Adobe InDesign 2

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Improved type, book, table and XML handling - but what really makes InDesign 2 stand out are its new transparency effects.

The launch of InDesign two years ago was probably the most keenly awaited design software launch ever. After all Adobe dominates the worlds of bitmap and vector graphics with its Photoshop and Illustrator flagships and here was its "next-generation Quark-killer" ready to do the same for DTP. Sadly it was a huge disappointment. The underlying technology might have been revolutionary, as Adobe kept telling us, but it didn't really let the end user do anything that they hadn't done before. The 1.5 release addressed version 1's most obvious limitations but hardly set the world on fire. So is version 2 another damp squib or does InDesign finally fulfil the hype?

In fact there is one area in which InDesign has always stood out from the crowd - its typographic control. With unique features such as optical kerning and margin alignment you can be sure that your text looks as good as possible. Most impressive was the multi-line composer which weighed up more than one line when it decided on the best compromise between hyphenation and word and character spacing. Now this has been upgraded to take the entire paragraph into account so that you can be sure that your text will automatically be as readable and attractive as possible.

Also improved on the typographic front is InDesign's "glyph" control, its handling of individual characters. There are new menu commands to give quick access to common insertions such as white space and break characters. There's also a new Glyphs palette which lets you quickly see and select any character from any installed font. This is especially useful when used with advanced OpenType fonts which include extra characters such as swashes, small caps, discretionary ligatures and so on.

InDesign's typographic quality is unmatched.

One of the biggest disappointments with the first release of InDesign was its poor long document handling. This has been partially addressed with the new Book palette which lets you add, delete and reorder multiple documents into a single publication. Once set up, you can number pages sequentially across the whole book as well as create tables of contents, indexes, cross references and so on. You can also print the entire book or selected chapters and output them to a single PDF. Using the Synchronize command you can copy the swatches and styles from one master document to all the others. Without features such as footnoting and conditional text handling, InDesign still isn't a match for long document specialists such as Ventura or FrameMaker, but it's certainly a lot better than it was.

InDesign 2 also solves another common problem for the more technical designer - table handling. Now with InDesign 2 you can finally set up proper cell-based tables and import them from Word, Excel or any tab-delimited source. Using the dedicated Table menu and palette you can then control features such as row height and width, formatting, heading rotation and so on. You can also embed images and tables within cells. Advanced features such as automatic heading rows for multi-frame tables and spreadsheet formulae are still missing, but InDesign's new table handling will make life a lot easier for many users.

Table handling is much improved.

Improved typography, book handling and tables would all be high on any user's wish list but they still aren't exactly killer features. What does take InDesign 2 into completely new creative territory is the introduction of transparency. Using the new Transparency palette you can select any native or placed object or group, including text boxes, and simply change the opacity level. And, because InDesign's transparency handling is non-destructive, you can change it again at any time in future. It might not sound that amazing but transparency opens up huge design potential allowing design elements to become seamless, integrated parts of each other and of the page as a whole.

And InDesign offers more than simple transparency. Also available from the Transparency palette are a whole host of Blend Modes such as Darken, Lighten, Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity - the same set of 15 modes as are available in Photoshop. Apply one of these to an object or group and the way that the foreground object interacts with the background changes so that the object becomes an organic part of the overall design.

Also new are the Drop Shadow and Feather commands which can also be applied to any object or group including text. As you'd expect the Drop Shadow command lets you offset the effect as well as set its colour, opacity, blur and blending mode to create a photorealistic 3-D effect. The Feather command meanwhile blurs the edge of any object - again including body text - to soften it and again make it blend into its background.

Transparency and blend modes open up unlimited creative potential.

At this stage many readers will be thinking: what's all the fuss about? After all, the likes of Xara, Corel Draw and Canvas have been offering far more advanced control, including graduated transparency and the ability to easily apply transparency to layers and individual characters, for nearly five years now! The difference is that InDesign is the first program to offer such capability within a dedicated, multi-page, text-oriented DTP environment.

More than that, the drawing packages tend to take the easy way out by rasterizing their areas of transparency. InDesign though, follows Illustrator by using Adobe's "flattening" system. This actually breaks down all overlapping areas into discrete objects that it recolours accordingly. The advantage this offers is that wherever possible objects are maintained as pin-sharp PostScript-friendly vectors rather than halftoned bitmaps which is especially crucial for maintaining the readability of text. The system isn't foolproof and adds considerable complexity - users will have to get to grips with different "flattening styles" that trade-off quality for speed - but it does enable professional print-oriented DTP to move into new areas of creative design.

As it uses the same flattening system as Illustrator 10 and Acrobat 5 it's no surprise to find that InDesign 2 supports transparency effects in both placed AI and PDF files. What does come as a very welcome shock is the native support for transparency in Photoshop PSD files. Again this is nothing new for drawing packages but in the PostScript-oriented world of DTP the only way of including non-rectangular photos in your layout used to be to create convoluted vector clipping paths. Now you can easily integrate non-rectangular, soft-edged bitmapped objects as truly seamless parts of your page design.

With its background of shared technologies - Adobe Graphics Manager for wysiwyg PostScript-based display, Adobe CoolType for font handling and Adobe Colour Engine for consistent colour management - all three of Adobe's flagships finally seem to be pulling in the same direction. In the past turning to your DTP application always involved a serious loss of creative power, now InDesign 2 really does seem to work hand in glove with Illustrator and Photoshop as a fitting creative centre.

Integration with Photoshop and Illustrator is near seamless.

Of course all this new creative power is exciting - but it's completely useless if it can't be relied on in a professional commercial print context. As such, Adobe has seriously overhauled InDesign's output capabilities with a revamped Print dialog. As well as being more intuitively structured this offers new capabilities such as the ability to print master pages, thumbnails, grids and guides, an option to save driver-independent PostScript files directly from the dialog and the ability to specify different bleed settings for each side of the page. And it enables the user to take full control over the flattening process.

InDesign's new Print dialog is definitely an improvement, but for a next-generation solution it still looks decidedly old-fashioned with no imposition control or print preview. At least InDesign offers a new Preview mode in which non-printing items are cleared off the trimmed version of the page, and a new Overprint option to simulate what the output will look like if objects are set to overprint rather than knock-out. Ultimately though, while previews are helpful, what really matters is the success of the final print-run. Here Adobe's reputation and experience with PostScript stand it in good stead - but designers would be wise to ensure that both they and their bureaux know exactly what they are doing before taking advantage of InDesign's new transparency effects.

InDesign 2's focus is very much on print, but these days it's essential to bear cross-media publishing in mind. InDesign still offers basic HTML output but it now sees the future as belonging to XML. This won't be of interest to all users - or even many users yet - so the new support comes as a separate plug-in. Once installed, this makes available a new Structure View window down the left of the screen, where you can set up the document hierarchy with simple drag-and-drop, and a new Tag palette, where you can specify XML tags and set up style-to-tag mapping. Once set up, you can both export and import XML. Without the pervasive browser support needed for XML to take off, InDesign's XML handling is more of a marker for the future than a current solution - but still an important one.

InDesign now offers XML-based tagging, import and export.

More support for prospective Web-oriented publishing workflows comes in the form of InDesign 2's support for WebDAV, XMP and SVG. WebDAV (Web-based Distributed Authoring and Versioning) is the protocol that enables collaboration on ongoing InDesign projects. XMP (eXtensible Metadata Platform) is an open standard for embedding metadata describing the content of documents to make them easier to track, manage and retrieve. Finally SVG (Scalable Vector Graphic) is the XML-based graphics format that Adobe is promoting as the graphics format of the future and which a new version of GoLive will be leveraging shortly.

These initiatives show that Adobe is thinking ahead but of more practical use to most users will be InDesign's integrated support for Acrobat PDF. PDF Export now includes the ability to output to PDF 1.4 format which supports advanced features such as Acrobat 5's new security levels, controllable bleeds and unflattened transparency. There's also the option to include eBook tags in the PDF which enables the creation of more easily accessible PDFs ready for screen readers and for reflowable display on handhelds.

With features like these InDesign is beginning to deliver on Adobe's Network Publishing promise of any-time, any-place, any-device publishing, but for the moment it's still better seen as a design-intensive print-oriented package. In particular InDesign 2 is the first design application to offer reliable transparency effects within a PostScript-oriented, text-heavy, multi-page DTP environment. Even better it manages to provide this new power without the application immediately slowing to a crawl as was the case in the past (though it still benefits from as much computing power as you can throw at it).

Overall InDesign 2 breaks new ground that really makes a practical difference enabling users to produce better creative work that stands out from the crowd - the one thing that designers value most.

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System Requirements: Pentium II or higher, 128MB of RAM, 105MB of disk space, Windows 98, ME, 2000 (SP2), NT 4 (SP 6), XP, CD-ROM, 1024x768 display.

Tom Arah

February 2002

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