January 21, 2013

Adobe InDesign, Scribus, LyX, VivaDesigner, Quark Xpress, Affinity Publisher

Recently I have been (re-)learning InDesign again. I have an old CS3 version, but now tried the new CS6. The program is impressive in any respect. The structure and logic are beyond that of most other programs. Perhaps only a number of 3D applications are able to match it. A lot of digging in the menus is required to make full use of it, but once that is done the program allows to produce the most complex documents for any purpose imaginable: print, web, animations etc. there is very little the is not capable of.

InDesign screendump

One of the big drawbacks of InDesign is that it can't retrieve data from an SQL database without using Excel as an intermediate translator of formats. Excel has to import data from SQL and then export it as CSV (comma separated text file). This is where things often go terribly wrong when data in SQL is stored in a certain way. Excel interprets a number of characters in a very peculiar way, making a mess out of the CSV. That in turn messes up the import in InDesign. It can be corrected manually, but that can be quite a chore, when high volumes of data must be retrieved. In addition there can be no automatic update from SQL, because the intermediate Excel conversion remains necessary. Finally the SQL database has to be perfect - containing no incorrect delimiters, such as commas, tabs etc. - to be imported without manual editing which is close to impossible to do when working with substantially large databases.

Years ago I used it to produce technical educative books that consisted of great lengths of text, many images and tables, formula, footnotes, indexes and extreme lay-out gadgets that all had to be composed into seemingly restraint appearance that was easy on the eyes. The new CS6 version has improved significantly compared to the already feature rich CS3.  One of the companies I used to work for in the past required me to work with FrameMaker - a document make up program that worked together flawlessly with systems aimed at controlling information in a structured way. It did not have the fancy features of InDesign, which makes the latter even more impressive since it has the capacity to achieve similar structure while also allowing to create appealing lay-outs.

Scribus screendump

While searching for alternatives to InDesign I ran into Scribus and LyX. Although both are very good programs for which they were designed, neither of them comes even close to what InDesign is capable of. Scribus was written to create folders and posters for which it is excellently suited. It gives designers a lot of features and freedom to swiftly create the aforementioned documents, but it lacks the structure to compose lengthy and complex documents. What is painfully missing is the option to anchor images and tables within text, which means that re-editing large parts of extensive documents could cost a lot of time and effort.

LyX screendump

LyX is based on LateX and is predominantly used in academic circles. It operates as structured as InDesign, but it lacks its lay-out features. Apart from that it requires users to load and install all sorts of separate modules that are hard to find, since there are so many of them. Once you have succeeded in finding the proper modules it allows to work very fast in a very structured way. However the documents it allows to produce are visually less appealing than what is possible with InDesign. An advantage that LyX has over InDesign is the function that creates very complex formula within the program itself, which is what scientific users want. Users that write MathLab related documents, Physics and math students will find LyX extremely useful.

InDesign requires users to depart with a recurring sum of money, which quickly amounts to a shedload of cash. Scribus and LyX are both open source programs, available for free, but well worth to give donations....

A little known DTP-program is the Germany based VIVA. There is a paid version (129 Euro) and a free version. VIVA claims to be able to import and edit IDML-format documents up to CS4 from Adobe InDesign and that it can be hooked up with ODBC databases. I haven't tried this to be honest, but you can check out the program's functionality sheet here. I think it may be worthwhile to try this program for users that have to edit legacy IDML files or work with database connected documents. It is a program tailored for professional environments in which various designers, that can be in different locations, collaborate, even over the Internet for which it has specific functions. For instance the lead designer can disable functions of the program so that parts or features of a document can not be changed by collaborators with less access rights.

Viva Designer screendump

And then there is the good old QuarkXpress program, that hasn't really made a lot of progress for quite a few years now. New users running into problems will find it difficult to find proper solutions in the forums, while on Youtube channels they run into videos created by bogus gurus that will not solve their problems. The official Quark guru lost himself in what he calls 8-minute challenges from which particularly new users will not learn a lot at all, while the overlap on many of his videos is significant, meaning he repeats himself often. Displaying the same old - same old tricks, so to speak. It has however good modules (macro-like 'job jackets') to automate certain tasks. The 2019 version can import and edit IDML and INDD files, while the first step to responsive design is made. Quark is mainly good for making straight forward books and magazines that do not require a lot of editing afterwards. If the latter is necessary you may run into trouble, especially when the book contains many anchored graphics (that must move along with the related chunks of text when text and / or graphics are removed or inserted elsewhere in the document). The intricate interactive, visually rich online documents that InDesign allows its (advanced) users to make, can not be built in Quark, because it simply lacks the tools to do that.

Note: On the Facebook page of Quark users I noticed quite a few disgruntled reactions, mainly because they were dissatisfied by Quark's update policy and bugs that annoyed the crap out of them. I have worked with Quark for several years in the past and the old versions (up to 2016) were quite usable, but after that Quark's management seems to have taken a turn in the wrong direction. I think it's sad that a program that once did ground breaking work for the DTP trade, has kind of lost its focus on user satisfaction, which is crucial for a sustainable way to continue to do business.

Quark Xpress screendump

So, does a DTP program exist that can handle all requirements that assigners and designers may have? Not yet, but there is a new kid on the block that is progressing in a promising way. It is called Affinity Publisher that is issued by Serif. It costs a one time purchase fee of around 50 Euro, which includes 3 free upgrades. No subscription payments are imposed upon clients, which makes it very affordable. Even though the program is still very young compared to its competition, it is function rich and has an interface that updates in real time (which makes it quite user friendly). Two functions that are dearly missed in the current version are that of creating footnotes and endnotes that are a necessity for many users. But the program is rapidly being developed and is fully and flawlessly integrated with Serif's vector drawing program and photo editor. Documents can entirely be created from within Publisher without having to open the other programs from Serif's suit. Or edited of course. I will write a separate blog entry about this new program in the near future. In 2021 I have been using this program for a few years and if Serif succeeds in continuing to develop Publisher in the way it currently does, it may win a rather large chunk of the DTP market in the time to come. But development has to include specific functions that are not present in the current version to become useful for users who require certain functionality, such as the ability to create footnotes, endnotes and image captions.

Affinity Publisher screendump