EAN-13s on a budget

colcandoo

From time to time, there will be a need for any designer to add an ISBN barcode or EAN-13 to artwork that is being created. Typically, the customer supplies the number by itself and the barcode is created from that number and placed into the artwork. The question is… how does that number turn into a barcode?

This article isn’t going to be a long and technical article about how barcodes are generated and the math/programming that goes into it. Instead, it will point to some available resources for generating the odd barcode here and there, rather than fully developed software that can batch produce barcodes and integrate with databases.

Most of this post refers to EAN-13 or ISBN style barcodes, simply because since 1 January 2007, ISBNs are 13 digits long and use the EAN-13 barcode format for their barcode structure and appearance. What this in turn means is that a solution that can generate an ISBN can also generate an EAN-13, a standard used by most of the world for generating product barcodes… except if you live in the USA or Canada where UPC is used more often.

To my knowledge, no Adobe nor Quark product (nor any product from its latest rival, Affinity) ships with a barcode module as default, but Microsoft Windows users who use Corel Draw will know that it ships with a barcode module and has done so for the past 15 years (just a hint Adobe if you’re looking for ideas or innovations for the next upgrade to Creative Cloud). That’s well and good, but if you’re like me – a Mac user running the Adobe Creative Cloud, Corel Draw isn’t an option.

If you’re also not in the market for dedicated barcode software (as there are hundreds of products that are available) but would like to create a barcode with the minimum of fuss from your desktop or laptop, there are three alternatives that I would suggest:

Plug-ins

Many of the paid plug-ins that are substitutes for the Data Merge feature of Adobe InDesign typically come with a barcode module or add-on. For example:

But if you’re a designer that isn’t after an enterprise solution for making hundreds or thousands of barcodes, but just wants one barcode for a self-publishing client or a craft brewery for their bottles, then many of these products are probably overkill.

InDesign Scripts

Because I work in InDesign most of the time, having the ability to create a book cover and barcode in the same application has advantages for me. That said, here are three scripts that are worth a try:

BookBarcode by Indiscripts – a paid script for Adobe InDesign (€39). It offers lots of customisation and allows for batch creation of ISBN barcodes. If the pennies are tight, there is a “try” version that creates a “vanilla” EAN-13 barcode without the added features and bonuses that would be required from a book publisher or brand agency.

EAN Barcode generator by Konstantin Smorodsky – free script available from the Adobe Add-ons site. Does one ISBN barcode at a time and is intended for general purpose EAN-8 or EAN-13 barcodes, but since ISBN barcodes fall into this category, this still qualifies. Does not put the human-readable ISBN above the barcode though.

ID Barcode by Nick Morgan and Bruno Herfst – free script that supports EAN-13, ISBN, ISSN, ISMN; some customisation of fonts, includes human-readable ISBN above the barcode, EAN-2 and EAN-5 supplemental barcode.

Websites

To my surprise, there are several websites that can create CMYK, text-as-curves, vector graphic barcodes that are worthy of consideration. Again, the internet has these sites in abundance, but of the sites that stood out were:

Terry Burton’s online barcode generator – This site creates a vast array of barcodes, yet alone EAN-13/ISBN. Options are limited per barcode, but if functionality is your thing, definitely a worthwhile website.

Bookow.com – Generates a vector PDF ISBN barcode. No customisation but contains human-readable ISBN above the barcode and all type is set in OCR-B. There are also other useful tools on the website for book publishers.

GS1 (EAN-13 barcode generator) – The Swiss site of the GS1 organization has a feature that creates EAN-13s. Again, no fancy bells or whistles but it does the job.

Free Barcode Generator – Another no-nonsense barcode creator with some options but without the fanciness of the scripts or plug-ins.

Free ≠ yours to do with what you will

The last 7 links have mentioned free resources, but remember that the creators of these resources have the same bills and overheads that you do. If their script has saved you time and effort, and their website has a way of making a donation, seriously consider making a payment to these developers who go out of their way to not only make these resources, but allow you to use them without charging a hefty sum.

 

 

Data Merge PDF Export vs regular PDF Export

From time to time, I receive feedback on my Data Merge to Single Records script saying that – when exporting to PDF – spreads or hyperlinks won’t work. There is a reason for this and it has nothing to do with the script, but a behaviour (or bug) of how Data Merge exports to PDF.

A regular user of Adobe InDesign will be aware that there are two different kinds of PDF export – print and interactive. What users may not be aware of is that there is a third, more subtle method of PDF export, and that is PDF export during Data Merge.

On the surface, the PDF export looks the same, but the devil is in the detail. When merging directly to a PDF directly from the Data Merge palette (or using the Data Merge to Single Record script), there are options that cannot be chosen. These are:

  • The ability to merge to an interactive PDF
  • The page range (not the record range)
  • Spreads
  • Create Tagged PDF
  • Create Acrobat Layers
  • Hyperlinks
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The export PDF dialog box via Data Merge. Note that several options are greyed out.

With the exception of being unable to check the spreads checkbox, the other limitations don’t usually pose too many issues when creating print-ready PDFs. I don’t know the reasons why these options are unable to be checked and in my mind it doesn’t make any sense that they should not be able to be selected at all.

But I digress… if interactive PDFs need to be created using Data Merge (for example, a survey where the participant was directly named during the Data Merge) then this cannot be done via the export to PDF directly from Data Merge.

There is a workaround

The solution is to merge to an InDesign file, and then export the merged InDesign file to an interactive PDF.

This situation presented itself in a real-world example where a school wanted to provide an interactive form to the parents of the students. The form would contain the student’s name, class number and teacher from the Data Merge panel, but other components of the document were interactive form fields. The PDFs had the name of the student and the teacher as the filename. The solution was as follows:

  1. Use the Data Merge to Single Record script to merge to InDesign files to a new location using the name of the student and the teacher in the filename.
  2. pdfdiff2

    Using the Data Merge to Single Records script to merge as InDesign files.

  3. Once created into a new directory, select a single file at random from that directory and ensure that it opens correctly without any font substitution. Export this single file to an interactive PDF using the settings you would like to use for the remaining files, and click OK.
  4. Open the interactive PDF that was created to make sure it opens as intended. If so, close the PDF and delete it (the reason will become apparent in a moment).
  5. Close all documents and run the Batch Convert script from Peter Kahrel. If you can’t get to the script palette from here because regular palettes are hidden and replaced with a dialog showing recent documents, go to the Window Menu, Utilities, then Scripts.
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    Peter Kahrel’s Batch Convert script is used to convert the InDesign files to Interactive PDF files.

  7. Once Peter’s script is open, choose the input folder by pointing to the folder containing the newly created InDesign files. The three checkboxes underneath this option should be unchecked.
  8. Choose an output folder by pointing to a destination folder for the interactive PDFs.
  9. Choose the source format as InDesign and the target format as PDF (interactive).
  10. Click OK

Peter’s script will now begin to work through the files exporting them to interactive PDFs. While this technique works, it’s annoying to have to double-handle files. One other frustration with this method is that the interactive export settings have to be initially created from a “sacrificial” PDF. To be fair, this has nothing to do with Peter’s script, but rather a “feature” (or lack of…) by InDesign. Unlike the print PDF presets, there is no ability to create interactive PDF presets.

This is a feature I would like to see and if you feel the same way, make sure to tell the Adobe InDesign team at their feature request/bug report form. In fact, I personally wouldn’t stop there… instead of having to go through this entire procedure, I’d let them know that Data Merge’s features need to be expanded and improved upon so that workarounds like this should not be necessary.

 

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.

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

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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

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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!

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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.

Advantages:

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.

Cons:

Exclusivity

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:

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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.

NPS

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.

 

 

 

 

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