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Adobe's next-generation DTP application is central to Adobe's vision for the future of publishing but in terms of immediate user benefits promises more than it delivers.

Adobe InDesign

It's finally here. The Quark-killer has landed. For the last year the  hype about Adobe's replacement for the worthy but old-fashioned PageMaker  has been building up to fever pitch. According to the leaks and rumours  InDesign would provide a new level of interface control, the power of  frame-based layout, new standards in typography, seamless integration with  Illustrator and Photoshop, native Acrobat PDF editing and commercial print  output and a radically new architecture open to both scripting and  third-party extension. In short it would be the next generation of DTP  program that would leave traditional rivals, most obviously XPress,  floundering. Now the shrink-wrap has arrived it's finally possible to  unpick the hype from the reality and to see if InDesign really does live  up to its slogan of "page layout and design for the future of professional  publishing."

The first point that hits you when you load InDesign is how much the future resembles the past. All Adobe packages share a similar look-and-feel and InDesign is no exception. In fact with so many floating palettes in common it's easy to think that you've opened Illustrator by mistake. The huge advantage that this offers is that you can hit the ground running and begin working with InDesign immediately. Moreover, with so many palettes, tools and shortcuts working exactly as they do in Illustrator and Photoshop, you can generally use the advanced skills you've learned in one Adobe application in them all.

A little exploration reveals that Adobe has also introduced some modern interface enhancements. The view control is particularly impressive with in-built anti-aliasing, a zoom range between 5 and 4,000% and the ability to have multiple views of the same document so that you can work on one page while seeing how the changes you make affect another. Even more useful is the multiple undo, limited only by RAM, which allows you to experiment freely safe in the knowledge that you can always return to an earlier stage of design. InDesign also breaks new ground with its customisability. Using the Shortcut Editor you can specify any keyboard combination as a command shortcut. Adobe even offers a set of pre-defined XPress shortcuts to help keep Quark converts productive as they acclimatise.

Adobe InDesign interface

The InDesign interface offers some new features such as multiple views of the same document and a Shortcut Editor.

The Shortcut Editor is certainly an advance for Adobe but it's hardly cutting edge compared to most modern applications where not just shortcuts but every menu and toolbar can be customised. In fact this could never happen in InDesign as the program doesn't even offer toolbars. Why Adobe should think every other software developer in the world has got it wrong on this is mysterious. Perhaps it's a misguided attempt to save screen space. If so, it wouldn't be so necessary if Adobe instead rationalized and streamlined its floating palettes. InDesign offers no less than eighteen of these, including a separate Story palette which offers control over just one option! Sadly this is pretty typical. Without features like import previews, tabbed dialogs and - most infuriating of all - a font preview, the InDesign interface certainly doesn't set new standards. The benefits of familiarity are all well and good, but this is a missed opportunity which means that the all-new InDesign feels disappointingly old-fashioned.

Superficially InDesign is a bit of a let-down then, but what really matters in any program is the underlying engine. In a DTP program the layout engine is paramount and here Adobe has learned the lessons from PageMaker. With PageMaker layout was dealt with onscreen much as it had been manually with single columns of galley-style text and graphics positioned on an underlying layout grid. This offered plenty of creative flexibility when initially designing the page but imposed restrictions later. To change from a two-column to three-column grid, for example, required manually resizing and positioning each text block. The inherently rectangular nature of the text blocks also severely cramped design options, while the inability to define empty text blocks made it virtually impossible to set up re-usable template designs.

The solution to all these problems is to use a frame-based approach. The fundamental difference between InDesign and PageMaker then is that, as with XPress and Ventura, all text and graphics are automatically assigned to containing frames. This means that you can set up a design purely with frames into which you later flow your text and add your graphics. Frames also provide much greater control. Select the Text Frame Options command and you can change the number of columns, the size of gutter and margins and the baseline offset and the text will reflow accordingly. A nice original touch is the Fixed Column Width option which ensures that resizing the width of a frame automatically adds or subtracts full column widths.

InDesign's frame handling

InDesign takes a frame-based approach to page layout.

By their nature most layouts will probably still keep to a rectangular grid but InDesign certainly isn't limited in this way. It also offers oval and polygonal frame options which are editable with the Direct Selection tool. Alternatively, using the Pen and Scissors tools and the ability to combine objects as compound paths, you can create just about any shape and then use this as a frame. Using the Create Outlines command you can also convert selected text into editable outlines to create striking photographic title effects. One important effect that is surprisingly not in place, however, is the ability to create text on a path.

So far the functionality of InDesign's frame handling is a huge advance on PageMaker's largely freeform text blocks but it is still only catching up on the likes of Ventura and XPress. Where InDesign comes into its own is in its ability to nest frames one within another. If you convert a pullout quote to a frame and paste a bitmap into it, for example, the inline graphic will remain part of the automatic text flow while still allowing complete control over the size, position, rotation, and other attributes of each embedded element. Even better, using the Scale and Shear tools or the Transform palette, you can automatically resize, stretch or skew a frame with the same transformations automatically applied to all the frame's contents whether text or nested frames. When working like this InDesign seems far more like a drawing program than a traditonal DTP application and the resulting flexibility it offers, from minor tweaks to major repurposing, is invaluable.

As well as its introduction of frames, Adobe has also reworked the way it handles pages in InDesign. These are now managed with an entirely new Pages palette that allows pages to be quickly added, deleted duplicated and reordered. The palette is also used for marking off sections of a document to enable different section numbering and also for marking off spreads of up to ten pages that the reader will see simultaneously. This ability is particularly important when designing the gatefold and accordion foldouts commonly used for brochures and leaflets.

InDesign's page palette

The Pages palette is used for managing pages, sections and spreads.

The bottom half of the Pages palette is used for handling Master pages. These act as the templates on which new pages can be based by specifying general margin and column layout as well as controlling all repeating items such as headers, footers and backgrounds. The implementation of master pages is particularly strong with the ability to base one master on another so that, for example, changing the date on the features master also ripples through to all news pages. Master items can also be overriden on individual pages so that, for example, the position or size of a master frame can always be altered. Attributes that haven't been overridden remain linked so that if you now change the master frame's fill or stroke this will still be updated.

Further control over the layout of pages is available through InDesign's grids and guides handling. Grids are regularly repeated guides that apply across the entire document and so are set as a file preference. The most useful form is the baseline grid which helps ensure horizontal alignment of text. A nice innovation in InDesign is the use of view thresholds which keeps things simple by hiding grid lines at lower magnifications. More interactive control is available through the ability to drag individual guidelines onto either the current page or the current spread. Once guides have been added, they can be treated pretty much like any other object so that multiple guides can be selected and repositioned or cut and pasted into new pages. Using InDesign's Layers palette, guides can also copied to their own document-wide layer and then hidden or revealed as desired. Generally the control over guides is good which makes it especially disappointing that there is no option to rotate them.

Guides are important in InDesign not just in creating your design in the first place but also if you decide to redesign your layout, for example, to change from a portrait to a landscape format or to change the number of columns. With its Automatic Layout Adjustment feature turned on, InDesign looks at the various margin, column and ruler guides and, if the edges of text or graphic frames fall within a customisable snap zone of the guides, uses an artificial intelligence engine to resize the frames proportionally. It's by no means foolproof and will almost certainly needs checking and fine-tuning. Even so it's a useful capability and, in combination with the program's handling of nested frames, master pages and guides, means that InDesign's design-intensive layout control is impressive.

That's even more true of InDesign's typographic control which really does set new standards for computer-based design. Here the major innovation is the introduction of multi-line composing. InDesign looks both forward and back in a paragraph when determining hyphenation and spacing and so produces more even and elegant paragraphs that are more inviting to read. Other major advances are the introduction of optical margin alignment, which offers story-wide hanging punctuation, and optical kerning, which actually looks at the shapes of a word's characters to determine how they should be spaced. As most typefaces already have this information built in to their metrics this is a less fundamental breakthrough than multi-line composing but where different fonts and sizes are mixed up in a line it's a lot quicker than manual kerning. Sadly though this is offset by InDesign's mysterious inability to kern selections of text rather than just individual pairs of characters. When copyfitting to a deadline this is a huge drawback.

InDesign's new typography

With features like multi-line composing, InDesign sets new standards of typographic excellence.

Even more disappointing in practice is InDesign's general typographic handling through its use of character and paragraph styles. Again there's some impressive power, such as the ability to define vertical and horizontal character scaling to effectively create customised typefaces, but there are some inexcusable limitations. For a modern application only to be able to define a background colour by creating a ruling line and then lowering this behind the text just isn't acceptable. The handling of dropped capitals is similarly under-powered as you can't actually specify the character's font as part of the style definition. The handling of bullets is even worse as this isn't a style option but must be done manually - and to think that I thought PageMaker's Bullets and numbering plug-in was as bad as it could get! To add insult to injury InDesign's whole implementation of styles is dependent on a clumsy dialog which seems determined to hide the power it does contain with uninformative Next and Previous commands rather than quickly accessible tabs.

InDesign's typographic control of text is a mixed bag then so what about its drawing capabilities? This is certainly an area where InDesign leaves PageMaker's crude tools and formatting for dead. We've already seen the program's vector drawing power in action in the creation of bezier-based frames and, while working like this, InDesign acts pretty much like a cut-down Illustrator. In fact this isn't too surprising as the two programs share the same technology for the handling of objects. In some areas InDesign even outshines Illustrator. Using the Gradient palette, for example, advanced spot colour gradients can be specified and then applied instantly to text which remains editable and also to the outlines of objects.

InDesign's gradients

The ability to apply customised gradients to text and object outlines, InDesign is very advanced.

The drawing control is certainly enough to help create striking and colourful layouts, but Adobe has been careful not to tread too hard on Illustrator's toes - after all it wants to make sure you buy both. For features, such as text on a path, artistic brushes, pattern fills or gradient meshes, you're still going to have to turn to Illustrator's dedicated solution. This is where InDesign's close integration comes into play. As well as the Adobe Graphics Manager for onscreen display, InDesign also shares Illustrator's Modular Parsing System for dealing with Postscript-based elements. What this means in practice is that drawings can be cut and pasted from Illustrator and remain editable within InDesign using the Pen tool. The creative power this opens up is immense with Illustrator and InDesign truly working hand in hand.

Unfortunately the current system isn't perfect. Simple drawings work fine but more advanced features, such as gradient and mesh fills, aren't supported and come through as solid black. For jobs like these you still have to resort to traditional importing. In the past this would have involved creating an intermediate EPS but InDesign now offers native AI file support. Placed AI images aren't directly editable, but the Links palette shows if a file has been changed externally and allows updating and can also be used to open the image back into Illustrator. Surprisingly when you first import the file it looks appalling, but this is only because InDesign defaults to showing a poor quality bitmap proxy. If you set the file preference to display full resolution images, the true vector-based drawing appears in all its glory - but reduces InDesign to a crawl! InDesign's improved integration with Illustrator is undoubtedly a step forward then but it's not as straightforward an advance as Adobe would have you believe.

The same is true of InDesign's integration with Photoshop. InDesign has no internal bitmap capabilities of its own - not even basic tonal controls or plug-in support - so its claims to integration depend entirely on the new support for Photoshop's native PSD format. As with TIFF files this now extends to automatically picking up any clipping paths defined in the PSD, though these can also be generated automatically if the image is on a white background. The direct import of PSD files helps streamline workflows by cutting out the need to create intermediate TIFFs, but the inability to pick out individual layers or alpha channel transparency is disappointing. With shared Adobe technologies at its very core, InDesign should be in a unique position to leverage the benefits of cross application-working but there's still a long way to go. When third-party programs such as Deneba's Canvas offer better support of Adobe's own features such as layers and transparency, that's clearly unacceptable.

InDesign's clipping paths

InDesign supports embedded clipping paths and can generate its own but this still isn't the same as variable transparency support.

When it comes to outputting publications it's no surprise to find that InDesign offers Web as well as paper capabilities. In a major advance over the HTML table-based output in PageMaker, InDesign can produce CSS-based code which accurately maintains the layout and formatting of the page - assuming of course that it is viewed on systems with version 4 browsers and all necessary fonts. Otherwise though the output capabilities are pretty thin. There's an option to have basic next and previous links added to pages on export, but there is little control over this and, more importantly, there's no way of setting up other links elsewhere on your pages. More to the point, while CSS has caught up with simple grid layouts many of InDesign's design-intensive features, such as text runarounds, are still beyond HTML-based display. That's not an excuse for giving up, however, and I would have expected a next generation DTP application to have true re-purposing and XML features built in from the start.

InDesign's focus then remains very much on paper-based output and here Adobe is again able to leverage its underlying technologies to ensure the highest level professional output. In terms of colour management, InDesign shares the same ICC-based CMM as Illustrator and supports Photoshop's embedded profiles, so is able to keep colours as consistent and accurate as possible. The program also comes with Adobe's latest Postscript driver which allows InDesign to only send those parts of an image that are visible in a design and so producing much more efficient print streams. With a sophisticated pre-flighting utility to check for potential problems and to package all necessary files you also have everything you need to prepare your publications for hand-off to a service provider.

In fact though InDesign isn't actually intended to work in this traditional way. The most fundamental shift in InDesign is its intention to move all commercial print to an Acrobat PDF-based workflow. To enable this it allows publications to be saved directly to PDF without the need for Distiller. The result is a single PDF file complete with all necessary images and fonts which can be proofed onscreen, distributed electronically and, thanks to its Postscript foundations, virtually guarantees successful output. With high-end support for controlling in-RIP trapping and separations Adobe clearly sees Acrobat as ready not just for digital but also for the highest quality offset print. The potential benefits are enormous across the board from first time user to professional designer and the sooner that an all-digital PDF workflow becomes established, the better.

InDesign's PDF support

For the future, however, InDesign is pushing Acrobat PDF files as the ideal medium for producing both digital and offset print.

In principle this integration with Acrobat should be InDesign's killer feature, but things aren't quite so simple in practice. When the rumours first appeared about InDesign, PDF was supposed to be its native file format which would naturally have put InDesign right at the heart of the most likely PDF workflow. As things have turned out that was a major exaggeration. InDesign can open multiple-page PDF files for editing and output, but this is slow, awkward and unreliable. Instead of true PDF editing and round-tripping then this first release of InDesign is limited to emphasising its ability to place individual pages that remain linked to the external PDF.

The actual process of exporting to PDF is also disappointing. To begin with it is far more complicated than it should be, forcing users to make multiple settings rather than simply choosing whether to create files destined for the Web, in-house distribution or pre-press. Worse there is no ability to set up multimedia elements or even bookmarks and links, let along the Portable Job Tickets needed to fully automate print production. Of much more concern is the whole question of whether the industry is yet ready for Acrobat-based workflows. For high-end work this largely depends on the availability of Postscript 3 in-RIP controls that are not yet common. Even where the necessary equipment is in place, the lack of PDF support for certain features, such as hi-fi colour, might mean that the format's not yet ready to do everything you want. Obviously it's a situation that will improve over time, but many users will choose to hold off and wait for feedback from their service providers before committing themselves.

InDesign's PDF support is clearly a feature to watch for the future and the same is true of the program's extensibility. In producing a modern application from scratch, Adobe has taken the opportunity to build it on a completely modular architecture. Essentially there is a small core program and around it every other feature in the application is produced as a plug-in that opens its functionality to scripting. Using VBA this means that you can write scripts that automate just about everything you can do in InDesign. More importantly, third-party developers can write plug-ins that not only expand InDesign's capabilities but actually become part of the program so that alternative composition engines or spell-checkers can be added and integrated.

InDesign's scripting

Every feature of InDesign can be controlled using Visual Basic for Applications.

Again the principle is exciting but the practice isn't quite so straightforward. To begin with, while InDesign supports VBA, it doesn't actually include it so before you can do anything you'll need a program that does, such as Office or Visio, or ideally Visual Basic itself. Even then, while VBA is certainly more powerful than other solutions such as CorelScript, it isn't anywhere near as simple or as well integrated. Rather than for occasional users InDesign's scripting benefits really kick in for professional programmers and, as such, Adobe is already able to claim more than 200 developers working on InDesign plug-ins. Such third-party extensibility will undoubtedly prove a huge advantage to users who will be able to benefit from a whole host of InDesign enhancements just as XPress users have benefited from XTensions.

On the other hand, from past experience with PageMaker, it's also clear that plug-ins can be used to paper over cracks that should have been dealt with in the central program. The announcement of the launch of add-ons to provide table handling and indexing, for example, is all very well but these features are so important that they should already be there. Unfortunately this is just the beginning. Other gaps include a copy editor, cross-referencing, footnoting, table of contents, variable and conditional handling, chapter management, vertical justification, an equation editor and so on. While InDesign's extensibility might mean that support for these is just around the corner, a true Quark-killer should really have this power built in from the start - after all Ventura does.

Sadly the omissions in InDesign combine to effectively rule out InDesign for long document production. InDesign claims a maximum document length of 9,999 pages but, without these features, that's wishful thinking. More to the point, InDesign just feels too slow, too much like a drawing program, to even begin contemplating producing a report, magazine or manual with it unless your system is considerably more powerful than the recommended NT-based, 300 MHz Pentium II. Of course Adobe would argue that there already is a dedicated solution out there for such long document production, namely its own FrameMaker program, but the argument isn't convincing when rivals XPress and Ventura provide serious power for producing both long and short publications. Until it can produce more than just design-intensive leaflets, brochures, posters and so on, InDesign doesn't have a hope of toppling Quark. In fact, as it stands, InDesign will be doing well if it satisfies the majority of current PageMaker users.

The bottom line is that, while InDesign is undoubtedly a revolutionary product for Adobe, the benefits it offers the end user are much less radical. In fact in terms of new publishing power most users would have been better served by a new version of Illustrator that concentrated on typography and layout and removed the arbitrary single page limitation. Having said this, InDesign isn't a bad program and will certainly be used to produce excellent work. More importantly, the program represents a fresh start built on strong modern foundations. Most important of all, it is a platform on which Adobe is clearly determined to build. In particular it's clear that InDesign lies right at the heart of Adobe's publishing vision as the central interface between Illustrator's vectors, Photoshop's bitmaps and the new underpinning standard of Postscript/PDF.

In the long run then InDesign might well deliver on its promise of "page layout and design for the future of professional publishing." For the present though it's difficult not to be disappointed at the gap between hype and reality.

Features

4

Ease Of Use  

4

Value For Money  

4

Overall 

4

ratings out of 6

Tom Arah

October 1999


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