Adobe InDesign in the World of Graphic Design

Twenty years ago, Adobe unleashed InDesign, a new vision of desktop publishing. The program, which launched as a $700 CD-ROM, was destined to reshape the field of graphic design — but it needed to win over skeptical publishers first.

InDesign 1.0 received a fairly strong review in PC Magazine in 1999 that noted innovative features like optical kerning, which allowed designers to elegantly tighten and loosen the spaces between characters, and text gradients, which painted letters in multiple colors. But the critic, Luisa Simone, wrote that developing a good user experience was only half the battle for Adobe. “We expect the publishing industry to reserve judgement on InDesign until it proves itself in a production environment,” she wrote.

And publishers, at least at first, decided InDesign wasn’t for them. Most companies stuck with the de facto standard of the era, QuarkXPress. This meant that the design of books, magazines, newspapers, flyers, and billboards remained outside of Adobe’s domain.

The company had a lot of work to do. Even the project’s codename suggested a steep climb. Adobe had acquired Aldus, the maker of a legendary publishing tool called PageMaker, in 1994, and it used that program as a starting point for InDesign. The project was code-named K2, after the second-tallest mountain in the world — not because Adobe wanted to be second fiddle to QuarkXPress in the desktop publishing space, but because K2, located in China, is considered a more difficult trek than Mount Everest.

“InDesign uses a radically new architecture, one that’s totally different from PageMaker or any other desktop program for that matter,” early Adobe evangelist Tim Cole told the Sydney Morning Herald in 1999. “This alone made the whole project very complex, and we also realize we need to build a 1.0 version that’s a mature, high-end publishing application. So, the metaphor of scaling the world’s most challenging and most deadly mountain was very suitable.”

“Service bureaus weren’t accepting InDesign files — they literally would turn you away if you brought one in.”

They didn’t succeed with InDesign 1.0. But version 2.0, released two years later in 2001, caught on; for example, when I took publication design classes, in college around 2002, I mostly learned on Adobe’s software. By the time I started work as a designer in the newspaper industry, I never used Quark.

It was clear then: InDesign was the future.

Second time’s the charm

What about version 2.0 turned InDesign from an also-ran into a de facto standard? How did Adobe successfully climb the mountain? I asked Maria Yap, Adobe’s head of Digital Imaging and the lead product manager during the development of InDesign 2.0, what changed in the two years between software versions.

Yap brought an interesting perspective to the InDesign team. She had significant experience with QuarkXPress and had taught it in college courses, while most of her colleagues on the project were holdovers from the Aldus PageMaker team. She soon realized that this deep understanding of Quark would prove a major asset for InDesign 2.0.

“While InDesign 1.0 had these amazing new features, it wasn’t really addressing the key advantages that Quark had over InDesign,” she says. Among those advantages? Speed and performance, which she says InDesign’s developers seemed to deprioritize compared to some of the more ambitious features. “At times,” she says, “it would feel like you couldn’t get things done as quickly as you might have been able to do in QuarkXPress.”

Yap helped direct a two-year overhaul of InDesign that added, among other features, transparency and tables. Yap’s team also made InDesign one of the first major apps with a Mac OS X version.

Meanwhile, its biggest rival was struggling to keep up with the times.
The Quark effect

As writer Dave Girard noted in a 2014 piece for Ars Technica, Quark wore its market dominance poorly.

Quark’s business approach during this period was that of a dominant laggard. In 1998, Quark attempted to acquire Adobe in a hostile takeover bid, an offer that the Photoshop-maker spurned. And with 95% of the graphic design market using its products, Quark interpreted growing Windows sales as a sign that the market was shifting away from Apple, rather than a sign that the industry was growing overall. The company dragged its feet developing for Apple’s modern Mac OS X architecture.

That was a mistake.

In late 2002, CEO Fred Ebrahimi infamously told QuarkXPress customers who asked about using Mac OS X to “switch to something else.” It took Quark so long to develop an OS X version that the company played a direct role in Apple’s decision to keep the legacy Mac OS 9 around into 2003.

Though Adobe had seen the value of developing for Apple’s hardware, it still had to put in a lot of work to win over existing audiences. Print shops, for instance, had basically declined to service InDesign files.

“We had to not only win the user, but we had to win the workflow.”

“Service bureaus weren’t accepting InDesign files — they literally would turn you away if you brought one in,” Yap says of the publishing industry’s response to version 1.0. “And it was just a hard blow for the team.”

Adobe remedied the rejection by creating a preflight feature, which allowed for print shops to ensure fonts and images weren’t missing from the file, or that there wasn’t some glitch that would prevent the file from correctly printing. “We had to not only win the user, but we had to win the workflow,” Yap says. “We had to make sure that they could get their files out successfully and work with the service bureaus, the magazines, and the newspapers because oftentimes they all have their own in-house production, as well.”

Adobe focused heavily on making guides to tell users how to switch to InDesign from Quark. And it started to develop a broader workflow language for its overall portfolio — first strides toward the app ecosystem you may now recognize in the Creative Cloud service.

“InDesign introduced some things in the Options bar, where when you click on a tool, you can get more options, and those are things that then eventually got moved into Illustrator and Photoshop,” Yap says.

In the long run, Adobe pulled it off. Within five years of its original release, InDesign had come to dominate a market that QuarkXPress had owned for nearly a decade.
A stepping stone to dominance

The success of InDesign 2.0 helped set the stage for the modern Adobe, which has steadily become a dominant figure in digital design. And its success was quickly parlayed into a business move that would leave much of its competition in the dust. Two years after InDesign 2.0’s release, Adobe made the desktop publishing tool the centerpiece of its Creative Suite. A bundle that combined InDesign with other basic tools like Photoshop and Illustrator, the suite came to dominate the design field, and later evolved into Adobe’s much broader Creative Cloud offering.

These days, InDesign does much more than it did in 2001. New features such as “content-aware fit,” which uses artificial intelligence to decide the best way to put an image into a frame, have become essential to design workflows. During the early years of the iPad, when the publishing industry was strongly pushing digital magazines, it added interactive design elements.

“From its early conception, the architecture of InDesign was built to be extensible and flexible,” explains Wayne Hoang, InDesign’s senior product marketing manager for Adobe. “The code was modular, so it had the ability to morph and change easily with the evolution of user needs. Strategically, this allows us to elegantly balance the needs of all our users. Our approach to balancing ‘old’ and ‘new’ is by providing the community a choice.”

But there’s now a question of future evolution. While InDesign doesn’t have a full iPad app like its older brother Photoshop, it does have a secondary app, Adobe Comp, for quick layout creation on the go.

Yap speaks of InDesign’s power as something of an “aggregation tool,” a place where ideas are organized into one place and built out. And while other tools in Adobe’s lineup are better suited for digital design, that spirit has lingered in modern applications made by both Adobe and its competitors.

“When I look at the Creative Cloud tool XD, which is focused primarily on interface and application flow, it has a lot of the hallmarks of InDesign to me, because it’s trying to sort of bringing disparate things together in a place where a user can interact with it in different ways,” Yap says.

InDesign may face tougher competition than it once did — Serif’s Affinity Publisher, released earlier this year, is perhaps the strongest new entrant in the print design space in many years, and QuarkXPress is still around in a much humbler form. But InDesign is still evolving, bringing in elements of machine learning and allowing for deep integrations with a wide variety of publishing tools.

“InDesign is able to evolve with the changing demands relatively easily thanks to its foresight in the architecture laid down by the team more than 20 years ago,” Hoang says. “This, to me, is simply amazing.”

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