How NOT to make annotations in a PDF

In early July, I prepared a video for my employer that demonstrated how to mark up a PDF correctly, primarily how to use the commenting tools. This came about as a direct result of the Adobe Acrobat team removing certain icons from the comment panel, meaning that many of my customers had to be re-trained on how to mark-up PDF proofs that they were sent. Since July 12, the Acrobat team has decided to return one of the icons it had removed from the comment panel, but still pushes for the use of the blue arrow tool to make additions, deletions or replacements of text. I’m happy that the icon has returned, but frustrated that it was removed in the first place.


This is important because PDF mark-ups can use the annotations workflow that works like this – simple comments are taken into Acrobat using the comments tool and then imported directly into InDesign using plug-in software available from DTPtools. Here is a link to a video of the workflow in action – it effectively takes the mark-ups that were made in the Acrobat file into the ID file, and these mark-ups can be accepted or rejected in a similar fashion to revisions made in Microsoft Word.

There will be occasions that alterations outside of the scope of the annotations workflow will have to be made, but I would encourage anyone who has been asked to mark-up a PDF for their printer to please read these suggestions:

Use the Adobe Acrobat Reader

Yes it is possible to mark-up a PDF in other software such as Preview (Mac) or in some browser plug-ins, but for the mark-ups to save and be interpreted correctly by the DTPtools annotations plug-in, please use the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Mark-ups only please

That being said, please do not:

  • attempt to make the changes live in the PDF, but instead use the commenting tools only. This means staying clear of the typewriter tool and only using commenting tools, namely the blue arrow tool to make deletions, additions or replacements (or use the classic icons); highlight or sticky note.
  • open the file in Microsoft Word and save it back as a PDF. This can make it impossible to tell the distinction between the two files and will result in the artwork being set up again from scratch.
  • print the PDF and then mark it up in pen, scan it to a new PDF – this will quite clearly not work with the annotations workflow.
  • add or delete pages from the PDF. If pages need to be deleted, use the mark-ups to indicate this. Likewise, if pages need to be inserted, use the sticky-note tool to inform the operator that pages need to be inserted.

Good instructions

  • Delays and misunderstandings because of unclear instructions = $. This will result in a new proof that will no doubt contain misunderstood edits will need to be corrected, resulting in further proofs, chargeable time, delays and frustration.
  • Make sure your instructions are so clear that edits are easily understandable by anybody. Even if you have had a conversation with someone about the alterations to be made, never assume that the person making the alterations will be the person you had a conversation with.


When working in groups

  • Make a distinction between comments intended for collaborators and authors; and comments intended for a printer. Collaborators generally know what is being referred to, but prepress staff are making changes only, so make sure that the instructions for the printers are easily understandable. Any notes, such as opinions (e.g. I don’t like that font), or topic specific queries (e.g. need to fact-check this statement) really should be between collaborators and authors.
  • “Duelling banjos”. If collaborators can’t agree on specific alterations, don’t take it out on the prepress operator – they are doing what they are told to do in the PDF. If there is a dispute between authors about what does/does not need to appear in the publication, resolve that prior to submitting the PDF to the prepress operator for changes.
  • When collaborating, make sure each collaborator is either looking at the SAME PDF, or the same COPY of the PDF, and that changes are submitted at the same time rather than staggered. There is a great video that specifically deals with collaborating groups here.

Think about the practical application of the mark-ups

  • Have realistic expectations of the edits. For example, supplying a 5 page word file with the instructions “fit on 1 page” is unrealistic.
  • Understand the implications of changes. For example, pages that are designed to work as readers’ spreads will be jeopardised if an instruction to shuffle pages forces the spread to break… a segue to this issue…
  • Shuffling pages… Again this can be quite confusing, especially if LOTS of pages are being shuffled around. Remember that shuffling pages can also break pages that are meant to appear together, such as pages set up as readers spreads. Make sure that the new order of the pages is clear to avoid any confusion.

Ultimately, a well marked-up PDF proof can result in more reliable changes being made faster and on-time.

Better Infographics for Data Merge with Chartwell Bars

While speaking at the 2016 PEPCON in San Diego along with Co-presenter David Creamer on the topic of Data Publishing, I presented an older tip that allows shapes to change size based on numerical values that appear in Data Merge. The tip requires the Chartwell typeface, particularly the Chartwell bars font. I’d mentioned at the time that while it was a novel tip, I didn’t have a practical purpose for it. I’d also mentioned in my presentation about using knockout groups in InDesign to hide information and had demonstrated it using my “Parkway Drive” demonstration where it is used to hide parts of a sign that changes size, but again felt there should be a better use of this tip.

However, it was on my 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Melbourne where I thought of a new and much more practical purpose – creating infographics. I also thought about getting some sleep, but that was a fool’s errand!

Once I arrived home, I tested out the theories I had during the flight, and while the results were mixed, I was happy with what had been achieved.

Ultimately, I have created three techniques for anyone making infographics. In all instances, I’ve colored the chartwell bars font as black so that the technique can be demonstrated, but in application the type (and its spacer) would be given the color “none”:

1 – Infographics as scaleable shapes.


This uses the method described in an earlier article that I have written. Rather than rewrite the tip, the link to that article is here. The point of difference is that the shape being transformed into an infographic is what is being scaled.

There are some drawbacks to this method.

First, the shape has to allow the chartwell bars font to expand from the left to the right without getting caught on any part of the shape, so not every shape will work. Bottles that were used in the example were fine because they meet this criteria.


Second, there is a lack of precision, especially concerning low numbers as the graphic scales. This appears to be because there is a minimum size that the graphic can shrink to.


2 – Data that is pasted into a vector


This method works the same way with the exception that the data is in a rectangular shaped textframe that is pasted into the target shape, and also given a 2mm spacer object to allow low figures to be presented. The 2mm spacer is a 2mm square that is an inline object before the figures in the chartwell font.


For anyone wondering why such an odd technique was used to add 2mm to the frame, I had tried using a 2mm left align or a 2mm inset space in the shape itself but these presented issues.

3 – Hiding an image underneath


This works the same way as method 2 with the exception that rather than being pasted into the graphic, it is pasted above the graphic. An additional anchored object that is larger than the infographic is then pasted after the figures in chartwell bars and given very specific values in the anchored object dialog box, along with being given the fill color of paper and a multiply effect of 0% from the effects panel. The frame with the values is then grouped with the infographic that is underneath and the “knockout group” checkbox is ticked.


To make the effect more impressive, an “after” graphic is added that is the same size as the infographic but has different properties to make the difference in the values clear to the reader.

Moving forward

By itself, these techniques aren’t that impressive if creating one-off graphics, but if preparing infographics for variable data (whether for a catalogue or direct mail) I’m sure that readers will find these methods quite useful. These are not the only infographics tricks I have recently discovered, so watch this space.

Updated commenting in Acrobat DC

On 10 May 2016, Adobe released compulsory updates for Acrobat DC and Acrobat Reader DC. Unlike many updates where there is a prompt to install the upgrade or not, this release did not present the user with a prompt and installed the update.

I was aware an update had taken place because there was a new prompt window that would not disappear until I had selected the checkboxes that acknowledged that I had learned the new features.

That said, I should have paid a bit more attention to the update, especially this one!

It was not until late May that a colleague who was proofreading some artwork had noticed that a fundamental commenting tool was missing: Replace text. Concerned, I opened PDF that I sent my colleague and attempted to edit it, indeed learning that the replace text commenting tool was missing, along with the highlight and comment tool.

A quick search on the forums revealed that we weren’t the only ones to notice. Strange too because not all of the Adobe help issues have been changed to reflect the recent update. This page still has old instructions.

In short, to improve the experience with the commenting tool, users are encouraged to use the black arrow tool to highlight affected text and either hit the delete key to denote a deletion, begin typing to denote a replacement, or place their cursor and begin typing to denote an addition. To be fair, once a user is familiar with this behaviour, it is easy to begin making alterations to a proof.

However, I was less than impressed with Adobe’s execution of this strategy by removing tools to force us to use the new tools, especially considering that the change wasn’t explained in their own updates. I decided to vent my spleen via twitter to Adobe’s customer care and the Acrobat team.


As you can see from the tweets, it largely fell on deaf ears.

The reason for my frustration is not my one-off frustration in learning the new commands, but the fact that I now have to explain this behaviour to hundreds of customers who infrequently use Adobe Acrobat. It has taken years to train the customers to use the commenting tools so that markups can be made that can then be edited in Adobe InDesign using the DTP tools annotations plug-in. That’s assuming that the Adobe Acrobat team doesn’t change the interface again and decide to remove more tools.

This is not my only gripe with Adobe Acrobat at the moment. My colleagues and I are experiencing strange and unusual errors with Acrobat at the moment. In fairness to Adobe, this may have something to do with the Enfocus Pitstop plug-in that is installed. Regardless, it is making what was once an efficient workflow much more complicated.

Creating colored QR Codes during a Data Merge

Since Adobe InDesign CC, users have been able to create QR codes directly in InDesign. With the release of InDesign CC 2014, the Data Merge feature was upgraded to import variable QR codes based on data in the source file.

One bug-bear was that QR codes generated during a data merge could only have a black fill, and there was no way to change the color during the merge. One solution is to merge to an InDesign file and post-process the QR codes by changing the colors manually in each code, but if a file contains hundreds – or thousands of QR codes, then this is not an option.

My solution was to create a script that would create the variable QR codes with the appropriate colors first, but save them as images but linked to an updated version of the database that contains an additional field for the newly colored QR code images.

See the Youtube video for a demonstration of the script in action. This script is available by request only – go to this page to request your copy.


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