Used time and time again, if you own a computer, you are familiar with a PDF — but have you ever wondered, what is a PDF? Probably not, but that’s why we’re here to give you everything you need to know.

Not to be confused with a delicious sandwich served at lunchtime, the BLT, the Portable Document Format, or more commonly referred to as a PDF is one of, if not the most common file type you’re likely to find on the web and beyond. Surveys suggest there are trillions of PDF files in existence, with billions more being created every day. A major reason for the nearly infinite number of PDF files floating around the internet — and filling up your hard drives — is that it is such a widely accepted format. The file format provides a reliable way to share many different document types to any software, hardware, or operating system, without having to worry about losing the fine print in the process.

History Behind the Format

The PDF format was first developed by Dr. John Warnock, the co-founder of Adobe, back in 1991 with the hopes of providing a file format that would allow any user to share any type of document while still preserving the quality to be printed or viewed digitally. To this day PDF remains the industry standard of sharable files due to its ability to handle anything from online text forms to print ads and everything in between. Nicely done, Dr. John Warnock.

But How Does It Work?

Ok now that we know what a PDF is, why should you care about this? While the PDF is conveniently a universal file format, the fact it supports such a variety of different document types means things can get a little confusing when viewing or creating different PDF documents. Here’s what to keep in mind!

“Can I print this?” — Of course, you can. You can print anything, but that doesn’t mean its going to look good. There are several variants that come in to play when saving a PDF file for print use. First, make sure your document dimensions fit the requirements of your final print product. Whether using your own printer or a commercial printer, you will need to be sure that there is enough safe zone between the content and cut edge. Similarly, if any of your designs run off the page you will need to be sure they have enough bleed to prevent any unwanted cropping. If using a commercial printer (example: be sure to check with them for any print specifications they might have to ensure the desired result! Lastly, when saving a PDF, you can control your file size and quality. While using lower quality is often best for digital use in reducing file sizes, for best print results be sure you are using the highest quality export settings.

“Can I edit this?” — This one can be tricky. While PDF’s abilities usually do prove to be magical in their ability to handle multiple different file types and layers, when saving as a reduced file size these layers are more often than not merged or compressed. Which, you guessed it, results in losing your ability to edit. This is a tough one to remember and explain to the elderly, but a crucial one nonetheless.

“Will they be able to view the file?” — Unless you have set your PDF file to have restricted permissions, or the viewer is using the first computer ever invented, a PDF file is likely the most reliable file format for you to share any type of document due to its universal acceptance.