InDesign CS, by Adobe
Posted: 23-Jun-2005

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Adobe Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Gordon Hamachi Class: PRODUCTIVITY

If you have used word processors but never tried a page layout program like Adobe InDesign CS, you may wonder why the page layout product category even exists. After all, even basic word processing programs such as Apple's TextEdit allow users to combine text and graphics on a page. Microsoft Word supports multi-column pages and even arbitrarily placed text boxes. Isn't that the essence of page layout?

It is true that Word provides some limited page layout features. Many users may never need anything more for their publishing needs. Unfortunately, the cruel truth is that if you use Word to do elaborate page layouts combining multiple columns of text with fixed and floating artwork, you will regret it. Complex page designs will be difficult to create. The resulting documents will be fragile, and all hell will break loose when you try to move something or edit your text.

Word processors exist to help writers create and edit text. Conversely, page layout programs do well at the artful combination of previously composed text and graphics onto the printed page. Page layout programs also provide advanced controls over the placement and spacing of text. They may provide named paragraph styles to make it easy to change the general appearance of text. They may even support advanced output needs, such as crop marks and color separation alignment marks.

InDesign CS is Adobe's high-end page layout program for print professionals. Its intended audience is creative people for whom publishing is artistry, as well as those involved with newspaper publishing, magazine publishing, and print advertising. These people are not like the rest of us. They live for arcane typographic elements such as discretionary ligatures, swash caps, and optical kerning.

Adobe InDesign at a glance

Adobe has addressed this audience by combining into InDesign CS the best electronic publishing features of PageMaker with the best design features of Adobe Illustrator. The result is a powerful application that can produce magazine or book length documents, combining modern precision typography and the timeless illumination of a Gutenberg Bible. As if that wasn't enough, InDesign CS also includes advanced printing features that high-end publishers live by. It has professional support for CMYK color separations as well as custom inks. It includes a trapping engine that helps publishers anticipate and cope with registration problems between separations. It supports additional page information used by printers, such as crop marks, color bars, bleeds and slugs.

InDesign CS does not stop at printing. It includes advanced features to help you transform your print publication into electronic form. InDesign CS generates HTML from your document. It produces high quality PDF that blows away anything your Mac can produce via Print Preview. It even produces structured XML output.

Although InDesign is a standalone product that retails for $699, clever marketing folks tacked on the letters "CS" to remind us that it can also be purchased as part of Adobe's Creative Suite that also bundles Photoshop, Illustrator, Version Cue, Adobe Bridge, and Adobe Stock Photos for $899 (add GoLive and Acrobat 7.0 Professional for bundle price $1199). The product called InDesign CS being reviewed here is the standalone product that does not include any of the other components of Adobe's Creative Suite.

For the last five years years Adobe has also offered two other page layout programs to the publishing community: PageMaker and FrameMaker. To fully understand InDesign, it is helpful to consider its product positioning relative to these other programs.

Aldus PageMaker was the original page layout program for the Macintosh. Many credit PageMaker - along with the Apple Laserwriter - with the early success of the Macintosh and the birth of the desktop publishing industry. Yet by the time Adobe acquired PageMaker from Aldus in the mid-1990s, it was getting beaten out at the high end of the market by Quark Xpress. Many on the PageMaker engineering team felt that the PageMaker code base was getting so old and hard to work with that a complete rewrite of the application would be necessary to produce the "Quark Killer" that Adobe desired. Today PageMaker is sold as a mid-level publishing tool for business, education, and home-office professionals. Even the latest version 7.0 is only a "Mac Classic" application.

Before InDesign came along, FrameMaker was Adobe's "long document" solution. FrameMaker offers support for book-length documents, including indexing, tables of contents, and multi-volume books. Now that InDesign offers these features, along with high-end typography, Adobe doesn't even sell FrameMaker for the Macintosh (though they still sell versions for Windows and Solaris). FrameMaker still has quite a following among tech writers.

InDesign is a cross-platform application with full featured versions available on both Windows and Macintosh. To drive this point home, and to avoid favoring one platform over the other, examples in the documentation include both Mac and Windows screen shots.

The Macintosh version requires Mac OS X 10.2.8 or later. If you attempt to launch InDesign CS under OS 9, you'll see an alert informing you that Adobe InDesign requires Mac OS X.

The other requirements are typical for this class of OS X application. InDesign CS requires a G3 or better, at least 256 megabytes of RAM (320 megabytes recommended) and a 1024x768 monitor with at least 16-bits per pixel. Adobe says InDesign CS requires 870 megabytes of disk, but it seems to use a lot less than that on my system.

I evaluated InDesign CS on an 800 MhZ eMac. It has a G3 processor, 512 megabytes of RAM and 30.5 gigabytes of free disk. It runs Mac OS X 10.3.8. The monitor is set at 1280x960, with millions of colors.

As I installed it, the InDesign application folder took only 212 megabytes of disk. The installation disk includes a 17 megabyte PDF help file, 64 megabytes of fonts, over 100 megabytes of clip art and stock photos, 70 megabytes of sample files, and 57 megabytes for Acrobat 6.0, for a total of well under 550 megabytes of disk space if you install everything.

Setup - Trial Version
I was eager to get started on this product review so I decided to begin by downloading Adobe's free, 30-day trial version of InDesign CS. As many prospective customers may elect to go this route, I think it is useful to briefly describe this experience.

Adobe provides downloadable trial versions of most of its software. Before downloading software you must set up an Adobe ID, which you may already have if you have ever purchased an Adobe product and registered it on Adobe's web site. The download page asks you to log in, then takes you to a download page with system requirements, installation instructions, and a red "download" button. Beneath the download button is the file size and estimated download times for 56K, DSL, and T1 connections.

The trial download is not for those with limited bandwidth, because the InDesign CS download weighs in at 139.3 megabytes. It would take 6 hours 23 minutes to download at dialup speeds! The download unpacks itself into an installer application on your desktop. As detailed in my description of the full product below, the installation process is relatively painless.

The trial version of the product is fully functional. If you can figure out how to use InDesign CS effectively in that 30-day period, you can use it to create documents, save them to disk, and edit them. To help you get started, the trial application contains embedded HTML help that opens in Safari. The HTML help includes six tutorials, starting with "Organizing Your First Document." Additional support is available on Adobe's web site.

Setup - The Full Product
When the official NFR review product arrived in the mail, I trashed the trial version and started from scratch with the full commercial version. InDesign CS comes on a single install CD. The full product provides a huge number of items not found in the trial version, including 70 megabytes of sample files, 15 fonts, 57 megabytes of clip art in Adobe Illustrator form, and 180 stock photos. There is also a frighteningly large 600-page PDF help file that replicates the embedded HTML help.

A companion CD contains a training video that provides an introduction to InDesign's features. The training video claims to run on a G3 with Mac OS X 10.2.4 or later and 128 MB of RAM; however, I found it jerky and nearly unviewable on my 233 MhZ G3 "Wallstreet" laptop. It ran fine on my 800 MhZ eMac and I found the content to be superb.

The terms of the license agreement seem reasonable except for its length and presentation. It totals 12 screens full of 10-point type, which is too small to read comfortably on a decent sized display. Getting past that I was pleased that the agreement allows the purchaser to install a second copy of InDesign CS for use on a portable or home computer, as long as they are not used at the same time; this means Adobe users can have a copy at work and a copy at home without becoming a software pirate.

After accepting the license agreement, the software installed easily with just a few minor gripes. Since it installs InDesign in the shared /Applications folder, you must have Administrator privileges to run the installer. Another one of my pet peeves is that as with so many other commercial applications, there is no option to install the PDF help file; you have to discover it on the install disk and drag it over manually. The "How to Install.html" page links to the Adobe web site for system requirements rather than just telling you what you need; if you don't happen to have a web connection, you are out of luck.

One little thing that irritated me is that the installer CD and the installer application have exactly the same icon as the InDesign CS application. This means that if you happen to have the trial version installer on your desktop, you may have trouble seeing the installer CD icon when it pops up on your desktop. A slightly larger irritation was that the PDF catalog of the stock photos and clip art did not have links to the actual files. It becomes a major chore to find the item you want in the catalog and then have to root around in the file system to find the file with the matching name. Clicking on a catalog item should launch Adobe Illustrator or Adobe Photoshop and load the selected item.

One last issue with the installation is that the installer puts the fonts in a location where they are only available to Adobe applications. Adobe kindly provides instructions describing how to manually move the fonts so they are available to all applications, but it would be even kinder if this were an installer option instead.

In Use
When launched, the InDesign CS user interface looks relatively simple. There is a tool palette on the left that looks suspiciously like the Adobe Illustrator tool palette. In place of a toolbar there is something Adobe calls a context-sensitive control palette because its contents change to display the settings appropriate to whatever type of object happens to be selected; Mac software developers - particularly those who have used Apple's Interface Builder - would probably know this as an inspector. Finally, there are several tabs barely in view, innocently sticking to the right edge of the display.

The InDesign Interface

Making complicated things simple is the mark of genius. The apparent simplicity of the user interface is just the tip of the iceberg, under which lies a brilliant complexity. Under the hood, InDesign CS probably has the most complex user interface of any application I have ever used. The application is chock full of tabs - 32 in all - providing graphical access to many of the application's capabilities. There are so many tabs that, when fully exploded, they more than completely cover a full 1024x768 display.

InDesign with all function tabs activated

InDesign CS lets you tailor its user interface to your preferences and work habits by choosing which tabs are visible and where they are located on the screen. Your central point of access is the Window menu, where all of the tabs are listed. Select one from the Window menu and it pops up. Select it again and it goes away. You may save useful configurations as named Workspaces. Switching to a different workspace is as simple as selecting its name from the Workspace menu.

The tabs themselves contain many features to help you manage them. Some tabs such as the Align tab toggle between full and abbreviated modes by clicking on a double arrow next to the tab name. Double-clicking on a tab's window header collapses it to just its tab name. Tabbed palettes may be attached to the left or right edge of the display, where a single click causes the entire tabbed palette to collapse to a vertical title bar. Just by dragging and dropping you may dock two or more tabs into the same window, creating a tabbed palette.

InDesign tabs

I was mostly kidding when I said that the "CS" in the product name was a marketing ploy. It does signify that the products in the Creative Suite work well together. You can easily place Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop documents into InDesign. Once a file is placed, an option-double click on it automatically launches the creator application on the placed artwork. If you do not have OS X versions of Illustrator or Photoshop, but do have the OS 9 version, InDesign CS will find and launch the appropriate OS 9 application.

The same trick works with non-Adobe applications to a lesser extent. When I placed a Macromedia Freehand EPS file into InDesign CS, an option-double click automatically launches Freehand on the placed artwork. On the other hand, it is not possible to place native Freehand documents into Adobe InDesign.

As mentioned earlier, the InDesign CS tool palette looks just like Adobe Illustrator's tool palette. Quite a lot of useful Adobe Illustrator functionality seems to have been imported wholesale into InDesign CS. For example, within InDesign CS you may create Bezier paths with all the usual fill and stroke styles, even including your choice of end caps, join type, and miter limit.

One might wonder what part of Adobe Illustrator is not in InDesign CS. At a quick glance, the only features from Illustrator 7.0 that I could not find in InDesign CS were masks, filters, rasterization, autotrace, pattern definitions, and graphs. Is every application destined to contain all the major features of every other application? For someone who may be trying to decide whether to buy Illustrator or InDesign, or both, it's almost ludicrous. You will feel the pinch of spending all that extra money for just a few features. On the other hand, for just $200 more, you not only get both InDesign and Illustrator, but also Photoshop and a few other applications.

InDesign and Illustrator tool palettes side-by-side

What You Can Do with InDesign CS
InDesign CS is a complex product with a huge number of features. To give you a sense of the depth of this product, I'll delve deeply into a few of them.

As a warm-up exercise, I decided to format my resume. A word processor would normally be fine for this task, but I wanted to experiment with different formatting options to see if I could keep my resume on a single page even after adding my current job. InDesign's New Document dialog allows you to specify the paper size, page orientation, margins, number of columns, and column gutter width. For paper size, you can select any of the standard sizes or specify your own custom paper size. The default margins are set at 0.5 inches horizontally and vertically; I changed this to 1 inch.

Conveniently, when you have finished specifying your new document settings, you can save them as a named preset document style. The next time you create a similar document, you can select the document style from a drop-down list instead of having to remember and re-enter the settings.

To allow for easy reformatting, I built my resume using InDesign's paragraph styles. A paragraph style is a named collection of text attributes. A paragraph style includes basic character settings: font family (e.g. Times), style (e.g. bold), point size, leading, kerning, tracking, and vertical position. It also includes numerous advanced settings for swashes, ligatures, character colors, justification, hyphenation, line breaking, tabs, indents and spacing. Because InDesign CS provides so many settings, paragraph styles are particularly useful in saving time and keeping the look of your document consistent. You only need to define the settings once when you create a style. Then you can apply the style to selected text by selecting the style name from the Paragraph Style palette. Power users may even assign shortcuts to heavily-used styles.

Using InDesign to Publish a Resumé

Another useful feature of styles is that when you modify an existing style's definition, all of the text that has that style updates itself to reflect the new style settings. This feature allows you to quickly change the appearance of your document.

In one example, I began by defining my basic paragraph style as 10 point Times with an indent of 0.2 inches. Then I created three other paragraph styles that inherited from "basic paragraph". I named these styles "section", "employer", and "bullet." Any change to "basic paragraph" would also change text in any style inheriting from "basic paragraph."

I used the "section" style for the text of the main sections of my resume: Job Objective, Technologies, Experience, and Education. The "section" style is the same as "basic paragraph" except for bold type and a slightly larger 12 point size.

The "employer" style uses the same point size as "basic paragraph." I use this in the Experience section as the first line in the description of each different employer I have worked for. The only difference is that its text is bold.

The "bullet" paragraph style is the same as "basic paragraph" but has a first line indent of -0.18 inches. This first line indent allows the bullet at the start of the paragraph to appear in the whitespace to the left of the paragraph block, and to line up with text in a "basic paragraph" style.

Once I entered the text for my resume, I found that it ran long. Using the paragraph style mechanism, I changed the "basic paragraph" font from Times to Verdana. Since all of my styles inherit from "basic paragraph," all of the text in my document changed to use this new font. Because Verdana has smaller font metrics, my resume then fit easily onto a single page. Then I experimented with the point size for the "section" and "employer" styles until the text comfortably filled the entire page.

Type on a Path
Because Adobe InDesign CS contains quite a lot of Adobe Illustrator functionality, you can easily create some sophisticated artwork within the application. One of the most fun features to play around with is text on a path. To do this, you begin by creating a Bezier path using the pen tool. Click and drag a number of points to create a curve similar to a sine wave. My starting path is the topmost of the curves in the illustration below.

Next, add text to the path. Select the "Type on a path" tool, which hides underneath the normal type tool on the tool palette. Click on your path and you will see what looks like a type-in cursor blinking at you. Start typing and watch as your type wraps around the bends of your curve. The second curve shows the default text on a path.

Using InDesign for Text on a Path

Note that, in the initial text, InDesign CS does a noticeably poor job of spacing the text at the points of sharpest curvature. The letters in "Adobe" on the outside of a curve are spaced too widely The letters "InDesign" are spaced adequately. The letters in "CS Review" on the inside of a curve are spaced too closely. This can all be fixed, however, using InDesign's Tracking controls.

To adjust the space between a pair of characters, select them using the "Type on a path" tool. Then use the Tracking control to increase or decrease the spacing between the selected characters. The third curve (2nd text line) in the figure above shows the results of making Tracking adjustments. Notice that the character spacing looks more natural.

The default type on a path uses what Adobe calls the "Rainbow" effect. Several other effects are available, among them Skew, 3-D Ribbon, Stair Step, and Gravity. The last curve in the figure above shows the result of applying the Skew effect.

Converting a PageMaker Document
InDesign CS is supposed to support PageMaker documents. I tested this by attempting to get InDesign CS to import a 6-page newsletter that I created with PageMaker 6.0. Doing this was harder than I expected, and the final result was less less than what I had hoped for.

I assumed that I could simply open my PageMaker document in InDesign CS. Instead, when I selected my document in the file open dialog, an alert quickly flashed up and disappeared along with the file open dialog. After doing this over and over again, I was able to catch the alert dialog. It said that the file could not be opened because InDesign only supports PageMaker 6.5 and later. As the current version of PageMaker is only up to 7.0, that's not very much backwards compatibility.

The online Adobe Knowledge base quickly supplied some viable options. I could download the PageMaker 7.0 Tryout version to save PageMaker 5.x-6.x documents in 7.x format. Alternatively, I could use Adobe InDesign CS PageMaker Edition or spend $49 to purchase an InDesign CS PageMaker Plug-in pack to open the file.

I downloaded the 84 megabyte PageMaker 7.0 Tryout version from Adobe's web site and installed it without incident. It opened my PageMaker 6.0 file and saved it in 6.5 format. Then, when I tried to load it into InDesign CS, an alert told me that there were broken links, and that I should quit and fix these links in PageMaker. Following this plan, I double-clicked on my PageMaker 6.5 document to launch PageMaker 7.0 Tryout. Much to my surprise, InDesign now "owned" my PageMaker 7.0 Tryout document. InDesign launched and again tried and failed to open the document.

Launching PageMaker 7.0 Tryout for the second time, however, I was surprised to see PageMaker automatically launch Netscape and ask me to configure it. After getting past that, I manually relinked every one of my imported files for the newsletter in PageMaker. When the moment of truth arrived in the File Save dialog, I was given the option to either save the document as a copy in 6.5 format, or with all linked files, but not both. I stared at this incredulously for a few moments, but then discovered one other option. I could save my document as a publication (no indication of file version, but presumably a 7.0 document).

When I loaded my PageMaker 7.0 document in InDesign CS, there was an ominous 17 second pause. Then I was treated to a series of terse, crudely laid out error alerts that clearly seemed to be from a rough, seldom seen edge of InDesign:

  • Tracking values were modified. Please check text composition in the converted document.
  • No fill patterns are supported at this time.
  • Lock/Unlock property of objects are set based on group's property.

As might have been expected after these alerts, my imported document was a mess. The masthead text was too low, some line leadings were wrong, and line breaks were at the wrong places (resulting in text that no longer fit the pages). It is a shame that InDesign CS does such a poor job of importing PageMaker documents. Users must be prepared to manually adjust every line of imported PageMaker documents, or hope that the PageMaker Plug-in pack produces better results.

Learning InDesign CS
It takes a while to get comfortable with InDesign CS. This is natural, given its large set of capabilities spread out over so much user interface. At 600 pages, the user manual is too large to read straight through. I found the training video to be a much better starting point for learning the application's major features, but even the video is too long to absorb in one long sitting.

Once grounded in the basics, I found that directed play was a useful technique for exploring the user interface. After identifying a task I wanted to accomplish, I used the user manual index to get started. Then I experimented on my own, trying to imagine how something should be done. When I got stuck, I went back to the documentation. For example, I knew I could place images into InDesign CS. By playing around with the frame surrounding an image, I figured out how to zoom, crop, and pan the image. I also figured out how to use the pen tool to give the image an arbitrary non-rectangular border by command-dragging newly-inserted points.

As a PageMaker user, I felt at home because some of the InDesign CS commands had the same command key accelerators. The Keyboard Shortcuts command on the Edit menu allows users to fully customize the command keys. One of the favorites for Mac OS X users will undoubtedly be to map Command-H back to Hide Application, because by default InDesign CS maps it to something else. One of the predefined set of command key assignments even matches the competition, Quark XPress, which is good support for cross-overs.

Interface Issues
As polished and robust as the InDesign CS interface is, it is not without its problems.

When I imported my PageMaker document, one of the problems I encountered was that my masthead text was placed too low. To correct this, I selected the offending text and modified the font ascent of the selected text. After I did this, the text selection highlighting stayed down on the text baseline where the letters used to be rather than moving along with the text. If selection highlighting does not stay with the selected object, confusion can easily arise over what is selected.

The training video told me that you can create a path in Adobe Illustrator, select it, and then paste it directly into InDesign CS. When I tried doing this, it didn't work. Instead, I got a terse error alert: "EPS Import: Undefined error". My Adobe Illustrator is an older "Mac Classic" version (in fact, it is a 68k version); perhaps a more up-to-date version would work better.

My converted PageMaker document contains two EPS files with transparent backgrounds. One of these EPS documents renders correctly; however, the other one has some transparency issues. Sometimes the EPS renders correctly, while other times its background appears to be opaque. I haven't investigated it to see what the problem could be, but the fact that the redisplay behavior is erratic makes it suspect.

InDesign CS contains a story editor similar to the one within PageMaker. Editing text in place can be difficult (such as when you are zoomed out to view a full 2-page spread), so you'll generally prefer to edit text in the separate story editor window. In some ways, it works better than the PageMaker story editor. For example, you can type into either the main window or the story editor and see text update in both places. The one problem I encountered is with the scroll bar. In the case where almost all of the story is visible in the window, moving the scroll bar down just a little bit causes the entire story to scroll off the top so that you are left viewing an empty window and wondering where all your text went.

The default kerning of Type on a path is exceedingly bad. You'll have to use manual kerning or tracking to get good results.

Lastly, I found it strange that Mac OS X's Print Preview feature is not supported by InDesign CS. As the manual devotes 31 pages to printing (47 pages if you count color separations as part of printing), it may seem downright astonishing that this important part of the printing experience is broken. Given that Adobe pioneered PDF, I assume that InDesign itself produces PDF that is far superior in quality to the stuff that comes out of Print Preview.

Favorite Features
My favorite feature in InDesign CS is the Clipping Path command. In my newsletters, I like to cut family members out of digital pictures and paste them into the areas between columns of text. The text flows around them for a nice effect. Doing this requires lots of tedious work in Photoshop to separate bodies from image backgrounds. InDesign's Clipping Path command automatically does this Photoshop work. Just select an image and invoke the Clipping Path command from the Object menu. Check the Preview checkbox and then experiment with two sliders and various options until the image is separated from its background.

Another favorite features is the table object. Tables live in text flows. They can flow from one text box to another, across column breaks. You have the option of repeating the table header and footer in each new text box through which the table flows. This is a huge labor savings for anyone who needs tables in their documents.

Adobe InDesign CS is a high end page layout program for creative professionals in the print industry. It combines an extensive set of advanced typography controls and a named style mechanism to make it easy to apply complex settings. It contains a rich set of drawing tools from Adobe Illustrator, allowing users to create complex artwork, including text on a path. It is a highly complex and feature-rich application, and Adobe has provided many features in the user interface to help manage the complexity and customize the software to your needs, including workspaces, docking tabs, and accelerator key remapping. I encountered a fair number of benign problems with the interface and functionality, the biggest weakness being the poor quality of imported PageMaker documents. I found myself admiring InDesign CS. Its masterful typography and smooth integration with other Adobe applications outweigh its problems with legacy documents.
For the average "Joe", the cost of InDesign can be quite prohibitive and the number of features a bit overwhelming. For publishing professionals, InDesign CS is simply a must-have tool. The product is robust, the functionality blows PageMaker away, and the user interface is first rate.


  • Advanced typography
  • Good integration with other Adobe tools
  • Flexible, customizable user interface
  • Advanced output options: color separations, PDF, XML, HTML


  • Expensive
  • More features than most amateurs will ever use
  • Imported PageMaker documents were unacceptable

Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice