Small tips to save big time

I often find it interesting to watch the different ways that my colleagues and I may perform the same task. Take the InDesign command Paste in Place for example. I’ll typically use the keyboard shortcut, but I’ve noticed that one colleague will go to the edit menu and select it from there; another will right-click and access it through the contextual menu, while another has an ergonomic mouse that has the shortcut hot-keyed to an additional button (No-one used InDesign’s quick apply panel).

While there are many ways to accomplish the same task, they all take different amounts of time and hand travel. A two-handed keyboard shortcut takes less time than navigating through the menus and – if using a mouse – leaves the cursor in its last position; but takes one hand off of the mouse briefly. In my situation, I’m using a Wacom tablet, so after using a keyboard shortcut, I then have to reposition the cursor as I’m usually still holding the stylus in my right hand. I’m also not a fan of the gymnastics my hands have to often do to in order to execute a task, and recently I’ve been hot-keying eight of my commonly used shortcuts to the contextual menu of my stylus.

Luckily in the Paste in Place example, there is more than one way to accomplish the task, and there’s no right way to use this – it is whatever is most comfortable for the user. What I would like to highlight in today’s article is how to accomplish common tasks more efficiently.

It is worth pointing out that this isn’t an exhaustive list and doesn’t get into details that might require the purchase of dedicated software such as Digital Asset Management software, or the creation of hot folders from software such as EFI Fiery Command Workstation, but is a few tips that anyone of any skill level can take advantage of to save a minute here and there from their workflows.

Within InDesign

Add your own interface items

The option to edit Keyboard Shortcuts and Menus can be found from the Edit menu

Keyboard Shortcuts (KBSC)

From the keyboard shortcuts menu, it is possible to assign keyboard shortcuts to items that do not have shortcuts assigned by default, as well as redefine shortcuts from the defaults. Shortcuts can also extend to scripts in the scripts panel as well.

Add own menu items

It is possible to make your own set of menu items using InDesign’s own menu customisation, but this only allows users to create their own menu sets based on the default set – you can’t make your own new items… without scripting. Indiscript’s Marc Autret has an article where he explains an overview of how this can be done, and provides examples as well.

Add own contextual menu items

Adding the Draw Measurement Arrows script to the contextual menu.

Silicon Publishing’s Ole Kvern wrote an article about making a contextual menu startup script that adds functionality to the contextual menu available via the right mouse button. However, I’ve since added my own functionality based on his script by editing the script in a text editor and adding my own items.

Improve on viewing the current items

Customise workspaces

Does every tool need to be visible or docked all at once? Perhaps consider making workspaces more appropriate to the workspace that is actually being used. InDesign ships with some defaults that behave this way, but it is worth experimenting.

Using Bart van de Wiele’s CreativePro 2020 tip to make a custom links palette separate to the usual links palette.

An extreme (and clever) example was demonstrated at the CreativePro 2020 Online Conference by Adobe’s Bart van de Wiele. In the 3 minutes max session, he demonstrated a way of customising the Links palette and saving it as its own workspace – allowing more information about a link to be viewed briefly, and then navigating back to the regular workspace.

Improvement on the scripts panel

Peter Kahrel’s runscript user interface

InDesign’s default script panel literally mirrors how the scripts are filed in finder/explorer, but is missing many features such as a search facility and could really use an overhaul, given its appearance hasn’t changed since InDesign was released. Luckily, Peter Kahrel has made his own launcher that allows scripts to be filtered by name.

Within any application

Not all tips are specific to Adobe InDesign. One Adobe application in particular – Adobe Acrobat – has long been criticised for its lack of customisation, so any opportunity to improve its use is appreciated.

Better navigation

Use dictation

For users that hunt and peck the keys rather than touch-typing, it is worth considering using the real-time dictation features in Mac and Windows operating systems (and some specific software) as word recognition is on par with typing speeds up to 90 words per minute or more.

Learn the new OS features

Each time the operating system is updated, it is worth paying attention to the changes made by the platform for any time-saving features. One example from my own circumstances is using spotlight to access applications rather than the dock.

Default Folder X

I was introduced to this paid Mac plug-in from St Clair Software several years ago and I’ve been using it since. It extends the functionality of save as dialogs which provides recent folders, open folders and favorites.

Controller specific shortcuts

While keyboard shortcuts were mentioned earlier in the article, it is worth noting that they can usually be applied as buttons to controllers that are beyond the usual two-button mice that can be found in an office.

Wacom Stylus

The default radial menu accessed via the Wacom Desktop Center

I’ve used the base-model stylus for years. In addition to the buttons on the stylus, there are four more buttons on the tablet; and the ability to call upon a contextual menu with one of the stylus buttons that allows more tasks to be carried out.

Gaming mice

Mapping custom keys to the Logitech G300S gaming mouse.

I was introduced to this tip once again at CreativePro 2020 online, and it seemed like such a simple idea that I’d wondered why it hadn’t been implemented in my workplace. For example, a base-model gaming mouse such as the Logitech G300S has nine programmable buttons.

Touch portal

A simulated appearance of an iPad using sideshowfx’s Photoshop shortcuts via Touch Portal.

Long-known to live-stream performers on Twitch and Youtube is a product called the Elgato Streamdeck. Put simply, it is an additional keyboard that is customizable to quickly access shortcuts via one button instead of the keyboard gymnastics that can come with some keyboard shortcuts.

A cheaper alternative is software called Touch Portal, and this turns a smartphone or tablet into a streamdeck-like device – ideal for anyone who has an old smartphone or tablet that isn’t otherwise in daily use. The free version is limited to two screens with eight icons each, but a paid version is offered with far more extensibility at a price that is affordable for any pocket.

While this does require its own customisation, SideShowFX has boxed up a collection of Photoshop, Illustrator, After Effects and Premiere shortcuts that are ready to install. Their youtube page has a great explanation of how it all works.

Have it your way

Ultimately, these are solutions that I find helpful, but I like to keep an open mind to new techniques and strategies to get my work done efficiently and accurately. If you have any techniques or strategies you would like to share, please leave a comment or get in touch directly via the contact page.

Referencing pages of a multi-page PDF file during data merge… workaround

At the time of writing, there are three multi-page/artboard file formats that Adobe InDesign can import when placing a file via the File/Place function. These formats are:

  • PDF
  • Adobe Illustrator
  • Adobe InDesign

(While it is possible to create many artboards in Adobe Photoshop, it is not possible to import a specific Photoshop artboard into Adobe InDesign… – at the time of writing that is – but that is another article!)

When placing one of these three formats, it is possible to control several import functions using the show import dialog box, such as:

  • Which page (or pages) to import;
  • How the pages should be cropped;
  • Whether or not to place the pages with a transparent background; and
  • What layers to show and their visibility;

However, when importing these file types as variable images during a data merge, these options are unavailable and replaced with the following:

  • Only the first absolute page of the file is imported (not always the page numbered 1 as the first page can also be – for example – in roman numerals or start at a page other than one); and
  • Page cropping, transparency and layer visibility is determined by the same variables as the last file of that type to be placed into the artwork.

For now, there is no workaround to control the latter issues during a data merge, other than to be familiar with this behaviour and plan the merge accordingly. There is a workaround for importing pages beyond the first page of a PDF file… but not an Illustrator or InDesign file.

Workaround: Split the PDF

The term “workaround” is used loosely in this context. Unfortunately, the solution is to break the PDFs into single page records. This can be done within Acrobat using the split button from the organise pages panel.

This feature also allows multiple files to be split at once.

By default, the resulting files will maintain the same filename with the addition of _Partx prior to the filename, with x representing the absolute page number.

Otherwise, I’ve prepared an action that you can download here that will save the PDFs to the Documents folder of the machine running the action.

(Yes, I’m also aware that there are quite literally hundreds of websites out there that will split multi-page PDFs to single PDFs for free. However, the methods outlined above will do so without involving a third party).

The next part of the workaround involves the data itself, and I’ll be using Microsoft Excel to create formulas to make the numbering for the resulting pages. All variable images being referenced will also be in the same folder as the data file, meaning only the filename is required and not the full path and the filename.

For data where the page number is known

Add a column to the database that references the absolute PDF page number that needs to be imported.

Absolute vs Section numbers abridged:

Absolute numbers refers to a page number based on the total count of pages in the document, while section numbers refers to the page number that was applied using page numbering in the application that made the PDF.

For example, take a PDF that contains 20 pages with the first six pages being in roman numerals, and the remainder being in decimal numbers. These two different styles of numbering are section numbers, while absolute page numbers refer to the total count of pages. To reference page iv of the PDF, the absolute page number to reference is 4. To reference page 5 of the PDF, the absolute page number reference is 11.

In this example, the A column represents the PDF to reference, the B column represents the absolute page number, and C represents the result. To obtain this result, the following formula can be used:

=SUBSTITUTE(A2,".PDF","_Part"&B2&".pdf")

This formula will look at filename reference and substitute the .PDF portion of the filename for _Partx.pdf, where x represents the figure in the B column. Using this formula, only filenames with the PDF extension will be affected, while filenames in other formats will be unaffected.

For data where the page reference needs to increment by one more than the row above

The same formula can be used for the naming, but another formula is used to determine if the page reference should increase if the same base file is being referenced in the row directly above.

In this example, the N column represents the PDF to reference, the O column represents the absolute page number, and P represents the result. A 24 page file NS91912 is being merged and needs to have the page reference incremented by one so that the filenames are NS91912_Part1.pdf to NS91912_Part24.pdf. The following formula can be used to change the page reference:

=IF(N2=N1,O1+1,1)

This formula will look at the filename and determine that if the filename is different to the row above, put the number 1 in the cell, BUT if the filename is the same as the row above, take the page value from the cell above and add 1 to it into this cell.

In a perfect world

Again, this is a workaround – it will only work for PDFs and requires some upfront work to prepare. Ideally, if I had my way and could implement some improvements, I’d like to see:

  • Not just the ability to choose a specific page, but choose the correct trim box and layers as well. For example, a file reference such as myFile.pdf;1,trim;Layer1,Layer2 where 1 represents the absolute page number, trim represents what trim box to use, and Layer1,Layer2 represent the layers I would like to appear (or leave the layer bit blank if all layers should be visible).
  • The ability to perform a similar task for incoming INDD, AI or PSD files.

Add date selectors to date fields in interactive PDF

A feature of Acrobat DC that can be quite handy is the prepare form feature. It allows a scan (or a document with no form-field elements) to have form-field elements applied to it, so long as the formatting of the artwork follows the practices listed in this document.

However, there is an improvement that I feel could be made to this feature, but may have been missed by the Acrobat team, and that is date fields. Take the following example:

Now run the Prepare Form feature of Adobe Acrobat DC Professional:

The signature is picked up OK, but the date field is just a text field.

After doing a little digging online, I found that changing the name of the Date field to something like Date_af_date (the importance being the _af_date text) and this will change it to a date field;

But it doesn’t truly act like a date field. If I close out of preview mode and tab to the text field, it behaves like a regular text field.

It isn’t until the format category is changed to date that the field behaves like a date field with a date picker.

So that’s fine to edit one field, but if there are lots of date fields to edit, or this is a regular task, it can be time consuming. Ultimately, I’d like Acrobat’s prepare form feature to detect the date fields just like other fields like text inputs and signature fields are auto detected.

Until that happens, I’ve created an Acrobat action that will run not just the prepare form feature, but also a javascript that will find any of the resulting fields that have the word Date (case-sensitive) in them and make them selectable date fields. That action can be downloaded here.

To change the date format, open up the Acrobat action and change the following line in the script:

The number in brackets can be changed from 5 to a value between 0-13 that represents a format as shown below:

0: m/d
1: m/d/yy
2: mm/dd/yy
3: mm/yy
4: d-mmm
5: d-mmm-yy
6: dd-mmm-yy
7: yy-mm-dd
8: mmm-yy
9: mmmm-yy
10: mmm d, yyyy
11: mmmm d, yyyy
12: m/d/yy h:MM tt
13: m/d/yy HH:MM

In the meantime, if you would like the Acrobat team to update the prepare form feature so that date fields are automatically detected, I’ve added it to the Acrobat Uservoice wishlist.

Extract an Image from an image field in an Acrobat Form

In January 2017, Acrobat DC added two new buttons to the prepare form panel in Adobe Acrobat DC: Add Image and Add Date:

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The Add Image button creates a rectangle that – when clicked in Adobe Acrobat Pro or Reader DC – launches Finder (Mac) or Explorer (Windows) to navigate to an image to be inserted into that field.

To demonstrate this, I have created a business card order form in Adobe InDesign for a Travel Agency.

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Note that I have not made the image field in Adobe InDesign. There is a good reason for this: it isn’t possible at the time of writing the article as the option doesn’t exist in the buttons and forms panel in Adobe InDesign.

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While this is frustrating, it can be added in Adobe Acrobat. I’ll leave a link to the indesign uservoice feature request to hopefully have this (and the add date button) added in future (ignore that the Adobe Staff says its fixed at the time of writing – I disagree).

For now, I’ll export this file as an interactive PDF and add the add image button to the artwork.

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I can then close out of preview and look at the form. This should be fine for testing purposes.

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For the purposes of prototyping this form, I’ll type some dummy data and use a stock photo from Adobe Stock.

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Fields all look fine, the text can be extracted by either cutting and pasting into my InDesign card template, or using the export option from the Prepare Form tools. While the image isn’t juxtaposed correctly, I can do that once I extract the image from the PDF… or at least I thought.

The image won’t extract

If I go to the Edit PDF tools of Acrobat, the image (and its field) cannot be selected.

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The image isn’t shown as an attachment in the attachments tab.

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If I use the Export all as images from the Export PDF tab, will that work?

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No, it only exports the images of the beer bottles and the Eiffel Tower shown in the original card.

How about if I use the Edit Object tools, right click on the image and select “edit image”? Unfortunately, this is unavailable too.

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Using the Enfocus Pitstop Professional Plug-in, can I extract the image this way? No!

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Yes, I could zoom in and take a screen capture, or render the PDF in Adobe Photoshop, but neither will retrieve the image to the exact resolution the original image was supplied. Looking at this particular image, if I zoom in at 3200%, it is quite a high resolution image.

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At this point, I turned to the internet for help, only to find the following thread on the Adobe Forums that contained a response from an Adobe Staff Member that read as follows:

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To me, this is bizarre… the whole purpose of adding an image would be to remove it later for another purpose, especially since the form field doesn’t have any cropping, scaling or rotating options. The whole point of me making this form was so that:

  • the client didn’t need the full version of acrobat to add the image as an attachment to the PDF;
  • the client Didn’t need to send the PDF and the image separately;
  • I could receive one file to prepare the content of the business cards, rather than bits and pieces from various emails or downloads.

However, all is not lost!

There is a way

Create a new InDesign file and place the filled in interactive PDF as an image.

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Export the file as a print PDF using the [High Quality Print] setting with the following change to the compression panel:

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Now, when the PDF opens in Adobe Acrobat Professional DC, I’m able to use the Print Production Tools to click on the image and then select Edit Image.

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Once the image opens into Photoshop, I can see it is the same size as the original.

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So yes, it is possible to extract an image from the Image Field of a PDF, but it takes a little work. I’m just frustrated why the Acrobat Team made it difficult “by design”.

Lastly, if anyone from the Acrobat Team is reading this going “he’s having a go at us again”, rest assured, I will be praising the team in an upcoming post.

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