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Working With Layout Templates

Is there some sort of efficiency virus going around? Over the past few weeks I’ve received a slew of phone calls and e-mails from IC/ID users of every stripe asking for help with the same thing: setting up template-based InCopy/InDesign workflows.

Here’s an example, from an art director who e-mailed me last month:

“I want to make several templates of pages, with, e.g. 3 news and 2 photos, 4 news and 1 photo, 6 news, and so on; so the editors can choose the template they need, edit it and send it to me telling me that this should be page number 13 (for example).”

So we’re not talking about InCopy templates — .inct files — which allow editors to “write ahead” one story at a time. Users want the whole shebang. They want to give the editors layout templates, with placeholder frames for the all the elements (stories, .incx files) in an article.

The thinking is that an editor could open this layout template, save it with a new name, fill in the empty frames with new copy, and turn it over to the designer, who would copy over the finished pages (or place the.incx files of the individual stories) to the InDesign file when they get to it. InCopy users could open that same template over and over for subsequent uses, each time filling it in with new copy for different pages or issues of the publication.

That would be great, but there are some fundamental limitations in InCopy that prevent this from working as most people hope. Even the third-party publishing systems that run on top of InCopy and InDesign need to use proprietary file formats to achieve the same goal.

Let’s get the fundamentals out of the way so we can figure out a workaround.

InCopy and Templates

Did you ever wonder why InCopy’s Save command under the File menu says “Save Content” instead of the usual “Save”? It’s because InCopy can only save InCopy stories — .incx files — that are contained in a layout’s frames.

When you’re working with InCopy in a layout or assignment and have made edits to a story you’ve checked out, it may “feel” like you’re editing the layout or assignment, but you’re not. You’ve actually editing the content of the external .incx file that is linked to the active frame, the one you’re editing. Look in your Links panel (Window > Links) and you’ll see the name of the .incx file you’re actually working on is highlighted.

The program can’t make a dent in an .indd (layout) or .inca (assignment) file itself. As far as it’s concerned, the layout or assignment is just a portal” to the linked story files — it allows you to edit .incx files through the .indd or .inca window.

We’re clear on that now, yes? Let’s return to the issue at hand: Can we create a layout template for InCopy users?

Since InDesign templates (.indt files) open as untitled InDesign (.indd) documents that need to be saved, they’re not in InCopy’s repertoire, and in fact are greyed out (unavailable) in InCopy’s File > Open dialog box. That’s strike one for the InCopy layout template idea. And there is no way for an InDesign user to create a template of an assignment file; the file format simply doesn’t exist — strike two. Strike three is the fact that InDesign cannot import native InCopy template files (.inct); so you can’t create a layout or an assignment with template placeholder stories. Argh!

The game is not over, however. For example, InCopy templates (.inct files) may work just fine for at least some of your “pre-layout” content needs. Just create a new standalone InCopy document (File > New), set it up for a particular type of story, and choose InCopy Template (.inct) as the format in the File > Save As dialog box.

Opening an InCopy template file (.inct) in InCopy creates an copy of it as an untitled .incx file. Now, when you choose File > Save Content, InCopy actually saves the entire document as an external .incx file. You can name it and save it where ever you like. When they’re ready for it, designers place the .incx file into a layout just as though it was (were? help me out here, editors) a Word document.

While you can’t save page layout geometry in an .inct file, you can include boilerplate text, and set a default column width that matches the column width into which the story will ultimately be placed. You can even choose a target word count or column inch count for preliminary copyfitting. Most importantly, the InCopy template can include all the text and table styles the writer might want to use. With the template document open, choose Load Styles from any Styles panel menu and select an InDesign or InCopy file that has the styles you want to import. When files created from that template are placed into an InDesign layout, styles are retained.

Consider Layout Shells

Handy as they are, standalone InCopy templates are nonetheless quite limiting — you can’t even specify the number of columns the lone text frame should have. When editors need an honest-to-goodness layout template, then the designers have to create layout shells for them.

A layout shell is what I call an InDesign (.indd) layout file created just for editorial layout template purposes, not for publication. It’s a small file with placeholder text frames linked to one or more external .incx files, which start out devoid of content. A magazine article layout shell might contain empty InCopy frames for the title, the captions, the body copy, the pull quotes, and the sidebar; arranged in a generic fashion for that magazine but equipped with the correct column widths for each element and maybe a stand-in image around which the body copy wraps. A newspaper reporter’s shell might be just one page long but contain a frame for the headline and a 6-column body text frame underneath, pre-set to use the right paragraph styles.

A writer or editor opens the shell layout — the .indd file — in InCopy and checks out the stories to write copy from scratch, or to place text from Word files. It doesn’t matter if the actual publication is ready for their stories or not. After the InCopy user has checked in the stories and closed the shell file, the designer places those now-full .incx files into the actual layout, whenever it’s ready to be produced, and they should get a close fit.

Further editorial work on the same stories is done in the usual collaborative workflow fashion, with the editors opening up the live layout or assignments created from it. The “shell” layout left behind can be deleted at any time. It’s the stories, the .incx files, that matter.

Shell Creation and Management

To create the shell layouts, the designer creates an InDesign document for each page type (or article type, or section type) he wants to make a layout shell for, using empty placeholder frames for text or images the editors will fill in later. These should be “normal” InDesign frames, not yet exported to InCopy format. He can include other artwork or text, such as folios and rules, that aren’t necessarily editable. For easy re-use, he saves the file as an InDesign template (.indt) and closes the file.

Then he turns the template into an InCopy layout shell by re-opening it in InDesign (which creates an untitled copy of the file), saving it as a layout file with some sort of generic name in its own folder on the server. Finally, he exports the placeholder frames to InCopy format as usual: In CS3 you can just drag and drop the frames onto the Unassigned Content entry in the Assignments panel, otherwise choose one of the Edit > InCopy > Export commands.

If he needs 10 copies of a basic one-page shell, enough to tide a busy editor over for awhile, the designer will have to do this 10 times; opening the template in InDesign, saving as into a new folder, and re-exporting the frames to InCopy each time. Or he can .zip the folder of the first completed shell (layout with linked .incx files), duplicate the .zip file a bunch of times, then unzip (expand) each one on the server. There are other solutions for duplicating a layout with linked InCopy files, which I covered in this post a couple months ago.

I know it’s tempting, but don’t create an InDesign template with its frames already exported to InCopy in order to save a bunch of steps. That will not work.You’ll find that as you open the template in InDesign and Save As over and over, you create multiple InDesign docs linked to the same exact stories. It would be the same as creating a template with a placed image. Every time you save a copy of the template as an .indd file, the .indd files are linked to the same external image file.

Since you’re exporting frames to .incx format anew each time you create a layout shell, you’re going to end up with a lot of .incx files. If your one-page template had three stories, and you make ten shell layouts, you’ll end up with 30 .incx files; each folder containing one .indd file and its three linked .incx files. Hey, it was going to end up as 30 .incx files at some point anyway, right? Might as well generate them now.

What about naming these files? Since every company and workflow is different, I don’t have any specific advice, other than recommending you come up with a plan — you have to be able to tell which shells the editors have “completed,” at least. Perhaps the designers, as they create them, could name the shell layous and exported .incx files for the publications they will belong to, and as they complete them, the editors could move the entire shell folder into a special “ready for layout” location on the server. Or, if you need the shells to be more generically named (article1.indd, article2.indd), the InCopy users could manually rename the .indd file in Windows Explorer or the Finder before they open them (June08Acmefeature.indd, July08BehindTheScenes.indd).

Upon completion, having the editors rename the linked story files themselves (from story1.incx and story2.incx to pg13-head.incx and pg13-body.incx, and so on) and moving them to a “Ready for Layout” folder in the Finder or Explorer is also an option, if you don’t care that doing so breaks the links in the shell file. Again, you might not care because after placing the stories into the live layout, no one will ever open that shell file again.

Assignment Shells?

I’m assuming everyone knows that InCopy can open InDesign layout (.indd) files just as easily as Assignment (.inca) files, since I’ve said it a bazillion times in InCopyFlow. The shell files I’ve been talking about are small ones meant for a single editorial user, thus I don’t see a need to go the extra step of creating an assignment file from it. Just make shell .indd files with linked stories, and have the editors open the .indd files, checking out the stories they contain to edit them, as usual.

The only reason to create a shell assignment would be if an InCopy user needed to open a layout template remotely, off-network. The remote workflow feature in CS3 requires that you start with an Assignment (.inca) file. So, follow all the steps I’ve outlined above, but instead of dragging the shell’s frames to the Unassigned Content entry, the designer should drag and drop them onto the New Assignment icon at the bottom of the Assignments panel. This both creates the Assignment file and exports the frames to InCopy format in one step, Then select the Assignment name in the Assignments panel and choose one of the Package for Remote commands from the panel menu.

If you need to create 10 .incp (InCopy assignment package) shells of the same layout, follow the same instructions as above: Create the InDesign template with normal placeholder frames. Then open the template in InDesign, save it with a generic name in its own folder, and only then create your assignment and package it. Rinse and repeat another nine times, each time varying the name of the assignment slightly.

I wouldn’t attempt any of the “duplicate the shell” methods, as assignment packages are more tricky — they’re internally linked to the layout file that created them, and so opening the .indp (InDesign assignment package) files the editors return could result in stories overwriting themselves.

Anne-Marie Concepcion

Anne-Marie Concepcion

Anne-Marie “Her Geekness” Concepción is the co-founder (with David Blatner) and CEO of Creative Publishing Network, which produces InDesignSecrets, InDesign Magazine, and other resources for creative professionals. Through her cross-media design studio, Seneca Design & Training, Anne-Marie develops ebooks and trains and consults with companies who want to master the tools and workflows of digital publishing. She has authored over 20 courses on on these topics and others. Keep up with Anne-Marie by subscribing to her ezine, HerGeekness Gazette, and contact her by email at or on Twitter @amarie
Anne-Marie Concepcion

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