The big InDesign CS5 review

Most of the new features and improvements of InDesign CS5 are optimised for creative efficiency and effectivity. The biggest improvements are found in the area of cross-media production. Animations and rich-media do no longer require an extra effort in Illustrator, Flash, or Photoshop — the basics can be managed within InDesign. However, if you want to deliver something more than relatively simple eye candy, Catalyst and beyond that Flash itself, is where you’ll be spending your time.

A large number of new features in InDesign are destined to make life easier and time pressure less of an issue. Some of these features don’t work exactly as I expected or could have been taken one step further so to include all possible usage patterns, but most are really excellent improvements for your workflow.

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InDesign isn’t 100% stable yet; it crashed a couple of times on my Mac, but only when I was trying out things that you’re probably not supposed to do with the program anyway.

In terms of more business-like productivity Adobe has added collaboration with CS Review, a feature you can’t test or use unless you have a workgroup to test/use it with. Collaboration features — no matter how they are implemented — are always a step forward, but I would have liked Adobe to go even further and include more editorial workflow functionality in InDesign. That’s illusory of course, as one can’t expect Adobe to step on the toes of its business partners like Vjoon and WoodWing.

InDesign CS5 is certainly not bloatware, in my opinion. It has too many improvements in the time-savings and efficiency departments. It’s an exciting new version that you definitely at least should try out.

What follows is a (new) feature-by-feature review. I did make a selection of the most important new features and improvements — about 90% is covered here.

Multiple page sizes work very easy and simple, but one thing would have made this great feature even better: when the pages panel would better reflect the different sizes. As it is now, the pages panel shows pages of a different size in only one way: by decreasing (or increasing) page width, but if you decrease both width and height, the panel doesn’t reflect that. But really: I can live with it.

The Layers panel has been improved. It works just like Illustrator’s, with disclosure triangles and objects as sublayers neatly ordered below the Layer you’re working on. Selecting a sublayer is done the same way as in Illustrator too: click the layer icon at right and drag it up or down within the same Layer to change the order of objects on that Layer, or drag them outside the Layer to a new one.

The Content Grabber is a bit of a disappointment. It only allows you to grab the content inside a frame but not rotate it or scale it, which is what I expected. Frame edge highlighting — the frame on every object including grouped ones, gets highlighted as you hover the mouse — on the other hand, is a very useful feature, and not only when you’r working in Preview mode.

The same applies to path and point highlighting. When you hover over a frame with the Direct Selection tool, InDesign CS5 will display the path as well as the control points within the path. Grabbing a point on an oval, for example, enables you to drag the point and when you do, you’ll also see the handles to further change the path. However, when I played with this new feature using some modifier keys like the Option key, InDesign crashed.

“Transform multiple selected items” works fine, and more or less the same as in other applications from Adobe and from other vendors. What I would like to see is the ability to grab multiple items and then rotate them together but each one around its own axis.

LiveScreen drawing would be great if your screen wouldn’t flicker with each millimeter you drag an item or content. Live Distribute works really well and saves you a trip to a panel. It allows you to resize a bunch of objects using the spacebar to adjust the spacing between the objects as you resize them.

The Gap tool lets you adjust whitespace in-between two objects. These can be object frames and text frames. By pressing one of the modifier keys, you can change the Gap tool’s behaviour and move the object while the gap stays the same. The good news about the Gap tool is that it lets you change the gap between object frames inside text frames, so that you can quickly position one or more images higher or lower or more to the left or right within a text flow.

However, as soon as you rotate a frame, the Gap tool no longer works, which is odd because it does work with rectangle as well as oval frames…

The Paragraph span and split feature — e.g. to span a heading across columns — doesn’t work with multiple column layouts (the option you can set at file creation time), but only with frames that are set up to have multiple columns. I tried to span a heading across two columns in a three column layout. Nothing moved. However, when I first selected the number of columns to span and then selected the split column feature, the heading did span those columns.

The manual should be clearer about this. In fact, you’ll need to go through the hyperlinked video in the manual to find out the feature only works with text frames that have multiple columns set up in the Frame Options dialogue; it won’t work with multi-column threaded frames.

Balance columns belongs in the same league: it won’t work if you set up your document as having multiple columns, but it will work with text frames that you set to have multiple columns from the Text Frame Options menu. The same menu option will control the vertical justification of text in frames. In InDesign CS5, this vertical justification now also works on irregularly shaped frames. I tried this out together with Balance Columns on a 2-column frame of a very irregular shape and it worked like a charm.

Live Corners also works like a charm. With Grid placement, you can place multiple files and while you drag them over the page use the arrow keys to change the number of columns and rows of the placed images, but this feature requires some training. I tried it several times and unless all of your images are the same size, it’s not really easy to get right from the first try.

Auto-Fit is just a new option in the Frame Options menu, where you can select an image to automatically rescale or crop when its frame is resized. Needless to say this is a handy feature that saves a couple of extra clicks.

The word ‘grid’ takes on a new meaning with the new feature that draws multiple frames in a grid setting. Again, as with Grid placement, you use the arrow keys to increase or decrease the number of frames you want to create in the grid pattern.

Duplicating objects into a grid is also done by using the arrow keys. This was about the twelfth time I repeated this dragging-with-arrow-keys action, and I finally got the hang of it. The crucial thing to remember is that you need to drag far enough in-between the different instances you’re creating in order to actually see the grid create itself.

Live Captions are a boon; they used to be available only when you had a plug-in or an InDesign based editorial workflow application.

Mini Bridge is a panel-sized representation of the Bridge with dedicated icons. You can launch the Bridge application from here or browse thumbnails from the Bridge when it is already open. I was under the impression the Mini Bridge did require the actual Bridge application to be running for it to show you assets, so it’s not as efficient as Apple’s Media browser, for example.

File Previews of one or more pages (even all pages of a document can now be added to the preview) can be made by selecting the appropriate option in InDesign’s Preferences. However, QuickLook still doesn’t work, and InDesign icons are generic on my Snow Leopard system.

The biggest improvement in InDesign CS5 is without a doubt its extended Flash capabilities. Video files in FLV and H.264 (as well as others) can be imported, as can MP3 audio files. Preview is available, although only in the Media panel, and a very large number of presets are now available as well in the Animation panel.

While it’s certainly a big improvement that you can actually animate quite easily –setting up an animation is a lot like what you do in Toon Boom’s Animate Pro– I am a bit concerned the way it works isn’t going to be easy as cake for the average layout designer. For example, I tried to have two circles animate. One was supposed to circle the other and both were meant to move forward along the page.

Easy, right? Easy, yes. Costing little time, no. My truly simple animation of two circles took a bunch of selecting, dragging, and clicking in panels and on the page actions, so imagine what it takes if you want to create a more complex animation.

The workflow and decision making for my animation went something like this: grouping the two circles together applies motion to both circles in tandem and that’s not what I want, but it’s logical. Not grouping them together allows me to apply different motions to each of them, so that’s what I’ll do. Selected a motion preset “Move to Right” for the first circle and drew two circles one on top of the other –the top one serves as the motion path of the one below. But this didn’t work exactly as expected: the motion path object jumped to a different location on the page — I suspect this to be a bug as dragging the path where I wanted it to be, worked fine.

Now I had a circle running in circles and another one moving to the right, but I wanted to have both moving to the right while the one was running in circles. Grouped them together. I ended up with one animation starting when the other had finished. To get them running both simultaneously I had to link them in the Animation panel. And that finally got me what I wanted.

The workflow for even a simple animation isn’t very efficient in terms of time cost –it’s easy to understand, but there are a lot of decisions to be made and separate, seemingly disconnected actions to do. To be honest: I don’t see how Adobe engineers could have made this process less time consuming, except perhaps that when I group two objects together, it seems logical to me I want to animate them simultaneously, although I can imagine it won’t be logical to all people at all times.

Animation has a few more tricks up on its sleeve. For example, you can set the animation to run at page load, but also at later times, triggered or not, etc. It’s fun to play with, but also a bit overwhelming…

Now for video: in CS4 you could place video but it wouldn’t play but in PDFs and you couldn’t set a poster frame and see the video play in your unfinished InDesign document. You still can’t see it play in the document, but at least you can set a poster frame and see it play in a small preview window. If you want to play it full size, it takes an extra step: exporting to Flash Player, for example.

I was surprised by the speed with which InDesign was capable of exporting a page with a H.264 video. Apparently, the engine that takes care of this process is very efficient. Even when I animated the video itself –the whole video frame– the export took only a couple of seconds. The whole Flash integration is impressive, but there’s one thing that I don’t get. Why does Adobe still insist on shipping Catalyst as a separate application, when it could easily also integrate Catalyst’s capabilities into InDesign itself (and all the other CS5 applications, I would imagine)?

Whatever the reasons, the large majority of InDesign users will be quite happy with the built-in Flash features as they are. But if you want really interactivity Flash elements you’ll have to turn to Catalyst or even the Flash programming application.

Object States and buttons are somewhat inter-related so I’ll discuss them together. So you can create buttons in InDesign CS5 that can control not just navigation but also object states. Object States are different objects through which you cycle using the button (or something controlled via a script, I should imagine –slideshows come to mind).

You can also cycle through different looks –“states”– of the same object. I tried this with one oval and a button. I drew the oval as one state and then changed its appearance several times –each appearance change was one state. You create a state by clicking one icon in the panel. I then created a button and linked the button to the state. I expected this to take a lot of different menu selections, but here the Adobe engineers have made it incredibly easy: just select the Multi-State option and you’re done.

Exporting the document to Flash finished the job. Super easy.

Exporting to HTML from InDesign CS5 has improved as well. It’s XHTML that InDesign supports, and the document created contains CSS styles, either embedded or in a separate style sheet. There’s better handling of tables and other goodies, but what I found particularly odd was that a two-page document with text on the first page and graphics on the second resulted in a first-page-only XHTML file.

The graphics page had disappeared from the file altogether. I double-checked my settings, but the results were the same. The graphics included the Object State oval and the button that I just described, so I expected at least to see an empty second page. No such luck. A bug perhaps?

Not a bug but in some people’s opinion but an omission is the lack of HTML 5. Now I would agree with that opinion, were it not that HTML 5 is far from a finished standard. Nevertheless, we all know Adobe isn’t a fan of HTML 5 for obvious reasons, and it’s tempting to attribute the omission to Adobe’s Flash focus. However, I personally can’t imagine Adobe not supporting it when it will actually be ready for showtime –but also not earlier than InDesign CS6…

One last major new feature is CS Review, an online collaboration feature that runs across all CS5 applications. It’s silently available as a blue CS Live icon in the toolbar and it helps with providing feedback and comments, and tracking changes. The latter is also new to InDesign: when in Story Editing mode, you can now track changes much as you can in InCopy.

In InDesign’s Story Editor, the changes live in a Track Changes panel. You must explicitly activate the feature for it to become available.

CS Review, which is part of CS Live, is in fact a Buzzword integration. Buzzword is a typical paid cloud computing service which allows you to create and store text files on their browser-accessed server. It’s better known as, and it’s a Flex/Air/Flash driven web browser based service delivered by Adobe. The link with this browser based web service in InDesign is a panel which is your gateway to the service.

The integration is well done –it’s seamless. However, if you already have open, clicking one of the document links in the CS Review panel won’t just reload your browser window, but will open a new one. Once in the browser you can annotate and review the document using the functionality.

Although I didn’t spend much time trying out this collaboration feature, from the short time I ‘worked’ with it, I think it’s a good start. I also think it needs some polish to become a real must-have. For example, in Safari I experienced annoying flicker when scrolling through my 2 page document.

Last but not least, there’s a Presentation mode, so you can turn off all panels and toolbars and show your document in all its glory, colour labels for page thumbnails, etc, etc.

As I said earlier: InDesign CS5 is certainly not bloatware. It’s an exciting new version that you definitely at least should try out.

Download the InDesign CS5 review

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J.D. – Copywriter – Tech. Writer – Editor at Visuals Producer – Contributor at Photoshop User, Studio Daily – Sub-editor at RedShark News