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“Corrupt InDesign File” Horror Stories

Editor’s note: A wide variety of problems can occur with InDesign files, from user error to deep data corruption and everything in between. And reading about these problems can be scary or thrilling (depending on how much of a geek you are). You may know that Markzware—a company that has been helping desktop publishers for almost 30 years—has a service that can help fix bad, corrupt, or damaged InDesign documents, called File Recovery Service. This article is by David Dilling of Markzware, and it’s intended to be educational and amusing, not advertising. We just thought you’d enjoy reading about some of his experiences.

For even more InDesign stories that will give you nightmares, check out Issue #90 of InDesign Magazine!

InDesign Magazine Issue 90: InDesign Nightmares


At Markzware, Fixing bad DTP (Desktop Publishing) layouts is not our primary focus—software applications for graphic designers and prepress operators is. We do, however, see it as an additional opportunity to serve the graphic arts industry. And along the way, we have compiled a number of very interesting InDesign “horror stories.” With no further ado, here are some real-life tales from the DTP crypt.

Links Panel – Embed Image

One recent customer story I shared on our YouTube channel was about how some corrupt InDesign (.indd) files are huge—as in 2, 4, or even 8 GB file size. InDesign files should not be this large! When this designer, working on a 300-page publication for print asked, “Is it fine to embed photos in the document?”, I knew, right away, what likely was going on.

Embedding files adds all of the image data into the .INDD file itself, whereas linked images use information from files elsewhere on your hard drive or server. Linking to images on disk adds only a small preview of the image data in your INDD file, not an entire high-resolution, high-quality, 20MB high quality JPEG (or another format) file. When you realize that such a large print-job has hundreds of images, you could see why this can be bad, especially if memory on your computer is an issue.

Be safe: Don’t embed huge images, or too many images, in one InDesign document; link them instead.

Working On a Server or USB Stick

We have been working on a server which I think have crashed the files. If you see anything or can give me any information about why we get errors all the time then please let me know.”
~ Identity Withheld

I do not know if this is the number one reason why INDD files go bad, but I have heard it a lot. What were you doing? “Working over the server, as I always do, when suddenly, it stopped working and that file will not open any longer in InDesign.” (Note that recently Adobe added network caching to InDesign CC, so working on a document located on a server should work more reliably, as long as the document is smaller than a couple hundred megabytes. But it’s still not as reliable as working on a local version of the file.)

Markzware File Recover

Equally, quite a few DTP operators (including this author) seem to like to work on an InDesign file that resides on a connected USB stick. Generally it’s fine, but even I had one go corrupt on me, as do many others. Luckily, we have good success in fixing these files.

“File was located on an thumb drive, and it worked the day before. The file opens for about 3 seconds, then crashes saying, ‘InDesign CC quit unexpectedly. Click Reopen to open the application again.’ I’ve tried all three options, with no success. I’ve copied the file over to my local file, renamed it, opened as a copy, still no luck. I’ve deleted my preferences, nothing. I haven’t changed any fonts, so I don’t think it’s a corrupt font.”
~ Identity Withheld

Drag-and-Drop Images from the Internet

Yes, you read that correctly. Happens more often than you think. Here is an example from an unnamed freelance designer:

Error Code 4.
1. I do not remember specific page count (Between 40 – 30 pages)

2. I was copying an image from the internet and pasting into document
3. I was on the last 3 pages of the document when the problem occurred.
4. No fonts acting up. But potentially a corrupt image from the web?
~ Identity Withheld

He likely answered his own question. Problem is, the file and the hours of work are now in purgatory, hopefully to be redeemed. The bad news is, about 30% of the time our “bad file” Recovery Service will fail. Some corrupt InDesign files are dead on arrival. Not sure what happened with this one, but we regularly see this problem. This issue may not be one of the top 5 reasons, but is certainly one of the top ten. It’s better to save the image to disk and then use File > Place!

Corrupt Fonts

Fonts are software, and as such, have more of a tendency to become corrupted than do other elements in your document.

“Thanks again for your help! we’re having some issues with a font family which we use very often. The font (Roboto Mono) is installed on all our macs and works well in other documents, but the InDesign file says the font isn´t there and wants it replaced.”
~ Identity Withheld

Fonts are certainly a cause for some InDesign files to become corrupted. It is a good idea to check the individual fonts used with a font management utility, such as FontXplorer XPro or Extensis Suitcase Fusion. Even font caches that go sour can cause corruption. I always recommend occasional clearing your computers font caches, either manually or with a utility, like Cocktail on the Mac.

Copying and Pasting from Word, PowerPoint, etc.

Copying and pasting text, images, or both text and images from Word into InDesign can sometimes lead to corruption in your INDD file. This issue is quite common and may have to do with copying Word text that is improperly stylized, without the exact, or properly matching, font family on your system. This can also happen with images or, as often happens, with a corrupt image. If you copy and paste from Word, PowerPoint, etc., be aware that it can cause crashes and, more seriously, render your InDesign layout unusable. Instead, use File > Place to import your Word documents!

More real-life InDesign horror stories:

It says error 5, other times error 6. I have never had issue before, it started last Friday. I went to save and it said error 6. I started again and had no issues, then went to open again on Monday and same thing. I am wondering if I have a bad font? I have also included a PDF I exported and it indicates 2 problem fonts, although they are not highlighted in the InDesign file.
~ Identity Withheld

I was working properly on an Adobe InDesign file on my Mac until yesterday, when I believe the latest Adobe updates where downloaded by the admin of my Adobe account on her computer (Windows). I saved regularly the .indd file before that but it wasn’t closed for a few days. Only yesterday I closed it to share a copy with a colleague and the file opened but crashed: I can see the content of the first pages of the documents, but it crashes when I tried to scroll down on it. After that I saved it with a different name, I tried to reinstall the software and save it in .idml, .pdf etc but it’s not working.
~ Identity Withheld

Note: We have heard several times that people had bad files from, or just after, updates of InDesign, the Mac OS, or both. To make sure this doesn’t happen to you: Back up before updating!

File will not open, crashes regardless of whatever I do. No backup.
~ Identity Withheld

Moral of the story for almost all of these stories? Back up your files! Even better, keep multiple versions (using Save As or Save a Copy) so that you can return to an earlier stage of the document if something goes wrong. Adhere to a strict “insurance policy,” which, of course, should equal the exact amount of time you are willing to go back and redo your work.

Also, don’t commit to a single huge file, but break it down into smaller portions or chapters. That way, if you lose one part, you haven’t lost everything.

Pro Tip – INDD to IDML

It is also a good practice to export your saved InDesign file to IDML (InDesign Markup Language), as a backup, from time to time. Exporting to IDML will remove minor corruptions that can increase and eventually kill your file.

Deleting your InDesign preferences can fix some odd issues. To delete the preferences, start up the InDesign app and hold down Shift+Option+Command+Control on a Mac or Shift+Ctrl+Alt on Windows. (For more information, see this article.)

Also, at times, you might want to turn off the options in the Advanced Type preferences dialog box, if you’re experiencing performance issues.

There are also some tips from Adobe, although they are geared more toward files that are fixable by traditional methods.

Most of these problems are a result of user error, negligence and, yes, sometimes just bad luck. After Adobe launched InDesign CS6, we received many bad files with a file size of exactly 133 MB. That was strange. We informed Adobe of this and, slowly over time, we saw less of those files. In other words, some bad files (but not all) are perhaps the product of an InDesign issue. The bottom line: Graphic designers, publishers and prepress operators have to employ responsibility, stay alert, and keep up-to-date in this business.

Backing up is your best bet, always. No need to become the next InDesign horror story. Sometimes, certain things are going to happen, and files will become corrupted. There could be a power outage or a server failure, at the same time as InDesign is saving a file, and, thus, only half the file is written to disk. It is however good to know that there is hope, with Markzware’s DTP File Recovery Service for InDesign.

by David Dilling
European manager and evangelist for Markzware

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10 Comments on ““Corrupt InDesign File” Horror Stories

  1. My reasons for working on a server and not making backups is that this insures me from local hdd failure and potentially picking up work on the wrong indesign document (I’ve had both happen). I used to make backups at the end of every workday to the server when I was working locally, but in lack of a good system it introduced too much uncertainty into my workflow.

    Might have to reconsider after reading this article though. Thanks for the insights!

  2. I’ve never worked off the server but maintain a strict protocol of backing up my files onto our server at the end of every work day. It takes only a few minutes and it has saved me a few times. Every month I duplicate my files on the server to a dated separate folder so I also then have a historical reference restart point. Again, just a few minutes of my time but comforting to know that it’s there if I need it.

  3. I always work on a local copy of an INDD instead of over the network, and save pretty frequently. However, I once had a file spectacularly crash with a looming deadline. The proposal manager was making me share my screens via Skype so she could watch me make some changes. I’ve always been convinced that the screen sharing somehow caused it.

    • Mary–that would have made me nervous–having someone watch me via Skype. I remember when I was in the Air Force and at the end of each fiscal year we had to do up some written presentation to get more money for the unit (or to say we should be considered for some aware). This was back in the days of those gigantic word processors (that took the 8 inch floppies).

      Anyway–since I was the clerk/typist, I had the “enjoyment” of having to type it and make all the editing changes from two dozen people (mainly officers). Come a few hours before the deadline, I’d have those two dozen people crowded around me, pointing to the screen and saying “add that there,” “delete that sentence,” change that sentence to…[they tell me what to type]. Now mind you–not all two dozen were doing that at once, but there were at least a dozen of them, and when they ran off to get coffee, another group arrived and did the same thing. And do you think anyone bought me a cup of coffee to keep me awake? Nope! Heck–I was lucky to get a bathroom break.

      One year I think I worked 18 hours straight.

      Sorry for rambling, but when I read your Skype thing, it gave me flashbacks.

      • Nothing worse than having someone sitting looking over your shoulder: very distracting and makes one slow down and make more errors (which makes you not look good!) than when you’re focused. My friends in advertising seem to get a lot of this due to tight deadlines, but as a book publisher this can usuallly be avoided.

      • Another thing, when I was starting up and desperately needing cash flow I started Monday morning and worked through till 10pm Wednesday with only two hours sleep. I could hardly do a thing for the next two days, so I don’t recommmend this practice at all! :-)

      • On backup, every hour with Time Machine is really good. Also Dropbox has saved my bacon once or twice when I’d forgotten to plug in the Time Machine backup drive.

  4. I (and everyone in the shop) works on a local copy and backs up to the server. The only time we work via the server may be if the art folder is gigantic and someone links them via that. Sometimes it’s easier than spending three hours copying the 20 gig job folder to the local hard drive.

    If I’m working on a job all day, I will back it back it up every couple of hours to the server–just in case something goes wrong. And every few hours I duplicate the file I am working on. If my file were end up corrupt, I’d at most lost an hour or so of work. And I always duplicate before I start making major changes (i.e., trim size change).

    And our backup system works well and we’ve never really had problems. As soon as the job is done–the person backs it up. And for every pass, we save a copy and never work on the original file.

    For example: If a job comes back from the customer for second pass, the first pass file is duplicated and is named to second pass. The first pass is then put in a Do Not Use Folder. We do this for every pass.

    And I’m probably anal about saving. I hit apple+s every 10 seconds or so.

    As a note–all the machines are backed up twice a day via Retrospect (at lunch break and at the end of the day). And the main server is also backed up at night and via retrospect, as well as cloned each night. And when we archive the files, two copies are made–one stored in a fireproof safe, and the other copy off-site.

  5. It also cause problems for me when I work on both mac and pc. I always have to reload fonts when I change from mac to pc and vice versa. Probably also the reason why I also experienced corrupted files that couldn’t open. I make backup regularly and work with new versions , so I wasn’t hit that hard. But still the fonts between the two environments is a challenge. And using the Adobe Typekit solve that problem, only they don’t offer all the required all the usual fonts like Helvetica, Zapf, Meta etc.

  6. Thanks for this article. Today I had an afternoon of InDesign crashes, due – I now know – to copying and pasting from Word. It’s only a 20 page document, with no formatting, so I thought it would be ok. Nope! Screen freezing, forced crashing and possible updates rendered me having to do the job again (and then it crashed again!). I now know what to do tomorrow when I’m back at my desk!

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