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Why Use InDesign Instead of MS Word?

A few perennial questions just keep popping up every year or so like clockwork. One such question is: Why should I use Adobe InDesign instead of Microsoft Word? It’s a valid question, given that Word appears to have a wide range of layout features. And in a large company (or governmental body) that has Word on every machine, a manager is bound to wonder.

The question arose again recently on the InDesign Listserv, and one well-versed trainer/consultant, Bevi Chagnon, came up with such an eloquent answer that I needed to reprint it here (with her permission):

As a consultant for the US Fed Govt, I have to come up with this justification every few weeks. Here’s my list:

1) Word isn’t a page layout program, so it’s more difficult and time consuming to get graphics to “stay put” on a page, wrap text around them, and control them. Graphics tend to “fly off” to other pages (in the words of one of my clients) because you’ll place a graphic on page 3 today but when you open up the document tomorrow, it could be on page 4 or 5 or 19. Who knows! Even when you take pains to anchor graphics correctly, you get drastic reflow of graphics.

2) Graphics, especially TIFs and other bitmapped formats, tend to get automatically converted to RGB when imported, and then converted back out to CMYK for a “Press-Quality PDF.” That sounds ok at first glance, but when you preflight the resulting PQ-PDF you end up with built blacks for any text that was in the graphic, like 9 pt labels on pie charts. Text in a built black (process builds of 60-70-80-90 for example rather than 100% black) is too small for offset presses to print: you’ll end up with yellow or magenta or cyan halos around the text and it will appear as if it’s out of register. Digital/toner-based presses/printers tend to do ok with text in a built black. And EPS’s work ok, too.

3) Word doesn’t know squat about CMYK or PANTONE spot PMS ink colors, only RGB and colors like “robin’s egg blue.” So you’ll pay a fortune at the prepress stage to get your film output correctly. That’s if it can be output at all!

4) I only know of about a handful of press shops around the US that will attempt to output a MS Word file to film or plates for offset printing. They charge a lot to do this and require a signed contract with language like “you get what you get from these *&^%$#@! files, and you’ll pay for the film whether or not it’s usable.” Word files are difficult to color separate, if at all, and color photos will be less than satisfactory.

Essentially, you’ll spend a lot of money to get a very inferior print run. You can make PQ-PDFs from Word, but then again you have that built-black problem in #2 above.

5) Multi-column layouts are a nightmare. It’s sometimes so-o-o-o difficult to get the text to flow where you want it to go. And it too doesn’t stay put. (Where’s the electronic SuperGlue when you need it?)

6) Word has a very high “four-letter-word factor,” according to my informal statistics around my studio. And my staff and contractors tend to request a higher than normal amount of lattes and brownies to get them through the projects.
SUMMARY … much more time spent in layout/production… much more money spent at prepress to get usable film out of the files… and a crappy product coming off the press.

There is no “win” with Word!

Three options to suggest, if editors need to edit documents after they’re laid out in InDesign:

  1. Editors can learn the basics of InDesign so that they can get into the file, make their edits, and get out without any major damage. I teach them to do this all the time.
  2. Consider using InCopy, which would give editors access to the text when they need it. Pricey yes, but if the publishing house is big enough it’s worth it.
  3. And rather than embedding text files into InDesign layouts, how about linking them instead? Or using XML? With good planning, this could give the editors the access they need without forcing the production team to mutiny just before your press deadline.

Bravo to Bevi for this explanation. I have to tack on one more reply that a reader, Michael Brady, offered (reprinted without permission this time, but I can’t help it… it’s too good. Sorry, Michael!):

Question: Which is the most painful:

  1. Rappel down a barbed-wire rope in a Speedo.
  2. Crawl naked through broken glass
  3. Use Word for layout.

Answer: 3.

Just to end on one personal note: Back around 1990, I was hired to lay out a technical book for Microsoft (the original TrueType specs, code-named Royal, if I recall correctly). It was MS, so of course I had to use Word for everything. I was not a happy camper, especially as I had just published a book about using QuarkXPress. I am pleased to report that even at Microsoft things can change over time; the company has now standardized on InDesign for their professional print jobs.

David Blatner

David Blatner

David Blatner is the co-founder of the Creative Publishing Network, InDesign Magazine, and the author or co-author of 15 books, including Real World InDesign. His InDesign videos at are among the most watched InDesign training in the world. You can find more about David at
David Blatner

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51 Comments on “Why Use InDesign Instead of MS Word?

  1. That leaves two other questions. Why do people that know nothing about printing or designing continually question the tools that we use to do up their beautifully laid out and illustrated documents?


    Would you ask a plumber why he is using a wrench to loosen a nut instead of a saw?

  2. Our Prepress checklist:

    Native File Format:

    [ ] Indesign

    If not in InDesign, call for estimate to transfer into Indesign.

    Thank you

    • Which native InDesign format? It changes every season and is made specifically NOT backwards compatible. Adobe gives backwards a complete new meaning.

  3. For me, there are five reasons why any software is better than MS Word:

    • In Word, things that should work often simply don’t &endash; no matter how hard you stare at the manual. It simply does not do what it technically should. Or it does it and then crashes.
    • Word documents look different on every computer. Not just the image positions, but also the text flows, page breaks and much more.
    • No ligatures (I hope tht’s what stuff like fi and tt is called in English). You’d expect this from a software sold in the 21st century, but it simply does not automatically substitute characters with the correct glyphs. Especially in headings, this can look extremely bad.
    • Once you install it, the entire computer gets a lot slower, at least on Windows.
    • It generally sucks.

    But while I think that it makes no sense to force a professional designer to use MS Word, I think that InDesign is a bad choice for people without some kind of design background. It’s not like “Let’s buy InDesign so that our print documents will look better.” Someone who has created a WordArt-Rainbow-Type the day before, being proud that he got it to use Comic Sans MS instead of the default Arial and all, can’t be expected to change their judgement of what looks good and what does not over night. To throw an InDesign license at them is just a waste of money. Even knowing the InDesign manual off by heart doesn’t help if you don’t have at least some kind of eye for design.

    To such non-design people, I’d rather recommend they use something like FrameMaker, which is equally well suited for both File-New-and-type-ahead-like-in-word style work and professionally laid out print documents.

    I’m also quite impressed with Apple’s Pages. The new version seems to be a lot like InDesign, but very easy to use, and quite affordable. It’s obviously not a professional layout package, but it sure is more than most people need. And it comes with tons of predesigned templates.

    Sometimes even the non-WYSIWYG LaTeX might be an option. It is a lot easier to use than it looks. Moreover, it is extremely hard to prevent it from producing flawless output, no matter how how much Word user spirit you throw at it. After all, InDesign’s Adobe Paragraph Composer is based on the same algorithm that (La)TeX uses. It’s no use for doing creative stuff, though. But for a technical manual or something like that, it works spectacularly well. One needs to know quite a lot about typesetting to get pages looking as good out of InDesign.

  4. Based on what I read about the new version of Pages (released yesterday with iWork 08), it has two modes?word processing mode and layout mode. And in layout mode, objects stay in a fixed position. I think non-design Mac folks should definitely look into it. Early comments about iWork 08 have been very positive.

  5. Years ago, I took great pride in my ability to force Word 3 to replicate many page layout features.

    But even then I knew that the only output that I should be using would be to the laswerwriter printer.

    But I was thrilled that I could insert images, have text wrap around them, and even type in hidden text codes that would rotate text and set it in shades of gray across the page.

    But, to paraphrase Samuel Johnson, doing so is “like a dog’s walking on his hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all.

  6. What a great text! I’d love to copy this to our website for all those clients who insist that they want us to use their Word files! An email to Bevi Chagnon is in the works …

  7. Sometimes I am forced to use Word, and it’s really painful. And I don’t even mean for page layouts, but rather simple stuff. Because it was supposedly built for “simplifiying”, it’s annoyingly limited in what it can do (I’d say the same for another MS program, since yesteday I had to configure Outlook for my brother after years of using Thunderbird, and I nearly got lost!).

    But nothing was worse than a few years ago, when I had to design a two-page monthly newsletter in Word. The horror! The terror! I can say that in a few months I got really “good” at it, needing “only” two or three days to design it. My best guess is that, after the forst one, it would take no more than a couple hours to design it in InDesign. I wonder if I still have the files…

  8. The real frustrations with Word aren’t the things it can’t do, or even the limited things it can do. No. The things that drive people crazy are the things Word almost does.

    It almost allows placed graphics, except it messes them up and won’t keep them where you put them (if it lets you put them there in the first place).

    It almost allows you to lay out a page, except it makes its own decisions about where you may or may not put a margin, and only allows 1/8″ increments of column or margin positions.

    It almost allows you to set type, except kerning and tracking don’t exist in any usable form, justification is strictly “what you got is what you get,” and widow and orphan controls march to the beat of their own unfathomable drum.

    It almost allows you to create text, except that it randomly styles or “corrects” what you are doing when you didn’t want a style and typed exactly what you meant.

    It almost allows a client to send assets to the designer, except that embedded photographs are horribly munged, and the client’s attempts to be helpful by formatting the text invariably require hours of design time to remove extra tabs, spaces, bold, underline, centering, and random bulleted or numbered lists each with its own unique format.

    It’s cool for email, though…

  9. I have InDesign, Pages, and Word on my computer…

    I use Indesign for… well… design
    I use Pages for… quickly composing something (with style)
    I use Word for… opening other people’s docs!

    • I worked for a Publishing Company and couldn’t understand why they were using Word. I think their books would be so much more beautiful using InDesign not Word. Word is only good for type but if including Grids, Graphics or Pictures your best bet is to go with InDesign. I agree with above Word is great for emailing.

  10. Sure, Word sucks, but it could be worse. I once had to assist a magazine editor whose computer consultant convinced him that Microsoft Publisher was the industry standard….

  11. Using Word (and most ms programs) is like driving an automatic; using InDesign is like driving a stick. Sometimes automatics shift when you don’t want them to, and don’t when you do. I like the control of a manual car and my InDesign so I can make it do what I want and need.

  12. Using Word is like driving an automatic rusted-out RV truck that only has two gears working down steep and narrow mountain dirt road…

    You can do it… but ill-advised…

  13. This article made me ROTFLMAO. some of the comparisons are equally hilarious.

    To add.

    At work I do the same thing as Dave. Use MSWord for opening other people’s docs.

    At. I use Open Office.

  14. I use Word for opening other people’s files and for doing find/replace …. Word processing in other words, which is what it is for.
    Word and Publisher should just stop pretending to be layout apps.

  15. Although InDesign is clearly the better program, it still misses an easy routine to add captions to images/tables etc. and link to them in your text. Which is done quite easy in Word

  16. Sander, you make a very good point: Word does have some features that would be wonderful to have in InDesign. But it’s sort of like the argument between ID and QuarkXPress: QX has some features I want in ID, too, but when you look at the whole of the package, ID is the clear winner. Oh well.

  17. I use Word to open files, strip out hyperlinks & colors for a cleaner import into ID. Surrface-good luck. I’ve found Publisher butchers, er, users are a tough lot to convince of anything because they are not designers. If they were, they wouldn’t use Publisher.

  18. The worst thing about Word is its undocumented limits and tendency to corrupt. I have a client that does large contract bids, merging content from many different sources. Once those Word files get too big, they just start crashing or doing weird things like not printing pages 11 to 23. Not to mention what happens when different originators’ styles and page number settings collide! Basically Word is not suitable for “mission critical” work beyond fairly brief documents with few or no graphics.

    Incidentally, with its new GREP search features, InDesign has become my new best friend for search-and-replace.

    If I need to persuade someone to use InDesign instead of Word, I just say “Almost every magazine, book, brochure and newspaper in the world is put together with QuarkXPress or InDesign. What does that suggest to you?”

  19. The word layout flow problem is related to the printer that’s installed on the machine. I formatted a 2500 page publication in word thrice (three different editions) and learned that to get to pdf, you had to make sure that the default printer installed was a post script printer. Not only that, but the *.dot you used has to be created when the PS printer is default. And you can’t ever use word for anything else on that machine while you’re doing. UGGH!

    But Word IS better
    > at search/replace functions. So I require submissions to be in word and when I want to publish them, I’ll “clean it up” in Word and then import to ID, redefining styles that I’ve already assigned in Word.
    > Macros are easier too, but I’ll admit that it may be my limitations with ID that perpetuates the bias.

  20. I’m currently using MS Access Report for a multi-level categorized catalog. Can Indesign handle multiple levels of grouping and formatting from a MS Access or any other database?
    My current obstacle right now is I need CMYK output not RGB.

  21. Thanks to all for both eloquence and humor, from one obliged to work in Word most of the time. More than a few of DTPs working in corporate proposals for the federal gov’t can hardly wait for ID/IC to get more of a foothold in this domain, and are creatively working to persuade our HDPs (holders of department pursestrings) that ID will improve their lifestyles. Meanwhile, we may as well laugh at our battles against Word’s misbehaviors; good therapy.

  22. I just read this. Thank you for these comments. I have a guide at work that we send out to customers. Traditionally, it has been done in Word, and I understand why: the abilities of the “designers” and the ability for anyone to work on it in the office.

    Well, being a designer that uses ID, I was extremely frustrated, and I did my best to make this document look good. But it always looks like a door mat to me.

    So, I decided a change needed to happen–both for clarity and marketing to the customer. I completely redesigned the document in ID. I don’t care if nobody else can work on it besides me. Of course, my co-workers and customers love it because it “looks professional.” What did they expect? It is professional, and Word simply is not.

    I tell people, Word (and Publisher) have their place, but it’s not for making professionally designed material.

    Thank you again.

    • Yes, I have the same problem here at work – they want to use a virus masquerading as a quasi-wannabe page layout program to pretend they can output high-quality, top-notch documents. Of course, one of the secrets to enlightenment is realizing that you should really not use Word – for anything! Then everything becomes peaceful and the birds start to sing. But, to satisfy the naysayers who continue to use that horrible program, there is a way of getting them the beloved format they so desire, for whatever quirky reasons – the foremost of which is they want to be “compatible” with all the other horrible documents out there that have caused so many nervous breakdowns, broken keyboards and screens with fist-shaped holes in them.

      We want to go .indd –> .pdf –> .doc/.docx.

      The first step is key:

      1. Open InDesign
      2. Produce your document using InDesign.
      3. Save it as PDF.
      4. Open it with Acrobat DF (latest version)
      5. File/Export To … [choose Microsoft Word….doc or .docx]

      Acrobat does an *excellent* job on the PDF–>.doc[x] conversion.

      You can’t go straight from .indd –> .doc/.docx with InDesign CC.

      So, if anyone asks you how to produce a high-quality .doc or .docx file with tables, sidebars, callouts, footers, TOC, index, footnotes, hyperlinks and glossary you can now say, with great confidence, “Using InDesign, naturally.”

  23. I just got a job that wants to just use word. (cause that what their clients what?!) I almost pulled my hair at another job when the owner proudly shown of his 36 page magazine he designed exclusivly in PHOTOSHOP!

  24. mr.david
    really i need your help…
    Microsoft Access is my original file, from this database should be brought to indesign in form of telephone directory with highlights and font variations. if any changes are made on the Microsoft Access file the should automatically update the indesign files too further this should not disturb the highlight and font variations already given.

    it should maintain all justification and alignments are made files an the Microsoft Access (such as sort, static text).

    i shall be thankful if you can advice me to overcome my problem thanks.

    it is possible with xml…..? give me related tutorial link..

  25. Pingback: Q: A client asked me to layout a design in Microsoft Word, what should I do? « kindlevision

  26. Hi

    I just stumbled on this entry today an I would like to add my two cents worth. I know it is an old subject and this is an Indesign page but if you are doing BIG books, you have to look at Framemaker.

    I am a beginner with InDesign and am converted already. I only use Word for other peoples documents. At work it is RagTime (MAC) and Framemaker (WIN).

    Other than that I have to agree with all the above, plus- how many times have Word users been turned into jibbering wrecks trying to get the section breaks to work properly.

  27. @Anne-Marie
    Yes it’s still there.

    We use 5.6.6 for our documentation. We haven’t upgraded to 6 as ist seems to crash with the AppleScripts we use and the V6 files are not backward compatible.

    We have a two column layout for bi-lingual documentation. Depending on the customer we use AppleScript to select the main and second language ( we have currently 8 languages in use) and put the text in the appropriate column. All illustration call outs and legends are controlled by a calculation sheet for the appropriate language.

    I had never even heard of it until I joined my current employer. It was very daunting at first but I am impressed with what it can do – even if it behaves like a cornered rat at times.


  28. Another comment. As I said above I am a beginner with ID but here is an experience that has converted me. I was requeseted to make an identical copy of an article we published in a trade magazine. Four pages, two columns, photos of varying sizes. Soemthing that is done thousands of times a day.

    A collegue tried to do it Word.
    Column sizes could no be defined accurately enough. Fonts did not display correctly. Text could not be aligned taht the paragraph ends aligned. And when she tried to imort the photos – no comment to the language I heard.

    I created the whole thing in ID in 4 hours . OK it was a bit rough and I had to use the help a lot but it worked!!

    The marketing lady then said to the boss – get me ID or I quit. She got ID.

    OK it isn’t easy to learn – but at the end of the day it is worth the effort.

    At the end of the day we really don’t need Word.

  29. Who needs Word when you’ve got PowerPoint!? I’ve got a client who creates his flyers in PowerPoint, no kidding.

  30. I get that Word is not an easy program to use if you need to format things nicely, but I think the “hate” that I saw is really unfair (to say you’d rather walk on fire than to use Word). Most people who complain about it use other layout programs, then of course they would complain that Word is not a good layout program, because it’s not supposed to be used like that. I have really basic knowledge of ID and more than 9 years of work experience with Word. I think Word is very good if you only have occasional charts/tables/graphics in your document. I find that understanding how to use different breaks, putting pictures in front of text (or different types of wrap text styles), and how to set up tabs (on the ruler) are very essential to using Word without frustration. Also toggling the “paragraph” button to show/hide formatting symbols helps tremendously too.

    • I tentatively agree Peggy. I’m using Word to format simple workbooks to use online – they’re never printed off. I then combine a pre-designed cover page.

      I recently took an InDesign course to see if I could do better word and suddenly realized how much I didn’t know about design and that knowing how to work InDesign was not going to change that. A rude awakening. I was much happier in my oblivion, for sure.

      I’m kind of hoping that Microsoft keeps expanding Word so that non-designers like me (Word fluffers?)don’t outgrow it.

    • I’m a graphic designer well-versed in InDesign. It’s my bread and butter and has been for years, and it’s an excellent application and incredible versatile.

      Nevertheless, I’m also a pretty rational person who isn’t prone to things like “hating” an app and saying it should be banned from existence because it doesn’t do a good job at something it’s not meant for.

      Word is for word processing. It’s actually great at it. If you want to type up an essay, article or document, it’s got great features for that. It can do a mail merge very quickly and easily and import data from a database. You can quickly format headings, footers, page numbers… And it all works if you don’t try to use it for complex page layout. Because it isn’t a page layout program. It’s a word processor. I mean, I don’t try to do complex layouts in LaTEX either.

      The only reason people try to hammer Word into being a page layout application is because it is already available on most systems and individuals or managers don’t want to go through the expense or trouble to aquire additional software. I really don’t see how that is Word’s fault at all.

      • Thanks for this. Can you clarify more for me? I normally opt for writing my own materials — essentially small books — for my students, rather than using textbooks. So, essentially I do word processing. At the same time, I have an eye for design, and am sometimes unhappy with the limitations of Word, and sometimes the appearance. The kinds of materials I create sometimes would be nice with marginal notes, inset text boxes or images, etc. More options regarding and easier to use headers and footers. However, I know Word very well, and have come to figure out how to make it do most of what I want/need. I know nothing about indesign. But if you tell me that it can just as easily create footnotes, tables of contents, indices, and all the other basics of word processing, then I’ll switch. Also wondering if it would be possible/easy to create two sets of footnotes on the same page (say, one with numbers the other with letters). Would be so grateful for any help!

  31. To S, Peggy, Rachel and everyone who wants to keep using Word: THAT’S OKAY!
    I still use MS Word everyday… for word processing. I even use it occasionally to lay out a very, very simple page.

    The important point here is that InDesign is the better tool for professional quality layout. If you’re doing books, government proposals, newsletters, ads, and stuff that needs to look good enough to convince people to give you or your company money, InDesign is the way to go.

    But of course Word (or even Publisher!) is fine for putting together school materials, stuff for a local club, workbooks for your students, and so on.

  32. Indesign is indeed way better, and now that your can “rent it” the umpteen-hundred dollar price is less of an issue.

    I am an independent contractor, so ultimately I use what I get paid to use. I charge more for Word. Quite a bit more. ;-)

    Seriously, for documents that are pure text, or mostly pure text, Word is entirely acceptable, especially if you are still full bondage-and-discpiplen about defining and using styles. And if you are not, SHAME ON YOU. ;-)

    For me, the most critical make or break is what some folks might see as a minor issue. Word “forgets” the name of the file that is the source of an image. Thus updating images can be a real PITA. I _love_ how InD lets me open the image in the source program as I’m working. For the sort of technical work I do, where clients are forever editing graphics as well as text, this is a life saver.

  33. MS Word is the oldest and popular platform for writing and keeping our important documents. It allows so many features regarding editing, designing and many more to increase the productivity of its users. So I suggest you to use the MS word rather than the Indesign.

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