Illustrator as a PDF editor


I don't know if this is the right forum for this question, but I am a little confused.

I design the structural element of packaging on a CAD system (as well as POS and Direct Mail pieces).

I am asked to supply my cutter guides as a PDF.

From what I understand the Artwork for my packaging is done in Illustrator, so the designers are bringing my cutter guide into Illustrator and then adding their artwork to it.

In a lot of information on the web, it says that Illustrator isn't a PDF editor.

So why am I supplying them with a PDF when Illustrator ISN'T a PDF editor?

I am a CAD designer and not a graphics guy so don't use Illustrator myself.

Hopefully, someone can shed some light on this conundrum.

Please move this post to another area if I have posted in the wrong forum.

Many thanks in advance,



Well-known member
Illustrator can be a PDF editor if the PDF was made with Illustrator. When I work with Illustrator I generally save my files as PDF for quick and easy previewing and proofing, it also maintains everything I did in Illustrator, including all layers and editing effects.

People (myself included) will use Illustrator at times to edit PDF's that were not created in Illustrator and that can be dangerous as things will not come apart correctly. I am sure most here will jump on and say you should never do it. I use it with caution personally.
  • Like
Reactions: Bly


Well-known member
You are supply the cutter file, so it's a essentially just a path, a vector based graphic.
That's a very simplistic thing.

To import that into Illustrator and combine it with an existing illustrator design is not dangerous and not a problem.

What can be problematic is to import a PDF of a design file that can contain graphics, fonts, layers, transparency and other PDF functions. PDF can be extremely complicated, and there are certain things that Illustrator does not support.

There are better tools for editing and working with PDF files, but not everyone can justify their purchase.

It's good that you ask these questions, that's how you learn. If more people in the supply chain took an interest in what happened before and after their part, things would be a lot easier!


Well-known member
It may be a good idea to include in your drawing a square with known/marked dimensions such as 100x100 mm.
This will help assuring that dimensions were converted correctly.
Last edited:

Dov Isaacs

Well-known member
To be very clear, Adobe Illustrator is not, repeat is not, repeat once again is not a general purpose PDF file editor. There are many features and options in the PDF specification that are not at all supported by Adobe Illustrator including support for a mixture of CMYK and RGB colorspaces (ICC color managed or not!). If your PDF file has any such features or options, Illustrator may either convert them to something that Illustrator can deal with (and possibly in a very “lossy” fashion) or simply ignore same.

The only PDF files that can safely be edited in Adobe Illustrator (with some exceptions) are PDF files saved from Adobe Illustrator for which the Preserve Illustrator Editing Capabilities option was specified when the PDF file was saved from Illustrator. Note that this option is not available if you are saving as PDF/X or any variety.

There are other limitations as well. The version of Illustrator used to edit the PDF file must be at least the same or later version of Illustrator than that used to create the PDF file. Furthermore, Illustrator will not use the fonts embedded in the PDF file. You must install whatever fonts that PDF file uses on your system on which you are editing the PDF in Illustrator or else the text may be lost, garbled, etc.

Can very simple “edits” be made for some PDF files in Illustrator? Yes, but in the general case, unless the above outlined stringent restrictions are observed, you may have a disaster on your hand.

If you have a workflow that relies on actual content edits at multiple points in the workflow (we are not talking about simple preflight fixups), you are best off working with the source files, in this case, the original .ai files along with the fonts and any placed content.

This is not speculation on my part, but is based on my knowledge of the products based on my 31 year career at Adobe.

- Dov


Well-known member
To be very clear, Adobe Illustrator is not, repeat is not, repeat once again is not a general purpose PDF file editor.

I don not think any reasonable prepress professional would argue this point.
BUT... a lot of times we are given files that represent an '86 Yugo and the expectation from the client is that we produce a Pebble Beach Concourse level Mercedes 300 SL. We all know the excuses we receive when asking for an approbate file only then to be told "just make it work".
  • Like
Reactions: Bly


Thanks for the replies everybody and the kind words from abc and the information from Dov.

But this only confuses the situation more that designers are asking for cutter guides in PDF and they obviously shouldn't be.

The CAD companies are now making plugins for Illustrator so the connection is strengthened further from their side but would it not make sense for Illustrator to have import of DDES or CFF2 files so packaging CAD files were supplied and dealt with in a controlled manner?

I have been in the UK print industry all my working life and using CAD since 1988; we started exporting our CAD files in an .AI and .EPS format to designers and in .CFF2 to diemakers.

Things then changed to .PDF, most people outside of diemaking had no idea what a .CFF2 file was and as far as I am aware the specification hasn't been updated in 20 years.

We are now in a situation where .PDF has become ubiquitous and expanded into all sorts of specialised versions for archiving, reports, variable data and of course printing.

So what would be the sensible thing to do, so the CAD designer can create a cutter guide with all the information in it that can be transferred to (I say Illustrator as that is the most used program here in the UK for graphics) enable artwork to be created in a graphics package?

Bearing in mind a lot of designers in the UK (and across the world) are small businesses that aren't creating artwork for breakfast cereal packs manufactured in the millions so don't have the need (or finances) for a CAD plugin they wouldn't need as they are doing straight print design work a lot of the time?

Bizarrely here in the UK, the printers send .PDF files (they don't have the ability to export any other format) to diemakers and because the cutter guide is in the artwork, the poor diemaker ends up with a huge file all on one layer, still with the artwork in it (just turned off so you can't see it in Adobe Reader or similar), which when opened in a CAD package suddenly shows all the artwork which needs to be removed and separated into cut, crease, score etc.

Even worse the cutter guide goes through the RIP and comes out as instead of lines and arcs, filled rectangles which then have to be centerlined to get simple vectors back so the laser or router can understand it.

I appreciate these scenarios are an educational issue, but how do you get this across to designers and printers so they are provided and provide the correct files in the correct formats?

Illustrator has .DXF support which every CAD system in the world can export, would that not be a more sensible avenue to pursue as at least Illustrator can open .DXF with all the layers intact and also export .DXF for the diemaker?

I would have hoped that .PDF (which Adobe created in the first place) as an open format would have been the answer to this situation.

Sorry for the length of this email but I would love to know how we as a group of industries got ourselves into such a mess with a format that should be solving these problems :)


Give them what they ask for. It seems to work for them. When it stops working, then question it.
That is exactly what I have been doing, but there have been times when the fonts haven't displayed (only in Illustrator, not in any viewers) and I don't check my PDFs in Illustrator before I send them and if the recipient can't see the text they don't know it is missing :)

I have spoken to some PDF developers and sadly (as expected) they tell me that as Illustrator isn't a PDF Editor there isn't really a lot you can do.

Thanks for the replies the situation seems to be as I thought it was.

Can I just ask, how do most of you receive your cutter guides, are they in the PDF artwork or supplied separately in a different format?


New member
For us cutter guides as PDF are OK. Because the designer doesn´t have to edit them. Just for placing the cutter guides on an own layer in whatever app you prefer and designing the print-content on it.


A 30-day Fix for Managed Chaos

As any print professional knows, printing can be managed chaos. Software that solves multiple problems and provides measurable and monetizable value has a direct impact on the bottom-line.

“We reduced order entry costs by about 40%.” Significant savings in a shop that turns about 500 jobs a month.

Learn how…….