Monday, June 07, 2010

Review: Adobe InDesign One-On-One

My name is still attached to some TeX macro packages on the internet. Yes, TeX, because LaTeX was too high level for me. Yet 21 years after I wrote that TeX macro package and wanted to layout a book with complex layout, I turned not to TeX but to Adobe InDesign. The reason? When I'm laying down text and graphics side by side and want word wrapping and other niceties, I will not put up with a compile/edit/debug cycle, especially not when my modern machine has 4 cores, 8GB of RAM, and I'm not afraid to blow it all on fancy UI just so I'm not puzzling over why this went there.

As it happened, I happened to run into this need during the regular Adobe 18-month upgrade cycle, so I downloaded InDesign CS5 and proceeded to quickly realize that this is definitely what people mean by "fat client." The UI was clearly designed for experienced users to whiz through, and anyone who's serious about needing this sort of layout tool would also have to put in some substantial committed time to learn it, just like the couple of weeks it took me to learn TeX
a couple of decades ago.

I browsed through a few InDesign books and quickly picked out Adobe InDesign CS4 One-On-One as the one that looked like it would be the most useful for a complete beginner. There wasn't a CS5 version of the book yet, and I figured that the differences wouldn't be major enough to warrant concern.

The book is laid out in 12 lessons, each covering a specific facet of InDesign. As someone who knows the basics about kerning, tracking, and ledding, many of these lessons went by really fast. Then I would hit something new to me, like tables, drawing (wow, the darn thing comes with several drawing tools --- I might not ever have to learn Illustrator), and transparency, and my learning would suddenly stutter while I picked up all the new concepts.

The book takes a task oriented approach: for every task, some starter files are provided, and then the reader is walked through a series of step-by-step exercises to execute some task. My big problem with this set-up is motivation. Very frequently, there is no motivation provided as to why you want to do a certain task. Sometimes, it's obvious during the exercise, but many times, I would be scratching my head wondering why I would want to do this. A secondary problem is that some times I would want to find out how to do something, and it's not always obvious where in the book that would be. For instance, auto-numbering figures is described in the section on style sheets. I'm sure there's a good reason for this, and I could find it in the index, but the book (and InDesign) is definitely big and complex enough that you need to do this frequently, even after you've worked through all the exercises.

As I expected, very little stuff was broken between CS4 and CS5, so I could work through almost all the exercises. Once I was done with the exercises, working on content proved to be really easy and fast: I wrote entire chapters in a matter of days in a fit of writing frenzy. It's an entirely good thing, since by the time I looked up I had almost run out of my InDesign trial license, and all I had time to do was to put up my book's kickstarter page.

All in all, it took me about 10 days or so to work through every exercise in this book, and each day was about 3 hours on average, so if you needed to you could inhale the entire book hacker-style in under a week. This included all the videos I watched, and there's about 4 hours of video in the book's DVD (along with all the data for exercises) There's not a lot of explanation as to the why of certain things (like style sheets weren't properly motivated), but since I was coming at this from about 5-6 years of pretty solid TeX and LaTeX hacking, that didn't bother me. The book is recommended as a reasonably good introduction to InDesign for someone who had never dealt with the program before. As a reference, it's serviceable, but other books might be better. That said, I'm not buying any more InDesign books until/unless I really find the need for them. So far in writing this book I really haven't found anything that I hadn't run across in One-On-One.

As for InDesign itself, you can take a look at my sample chapter. It's not complete (no page numbers, no index, no headers, no footers, no fancy per-page tabs), but even that chapter was made much easier by writing it on InDesign, rather than a word processor. I'll write a full review after I'm done writing the book (which is currently on hiatus because of the upcoming tour, and because I am awaiting the full version to ship and arrive).
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