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.



  1. Great article! A couple of items on the VariableImporter for Adobe Illustrator. It does in fact end up importing an XML file – by taking the CSV data and creating a temporary XML file from it, importing it, and immediately deleting it. (Extra settings can be set to keep this XML file and even direct it to a persistent destination.) And, the double-backslashes are for convenience for some folks, but regular nextlines and returns within the CSV file ( have to use some meta key combo in Excel to add a return ) will still work just great.

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