Review: InDesign CS4

Galen Gruman
3 November, 2008
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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 colour-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 colours 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 colour 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 Australia and the US, wouldn’t it be great to have one document that could toggle between the Australia and US prices? Now you can.

By setting up two conditions—Australia and US—and then tagging them appropriately, you can create a single master for both editions. If you enable the Australia condition (and disable the US condition), you can print the Australian 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.

Nice enhancements throughout. The rest of what’s new in InDesign CS4 involves enhancements to existing features. Among the most significant of these is the revised Links panel, which tracks the graphics placed in your layout and can, if you choose, also track imported text and spreadsheet files. Adobe has prettied the panel, so it can now display previews of graphics, making it easier to see what image a filename refers to. And it shows more attributes and metadata information about linked files, and reduces the work needed to display that information.

Moreover, you can customise the Links panel to have the most useful metadata and attributes appear inline with the link in the panel. For example, details such as the scaling applied to an image, its ICC profile, its folder path (or just the folder and one or more levels up), its inline notes (if any and how many), and so on. A lot of the information now easily viewed at a glance was quite difficult to find in previous versions of InDesign.

But what I like best about the new Links panel is the ability to batch update graphics’ filename extensions. For example, say your layout uses JPEG files but you want to replace them with higher-resolution TIFF versions for print. With InDesign CS4, you can tell the Links panel to replace all the JPEGs with the same-named TIFFs. Before, you would have to manually update each image and confirm each filename extension change—or write a script to do so. Now, it’s a single step that anyone can do.

Adobe has also made InDesign smarter about updating links, so if you’ve moved images to a new folder, it notes that new location and updates all the files that were moved. Before, you had to update each changed image one at a time. Rival QuarkXPress has for many years had a smart update capability, so I’m glad InDesign has finally caught up.

I’m also pleased that Adobe has enhanced the nested styles feature so that nested character styles can be applied to entire lines, and InDesign maintains that rule even as you edit the text and alter the line breaks. A common design technique is to apply small caps to the first line of a paragraph that follows a heading. But InDesign had no way to let you specify that you wanted small caps on the first line. The nested styles feature that allows such conditional formatting could apply small caps to the first two sentences or the first six words after the second period or to all the text that preceded the first colon. But it couldn’t apply small caps to the first line. Now it can. You can specify how many lines of text you want a character style to be applied to.

One enhanced feature that is easily dismissed is the Grep (General Regular Expression Parsing) style. Grep is a Unix pattern-matching language that InDesign CS3 adopted in its Find/Replace dialog box to let you do sophisticated search and replace. InDesign CS4 adds Grep capabilities to its paragraph styles, so you can have character styles applied to text, based on patterns. It does so this when you place text, when you type text, when you replace text, and for any text already in the document that uses that paragraph style. You both save time and get automatic consistency. For example, you could specify a single Grep expression that finds any price (or any phone number, or any fraction). By including that expression in a Grep style and then applying the style, InDesign will automatically apply the character style you chose to text that matches the pattern.

InDesign CS4’s new conditional text feature lets you set up documents such as catalogs and lets you specify text changes for various editions, such as pricing in different countries. Using the Conditional Text panel, you apply a condition to the text and then turn conditions off and on to display each separate edition. Changes to the document are reflected in all editions.

A subtle but useful change is the ability to add new styles in the various places you can choose them. Say you are deleting a character style named Test. Before, InDesign would let you select a character style to use in its place, or you could just remove the style and keep the formatting. But what if you wanted to use a new character style you forgot to create before deleting this one? You’d have to cancel the operation, create that style, and then delete the unwanted one. Now, you can create the new style on the fly when asked to replace the existing one.

Another example of a simple but powerful enhancement is the new All Languages dictionary. If you publish in multiple languages, this will save you real time. If you have words, such as proper names, used in your various documents, you previously had to add such words to each language dictionary you used. Now, you can add such terms just once to the All Languages dictionary, and no matter what language you are publishing in, InDesign will consult this dictionary as well as the local language one.

A third is the ability to draw a frame in which to place a graphic during import, so InDesign then automatically sizes the image to fit in that frame. InDesign CS4 also adds more controls on how multiple files can be placed at once time into a grid of frames.

In the “fixing an obvious omission” department: the Story Editor can now show table text. And if you use the companion InCopy program, you will now see changes to text in tables tracked, not just changes to text outside of tables. Other such “fixing omissions” enhancements include the ability to join paths, a way to compare style groups’ settings across documents in a book, the ability to choose how many recently opened files appear in the “recent files” list, and the ability to choose what program to edit a placed graphic or text file with.

Various controls now have nudge buttons to make it easier to increase or decrease settings like size. Plus, when you move pages in your document, InDesign now moves objects that were on the pages’ pasteboards along with the pages. And you can now right-click or control-click tools in the Tools panel to see related tools in the pop-out menus; that makes InDesign conform better to the contextual menu model. An easy-to-miss addition involves InDesign’s new Smart Text Reflow feature, which lets you specify whether and where InDesign automatically adds or removes pages as you add or remove text. This extends the basic functionality of InDesign’s existing autoflow option; the autoflow feature remains available.

Adobe has beefed up the Hyperlinks panel, making previous capabilities more visible. And it now lets you rename hyperlinks you create from text selections, which can clarify your hyperlink choices later on. Adobe has also altered the panel for working with buttons and states—the actions that occur when you press buttons—to better expose its capabilities. (What was previously the States panel is now the Buttons panel, and the old Button tool is gone.) This is useful housecleaning, but I believe the Hyperlinks panel remains too complicated and could stand a more thorough redesign.

Adobe has tweaked the dock interface introduced in InDesign CS3, so you can now float the dock (the side element that holds the current workspace’s panels). But you can no longer close a panel within a panel group; you must now drag it out into its own panel group and then close that single-item panel group. But I’m not sure these tweaks really help that much, and they may cause confusion.

Finally, Adobe has removed the Navigator panel, instead using enhanced zoom controls via the mouse. That’s a small step in simplifying InDesign’s considerably complex set of interface elements.

What Adobe has ignored. Despite the variety of tweaks, Adobe has ignored some flaws in InDesign. Foremost is its approach to transparency and lighting effects on text. You cannot select a string of text and apply such effects, as you can in QuarkXPress. You can apply them only to all the text in selected frames. InDesign introduced transparency to desktop publishing, so it’s odd that this omission from InDesign CS2 remains an omission two editions later.

Another CS2-era omission involves the autocorrect feature, which lets you tell InDesign to replace user-defined text strings with different ones. Like the similar feature in Microsoft Word, it lets InDesign correct common misspellings as you type. It also can be used to replace abbreviations with the full term. But it still can’t use special symbols, such as em dashes or copyrights, either in the search terms or their automatic corrections.

And InDesign CS4 doesn’t provide an option to automatically replace double hyphens with em dashes as you place and enter text. Given that Microsoft Word still gets this wrong (it replaces double hyphens with en dashes), it would be very useful to get this autoreplacement right in InDesign—and save us all from having to remember the keyboard shortcut for dashes.

The revised Links panel displays more information about links, including thumbnails of images. New controls include hyperlinks to the pages each image appears on, and the ability to replace all image files with one filename extension to same-named files using a different extension; this is very handy to replace for-position-only JPEG preview images with production-quality TIFF or PSD images.

In the area of layout, InDesign CS4 still doesn’t handle text wraps correctly with bulleted and numbered lists. When such lists are in a text frame that wraps around another object, you’d expect InDesign to adjust the lists so the bullets and numbers are properly positioned and that the indent after them is adjusted to take the wrap into account—just as InDesign does if you apply a left margin or first-line indent to text. But InDesign doesn’t make such adjustments for bulleted and numbered lists, and the only workaround is to adjust the frame itself so the other object doesn’t intrude into it.

Finally, I don’t understand InDesign’s inconsistent hyperlink export. Hyperlinks applied to text are retained when you export to HTML, but not hyperlinks applied to graphics. Adobe says that’s because InDesign doesn’t export objects such as lines and frames, and a hyperlink applied to a graphic is actually applied to its frame. But that’s not how people see it; you can’t apply a hyperlink to a graphic other than through its frame, so the net effect is that you lose those links when exporting the file for use in the very medium that hyperlinks are designed for. Also puzzling is why InDesign strips out hyperlinks in files exported to Flash, since Flash supports such links. Adobe needs to rethink its hyperlink limitations, both for Flash and HTML output.

As Adobe works to integrate its Creative Suite further, it should consider offering a WYSIWYG HTML export, à la QuarkXPress, so people can use InDesign as a wireframing program for initial Web design. But I don’t recommend that Adobe eliminate its current basic HTML export, which converts styles to CSS and exports the constituent text and graphics to raw HTML-friendly versions so you can construct a Web page from them. I suggest that InDesign offer both approaches, so if you’re mocking up a site, you can retain its core layout parameters for further refinement in Dreamweaver. And if you’re taking print content as raw material for the Web, the layout context is removed so the Web designer isn’t encumbered by it. They’re both valid approaches, so why not offer both?

Australian Macworld’s buying advice. I like InDesign CS4. It enhances many small aspects of the program without dramatic changes to its user interface or operations. And it adds a half dozen or so new or significantly improved features, such as smart guides and improved link management, that will make designers’ lives easier.

Still, compared to the previous version, it’s a middling upgrade—so you get less for your money than you did going from InDesign CS2 to InDesign CS3. If you’re upgrading the Creative Suite anyhow, then moving to InDesign CS4 is a no-brainer. But if you’re paying for the InDesign CS4 upgrade separately, I see no must-have features that would make me jump from InDesign CS3 immediately to the new version; I’d consider it instead as a, “hey, if you’ve got the cash to spare, why not?” upgrade. Upgrading from InDesign CS2 or earlier versions is a no-brainer—the combination of changes in CS3 and CS4 is amazing.

Of course, the upgrade costs a third less than what Quark is charging for its QuarkXPress 8 upgrade, and that product has very few enhancements. So by that comparison, the InDesign CS4 upgrade is a bargain. If you are an XPress user, InDesign continues to widen the gap between the two programs. Unless you have a large investment in XPress-specific plug-ins and scripts, InDesign CS4’s enhancements should give you even more reason to switch.

Company Adobe Systems
Cons Text wrap doesn’t work for numbered and bulleted lists; hyperlink export is uneven.
Pros New smart guides features make precise layouts easy; flexible cross-references capabilities; improved link and preflighting management; ability to export files for further work in Flash Pro; several timesaving additions among enhancements.
Product InDesign CS4
Rating 4.5
Price as rated $1249
OS compatibility 10.4 (Tiger),10.5 (Leopard) Processor compatibility Universal

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