How to work with PDFs to increase productivity

You may work with PDFs frequently, but do you know just how much they can do? PDFs are an excellent tool when you're collaborating, sharing, signing, protecting, and compiling. The humble PDF is packed with features and capabilities to help you boost productivity and efficiency, but you need to know how to use it to reap the benefits. We've put together a list of everything you need to know about PDFs and how you can use them to your advantage during the workday.

PDFs are an excellent tool when you're collaborating sharing, signing, protecting, and compiling information

What is a PDF?

Before we get too far into how to manage PDFs, let's back up a step and talk about what a PDF is. Adobe created the Portable Document Format (PDF) in 1992 to facilitate documents anyone could open regardless of operating system or software. This became important because people use various programs for editing, which makes sharing and collaborating more difficult. If you send a Word document to someone who doesn't have Word, they won't be able to open it, or they'll need to convert the file to another format to do so.

If they do open it, there's a good chance that the formatting won't stay the same. You may have made the document with a font that the other person doesn't have on their computer. The document would instead display with a system default font. Other elements may show up incorrectly, and text may be shifted around. If you've ever opened up a years-old file, you have probably experienced this.

A PDF, on the other hand, is meant to stay static, making it a highly shareable file that will preserve the original document's formatting. You can still work with the file in many ways, but the formatting won’t change when you send it to someone else. This is why you commonly see PDFs used when sending information, such as a newsletter or report, out to a large audience. PDFs can include rich multimedia components, like links, buttons, text fields, spreadsheets, and even audio and video.

PDFs are so good for retaining a document's message that the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) has adopted the file type as an open standard. Most devices can read PDFs without a problem, and the files can incorporate various accessibility features, helping you reach a broader audience. With their ability to include password protection and permanent redaction, security is another significant benefit of PDFs.

PDFs are especially useful for elements like:

  • Data sharing: From sending simple documents to a small team to sharing a beautiful graphic with thousands of clients, PDFs retain the information and aesthetics you need
  • Unique graphical elements: Complex graphics don't always translate well to other formats like email, and image files aren't as flexible, but PDFs accomplish both
  • Security, industry, and legal requirements: PDFs are compatible with industry and governmental standards, as well as internal security needs

Now that we know what PDFs bring to the table, how can you use those capabilities for a more efficient workday?

Security is another significant benefit of PDFs, including password protection and permanent redaction

How to work with PDF files for greater productivity

With so much versatility, PDFs are a great file type to use if you're looking to work more productively. They're nearly universal, which can save the headaches and frustration that come from not being able to open a file or reworking a file that lost its formatting. Plus, you can do things like merging multiple files together and adding comments for smooth PDF management.

Box can help you make the most of your PDFs. Box is a cloud content management platform that offers centralized access and easy sharing for your PDFs and many other files. In the Box Content Cloud, integrations with other platforms like Adobe Acrobat and Office 365 let you quickly work with PDFs directly in the cloud.

Here are 12 ways to work on PDFs more efficiently.

With so much versatility, PDFs are a great file type to use if you're looking to work more productively

1. Modify text in a PDF

By default, a PDF cannot be modified, but there are a few different ways to get around that limitation. The simplest way is to use Adobe Acrobat. Adobe created the PDF, and the Acrobat platform expands upon the file type, allowing you to do more than simply view the file. With this application, you can edit and delete text, including changing fonts and moving text boxes. You can even modify text in a scanned document. When you scan in a PDF with Acrobat, optical character recognition turns the image into an editable copy.

Another way to edit text in a PDF is to convert the PDF into another editable format, such as DOCX. Sometimes this is necessary, but it requires you to save another file to your device or cloud platform that could cause mixups. Modifying text within the PDF itself allows you to eliminate the conversion step and work more quickly. 

2. Convert between PDFs and other formats

You can convert a PDF into many different formats, including:

  • Word documents, such as DOC and DOCX
  • Images, including PNG, JPG, and TIFF
  • Excel files
  • Powerpoint files
  • E-books
  • TXT and HTML

Box has cloud conversion tools available to make this switch simple, and you can make these changes from within Adobe Acrobat.

An important caveat to converting PDFs is that you may see some significant formatting changes. When changed into another type of document, there's a good chance that your formatting will be affected, including fonts changed to system defaults or line breaks pushed to another page. Whenever you convert a PDF to another format, double-check the output file to ensure it looks appropriate.

Still, converting PDFs can be helpful in many situations, particularly in web development. Image files are more accessible and nearly anyone can view them. As long as you don't need particularly high resolution, this option can provide greater access in web displays.

PDFs also tend to have larger file sizes, so converting them to another format can save precious gigabytes for sending files over email, which often have low limits. If you're facing this problem, consider sharing your PDF directly from the Content Cloud. By sending a link to a cloud-based file instead of attaching it to an email, you don’t have to worry about email upload limitations.

Converting PDFs can be helpful in many situations, particularly in web development

3. Sign PDFs

If you've ever had to print, sign, scan, and send a PDF that needed a signature, you know just how time-consuming and annoying this process can be. PDFs allow you to bypass those steps by adding signature capability directly into the document. There's no need to create duplicate files or deal with physical paper copies — handy for staying organized and meeting security requirements, which can be at risk if physical documents aren't disposed of correctly.

With electronic signature tools like Box Sign, you can easily request and add signatures to PDF documents. You can even add extra text fields, specify a signing order, and automatically send copies of the signed document to those who need it. Rather than creating a second file, e-signatures update the document for easy organization and reliability. These signatures can appear as plain text, images of a genuine signature, and signatures added via mouse or stylus.

Signing directly in PDFs can be a huge time-saver, especially if your work involves a lot of contracts or business agreements. When it comes to legal backing, PDFs are a good choice. They have the necessary protections and format retention to ensure security and ease of archiving.

4. Merge PDFs

PDFs are also one of the only types of documents that you can merge together. Have several forms you need someone to sign? Simply select them all and click merge to create one long document with all the files you need. It can be much easier to manage a single PDF and lessen the chance that one of the documents will be left out when sent to the recipient. Plus, you can always break them up later if you need to.

Simply select multiple PDFs and click merge to create one long document with all the information you need

5. Comment on and annotate a PDF

A PDF can also support comments and annotations directly in the document. You can do this within Adobe Acrobat and Box.

In Adobe Acrobat, you can add standard text comments as well as "sticky notes" and drawings. Comments are displayed in a side panel to the right of the document and attributed to the person making the comment. You can also adjust the look of your annotations, such as font color and the thickness of a drawing. When printing a PDF, you can choose whether comments display on the printed content in a sidebar or are omitted.

If you go through Box directly, you can similarly add comments. You can place comments in specific parts of the document or have them appear in an organized sidebar. Box also allows you to create borders around certain sections and view annotations within the context of multiple document versions. If a comment applies to an old version of the file, it will be retained with a version identifier. You can also mark off comments that have been addressed.

Keep in mind that annotations within Box do not change the actual file. They're useful for collaboration and allow for real-time comments but won't attach to the document itself as notes added from Acrobat do.

6. Combine files into a PDF portfolio

Another unique feature of the PDF is that it can combine multiple file types. Want to insert an Excel spreadsheet into a presentation? Need to include some PowerPoint slides in your Word doc? You can merge these different file types together into one easy-to-manage PDF.

This method requires two steps. First, convert your other documents into PDFs. Then, merge the separate PDFs following the steps we discussed earlier. You can consolidate the number of files you're working with and more easily share information with this strategy.

7. Extract individual PDF pages

Just as you can merge PDF files, you can also pull out individual pages. This useful feature allows you to grab just one page of a document without trying to copy and paste or use complicated workarounds to get just that one page. You retain the content, comments, and form fields from the original file when you extract a page. You can either leave the page in the original document or remove it when extracting to a new PDF.

With Box and Adobe Acrobat, you can extract pages by navigating to your file in Box and opening it up in Adobe Acrobat. From there, click on "Organize Pages" in the tools pane. Select whether you'd like to keep the pages in the original document and whether you'd like the extracted pages to be merged or separated. After clicking the "Extract" button, you can specify which pages you'd like to extract and even select all even or odd pages and all pages with a certain orientation.

Another option is to select the page thumbnails you'd like to extract and right-click for the "Extract Pages" option.

With Box and Adobe Acrobat you can extract pages by navigating to your file in Box and opening it up in Adobe Acrobat

8. Move and copy PDF pages

Similarly, you can rearrange the pages of a PDF document without changing the file type. Say you've put something together in publication software and exported it as a PDF file. You can rearrange the pages within a PDF document without reopening that project file. Or maybe you want to add more pages of a notes section into a document for printing. You can easily copy the pages in the PDF itself.

In the Acrobat toolbar, you'll find an option for "Organize Pages." Click that to access your page thumbnails. From here, drag and drop pages into a new order. Right click on pages to access cut and copy options. After clicking between thumbnails, you can paste pages. This option even works if you're moving between different PDF files.

9. Rotate and crop PDF pages

PDFs allow you to rotate and crop pages as well. Whether you need to switch a page from portrait to landscape mode, crop out unwanted content, or flip a page 90 degrees, PDFs allow you do so on a page-by-page basis. This option is found under "Edit PDF" in the "Tools" menu.

You can also rotate PDF pages individually to switch between portrait and landscape and fix orientation issues easily. To rotate pages, click on the "Organize Pages" option under the "Tools" dropdown in Acrobat.

Box tracks all comments, edits, and previous versions, so you can easily revert back if needed

10. Protect and restrict PDF files

To limit access to a PDF file, you can add passwords. There are two different types:

  • Document-open passwords: A user must type this password to access the document
  • Permissions passwords: This "master" password allows you to restrict functions like printing, editing, and copying content from the document, but users can still open the document without it

You can double up on these passwords to accomplish both purposes. To add them, open your file in Acrobat and select "Protect Using Password" under the "File" toolbar. From there, select whether the password is for viewing or editing. For more detailed settings, select "Advanced Password Protection."

From here, select whether users can perform actions like copying content, printing in high resolution, making specific types of changes, and accessing the file in older versions of Acrobat. You can also encrypt your documents here for greater protection.

From within Box, you can also password protect your shared links and limit access to the users you choose. With the ability to protect and restrict files, companies, and employees can often save time when security standards are in play. They'll help you minimize extra steps, such as additional encryption measures and transferring files outside the cloud.

11. Redact information from PDFs

Need to protect sensitive information in parts of a document but still share the greater document? The PDF format supports redaction, so you can confidently pull sensitive images and text from the file. You can add black bars over the content or strike through it, which is useful for ongoing editing processes. The redaction options in Acrobat are very robust, allowing you to redact specific terms throughout a document and add bars in the same area across the document, such as in a header or footer.

You can also remove hidden content, like metadata, comments, and digital signatures. This feature can be useful if you want to remove information such as the author's name that would typically be attached to the document or comments that were added during editing. Both redacting and removing hidden content are found under the "Redact" option in Acrobat's "Tools" dropdown.

You can also rotate PDF pages individually to switch between portrait and landscape and fix orientation issues earily

12. Add watermarks and backgrounds

If your work needs watermarks, you can add them to your PDF right from Acrobat and Box. You can use watermarks to help meet security demands, such as stamping "confidential" on a page or covering project specs with a logo. You can also use them to help add brand recognition, deter online theft, and organize multiple drafts or versions of a file. PDFs are easy to watermark and "stamp." You can upload an image, such as a company logo, or type in your text and format it. If you have a Box Enterprise account, you can also add a watermark through Box.

Another handy PDF feature is the ability to add backgrounds. You can quickly tack on an image or solid color to one or more pages in your documents.

In Acrobat, both of these features are under the "Edit PDF" option in the "Tools" dropdown.

PDF collaboration with Box

There's no doubt that PDFs are a valuable part of operations across the world. But to truly be efficient, they need to be a seamless part of your workflow and content management system. The Content Cloud from Box allows you to work with PDFs in one centralized location, along with the rest of the content you work with — all integrated with Adobe Acrobat for more advanced editing.

One of the biggest productivity benefits of Box and PDFs comes from collaboration tools. While you can add comments, annotations, and edits to traditional PDFs, you must send and download the files to do so. These steps can add time to the collaborative process and significantly increase the risk of errors through duplicate files and outdated versions.

In Box, multiple users can simultaneously work on a PDF file, and updates are all made to the same document stored in the cloud, eliminating these issues. Box tracks all comments and edits and previous versions, so you can easily revert if needed. You can work with co-workers and people outside the organization while retaining complete control over document security with granular options for viewing and editing permissions.

Box allows you to accomplish many editing tasks within the platform, and integrations with Adobe Acrobat allow you to perform more advanced functions smoothly. There's no need to download, edit, save, and email revisions to your collaborators. PDFs are compatible with many other productivity tools in the Box platform, like workflow automation, electronic signatures, and other integrations with programs such as Slack and Salesforce.

The PDF format supports redaction, so you can confidently pull sensitive images and text from the file

Learn more about PDF editing with Box

If you already work with PDFs or want to start using them more to boost efficiency, consider adding Box to your workflow. The Content Cloud can help you improve productivity, add security, and unlock the power of collaboration far beyond PDFs alone. There's a reason Box is trusted by over 100,000 organizations and is consistently named a Leader in Gartner’s Magic Quadrant for Content Services Platforms. We use bank-level security standards and intuitive interfaces that make even advanced functionality straightforward.

Both individuals and organizations can take advantage of everything PDFs offer by managing PDF files with Box. Learn more about the Content Cloud or reach out to us to get started.

Learn more about the Content Cloud or reach out to us to get started

**While we maintain our steadfast commitment to offering products and services with best-in-class privacy, security, and compliance, the information provided in this blogpost is not intended to constitute legal advice. We strongly encourage prospective and current customers to perform their own due diligence when assessing compliance with applicable laws.