disadvantage to converting the type to outlines is that it may immensely increase the complexity and file size of your documents. The more text in your document, the more complex it becomes. And sometimes this can actually choke the output device so that it can't output your file. Not always, but sometimes.

Adobe's solution to this entire problem (that in a way they created), is that they want your output provider to purchase a new "PDF Print Engine" for their output device. This takes PostScript out of the equation by processing the PDF directly, without first converting to PostScript.

Of course, there's more to the story than even this. In fact, it's possible that your output provider will try to hide behind a barrage of techno-babble. Their goal should be to help you output your files with the least amount of trouble for both of you. They must communicate with you in a way that makes sense to you -- at whatever level of technical understanding you have.

This has been true since the dawn of printing, which I suspect you already knew. This is just one more wrinkle in that fabric of communication. You'll both need to iron it out. ;-)

This question was answered by Jay Nelson, Publisher & Editor, Design Tools Monthly. We love DTM's tips and advice and think you will, too. For a free sample PRINTED issue, contact Design Tools Monthly at 303-543-8400, e-mail info@design-tools.com, or go to their website: www.design-tools.com.
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