PDF opinions

For a long time I’ve wanted to write about the PDF format, this post idea has been in my drafts list for a while. But if one hesitates, of course someone else beats you to it; this time it was Joe Clark. He recently wrote an article for the redesigned A List Apart: Facts and Opinions About PDF Accessibility.

The article has aroused many reactions, and amongst them are Tommy‘s interesting Et Tu, Joe?, which raises the never-ending discussion that accessibility isn’t only about disabled, and making a web site accessible to disabled isn’t supposed to be done with the cost of decreasing the functionality/availability of the web site for others.

But back to the PDF trail. Joe writes:

The complaint that you have to use a “special program” to read a PDF document is bogus. You’re already using a special program to read an HTML document. It’s just that you use that program so much it no longer seems special.

While this might be true, to me it doesn’t justify opening an application whose footprint is two to three sizes bigger than the web browser itself just to view a document that could’ve easily been coded with HTML (this is the case when using Adobe Acrobat, I know there a lots of other options, but most people seem to be using Adobe Acrobat for it). Jakob Nielsen finds PDF:unfit for human consumption and Charl van Niekerk states PDFs Considered Crap.

Personally, I definitely think there are cases when PDF files are the right format for the task, but generally they are/have been terribly overused on the internet. However, now at least we have a guide how to make them accessible when we have to use them, thanks to Joe.


PS. This is my third post today. Am I on fire, or what? πŸ™‚ Granted, not very long posts, but still! Make sure you don’t miss the other two. DS.


  • Tommy Olsson says:

    As far as PDF accessibility is concerned, Joe's article is very good. I also have the utmost respect for Joe Clark and his knowledge about accessibility. I'm not sure those things are clear from my article, which is not a personal attack on Joe at all, but just my frustration over such a 'dangerous' statement from a respected guru.

    There are other aspects than availability (meant in the traditional sense, not as in Derek's suggestion — man, all this newspeak is going to mess things up!) for third-party software. Price could be one thing, although reader plug-ins are often free. Security may be a bigger one. Adobe recently announced a potentially serious security hole in Adobe Reader. Who knows what risks there are in other plug-ins, e.g. Flash?

    I'm using Opera on Linux rather than IE on Windows, partly because I don't want to have to be afraid of spyware, viruses, trojans and worms all the time. Opera/Linux is not immune, but the risk is currently negligible compared to IE/Windows, even if you have anti-virus software and a firewall.

    Sorry for getting off topic … again. :/

  • it doesn’t justify opening an application whose footprint is two to three sizes bigger than the web browser itself just to view a document that could’ve easily been coded with HTML

    And I think that's the most important thing that many people may have missed (present company excluded, of course!) in Joe's article. Most PDFs that are on the web shouldn't be PDF in the first place. If people followed these simple guidelines, PDF wouldn't really be the problem that it is:

    1. Use PDF only in the cases where it is the most appropriate delivery format.

    2. When you do use PDF as an alternate format, make sure the PDF is accessible.

    The problems with PDF quite often exist because people produce PDF because it is the easiest choice, not the best choice.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    As far as PDF accessibility is concerned, Joe’s article is very good

    Absolutely, and I think it's good that you state that, I'm not sure that it came across in your article.

    Don't worry about your rambling, at least to me it's entertaining. πŸ™‚


    The problems with PDF quite often exist because people produce PDF because it is the easiest choice, not the best choice.

    Yes, that sums it up. It's the ol' "oh-it's-so easy"-attitude spread across the web that also leads to poorer standards compliance, lesser accessibility etc etc.

  • Carl says:

    I too, felt compelled

    to rant concerning the proliferation of unnecessary PDF.

    You state…

    <blockquote cite="Robert">now at least we have a guide how to make them accessible when we have to use them, thanks to Joe.

    …a point well taken and one that I should have made in my post.

    Joe's guidelines of when PDF is acceptable was good — somewhat too lenient from my perspective, but something to work from.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    Thanks for the link.

    Joe's article is definitely good and useful, but I also understand Tommy's reaction since such quotes as Joe's can be terribly mis-used by the wrong people.

  • In my humble opinion, the main problem today is still that there are too few alternatives to certain PDF features. At the university I’m currently studying, I’m always complaining about that if I had studied in ten years or so, I wouldn’t have had to download 5 PDFs every week, but a nice little XHTML+MathML file. But as that is not yet supported by any browser at all (?, at least as far as I know), one has to use PDF.

  • Joe Clark says:


    Which parts were "too lenient"?

  • Robert Nyman says:


    It depends on what features we're talking about here. But when it comes to your specific example, these web browsers support MathML natively (anyone, if I'm out on thin ice here, please correct me):

    Mozilla web browsers


    Mabye this page clarifies the general state of MathML support: Publishing XHTML+MathML Documents on the Web


    Really good seeing you here!

    Carl, do you want to elaborate on your comment?

  • Kalle Wibeck says:

    I totaly agree Robert, the too frequent use of bloated PDFs really messes up the web experience.

    I sometimes gets the feeling that people uses PDF to protect their Word/Powerpoint documents, which in many cases are an organisations internal document formats, and compared to publishing MsOffice files, PDFs are to prefer…

    I think the main problem is that publishers focus on the published documents, not the information within.

    As they expect a layout similarity, no matter the channel, PDFs really are their saviour.


    I think the "one page Fliers" you mention in your "rant" (linked above) are the target for Macromedia's Flash Paper, their keyword is "fast-opening" πŸ˜‰

  • Carl says:

    Joe and Robert. Yes I look forward to providing a thoughtful and reasoned response. Unfortunately, it will be a couple days; I have houseguests visiting for my kid's birthday among a host of other activities. Thanks for your patience.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    As they expect a layout similarity, no matter the channel, PDFs really are their saviour.

    Yes, this seems to often be the case, with showing no regard to the end user experience. I also think people that make this choice really don't know about the options available, and they're also the ones that'll probably never make their <acronym title="Portable Document Format">PDF</acronym> files accessible either.


    No problem at all.

    When you feel that you have the time and will, I look forward to a reply. Maybe as a post on your web site linked from here?

  • markus says:

    Uhm… being able to keep your design with embedded correctly kerned typefaces, being able to add notes/changes etc, making a fully hi-res printeable document to the printer, as well as spitting out a screen-optimised version) … compared to what? There is no alternative. Or, did I misunderstand you Robbelyrob?

    Besides, I never ever use Acrobat Reader when opening a PDF-document. But then, I'm a mac-user and can fire up Preview.app (built into OSX) in like.. a millisecond and then open a 200-page PDF-doument in… well.. a second. Of course, I can make a pdf from within any program (also built-in).

    Ho hum.. now it's time to go render me some PDFs.


  • Robert Nyman says:


    Thanks for expressing a designer's point of view. πŸ™‚

    Regarding kerning, it can be a matter of <acronym title="Cascading Style Sheets">CSS</acronym>, but of course that won't solve all possible scenarios.

    When it comes to adding/changing notes, that's not what most web pages are about.

    About printing, it totally depends on what the usage is and what kind of resolution you want to offer. You should naturally offer your web page in a printer-friendly version, again through the usage of <acronym title="Cascading Style Sheets">CSS</acronym>.

    And sure, there are alternate viewers that won't need Acrobat Reader, but most people don't know about them and most people aren't Mac users.

    Another thing that isn't mentioned in the post is also the usually humongous file size compared to what content you get in it.

    But don't get me wrong: of course there are cases when <acronym title="Portable Document Format">PDF</acronym> files are the way to go, but mostly it's, in my opinion, vastly overused.

  • markus says:

    Comparing PDF with CSS is like comparing apples with pears. Or… say… an iPod with a stationary hifi-system. Or, a swimsuit to a padded ski-suit. Different solutions for different usage.

    I would never ever make a website in PDF, nor send a html-file with a cascading stylesheet to a printer. Ok. Think I made my point now. =)

  • Robert Nyman says:


    Different solutions for different usage.

    Oh, definitely. Each thing suits best in certain scenarios.

    …nor send a html-file with a cascading stylesheet to a printer

    Well, since most web pages should be able to print, that will be the option you'll probably have to go with in most cases (since producing <acronym title="Portable Document Format">PDF</acronym> pages for every page just for a print version can often be totally overkill). πŸ™‚

  • markus says:

    Hey robert, with 'printer' I meant a printer as in a company that deals with printouts. Not to be confused with your ordinary grey chunky Epsonesque thing sitting on a nearby desk. That thing should of course be handling your www-spitouts.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    In that case, we totally agree. πŸ™‚

  • Carl says:

    Robert (and Joe)

    My response concerning situations where I would recommend PDF has been posted to my website. Hopefully this will be viewed as the thoughtful and reasoned response I promised.

  • Robert Nyman says:


    Thanks for a very thorough post!

    An interesting read, indeed! πŸ™‚

  • Carl says:

    Thanks Robert. When I saw Joe's post, I immediately thought of the scene in the movie Amadeus when the Emperor comments to Mozart that his symphony had "too many notes" to which Mozart replied "which notes would you like me to remove?"

    I hope I haven't offended Mozart.

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