By Monte Ferguson
Almost since the beginning the Macintosh has been associated with publishing and graphic design. Aldus' PageMaker, combined with a desktop laser printer, opened up new frontiers in design. It also gave many folks a reason to buy a Mac.
Since that time publishing programs have really grown up. By the beginning of the 90's PageMaker, the pioneer in desktop publishing, was eclipsed by an upstart Quark Xpress. Over the years there have been programs have threatened to dethrone Xpress but none have been successful. Even valiant updates to PageMaker couldn't woo back designers.
Adobe, who now owned PageMaker, determined that they would need to go back to the drawing board. They needed to come up with a product that was new from the ground up. In this way they could design it from scratch, without pre conceived notions. By all accounts they talked to their customers and asked what they liked, didn't like and would like to see in a publishing program. The result of all of this hard work is InDesign.
InDesign is a brand new program through and through. Thanks to it's heritage, as an Adobe product, it shares the interface (the same look and feel) of Adobe's other products, such as Photoshop and Illustrator. Familiarity is a key selling point in the publishing and graphics community, where deadlines are tight and time to train is short. But the integration between the various Adobe programs is more than skin deep. You can directly work with, and import, native Photoshop and Illustrator files into your InDesign document-including layers.
There are a number of neat features that are built into InDesign. No doubt a benefit of starting over with a "fresh sheet of paper" when designing this product.
Typography, the arrangement and appearance of printed matter, is a critical element of any product that will be printed. While previous DTP, Desk Top Publishing, programs have been excellent for layout purposes their ability to handle the nuances of typography have been rather mixed. Usually I human being had to go in and setup custom settings or manually massage text to achieve the exact results which lead to a well laid out page. InDesign tackles this problem by having both a line by line composer, which looks at how text is spaced one line at a time, and a paragraph composer, which looks at the overall placement of a paragraph's text. Both of these composers can use the built in settings that the font creator used for spacing or they can use an InDesign algorithm called Optical Kerning which adjusts lettering to make them look better. InDesign has powerful hyphenation and justification controls. It includes an Optical margin alignment which helps avoid over hanging punctuation. These built in features certainly help automate, and ease the job of typesetters.
InDesign borrows a few capabilities from some of Adobe's other programs. While the built in capabilities aren't' as extensive as those offered by Illustrator or Photoshop, these new tools allow you to do some basic design tasks without having to jump between two or three applications. InDesign sports pen and pencil tools for quickly creating graphics. You can also place text on a path, with special effects options. You can nest graphic and text frames. You can also apply some sharp color and gradient tools. You can apply drop shadows and feathering from within the program to text and graphics. You can set opacity and blend modes for objects and text. (On a related note InDesign imports and respects transparency and soft edges in Photoshop files.)
Tables are, in my experience, one of the most tedious things to compose for publication. InDesign has built in tools that make it a breeze to create a table. You can embed graphics or other tables into a table. You have total control over row height and column width at any time. Your table can automatically be setup to use one of those cool alternating color/shading of table cells and lines. As an added bonus you can convert Microsoft Word or Excel tables into InDesign tables on the fly.
One of the areas in which PageMaker, InDesign's predecessor, fell down was in long document creation. Adobe sought to rectify that with InDesign. You can setup a long single document or group several related documents into a book list, basically a grouping of individual documents. You can easily create table of contents and indexes, something that takes a third party plug in with Xpress. The resulting table of contents and indexes are exported as live links, click able jump points, in exported PDF files.
Some features have more "sex" appeal than others. I often find that the workhorse features are the least "sexy" but the most useful day in and day out. The following features are bread and butter characteristics which you may not notice, they're that good. Unlimited undo and redo, finally you can play with a layout without having to worry about saving multiple copies. Document wide layer support means you can turn on and off certain elements. Great for previewing when you want to turn off graphics, to make scrolling faster. It's also handy when you want to repurpose a document for several different purposes. You can separate content onto different layers. That way if you were to export a PDF, for instance, you could turn on only those portions that are needed for the web. One of my personal favorite tools is that InDesign includes an Eyedropper tool. The eyedropper tool allows you to quickly copy and paste the formatting of text and graphics from one instance to another.
Navigating a work in progress can be quite a chore. Adobe took some tips from it's other programs, notably Photoshop, to ease moving through your work. Like Photoshop you have a navigation palette. It allows you to move through your document quickly, and to go from a 5-4000% magnification. You can also have multiple view of a page, great for viewing the overall effect while you're working on details in a project. You also have total control, via local and global settings, for graphic display. This allows you to adjust the quality of the display of graphics, lower quality for quicker previews or higher quality to see a WYSIWYG, What You See Is What You Get, version of the document.
Making a document that looks good on screen is only a fraction of the real work involved with creating documents fit to print. The more things you can nail down and fix, say a missing printer font,before it goes to press the better. InDesign has built in pre flighting tools, to check for common problems, and packaging tools, for gathering all files needed to print the document into one folder for easy transportation to the printer. Adobe also includes a guide of PrePress and Print Shops throughout the US who can print out InDesign files, and are knowledgeable of InDesign.
Adobe has touted this program as the future of print publishing but let's face it, all of us are going to have documents created in competing products. Backwards compatibility was factored into this release. Adobe claims that InDesign can open Pagemaker 6.5-7.x files. It is also supposed to be able to open Quark XPress 3.3-4.1 files. My own tests with this feature turned out quite favorably, except for some mysterious reports of missing fonts. Overall I found that, while opening one of our newsletter files--a Quark 3.3.2 file, that InDesign worked as advertised. It opened the file quickly and retained all of the formatting of the original document. The file in my test was a pretty straight forward document so your milage may vary.
A big feature is the ability to open Quark files. InDesign worked very well in my tests. (Although fonts that gave me no hitches in Xpress seemed to be "missing" for InDesign. Placing the "missing" fonts in the same folder with InDesign helped, but seems like a cumbersome work around.)
Exporting to a PDF is a piece of cake. I just choose to export the current file and I can choose PDF as an output option. You can even customize PDF settings so that you can have different settings for the web and another for print. In my tests exporting to a PDF file took less than a minute to perform on my test machine, a 700mhz G4 iMac. (In comparison Quark Xpress makes you save a file out as a postscript file then you have to use a second program, Adobe Acrobat, to create the PDF file itself.)
There are a lot of neat features built into InDesign. You can apply type effects, and gradients directly to text--much like Illustrator, and yet still edit the text. You can add drop shadows to text and graphics. You can place text on a path. Heck, you can even import native Photoshop or Illustrator files if you want. I also noticed that, unlike Xpress, you can move your InDesign document and not have to re-establish all of the links to your graphics and placed text. If you have documents with articles that continue on another page you'll appreciate a feature to have a text box that automatically knows where the story is continued to.
Price is definitely a strong point with InDesign. Based on retail prices InDesign is almost $140 cheaper than Xpress, full edition. If you check out the upgrades the price difference becomes even more apparent. Adobe's upgrade price is about $150, retail. Quark charges about $500 for it's upgrades, retail. If you're in a price conscious office that can be a big factor in the buying decision.
Did I mention that this product is MacOS X native? It has been a native OS X app for a while now. Unfortunately Quark can't say the same thing. Their brand new release isn't MacOS X native, and won't be. You'll have to wait for the next update to get MacOS X compatibility.
The program seemed slow to launch. A minor update did seem to help but it still seems to take a bit to open up. If you like interfaces that use palettes, think Photoshop, then you'll love InDesign's interface. If you are used to the rather spartan interface of Xpress the palettes become annoying. You can customize the palettes and turn them off if you want. Personally I'm still trying to figure out the best customized palette arrangement for my needs.
When I first opened InDesign I was quite unhappy to see my placed EPS files looked horrible, and so did my large postscript fonts. This same file had looked great in Xpress. I found the solution to this pretty quickly. I had to change the display preferences. I would have preferred a better appearing document as a default. Finding the solution to that didn't strike me as intuitive. I had to dig in the help section to figure that one out. There was a down side to improving the look of the document. Scrolling is definitely adversely affected by a higher quality setting you might choose for graphics. Screen redraws can also be pretty laggy with higher quality graphics being chosen for display. I was quite disappointed that, even with a G4 iMac, it was noticeably slower scrolling through a document after turning on font smoothing and setting the graphics display to the high. So you might want to play with those settings to see what trade offs you find acceptable. (In contrast, while Quark doesn't offer font smoothing, scrolling was always fast.)
Most of my other issues were quickly solved by a quick trip to the manual, or the built in help. The issues were irritating but were the result of unlearning behaviors which were natural for Xpress. (Folks who are used to keyboard shortcuts and what not in other Adobe programs, might feel comforted that InDesign uses the same shortcuts.)
Adobe has been trying to win back the desktop publish business from Quark for a while. With this latest release of InDesign they pose a considerable threat to Xpress. But that doesn't mean this is going to be an easy switch for most businesses. The industry is dominated by Xpress, much like the office productivity market is dominated by Microsoft Office. InDesign is going to have to be a LOT better than Quark, and just as reliable, to get people to even think about switching.
I think that InDesign is a great product. It has the right set of features and is pretty darn nimble. You get a lot of features built in that you would have to by additional software, Xtensions, to add the same capabilities to Xpress. But there are many places that will be reluctant to switch because they have setup entire workflows around Xpress, including complex Applescripts. It will take some hard work to win those folks over but I think that Adobe might be able to pull it off.
In the end, InDesign is a much better product than Pagemaker ever was. I think it's a winner and will be using it for all of my publishing projects going forward. This puppy has more than enough power to handle everything I've thrown at it. I would seriously suggest it to anyone looking for a powerful and easy to master desktop publishing program.
Posted: Thursday, September 1st, 2005