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Adobe InDesign - What is Adobe InDesign?

written by: Amy Carson•edited by: Michele McDonough•updated: 5/18/2011

Learn what Adobe InDesign is and what it's used for, why it crushed the competition (Quark), and InDesign's mysterious connection to the box of Cocoa Krispies in your cupboard. Difficulty: InDesign is not chocolate-flavored.

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    What Is Adobe InDesign? The Insider Answer

    InDesign is the program that saved us from dealing with Quark, Inc. I say this tongue in cheek, but it's true. QuarkXPress was, and still is, a fantastic desktop publishing program. Until the early 2000s, Quark was the only game in town, and it showed. New releases were never ready for prime time, and the company was notoriously difficult to deal with.

    I was a "beta tester" for Quark 4.0 when it came out in 1996-7. I say "beta tester" in quotes, because I was working with the official release version, but it was so riddled with bugs that it was unusable in a production environment. I wound up being one of dozens in constant contact with Quark via forums and e-mail, reporting bugs and suggesting improvements, which eventually (over the course of many months) led to the stable 4.11 version. I don't wish to malign the employees of Quark; they were all friendly and helpful. However, it seems the corporate environment just wasn't very interested in releasing clean versions or implementing feature requests.

    We all dreamed of one day having a good Adobe-produced page layout application, one that interacted seamlessly with Illustrator and Photoshop, played well with PDFs, and just generally listened to customer input.

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    What is Adobe InDesign? The Descriptive Answer

    Graphic design can be roughly split into web design and print design. Adobe InDesign is a program used to lay out documents for print. It's part of the holy print design triumvirate of Adobe: Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign.

    Each of these programs has a role to play in producing pieces for print. Imagine you are assigned to create a brochure incorporating photos, line art, and copy (blocks of text). Photoshop is the program you use to edit photography, or raster art (images composed of pixels). You'd prepare the photos for the brochure in Photoshop, adjusting color, cropping them, sharpening them, and the like. Illustrator is the program you use to edit the line, or vector, art (images composed of points and Bézier curves).

    The logo of the company you are producing the brochure for is likely to be vector art, and if you had to edit the logo, you'd do it in Illustrator. Of course, this could easily lead to a discussion of the sanctity of logos and how you should never have to edit a company's logo, but let's just say that some companies aren't quite on top of things and will provide you with a crappy version of their logo pulled from their website, in which case you'd offer to re-create it in Illustrator for them so their brochure doesn't look like garbage. Just saying.

    Okay, so now you've got all the photos ready, you've got the logo they "provided" you by pulling some 75 x 50 pixel 72 dpi monstrosity off a website cleaned up and redrawn in Illustrator, you've been given the copy, and you've sketched out a layout. Where does it all come together?

    It all comes together in InDesign, that's where.

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    Adobe InDesign is a Page Layout Program

    InDesign is a program that allows you to lay out graphic elements on pages for print, hence the term page layout. If we continue with our brochure example, you'd create a landscape (wide) 8-1/2" x 11" page and begin importing photos, art, and text and positioning it where you want it all to be. One other very important feature of a page layout program, and InDesign's other main purpose, is its output features. InDesign is built to play well not only with desktop printers, but with the high-end printing and plating systems of real-world print shops. InDesign offers controls and settings printers use to ensure that your brochure will print properly from their mega-machines. Photoshop and Illustrator do not offer such fine controls. If you sent a layout made in Illustrator to a printer, they'd place that Illustrator file in InDesign before running it. Do try not to send a printer a layout made in Photoshop, because while they'll also place that Photoshop file in InDesign before running it, they'll have a good laugh at your expense first.

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    What Can Adobe InDesign Do?

    What InDesign does best is lay pages out for print. Every day, you encounter printed pieces created in InDesign. Your Cocoa Krispies box was probably laid out with InDesign, as was the catalog you received in today's mail, the cover of the CD you're playing right now, the billboard you saw on your way to work, the logo-marked company pen you "borrowed," and the calendar you keep forgetting to write appointments in.

    InDesign is used to create:

    • catalogs
    • ads
    • flyers
    • direct mail
    • brochures
    • calendars
    • specialties (pens, keychains, and other swag)
    • packaging
    • posters
    • cd covers
    • letterhead
    • business cards
    • sales aids
    • billboards
    • trade show displays
    • user manuals
    • books
    • in-store displays

    and more.

    In sum, Adobe InDesign is where printed pieces come together. In some special situations, such as long documents like books, other programs (in this case Adobe's FrameMaker) reign, but for pretty much every project a designer runs across, Adobe InDesign is the program to set it up in. If you're ready to learn more, the Adobe site has a good selection of instructional videos to help you learn more about InDesign.