A nostalgic look back at the ISO PDF/X standard

In this blog post, Martin Bailey recalls his days as the first chair of the ISO PDF/X task force and how the standard has developed over the last 20 years.

Over the last few years there has been quite an outpouring of nostalgia around PDF. That was first for PDF itself, but at the end of 2021 we reached two decades since the first publication of an ISO PDF/X standard.

I’d been involved with PDF/X in its original home of CGATS (the Committee for Graphic Arts Technical Standards, the body accredited by ANSI to develop US national standards for printing) for several years before it moved to ISO. And then I became the first chair of the PDF/X task force in ISO. So I thought I’d add a few words to the pile, and those have now been published on the PDF Association’s web site at https://www.pdfa.org/the-route-to-pdf-x-and-where-we-are-now-a-personal-history/.

I realised while I was writing it that it really was a personal history for me. PDF/X was one of the first standards that I was involved in developing, back when the very idea of software standards was quite novel. Since then, supported and encouraged by Harlequin and Global Graphics Software, I’ve also worked on standards and chaired committees in CIP3, CIP4, Ecma, the Ghent Working Group, ISO and the PDF Association (I apologise if I’ve missed any off that list!).

It would be easy to assume that working on all of those standards meant that I knew a lot about what we were standardising from day one. But the reality is that I’ve learned a huge amount of what I know about print from being involved, and from talking to a lot of people.

Perhaps the most important lesson was that you can’t (or at least shouldn’t) only take into account your own use cases while writing a standard. Most of the time a standard that satisfies only a single company should just be proprietary working practice instead. It’s only valuable as a standard if it enables technologies, products and workflows in many different companies.

That sounds as if it should be obvious, but the second major lesson was something that has been very useful in environments outside of standards as well. An awful lot of people assume that everyone cares a lot about the things that they care about, and that everything else is unimportant. As an example, next time you’re at a trade show (assuming they ever come back in their historical form) take a look and see how many vendors claim to have product for “the whole workflow”. Trust me, for production printing, nobody has product for the whole workflow. Each one just means that they have product for the bits of the workflow that they think are important. The trouble is that you can’t actually print stuff effectively and profitably if all you have is those ‘important’ bits. To write a good standard you have to take off the blinkers and see beyond what your own products and workflows are doing. And in doing that I’ve found that it also teaches you more about what your own ‘important’ parts of the workflow need to do.

Along the way I’ve also met some wonderful people and made some good friends. Our conversations may have a tendency to dip in and out of print geek topics, but sometimes those are best covered over a beer or two!

About the author

Martin Bailey, CTO, Global Graphics Software

Martin Bailey is currently the primary UK expert to the ISO committees maintaining and developing PDF and PDF/VT and is the author of Full Speed Ahead: how to make variable data PDF files that won’t slow your digital press, a new guide offering advice to anyone with a stake in variable data printing including graphic designers, print buyers, composition developers and users.

Further reading

  1. Compliance, compatibility, and why some tools are more forgiving of bad PDFs
  2. What the difference between PDF/X-1a and PDF/X-4

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