Alternate ways to merge with Creative Cloud

Recently, I was contacted by Lance from Nova Printing in New York, concerning a technique I’d demonstrated but had not provided a tutorial for.


The technique was one Mike Rankin had demonstrated with live type on a path (chapter 18 of InDesignSecrets Guide to Graphic FX).


Lance was more interested in creating perspective text going from left to right, not top to bottom as per the previous example – something that couldn’t be done in InDesign. I knew this was something that could be done in Adobe Illustrator, and that Illustrator does have a feature similar to Data Merge, but my experiences with it had been clunky. Nevertheless I persevered and to my surprise, was shown that other Illustrator users were not only using this feature, but had improved upon it.

Improved Data Merge procedure in Illustrator


In a nutshell, the technique involves a javascript from Vasily Hall to use a txt or csv file and then export using a batch sequence, rather than import an XML into Illustrator. This technique is written about in greater detail elsewhere – one piece from John Garrett of Hypertransitory sums it up the best. He explains the technique in full on his website, but He also has a full course on Linkedin Learning that explains the procedure in thorough detail.

The script’s author, Vasily Hall, also writes about how this quite powerful script came to be and shows a real-world workflow.

There is another thorough step by step on this procedure by fellow Australian Stephen Marsh of Prepression.

Photoshop can merge too!


Really? Well, it too has a feature similar to Data Merge, and once again it is well documented on the web, but only when looking for the term “data driven graphics”.

Once again, another blogger has done the heavy lifting here… check out Daniel Hedrick’s explanation of Data Driven Graphics.


Improved effects to live type

Photoshop and Illustrator are able to create a wider variety of effects to live type. Any live type can also become variable type, meaning that boring old “Dear Your Name” letters are a thing of the past.

Toggle visibility

Unlike Adobe InDesign, these two techniques can allow a variable data object’s visibility to be turned on or off based on the database.

One-to-many database relationship to make graphs

Within the advanced Illustrator technique, it is possible to have a main data file call upon smaller data files saved separately – something not possible in the other techniques.

Workaround to handle returns in a database

Using the advanced Illustrator technique, it is possible to output carriage returns in a database. This is done by substituting the carriage returns in the database with double backslashes.



Wouldn’t it be great if one AI or PS file that contained the required variable data could then be placed into InDesign and data merged from there? Yes, it would be fantastic, but alas it does not exist, at least without a paid plug-in. To accomplish this feat otherwise, the graphic has to be merged out from AI or PS first, and then added as a column in the database that InDesign will reference. While it can be done, it is done at the expense of inconvenience and time.

Time taken to process records

Unlike data merging in InDesign, using the other techniques take more time to output each unique file. This is a serious consideration when processing databases longer than 100 records.

Inconsistency between applications

Each data driven application has different ways of importing or exporting, and knowing what can do what is frustrating. Two can toggle layers, one can’t; one can produce QR codes on the fly, the other two can’t; two can output to single files, while InDesign can only do this with the Data Merge to single record script that I made in 2015. What boggles me is why two of the applications use txt or csv to import, while Illustrator relies on XML (unless you are using Vasily’s script). More importantly, none of the applications will handle an Excel file – an application I would argue that data would be more likely to have created in the first place!

Still lacks features of Microsoft Word

When I can write that Microsoft Word has features that InDesign doesn’t, it’s a sad day. Alas, Microsoft Word’s Mail merge has advantages over InDesign’s Data Merge, such as:

  • Filtering records;
  • The “next record” feature so that multiple records can appear in the same text-frame;
  • Handle returns within a database without ruining the output;
  • Link to an Excel file

These are to mention just a few.

Attitude of Adobe itself

During the InDesignConference 2016 in Washington DC at the all-attendee session with the Adobe Engineers, fellow Australian Melissa Grant asked a question about what future improvements will be made to Data Merge. To my bemusement, their response was that they didn’t think it was widely used feature and that it wouldn’t be upgraded… that was until a show of hands in the room revealed that over half of attendees in the session were using it. With the exception of adding variable QR codes, InDesign’s Data Merge feature remains the same since ten years ago. My opinion is that if more functionality was added to Data Merge, more people would use it.

What next?

For now, I’m still using Adobe InDesign to handle my Data Merging needs, as much of the merging I’m doing is functional rather than artistic (e.g. address blocks, consecutive numbering). I do plan on investing some time to research the Illustrator and Photoshop techniques, so expect some videos in the future about these methods.


Yes, they can hear us!

During the 2016 InDesignConference in Washington DC, there was an Adobe questions and answers session on the opening night, featuring Assistant Product Manager for Adobe InDesign, Mohammad Javed Ali. During this session, the Adobe team fielded questions from attendees ranging from specific anecdotal issues to feature requests. At the beginning of the session, Mohammad revealed that there are four channels of online communication that Adobe pays specific attention to:


The Adobe InDesign forum

This self-moderated user-to-user forum is monitored by Adobe staff. Users’ questions are normally answered by other users, but occasionally are answered by the Adobe staff that are monitoring the forum.

The “wishform”

This form on the Adobe website allows users to either submit a bug report OR a feature request for future versions of any Adobe software.

Crash Reports

Whenever an Adobe application unexpectedly quits, a dialog box usually appears not long after the “crash” asking users to fill in a form to ask what happened. Don’t ignore this prompt when it inevitably appears – Adobe does pay attention to the reports.


This is information that is made available from the software itself and reports back on performance issues – unlike the other communication, it requires no intervention from the user.

They can’t be everywhere

Sites like mine and other pages I recommend in my Must see resources are great resources for InDesign. I would love to think that articles I have written have directly influenced the future direction of Adobe InDesign, but the reality is that Adobe cannot be everywhere at once to read every article not just from me, but other bloggers and sites that write about InDesign or any Adobe product.

Similarly, these sites usually feature comments or response sections for any questions, concerns or comments to be raised so that they can be addressed by the author or other readers. While some great and truly constructive conversations have resulted from forum posts on these sections, some are akin to soap-boxes for disgruntled users to vent their frustrations about the software. I make a distinction between posters who raise valid points and make attempts to seek appropriate remedies; and posters who do nothing more than pour scorn on the product.

Regardless of the kinds of post, if it is posted in a place that Adobe staff are not monitoring or unlikely to see it, then the poster is ultimately screaming into the void.

(Anti?)Social media

Similarly, Adobe maintains a presence via many social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. That presence is not necessarily maintained by the team responsible for Adobe InDesign. The Adobe customer service team may see any issues via social media and respond to them, but may not be directly fielded by the Adobe InDesign team.

I want to be heard

Ultimately, if there is an issue that you feel the Adobe InDesign team needs to be made aware of, say it directly to them online via one of the channels mentioned at the start of the article.





Preparation for Color Separation

In recent times, I have received several pieces of “finished art” supplied by clients where the sales representative has informed me that the printed material must be “on-brand” according to the client’s style guides. That should be the end of the story, but upon checking the finished art, it is clear that the artwork has not met the client’s own style guides, or been thoroughly checked by the client prior to submission.

One of two things will now happen – the prepress department can either fix the artwork without disturbing the client in order to fulfil the brief and expedite the work, or we can contact the client informing them of the situation and THEN ask whether we can fix it or have resupplied artwork that is color correct. Considering that the client may receive their proof and resupply the artwork in its entirety, this means fixing the colors again.

For years, I’ve been an advocate of receiving finished artwork that is correct for the following reasons:

  • The client has correct content;
  • Eliminates the risk of human error in prepress from incorrect or unintentional manipulations during corrections;
  • Prepress can output more work considering they are not spending time manipulating files that may only be replaced at a moment’s notice;
  • My employer isn’t losing revenue on prepress time that usually is not passed onto clients by the sales representatives.

That said, I make sure to contact customers who have supplied finished art that is incorrect and outline the issue, giving them the opportunity to resolve the issue themselves or let us do it. It is at this stage where some customers have been willing to fix the artwork themselves, but cannot see the issue. When I ask them to check the separations preview panel, the answer is always the same – “where’s that?”. Because this is a panel that I use so often as a prepress operator, I often think to myself “are you kidding me?” but to be fair, there are many panels in InDesign that I don’t use such as the animations panel; and I would have no idea how to use either.

On that note, I have prepared a video on my Youtube channel on how to use the Separations Preview within Adobe InDesign and used it to highlight instances of color mismatches, issues with black ink, and when white overprints.

This is not the first time I’ve been on my soapbox about this before – (see this article). It also directly relates to:

How NOT to make annotations in a PDF

In early July, I prepared a video for my employer that demonstrated how to mark up a PDF correctly, primarily how to use the commenting tools. This came about as a direct result of the Adobe Acrobat team removing certain icons from the comment panel, meaning that many of my customers had to be re-trained on how to mark-up PDF proofs that they were sent. Since July 12, the Acrobat team has decided to return one of the icons it had removed from the comment panel, but still pushes for the use of the blue arrow tool to make additions, deletions or replacements of text. I’m happy that the icon has returned, but frustrated that it was removed in the first place.


This is important because PDF mark-ups can use the annotations workflow that works like this – simple comments are taken into Acrobat using the comments tool and then imported directly into InDesign using plug-in software available from DTPtools. Here is a link to a video of the workflow in action – it effectively takes the mark-ups that were made in the Acrobat file into the ID file, and these mark-ups can be accepted or rejected in a similar fashion to revisions made in Microsoft Word.

There will be occasions that alterations outside of the scope of the annotations workflow will have to be made, but I would encourage anyone who has been asked to mark-up a PDF for their printer to please read these suggestions:

Use the Adobe Acrobat Reader

Yes it is possible to mark-up a PDF in other software such as Preview (Mac) or in some browser plug-ins, but for the mark-ups to save and be interpreted correctly by the DTPtools annotations plug-in, please use the Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Mark-ups only please

That being said, please do not:

  • attempt to make the changes live in the PDF, but instead use the commenting tools only. This means staying clear of the typewriter tool and only using commenting tools, namely the blue arrow tool to make deletions, additions or replacements (or use the classic icons); highlight or sticky note.
  • open the file in Microsoft Word and save it back as a PDF. This can make it impossible to tell the distinction between the two files and will result in the artwork being set up again from scratch.
  • print the PDF and then mark it up in pen, scan it to a new PDF – this will quite clearly not work with the annotations workflow.
  • add or delete pages from the PDF. If pages need to be deleted, use the mark-ups to indicate this. Likewise, if pages need to be inserted, use the sticky-note tool to inform the operator that pages need to be inserted.

Good instructions

  • Delays and misunderstandings because of unclear instructions = $. This will result in a new proof that will no doubt contain misunderstood edits will need to be corrected, resulting in further proofs, chargeable time, delays and frustration.
  • Make sure your instructions are so clear that edits are easily understandable by anybody. Even if you have had a conversation with someone about the alterations to be made, never assume that the person making the alterations will be the person you had a conversation with.


When working in groups

  • Make a distinction between comments intended for collaborators and authors; and comments intended for a printer. Collaborators generally know what is being referred to, but prepress staff are making changes only, so make sure that the instructions for the printers are easily understandable. Any notes, such as opinions (e.g. I don’t like that font), or topic specific queries (e.g. need to fact-check this statement) really should be between collaborators and authors.
  • “Duelling banjos”. If collaborators can’t agree on specific alterations, don’t take it out on the prepress operator – they are doing what they are told to do in the PDF. If there is a dispute between authors about what does/does not need to appear in the publication, resolve that prior to submitting the PDF to the prepress operator for changes.
  • When collaborating, make sure each collaborator is either looking at the SAME PDF, or the same COPY of the PDF, and that changes are submitted at the same time rather than staggered. There is a great video that specifically deals with collaborating groups here.

Think about the practical application of the mark-ups

  • Have realistic expectations of the edits. For example, supplying a 5 page word file with the instructions “fit on 1 page” is unrealistic.
  • Understand the implications of changes. For example, pages that are designed to work as readers’ spreads will be jeopardised if an instruction to shuffle pages forces the spread to break… a segue to this issue…
  • Shuffling pages… Again this can be quite confusing, especially if LOTS of pages are being shuffled around. Remember that shuffling pages can also break pages that are meant to appear together, such as pages set up as readers spreads. Make sure that the new order of the pages is clear to avoid any confusion.

Ultimately, a well marked-up PDF proof can result in more reliable changes being made faster and on-time.

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