“Warped Perspective” on merging: combine three applications?

As regular readers of my blog may be aware, I am a huge advocate of Adobe InDesign’s Data Merge feature. I consider it a truly under-rated feature and one capable of many creative VDP campaigns.

There are issues which I would like to see resolved, but workarounds are possible:

Issue Workaround
Not being able to export PDFs in “bundles” e.g. sets of 50, or single pages. Post-processing the PDF through Acrobat 9 or above using the “split documents” feature.
Not being able to import specific pages from a PDF. Pre-processing the linked file to be broken into single pages via the “split documents” feature in Acrobat 9 or above; or extract as single pages in earlier versions of Acrobat.
Not having a “next record” feature a la Microsoft Word’s “mail merge” function during mailing labels or catalogues which have a “next record” field which allows text to flow into the same textbox rather than in a separate created textbox via the multiple records per page feature. Post-processing a merged InDesign file using Rorohiko’s Autostitch plug-in, and then manipulating the textboxes to fit appropriately.
Not accept Microsoft Excel files as a database for a Data Merge. Pre-processing the Excel file to be saved as a TXT or CSV file.
Besides identifying images and type in the data header row using the “@” sign, Data Merge doesn’t parse the information in the database (doesn’t know if it is a date, dollar value, surname, postcode, if it relates to items on the page, etc). Treat the Excel file as the “Engine” which can apply limited display formatting (e.g. put dollar signs for currency values) and also apply formulas.

However, there is one issue that I cannot resolve: being unable to integrate with similar data merging features of Illustrator or Photoshop which allow Data Driven Graphics (DDG) but have different rules for construction.

When creating VDP campaigns which go beyond the normal stencil letter, it would be great to use effects on live text such as warp or perspective, but that  simply isn’t possible because InDesign cannot distort type to the extent that Illustrator or Photoshop allow. So if the design could not be done with InDesign, perhaps the effect could be created in Illustrator or Photoshop, and imported into InDesign as an image.

While both Illustrator and Photoshop have similar functions to InDesign’s Data Merge, the method of creation is different, if not complicated. Photoshop behaves like InDesign and references either a TXT or CSV file, but Illustrator will not – instead, it references an XML file.

Wondering if there was any insight to this dilemma, I prepared this post on the Adobe InDesign User forums. At the time of writing this Colecandoo post, the Adobe post is unanswered:


In recent posts, I have overcome variable pictures by creating individual graphics for each letter and then using some clever spreadsheets to determine what picture needs to be used for each letter. This only works however if:

  • The type is fixed width. In the recent post featuring scrabble squares and pencil-case letters, the letters were effectively rectangles of a consistent size. If the type had proportional widths, it would need to have its kerning in tact, this solution would not be possible.
  • The type used uppercase English letters and little else, such as a space or dash. Preparing a similar solution for other European alphabets, never mind asian glyphs, would require many more graphics to be made.

Ideally it would be grand of the three CS applications would “talk to each other” so that, for example, Illustrator or Photoshop could create a file which understood that it had a data field, and be saved so that once placed in InDesign, the data field could be referenced by InDesign’s Data Merge function. I don’t understand why three applications which behave similarly on many levels, behave so differently in terms of creating variable data.

There is third party software which currently allows visually rich VDP like this to take place, but the price of the software is restrictive and only available for larger suppliers of media.

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