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Interview with EDC keynote speaker David Blatner

Duff Johnson // April 15, 2019

PDF in general Interview

David BlatnerAuthor of over 15 books and a guru to generations of graphic designers, David Blatner is a legend in digital publishing. He's also the keynote speaker opening the 2nd day of the Electronic Document Conference in Seattle on June 18. David's own conference focused on graphic arts education - CreativePro Week - is also in Seattle, and just the week before the EDC.

I recently sat down with David to ask him about his upcoming keynote, his own conference, and his perspective on PDF. He's got strong views and he's not afraid to say what he thinks, which is why we thought he'd offer a great keynote. We're glad to have him!

Duff Johnson: Can you preview us on your keynote presentation on “Publishing Documents Precisely”?

David Blatner: In the rush to publish documents quickly, efficiently, and to the greatest number of people, we have largely forgotten the lessons taught by designers for centuries: that sometimes it's important to slow down and perhaps even appear less efficient in order to do the job right. I'll describe lessons I've learned from 40 years in digital publishing, and I'll explain how, when it comes to communication, the PDF format is both a blessing and a curse.

DJ: What does PDF do for creatives?

DB: Here's a fun exercise: Imagine what design and publishing would be like without the PDF format. It's like imagining Los Angeles without highways. It's not that PDF is essential for the creative pro community, but everything would be so much more difficult without it. PDF is at the core of proofing documents, delivering them, printing them, reading them, engaging with them. I remember the design community in the early 90s, before PDF, and it wasn't pretty.

DJ: PDF has been around for as long as the web. What’s the secret to its continued relevance?

DB: This goes to the heart of my talk. For the first 20 years, the difference between the web and PDF was obvious: PDF provided what I call "precision publishing," while web was "good-enough publishing." The PDF file format was critical in order to convey or express precisely and safely. But the PDF standard has largely rested on its laurels, and its success and relevance are waning, and will continue to do so unless change comes.

DJ: I hear you; that's an important message. So, in the creative space, is PDF increasingly a back-office “proofing” tool, or is it still an irreducible deliverable?

DB: I don't think you can separate the two. That's like asking, "is Ethernet better at moving art or words?" Or, "is the English language more of a expression tool or a teaching tool?" PDF is a tool for communicating, for conveying information from my brain to yours. If a tool works, we use it.

DJ: What’s EPUB’s role in the creative professional’s world these days? Is it the format to replace PDF?

DB: EPUB is a huge success for a small percentage of creatives, but largely a failure for the creative pro community as a whole. For those of us who understand what it could do, it's a mystery why more creatives and publishers aren't embracing it. On the other hand, I have to admit that the reason it hasn't taken off more is pretty obvious: Microsoft and Adobe. Once again, these giants' plodding, clumsy understanding has gotten in the way of a potentially world-changing technology. So, very few designers create EPUB today. I think that could change in the future, but it's frustrating at the moment.

DJ: PDF has been around for over 25 years. Where do you think it will be in another 25 years?

DB: PDF is still the most important file format in the world. However, in my opinion, it's dying, and will fall out of favor over the next 25 years unless significant changes are made to the spec. It'll never go away, of course, but it will become like TIFF or EPS: everyone supports them, but fewer and fewer people use them. I hope the PDF community catches this and reverses the trend, because the promise of PDF has long been one of ultimate flexibility and resourcefulness.

DJ: Once, PDF was cool because it revolutionized proofing. What would get creatives really excited about PDF today?

BD: Our expectations have changed. We used to be excited about seeing the right font at the right size, and the text at the right position on the page. But today creatives want more. We want documents that do more than display correctly. We want to engage with them. Designers are mystified, horrified even, when a PDF reader doesn't support buttons, animations, slide shows… Adobe Reader doesn't even really support video and audio without Flash! It's like that terrible comedy "Weekend at Bernie's," where Adobe and the PDF community are pretending that the guy isn't dead. Today, PDF is a bittersweet file format, and one that creatives are increasingly angry at.

DJ: If you had a single wish fulfilled about PDF technology, what would it be?

DB: Incorporate HTML. I remember John Warnock and Chuck Geschke's original promise for PDF: it was a container for anything. I've heard the rumors of the work to incorporate rich media through HTML, and I've heard the rumors about the difficulties involved. But I'll tell you: without HTML, PDF will become largely irrelevant. I'm not talking about reflowing for mobile. That's fun, like a parlor trick. I'm talking deep interactivity. Attention must be paid. And the creative pro community will not stand by and wait much longer.

CreativePro Week logoDJ: What’s the focus at this year’s CreativePro Week, and how does this event appeal to those attending the Electronic Document Conference?

DB: We call CreativePro Week the "how-to" conferences. That means how to get your work done more efficiently, how to enjoy your work more, and how to design, express, communicate, create, and publish better. Most of the focus is on InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, PowerPoint, Keynote, and other creation tools. But we also have sessions on Acrobat and PDF, EPUB, print, and other underlying technologies that are important to the creative pro community. I love how CreativePro Week in Seattle will set the stage, and then the Electronic Document Conference will allow technologists and die-hards to really dive deep.

DJ: I'm looking forward to seeing you at both CreativePro Week and the Electronic Document Conference in Seattle this year!


Duff Johnson
Duff Johnson

Duff serves the PDF industry as ISO Project co-Leader and US TAG chair for both ISO 32000 (the PDF specification) and ISO 14289 (PDF/UA). As Executive Director of the PDF Association, Duff coordinates several working groups, speaks at a wide variety of industry events and promotes the advancement and adoption of PDF technology worldwide. An independent consultant, Duff Johnson is a veteran …


Duff Johnson

Duff Johnson

Duff serves the PDF industry as ISO Project co-Leader and US TAG chair for both ISO 32000 (the PDF specification) and …

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