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Compositing skills

I just got back from Syracuse, NY where I taught a class of book compositors InDesign. There were a few interesting things I learned from the experience. (Book compositors are the slaves who pour in the formatted manuscripts, apply styles and masters, and then make corrections and make sure the pages look good.)

#1: Designers don’t know nuttin’ about creating clean templates with efficient master pages and styles. For instance, a designer would think nothing of simply moving the text frame on a chapter opener page down a few picas. (The technical term for this is called a “sink.”) Compositors need to learn how to adjust the margins to allow the text frame to automatically move down when the new master is applied.

#2: Adobe hasn’t done enough to publicize the “master-based-on-a-master” feature of InDesign. Without exception every compositor in the class was excited about the possibilities of using this feature. And none of them knew about it!

#3: All the compositors thought the only way to release master page items was with the “Override All Master Page Items” command from the Pages palette. None of them, even a guy who had been working with ID since version 1, knew about Cmd/Ctrl-Shift-click on the item you want to override. There should be some way of letting users know about this command.

#4: No one understood the difference between a master page item that was overriden versus one that was detatched. I’ve been meaning to assemble a list of what things you can do to a master page item that won’t destroy the links to other features of the item. For instance, if you override a folio item to change its text, that item will still follow the master page item if you move it.

#5:  Everyone was really psyched about the ability to reveal where custom kerning and tracking was applied. But they wanted a way to apply a keyboard shortcut to the preference. Anyone know if a script could be created to do that “on the fly”?

Sandee Cohen

Sandee Cohen

Sandee Cohen is the author of the InDesign CC 2014 Visual QuickStart Guide as well as the co-author, with Diane Burns, of Digital Publishing with Adobe InDesign CC.
Sandee Cohen

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24 Comments on “Compositing skills

  1. I don’t think that these are really Adobe’s faults. There are things named “the user manual” and the “Help file”… You’re a pro or you’re not. Well you could be somewhere in the middle but learning a software without at least having a book… Well…

    On the other hand, ID is difficult to learn if you don’t have a good trainer that for one or two days will show you how all the tricks to use it for the first time. How many times companies which are hiring me for training 12 or 18 months after they started to use InDesign say at the end : “We should have called you last year, how much time we have waisted because we tried to figure out things alone or keeping to work à la QuarkXPress…” And this happens almost after each training sessions with non ID beginners.

    Adobe’s biggest mistakes in ID:

    – Tools : A, V and Shift-A for Selection Tools (I prefer F1, F2 and F3)

    – No visual signs stating the status of master/non master objects

    – lack of big yellow on screen tips

    – who knows what’s this mysterious tool hidden behind the White Arrow called the Position tool and which is more powerful than QuarkXPress in handling images ?

    – no visual links (or explanation) on how styles are based on each other.

    – why when we create a paragrah style or character style must we immediately then click on the style to create a link between it and the formatted texts ?

    – And many others with nested styles, TOC, layers,… I could speak and explain one day during a session “What’s wrong with InDesign… since 1999” ;-)

  2. Wow, Sandee … that #3 is disconcerting to say the least!

    However, more than once I’ve shocked experienced ID users during class by creating a text frame with the Type tool. (They had been using the rectangle tool right below that, thinking it was the Text Frame Tool, and setting the stroke to 0. Over and over again, for months. At more than one company.)

  3. I’d love to see a list of what is and what isn’t maintained when you override a master page item. It’s extremely non-intuitive. Let’s try to post that or talk about it in one of the podcasts or something.

    For example, let’s say you’re on a document page and you cmd-shift-click on a master page text frame that has some text in it. The text is no longer linked to the master page (that is, if you change the text on the master page, it no longer updates on the document page). However, the colors are linked, so if you change the fill or stroke color on the master page — or give it a drop shadow — that does get updated on the document page object.

  4. David, funny, I first got this straight in my head long ago when I read your section on it in one of your Real World books (it might have been a RW QuarkXPress book!). You had a series of screen shots illustrating how master page items in a doc page are only partially unlinked from the master depending on what you edit … contents, attributes and/or position.

  5. And now the super Real World question to Adobe :

    Have you tested InDesign at prepress stage ? Imagine a document with
    – overriden and not overriden items, – locked via the Object menu or
    – via the locked layer option
    – ID displays nothing about the styles’ hierarchy (Based to…) imagine the prepress operator changes something in one style, imagine the mess in other styles and he’s not aware of that
    – He edits a PSD file where custom layers’visibility has been chosen but the dreadful option chosen by Adobe in the Import Options has not been modified.
    – and so on, and so on,…

  6. First, thanks for the web site.

    I’ve been a compositer and a designer for over 10 years in the Text Book publishing industry. I would agree with you first point, though there is a reason for this. A designer’s job and a compositer’s job are different, the latter is responsible for setting up documents to a the rigid rules of the prototype originally set up by the designers. The Designer however is responsible for breaking those rules to make the pages look good. This is a little simplified, but in my experience it proves to be true.

    Also, designer’s when prototyping typically only have a short list of specificatioins to work from. Page size, minimum margins, base type sizes for the target audience, and maybe a few others. They make up the rest as they design. Most designers that I now rarely if ever work with master pages or even style sheets at this stage. They need the flexability to change things as they go, and if they did set this things up it could cause troubles later in the process. Flexability is one of InDesigns great strengths for designing pages.

  7. I think you didn’t understood my point. I just say that all this flexibility and super powered but hidden features are needed but they are not clearly marked or tagged by InDesign, and when the document goes to somebody who is not aware of how the document was made he will need a lot of time to understand how it has been build.

    For years we have asked Adobe to add visual information how styles are linked, how pages are linked.

    In 2001, I have proposed a feature when enabled, that will display little arrows showing how master pages are linked (yes it’s much clearer than trying to read A, B, C…) but also little icons on objets on the pages telling us :
    – overriden,
    – not overriden,
    – locked,
    – layer locked

    The most difficult thing beginners encountered during the first 5 years of InDesign existence is to understand the difference when the picture frame or the picture is selected and how to use the White Arrow tool. I have proposed that when an image is selected, the stroke around the selection shows dashes or dots. No! Instead of that they have added this display feature to groups ! Even today most of the ID users do not know that there is a Position tool.

    Years and years in submitting major feature requests and still have to spend more time during training sessions explaining how ID works. We could use this wasted time more smartly in discover other features. ID trainers who are reading these lines can be my witnesses : tell me how much time you need to explain the following :
    – text threading
    – text threading from master pages
    – master text frame
    – hidden features (shortcuts)
    – Pages palette and all the features in the flyouty menu
    – text wrap and master pages
    – overriding and stacking objects

    More than a hundred of clients trained and all of them told me : ID is complex, we will need time to master it. Thanks to the training we understand now all these hidden and obscure features and behaviors. If they say that : SOMETHING IS WRONG WITH THE APPLICATION !!!

    InDesign is powerful and flexible, but this has been achieved at the expense of a better information of what is going on in the document. When a document travels from one operator to another in a studio, then we clearly see that the ID engineers seem to have built InDesign like it was a one person software but it’s not. We have 4 major processes with a page layout application :

    – art, creativity, first draft
    – precise layouting
    – text editing
    – prepress operations

    And each has a different approach to the program

    As I have mentionned earlier, I could speak for hours and explain all the things that are wrong with ID, using real life documents made by me and by my clients, but when I crossed the atlantic for the first time in May for the Chicago’s Conferences they didn’t really do everything they could to hear what their number 1 ID evangelizer in Europe had to say. And still today they refuse to listen to me…

  8. I agree with you, Jerome. In my experience, most designers are average application users (though there are many exceptions). As a designer/production guy, I am often handed files without paragraph styles, let alone any master page content. On person I told about nested styles told me her RISD instructor told them NOT to use paragraph styles!

    But designers aren’t paid to be expert application users. They’re paid to create documents to sell, communicate, etc., all of which can be done in very kludgy ways, especially if you have a production guy to take care of the things that go awry when it’s about to go to press.

    All that said, I’d like to have a better sense of what master-on-a-master can do. I use them rarely (because I work with short documents mostly, so don’t need them), and haven’t really established a good workflow using many master items.

    Branislav, are most of your students coming from non-Adobe, non-design environments? Even the most application unsavvy designers I’ve met understand the basic arrow/white arrow selection tools: they’re fundamental to Illustrator. Also, what does the shift-A selction tool do that the direct select (white arrow) tool not do? I first used it right before typing this and couldn’t see anything it does that the direct select tool doesn’t. Why does it exist?

  9. > Branislav, are most of your
    > students coming from non-Adobe,
    > non-design environments?

    No, they come from QuarkXPress…

    Also, what does the shift-A selction tool do that the direct select (white arrow) tool not do?

    1. It can select the picture AND the frame without using any supplemental key like Command or Control.
    2. Also it helps to select the frame AND its content by just clicking/moving the stroke.

  10. What does “master-on-a-master” do?

    Here’s how I explained it to my book compositors:

    When one master is based on another, it makes it much easier to make changes to a single master and have that change applied to all the masters in the document.

    For instance, let’s say you have three different type of pages in a book.

    Text pages that have page numbers (footers), running heads, and margins for the text. Art pages that have page numbers, but no running heads. Chapter openers that have page numbers only, no running heads, and a sink.

    The one thing that they all share is the page numbers. Instead of making three separate masters, you can make a single text master that the others are based on.

    Then, if you need to alter the position, or whatever of the page numbers, you can simply change them on one master, and not three.

  11. You can do also “backward-master-on-a-master”. Imagine 5 MPs.

    – 3 are independant and do not reciev any content from any other MPs.
    – 2 are based on other MPs.

    Now you realize that you have forgotten to add guides, and you want these guides on all MPS…

    Create a new MP and call it G-Guides, add guides in it and drop its icon on all other MPs, you have just added guides on the whole document.

    The order of the MPs is not important but to be visually consistent, your project should hold the G-Guides MP at the top of the Pages palette (being the first one). Moving MPs manually does not affect their influence on other MPs.

  12. vectorbabe, type this in your AppleScript Editor, save and place in your ID Script’s folder, this will toggle the highlighting of custom kerning and tracking

    tell application “InDesign CS”
    tell document 1
    if highlight custom spacing of text preferences is true then
    set highlight custom spacing of text preferences to false
    set highlight custom spacing of text preferences to true
    end if
    end tell
    end tell

  13. For the benefit of newbies and lurkers, just want to point out that highlighting custom kerning/tracking is already available in Preferences > Composition.

    Sandee and Jerome are after a keyboard shortcut to toggle that on and off. Currently the closest you can get is to bring up that panel of Preferences via the keyboard: Either press Command-K then Command-4 (Ctrl-K, Ctrl-4 on Windows) or assign a keyboard shortcut to Preferences > Composition via Edit > Keyboard Shortcuts, saving a step. But you still have to use the mouse to tick the highlighting checkbox on and off for Custom Kerning and Tracking.

    Jerome, thanks for the AppleScript! Could we just change the first line to InDesign CS2 (instead of CS) to get it to work in that version?

  14. Yes, and if not the script editor shoulp prompt you to locate the application so that it can link correctly. I don’t have CS2 here at home, but most things work the same in both versions.

    For those that don’t know there is a script menu in the presets folder. If the script is placed there then it will show up in the script pallet, you can launch it from there or assign a keyboard shortcut to it.

    NOTE: this is not a cross platform solution, it will only work on Macs. It could easily be done with JavaScript for cross platform, or Visual Basic on the PC, but I dont have a PC and I’m not a big Java programer, so it would take me time to locate and look through the scripting guides.

  15. Here’s the JavaScript for a cross platform solution.

    I filled in the other highlight preferences, so you’d need to delete unwanted lines.

    if(app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightCustomSpacing == true){
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightCustomSpacing = false;
    } else {
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightCustomSpacing = true;

    if(app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightHjViolations == true){
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightHjViolations = false;
    } else {
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightHjViolations = true;

    if(app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightKeeps == true){
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightKeeps = false;
    } else {
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightKeeps = true;

    if(app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedFonts == true){
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedFonts = false;
    } else {
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedFonts = true;
    if(app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedGlyphs == true){
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedGlyphs = false;
    } else {
    app.documents[0].textPreferences.highlightSubstitutedGlyphs = true;

  16. Jerome and Gerald, thanks so much!

    Gerald, I’ve made a Javascript file out of your text (to make it easier for script newbies) and turned it into a downloadable file called

    It’s a .zip file, just unzip (uncompress it) and drop the highlight-on-off.jsx script file into your InDesign CS2’s scripts folder, Mac or Windows. Double-clicking the script via the Scripts palette toggles all highlighting on and off. Since you can assign a keyboard shortcut to a script, that solves the problem for now, I think! ;-)

    If you’ve never installed an InDesign script before, it’s easy.

  17. As a relative newcomer to Inddy (1999) I wish QX had the sense to have a site like this to discuss all that is good and not so good. At least there is discussion, which always a good thing!
    Thanks to all that contribute, from us lurkers!

  18. We are in the midst of a dept-wide, and ultimately production realm-wide, conversion from Quark XPress 4 to INDYCS2 – yeah, what a hideous leap. But, we are about 1 month out from the full switch. I am leading the training. And Branislav Milic hit this one to be sure. Intuitive features that are hard to get to, hard to comprehend, and the lack of common sense when tools are used. Here is a tiny irritation, but one that is repeated in many operations in INDYCS2 – draw a text frame – and the tool stays active. It really should snap to one of the real-life ?next step? tools like the selection or direct selection tool. My trainees are terminally creating picture boxes thinking they have moved on to their next effort. Laughable. Not them – Adobe.

    I am met with furled brows and looks of bewildered disgust. I love INDYCS2 for its unbridled potential for creativity, but to get there is arduous!

    Share with me, if anyone has stumbled on the Master Text Frame quirk where one workstation behaves as ?automatic text boxes? are intended to, while the other has to undergo the Com-Click (MAC) to active the text box? Weird. I have compared prefs between the ?good? and the ?bad? – no luck! It ticks me off, as some folks really love that annoying auto text box.

    Actually – the previous string – I am really more referring to the frame tool, not actually the text tool, as it seems like in my statement.

  20. techgrl, I felt the same way when I moved from Quark to ID for new projects. I don’t know if it helps, but I’ve come to the conclusion that for most of these sorts of frustrations, they go away after a few projects. It’s more of “breaking old habits” kind of thing, not “Quark’s method was right, programs that don’t use Quark methods are wrong-headed.”

    For instance, I was working on a QuarkXPress (v6) job all this week, and I couldn’t tell you how often I double-clicked a text box with the Item tool waiting for it to turn it into the Type tool (as ID would do). Instead I kept getting the Modify dialog box. ;-)

    By the way, the specific issue you brought up about frames … you’re creating text frames with the Type tool, right? When you do that, as soon as you’re done drawing the frame, you can start typing in it. No need to switch tools.

    The frame tools are just for a) placeholders for images (not really necessary except in templates or something); and b) graphic boxes/shapes. I like that the rectangle tool stays a rectangle, because I often need to draw out a few of them at the the same time.

    I’m not saying that InDesign has no frustrations or that it’s perfect, by any means … I mean, look, in every podcast we mention something strange about it and how to work around it. But I can assure that once you stop trying to make InDesign work like QuarkXPress, and just play to its strengths — in every way from how you create masters to how you build styles — then things get much easier and feel much more natural. So hang in there!

  21. Techgrl, I would also suggest taking a look at the book “Moving to InDesign,” which talks about many of the issues that QuarkXPress or PageMaker users face when switching to InDesign.

    The “automatic text box” feature is a great example. When you place a frame on a master page, you cannot click on it to select it from the document page. You have to command-shift-click to Override it. However, you can place text into that frame (using File > Place without overriding it first.

    I agree with Anne-Marie: I was a hardcore QX user for 15 years, so many of these features seemed weird to me. But now it’s clear that Adobe does it the more intuitive and efficient way in most (but not all) instances.

  22. I just found my way to this page from the links on the Plug-Ins and Scripts page (by way of the InDesignSecrets Podcast 065 page).
    I was actually trying to come up with a keyboard shortcut to do this very thing last night! Anyway, I’m new to InDesign and JavaScript, but I’m not new to computer programming. As soon as I saw this script, I knew there had to be a much shorter way of doing it.
    For people who are downloading the script, I guess it doesn’t really make any difference what’s inside it, but I just like the idea of making the code shorter (or “more elegant”, as computer programmers like to say).
    So, here’s what I came up with:
    // Script to toggle the Composition:Highlight preferences in the active document in InDesign CS3

    if (app.documents.length > 0) { //make sure there is at least one document open

    with (app.activeDocument.textPreferences) {

    //Make into a comment any of these that shouldn’t be toggled when the script is executed:

    highlightCustomSpacing = ! highlightCustomSpacing // Custom Tracking/Kerning

    highlightHjViolations = ! highlightHjViolations // H & J Violations

    highlightKeeps = ! highlightKeeps // Keep Violations

    highlightSubstitutedFonts = ! highlightSubstitutedFonts // Substituted Fonts

    highlightSubstitutedGlyphs = ! highlightSubstitutedGlyphs //Substituted Glyphs



  23. Thanks, Shmuel — that makes it a lot more readable, too. (Provided that the reader knows the ! negation operator.)

    If I ever get around to it, I’ll add a check for whether all features are on or off, and force them to one state or the other before toggling. Otherwise it becomes a swap states function instead of an overall on/off toggle.


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