Musings on Photography


Posted in book design by Paul Butzi on August 19, 2009


For the past couple of days I’ve been fiddling with InDesign.

What I want to have is something I can use to produce books (by cranking out a PDF which I then upload to Blurb or some other service), and PDF files which I can distribute online. I’ve been thinking a lot about the spectrum of things I want, which ranges from what I’ll call a ‘portfolio’ all the way through to what I’ll call a ‘book’. The distinction is not clear, except that in my mind a portfolio might have half a dozen to perhaps two dozen images, and books have more images. These started out as two entirely separate concepts in my head, but over the past few days, things have gotten more blurry.

I want this thing to simplify the book process, and I had the suspicion going in to this effort that the secret answer was going to be these mysterious things called ‘templates’ in InDesign. It turns out that’s sort of true but not completely true.

An InDesign template is a file which you open the way you’d open a regular InDesign file. It has all the usual stuff in it, and you replace the usual stuff with the stuff you’re interested in, and the result is something you can use to crank out a PDF file. In my mind, I’d open this template, change a few things, and then just drop my photos into the right places, plop, plop, plop, and I’d be done. Magic, right?

As these things are, it’s a bit more complex than that. What I’ve ended up with is a template, all right, but there’s no starting document (or at least very little starting document). The template has some important stuff defined, like text styles for the title, the subtitle, the author, the publisher, and plain text. (I assume more styles will get added as the template gets refined). The template also has what are called ‘master pages’, which you can use to generate new pages in the document. Right now I’ve got four different title pages: with and without images on, and a sort of minimal title page variant and a much more complete variant. I’ve got master pages for pages with page numbers, and pages without. I’ve got a master page for the copyright page, with the boilerplate text on it.

All of these master pages are driven by a handful of text variables. So what you do is open up the template, set the value of these text variables, and then drag the master pages you want into the document one by one. The actual title, subtitle, author, publisher, publication date – they all get filled in in each page, automatically. If I change my mind about the title, I just go and redefine the ‘title’ text variable, and bingo, the title changes everywhere in the document. After I’ve dragged the pages that form the front matter of the book into the document, I just repeatedly drag ‘photo’ pages into the document and plop the photos onto the pages. When I’m done, I’m done. I’ll have one export preset for the web, another for sending off to POD publishers, and I’m done.

The trick with text variables lets you adjust all the occurrences of the title, or author, or whatever, all at once. I’m doing that both for my convenience (to make the next book easier) and to make it easy for someone to take my template and alter it to suit themselves.

The trick with the master pages is this: you can make the masters depend on each other in a hierarchical way, so that if I change where the page number goes, it automatically moves on ALL the pages. And so on.

I will say that InDesign is not intuitive to me. I spent about an hour and a half trying to align things using the align tool, which seemed to have stopped working. It took me the full hour and a half to discover that somehow I’d managed to accidentally switch the alignment tools from aligning to the page margins to aligning to the selection. And that when you’ve only got one object selected, aligning it to itself is the same as not doing anything. That was a headbanger, and I’m sure to an outside it would have been comic.

But all it did was give me a headache.

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9 Responses

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  1. Ron Dowd said, on August 19, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    I appreciate your sharing your process. I’ve been wondering about getting into inDesign myself, but I don’t find other Adobe products intuitive. You’re confirming this…and you’re helping me to decide whether to take the plunge. Thanks for your always interesting posts.

  2. Anita Jesse said, on August 19, 2009 at 4:22 pm

    I had just decided a few weeks ago to take the plunge and get an upgrade on my copy of InDesign. Now, you drop these bombs.

    Long ago, I had given up on InDesign 2.0 and slunk back, defeated, to PageMaker 7. Unfortunately, 7.0 was the last version of that program and it is pretty creaky by now). I had high hopes that a newer version of InDesign would be much more user friendly. This is not encouraging. If you are frustrated, I would likely be driven mad.

  3. Paul Butzi said, on August 19, 2009 at 4:29 pm

    I actually think that InDesign is one of the better bets for what I’m wanting to do. In a lot of ways, though, it’s overkill.

    I suspect much of my frustration is caused by my complete novice in the layout world. I don’t know what things are called, so I don’t know where to look when I run into problems. I’m not familiar with the conventions, so often my expectations of how things will work lead me astray.

    I’d say soldier on. If nothing else, when I’ve got something to share, you can take it and see if it helps.

  4. Anita Jesse said, on August 19, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    You can bet that I will be following you and taking copious notes.

  5. Ed Richards said, on August 19, 2009 at 8:41 pm

    Sounds like a great public service. I have not seen any intuitive layout programs. I once learned the mother of all of them, Framemaker, laid out a big book (text and footnotes, not pictures), and 2 years later I went back to the program and it was if I had never used it before. (For those interested, Framemaker is the tool to use if you want to do the maintenance manual for a submarine or some other 100K+ page document with a lot of structure. Does pictures great as well, if you if you want to illustrate your manual.)

  6. Eric Jeschke said, on August 20, 2009 at 3:02 am

    Most of you would probably take a look at it and run away screaming, but I highly recommend to take a look at my LaTeX templates for POD publishing with

    If you have the stomach to edit using a text editor on a markup language instead of slogging through a GUI, you will find a process that is very simple and repeatable, and easily targeted to different book sizes.

    I did the SoFoBoMo exercise this year with both a GUI tool and the LaTeX markup, and the markup route was gloriously liberating.

    I realize that some folks are lost at sea without a GUI. If that’s you, pass on, nothing to see here….


  7. Martin Doonan said, on August 20, 2009 at 6:23 am

    Eric – your work on this has actually reinvigorated my interest in LaTeX. I may actually make the leap this time.

  8. Paul Butzi said, on August 20, 2009 at 8:41 am

    I worked on Unix development and wrote technical papers (and my senior thesis) using troff. Show me your command line interface, I am unafraid.

    The problem that has (so far) kept me from using LaTeX has nothing to do with using a markup language or command line interfaces. It’s that, frankly, I have long lost the stomach for the time and effort it would take me to run down all the various packages and install them on TWO machines. I’m hoping that Eric will write up his LaTeX experiences and wisdom for the upcoming resources wiki.

    That all said, and speaking as a guy who cut his teeth on command line interfaces using an ASR-33, there’s a lot to be said for using a GUI, wysiwyg interface when you’re experimenting with design, as I am.

  9. Ron Dowd said, on August 20, 2009 at 4:11 pm

    wow, another path to consider. I’d be interested in the LaTeX approach from Eric and any background you (Eric) could offer. Maybe that’s my old IT (computer) background speaking (an affinity for the markup approach)….

    The key for me would be staying conscious of moving from left and right brain and back again (markup vs visual design), when required, otherwise the result could be pretty flat…

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