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Review: InDesign CS4

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At a Glance
  • Adobe InDesign CS4

The newest version of InDesign CS4 would be welcome on any layout designer’s desktop. But it may not be worth the price of an upgrade in and of itself; the degree of change is not nearly as strong as users saw in the move to InDesign CS3.

The sixth version of InDesign does break ground in a few areas, such as an innovative and powerful new ability to help you precisely place and size objects via the mouse as you work with objects “live.” Several new capabilities—such as the ability to set cross-references, set your own preflighting rules, and create conditional text—will appeal to subsets of the InDesign community, particularly those doing complex documentation, catalog, and book projects. And there are a few dozen welcome enhancements throughout the program, from smarter link updating to support for line counts in nested styles. Furthermore, several changes to the user interface improve its ease of use.

New features for everyone

The most useful and engaging new feature in InDesign CS4 is the trio of “smart” manipulation features: smart guides, smart measurements, and smart dimensions. All three help you more precisely work with objects as you manipulate them using the mouse. Although InDesign has long had very precise controls for object placement, sizing, and rotation in its Control panel, the problem is that most designers don’t use them. Instead, they eyeball the location and size of the objects they create and move, as well as eyeball the rotation of objects they tilt. They could adjust their objects precisely after the fact, but many do not.

So the “smart” features do the math for you while you are working with objects. For example, if you are creating a new frame, InDesign looks at the dimensions of the nearby frames, and when the object you’re creating (or resizing) matches those of the nearby object, an onscreen guide pops up to show you that they match. Thus, you know it’s time to let go of the mouse if you want them to be the same. If you ignore the guide, it disappears. The same approach is used to indicate when the current object’s distance from other nearby objects matches the spacing among those other objects or when the current object’s rotation matches that of nearby objects.

This feature is so intuitive and so useful, you wonder why in the 25-year history of desktop publishing no one had thought of it before. I don’t know, but I’m glad that Adobe finally did. (And if you don’t like it, you can turn any or all of the three smart functions off.

The rest of the broadly useful new features are welcome, but not nearly as exciting. For example, the Kuler color-creation function (available as a beta in Illustrator CS3) is now part of InDesign and other CS4 apps. It provides an easy way to create sets of colors that are supposed to look good together based on various relationships you establish in the panel. You can download other users’ sets, as well as upload your own for others to share. It’s easy enough to use, but I’m not sure it makes color palette creation any easier for an experienced designer. Still, it may help the newbie.

If you use a new MacBook with the multi-touch trackpad (introduced in the 2008 MacBooks ( ) and MacBook Pros ( )), you’ll find that InDesign CS4 supports gestures for rotation and zoom. This addition was a nice surprise, and shows that despite its cross-platform orientation, Adobe is still willing to use the features of one OS (Macintosh, in this case) even when they’re not available in the other (Windows, in this case). Still, chances are you’ll be using a more precise input device when working on layouts, such as a mouse or tablet, so the opportunities to take advantage of the gestures will likely be occasional.

When working on pages that have rotated objects, it can be hard to deal with the rotated text—turning your head or the screen 90 or 180 degrees usually isn’t an option. InDesign CS4 now lets you rotate spreads on screen so you can read rotated text straight on. But note that this rotation is just for viewing—the spread itself is not rotated, so you still cannot mix page rotations or page sizes in the same document.

The new smart guides feature in InDesign CS4 helps you precisely place, size, and rotate objects as you work with them by popping up alignment indicators as you work. At top, the new object (at right) is being sized. In the middle, InDesign displays an alignment indicator so you can make the new object's bottom match that of a nearby object. At bottom, it pops up an indicator that lets you space a third object at the same distance from the second object as the second object is from the first object.

InDesign now also lets you apply slideshow-like page transitions to pages, such as page curls and wipes. These are useful only if you export your documents to Adobe Flash presentation (SWF) format or to Acrobat PDF format. (And you can see such effects in PDF files only if you view them in full-screen mode in Adobe Reader or Adobe Acrobat.) This addition feels more like a gimmick than anything else, but it does no harm and could be useful for some.

The remaining two broadly useful new features are available in many CS4 apps, not just InDesign CS4. One is the Share My Screen option, which lets up to two other users share your screen and even control it, making it easy to show comps or collaborate on a layout. If you want more people in the mix, you have to pay Adobe—this feature is really a preview of the new Adobe Acrobat Connect Pro service, which designers, trainers, and others can use for team-based collaboration. The other multi-app addition is something called Adobe Community Help, which adds a search field. If you search in this field, your query goes to the online Adobe Community, where it is hoped that Adobe, other vendors, and other users will share tips, advice, and findings with each other à la wiki or discussion board. Only time will tell if this becomes a useful destination. Adobe has evaluated numerous independent blogs, forums, and Web sites for automatic inclusion in the search, and they show up in the results when the feature is used. Whether this is more or less useful than Adobe’s existing discussion boards is an individual judgment.

New features for specialists

InDesign CS4 boasts four well-designed new capabilities that will appeal to certain professional segments of the community. The most applicable of these is the new preflighting system. The key to the new Preflight panel is that you can establish your own preflighting rules through a straightforward check box interface. For example, if your images need to be 300 dpi and CMYK for final output, you can set up that rule by clicking the appropriate check boxes in the rule definition. As you work on your layout, InDesign continually checks your work against the rules you set up (or the default rules it ships with, if you do nothing) and displays a running tally of violations in your document window. You can go to the Preflight panel to see the actual violations, and click a link to the offending object so you can fix it.

The new preflighting capability is powerful and easy to use—a marked contrast to the similar capability that QuarkXPress 7 ( ) introduced. Even if designers ignore the rules, production staff can very easily find and correct violations in the InDesign file. (By the way, InDesign’s previous preflighting function remains. So, when you package documents for production, it looks for basic issues such as missing links and fonts, as it has done for several versions. For this final check, InDesign does not use the rules you created in the Preflight panel, since you can see those at any time.)

Designers working with complex documents such as manuals and catalogs will appreciate the other two new features in InDesign CS4: cross-referencing and conditional text.

The cross-referencing feature lets you add references within text such as “see page x” and have InDesign fill in the x for you. But that’s just the beginning: It can display information about the cross-reference destination, such as the document name (useful for manuals), the section title, and other such contextual information. InDesign figures out such context based on the attributes you tell it to associate with the cross-reference, such as nearest text using a specific paragraph style. This lets you automate sophisticated cross-references such as, “see page 24 in the ‘Learning about fonts’ section of Publishing Tips Chapter 4.”

Adobe has put the cross-referencing features into the modified Hyperlinks panel, on the theory that cross-references are not all that different from hyperlinks. I mostly agree with that logic, though it does make for a complex panel interface.

The new conditional text feature is an interesting way to handle a common catalog publishing issue: how do you support multiple versions of essentially the same document? Take a retailer’s price catalog. Assuming the products are the same in the U.S. and Canada, wouldn’t it be great to have one document that could toggle between the U.S. and Canadian prices? Now you can.

By setting up two conditions—U.S. and Canada—and then tagging them appropriately, you can create a single master for both editions. If you enable the U.S. condition (and disable the Canada condition), you can print the U.S. catalog, and vice versa. You could even apply the same conditions to words spelled differently, such as “color” and “colour,” or even have the same document use local variations for words across the two dialects, such as “knapsack” and “rucksack.” Tagging conditions is easy: you highlight the text and click the condition that it is part of, just like applying a character style to text.

With conditional text, you no longer have to maintain two documents or two layers in the same document, and thus you don’t have to keep two separate text threads in sync.

The fourth major new specialty feature is the ability to export InDesign documents to Flash format. Actually, to two Flash formats. You can export them to the SWF presentation format for easy viewing in Adobe Flash Player on a desktop or via the Web. And you can export them to the new Flash CS4 Pro exchange format (also known as XFL), which you can bring into Flash Pro CS4 for further work. An XFL file is an XML representation of Flash’s native (.FLA) file format. I see few uses for publishing a SWF version of a layout, other than to get print-like viewing of your documents on the Web or to create a slideshow directly from an InDesign layout, though you could use InDesign to design a SWF for Web viewing from the outset. But the XFL export capability has broader utility. Almost every object in the exported InDesign document can be manipulated in Flash Pro, so you can take a complex, print-quality document and take it to a whole new level by applying Flash animation and programming features to whatever objects you wish. And you retain InDesign’s superior typographic and layout capabilities in that Flash version.

The Flash export does have some odd limits, though, such as not retaining hyperlinks and stripping out video and audio objects. And the workflow is one-way: If you change your InDesign file, you have to re-export to Flash and then redo the Flash work in Flash Pro to conform with the overall programming of the Flash project.

InDesign CS4 makes it easier to find and fix layout errors that could hurt a document’s production quality, such as the use of RGB images in a CMYK document or images that are too low-resolution for quality output. InDesign lets you create preflighting profiles in which you specify what to keep an eye out for (lower left) by checking the appropriate options. As you work, InDesign keeps a running tally of violations, and the Preflight panel (upper right) lets you delve into the details of each one —and even jump to each offense in your layout.

Still, Adobe’s approach is better than QuarkXPress 8’s ( ), which provides some limited animation capabilities so you don’t need Flash Pro. But by the nature of those limits, QuarkXPress keeps you from really taking advantage of layouts in a Flash context.

Interface and under-the-hood changes

Adobe usually plays with the user interface at each release, and InDesign CS4 is no exception. This time, most of the changes are fairly minor. For example, the controls for expanding and closing panels have been moved further away from the control to open flyout menus, reducing the chances of clicking the wrong one. And panel names are now all caps (which are a bit harder to read, at least for my middle-aged eyes).

But a few interface tweaks are more pronounced. Of these, the use of tabbed panes for document windows is the biggest change. The tabbed approach means you can now have multiple documents (even Story Editor windows) open at once and not worry about them obscuring each other. But InDesign also supports the previous interface style, so you can switch between them as you prefer.

Several controls, such as the View and Zoom controls, have moved to the new application bar, which groups together menus and controls into one section of the window. This takes up more screen real estate, but makes them easier to find.

The one new interface feature I don’t like is the use of the new Essentials workspace as the program default. Introduced in InDesign CS3, workspaces are collections of panels, with the idea that you can create your own workspaces to present just the panels you commonly use for a specific task. So a copy editor might want the various styles panels, the Index panel, the Cross-Reference panel, and the various tables panels to display in the dock, while a layout artist may want the Pages, Swatches, Links, Styles, and Preflight panels to display in the dock. With workspaces, you can save these sets and easily switch among them.

InDesign CS4 comes with several predefined workspaces, with the Essentials workspace being what appears when you first use it. But the Essentials workspace presents a stripped-down set of panels, way fewer than a professional (or even an amateur) would use. So, at first blush, InDesign seems to have few abilities. I complained about this in my first look preview of the InDesign CS4 beta, and Adobe recently dropped the worst part of this “enhancement”: removing menu options—not just panels—in the Essentials workspace. So at least all the menu capabilities are available in the Essentials workspace. And once you switch to a useful workspace, that choice sticks until you change it again. My continued beef is that this oversimplification is unnecessary.

InDesign CS4 comes with several predefined workspaces, with the Essentials workspace being the default. But this workspace presents a stripped-down set of panels, way fewer than most people would use.

A nice global change is in the Version Cue functionality, a CS4 capability for creating shared project folders and retaining multiple versions of the same file so you can backtrack as desired if you don’t like how a document has evolved. Version Cue operates pretty much as it has before, despite a welcome change that has its folders look like network drives to the user, so they are easier to work with. The change is that the separate Version Cue version of the Open and Save dialog boxes is gone. That simplifies the user interface considerably; the Version Cue management features that had resided in those dialog boxes are now centrally provided in Adobe Bridge instead and via the Adobe Drive application, which you access by right-clicking in the Finder and choosing Adobe Drive CS4 from the More contextual menu. Either way, you can set up projects and connect to Version Cue servers, so you can access and work with Version Cue-enabled files as if they were on a shared drive. (At this writing, Version Cue has been disabled because of bugs found just before Creative Suite 4 shipped, according to Adobe. We’ll have a look at Version Cue when the patches have been released, which Adobe estimates will be sometime in November.)

As you use the new InDesign, you’ll begin to see a new host of filename extensions (for snippets and the various types of InCopy files, as well as a new interchange file format, InDesign Markup Language (IDML). These reflect basic changes to InDesign to base its documents on the XML standard. These changes will have no direct effect on layout designers other than giving them a new set of filename extensions to consider, but it does prepare InDesign for a potential future as an automated production workflow tool.

The idea is that other programs—including those not developed by Adobe—could take InDesign documents and use its components, such as a Web publishing tool extracting content from an InDesign IDML file. Likewise, a catalog publisher could create IDML files directly from a database, without needing InDesign. That IDML file could then be shared with other applications, as well as opened in InDesign for a production designer to refine before printing it.

At a Glance
  • Pros

    • Ability to export files for further work in Flash Pro
    • New smart guides features make precise layouts easy
    • Improved link and preflighting management
    • Flexible cross-references capabilities
    • Several timesaving additions among enhancements


    • Text wrap doesn’t work for numbered and bulleted lists
    • Hyperlink export is uneven
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